Cooperation: The International Role of Scientists

The crucial roles science and scientists can play during war are known and documented. After all, weapons are a key to victory in any war, and generally it is scientists who develop them. In World War II, for example, the atomic bomb and radar directly resulted from scientific research and development. Scientists also developed techniques and tools for code breaking and made contributions in a variety of other areas. Less obvious, but equally important, many scientists advise governments during

Alexander Keynan
Mar 14, 1999

The crucial roles science and scientists can play during war are known and documented. After all, weapons are a key to victory in any war, and generally it is scientists who develop them. In World War II, for example, the atomic bomb and radar directly resulted from scientific research and development. Scientists also developed techniques and tools for code breaking and made contributions in a variety of other areas. Less obvious, but equally important, many scientists advise governments during war, thereby influencing strategy and broader policies.

Scientists, however, have also been important in aiding peace efforts between states. Much less is known about the roles scientists have played in preventing or mitigating conflict between countries or in normalizing relations and maintaining stability after a conflict has occurred. Nevertheless, scientists may have much to offer in these areas.

How scientists interact with governments in mitigating conflict is thus relatively clear. More difficult to discern is how such scientific cooperation translates into political impact and what factors make it possible. These are important questions to address, since only by understanding the mechanisms involved in this interaction can one determine whether there is something specific to science and to scientists that helps them have an impact in this arena.

"Conflict," as it applies here, means a broad spectrum of discord, from a cooling of relations, through increased tensions during a perceived threat of war, to an actual armed conflict--regional or international, bilateral or multilateral, but always between states. "Scientist," as it applies here, encompasses many disciplines, including biology, physics, medicine, and psychology.

Intrinsic to science are two attributes integral to successful scientific efforts in this area:

  • First, science is by nature international in its scope and its activities. Further, international cooperation has been normal in the scientific enterprise. Scientists maintain a transnational dialogue among themselves, exchanging information and ideas and reaching for consensus on various topics. The permanent intellectual communication framework used by scientists for mutual cooperation within science can also be useful for contact and cooperation between scientists on other matters of conflict.

  • Second, "scientific culture" includes a group of shared attributes that can prove helpful when dealing with conflict situations. The culture includes a common language and a belief in the universality of truth. Other shared attributes are an "organized skepticism" that expresses itself in a suspension of judgment and the detached scrutiny of beliefs in terms of empirical and logical criteria. These shared attributes, combined with a rational approach to problem solving even amidst emotional conflicts, help scientists play an important, a possibly unique, role in mitigating international conflict.

Especially since World War II, scientists have become increasingly aware of and accepting of social responsibility for their actions and creations. Many strive consciously to live with a "dual loyalty"--a loyalty to their countries and a loyalty to humanity. The latter expresses itself as a loyalty to science and to the prevention of its misuse against people. Thus, while these scientists may want to help defend their countries, they simultaneously also seek to prevent conflict.

The integration of science into society has increased over the years. Government involvement in both the scope and content of scientific efforts has increased as policymakers have realized the value of science, not only for economic performance, but also for foreign policy and strategy. Conversely, scientists' participation in government has expanded as more scientists have become involved, not only in foreign policy, but also directly in policymaking.

Scientists are able to contribute to mitigating conflict in five distinct ways:

  • Scientists can utilize their networks to communicate quite readily with other scientists across national borders, even in times when communication is difficult or even restricted. Such communications are particularly effective when the scientists have direct links to the government. When this is the case, they are able to influence the broadening of relations, reinforce and stimulate other channels of communication previously closed, and provide an additional understanding of the nature of the conflict with concerned actors.

  • Scientists can provide new ideas and conceptual frameworks, especially in areas requiring technical expertise, such as arms control and disarmament.

  • Scientists can exemplify cooperation to policymakers in situations where the latter have been unsuccessful in their own attempts. Such was the case during the International Geophysical Year, when cooperation between scientists led to the signing of the Antarctic Treaty.

  • Scientists can aid in maintaining peace, once established, by developing the mechanisms for monitoring and verifying treaty compliance.

  • Scientists can help governments by providing the vehicle for cooperative efforts aimed at reducing tensions as, for example, in the joint U.S.-Soviet endeavors in space.

In view of increasingly important global issues such as climate change and environmental degradation, governments are finding that global objectives are becoming more and more intrinsic to their own agendas, necessitating aid from scientists. Rather than waiting for governments to act, scientists are acting on their own to influence policy based on their scientific findings.

Alexander Keynan, of the Israel Academy of the Sciences, 43 Jabotinsky Road, P.O. Box 4040, Jerusalem 91040 Israel, was co-editor, along with Allison L. C.de Cerreño, of Scientific Cooperation, State Conflict: The Roles of Scientists in Mitigating International Discord , published in December 1998 as Volume 866 of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. This commentary is adapted from his preface in the book, which is available for $60 from the New York Academy of Sciences, 2 East 63rd St., New York, N.Y. Special rates are available to readers of The Scientist, via E-mail (publications@nyas.org). Web site: www.nyas.org