The Power of the Individual

By Finneran, Kevin | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

The Power of the Individual


Finneran, Kevin, Issues in Science and Technology


The life of Leo Szilard has important lessons for scientists eager to influence public policy.

William Lanouette's fascinating biography of Leo Szilard, Genius in the Shadows, does more than reveal the life of a brilliant physicist and maverick social activist; it sheds a perceptive light on the role of scientists in public policy. World War II is usually recognized as the coming of age of science in U.S. politics. Albert Einstein had become the world's first science celebrity and a person to whom presidents felt obliged to listen. The Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb was an unprecedented federal investment in research, and questions about how to use the insights of nuclear physics for military and civilian purposes brought scientists into direct conversation with the nation's leaders. And it was at this time that Vannevar Bush laid the foundation for a postwar science policy that would put government in the dominant role in funding basic research.

Some scientists see the period after the war as a golden age when scientists, or at least physicists, were treated with deference in the corridors of power. They wonder why the influence of scientists has not grown with the expanding importance of science in all aspects of modern life. In fact, scientists have become more influential in policy debates concerning health, energy, the environment, transportation, and other areas. There may not be the same sized headlines as when Robert Oppenheimer testified to Congress about nuclear weapons, but there are far more scientists actively influencing public policy. In addition, policymakers and the public have become much better informed about science. Scientific literacy is not what it should be, but we have to remember that nuclear physics was a complete mystery to virtually all Americans in the 1940s. Besides, the science was developing so fast that even the scientists at the forefront were often taken by surprise. As late as 1939, even Enrico Fermi, who directed the team that created the first nuclear chain reaction, did not believe that such a reaction was possible.

What is instructive about Szilard's life, however, is not the political influence of scientists as a group. Szilard's efforts to convince the government to develop nuclear weapons and his subsequent campaigns to establish civilian and international control of the power of the atom are an inspiring example of how a determined individual can play a major role in public policy. He believed that scientists should have more influence in policymaking in general - not because of their knowledge but because of their ability to think rationally. This faith in reason was a weakness in Szilard's political thinking, however, because it prevented him from understanding the emotional forces that must also be taken into account. …

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