John C. Polanyi



On Being a Scientist: A Personal View

by John C. Polanyi*
1986 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry

Doing Science

Science never gives up searching for truth, since it never claims to have achieved it. It is civilizing because it puts truth ahead of all else, including personal interests. These are grand claims, but so is the enterprise in which scientists share. How do we encourage the civilizing effects of science? First, we have to understand science.

Scientia is knowledge. It is only in the popular mind that it is equated with facts. That is of course flattering, since facts are incontrovertible. But it is also demeaning, since facts are meaningless. They contain no narrative.

Science, by contrast, is story-telling. This is evident in the way we use our primary scientific instrument, the eye. The eye searches for shapes. It searches for a beginning, a middle, and an end.

What we see is as a consequence, culturally conditioned. This is open to misunderstanding. It might be construed to mean that our conclusions are simply a matter of taste, which they are not. Though we explore in a culturally-conditioned way, the reality we sketch is universal. It is this, at its most basic, that makes science a humane pursuit; it acknowledges the commonality of people’s experience.

This in turn, implies a commonality of human worth. If we treasure our own experience and regard it as real, we must also treasure other people’s experience. Reality is no less precious if it presents itself to someone else. All are discoverers, and if we disenfranchise any, all suffer.

It is important that we reflect upon our craft, since our understanding of science will inform public policy towards it – ‘science policy’ as it is called. For example, if seeing is a skill, then we should rely on those who have that skill to determine what science we do.

In Canada, we routinely offend against this principle. We have, for example, numerous ‘Centres of Excellence’ because we recognize that the skill on which discovery depends is possessed by a few. But then we proceed in evaluating such centres, to give only a legislated twenty percent weight to ‘excellence’. A preposterous eighty percent is reserved for considerations having to do with ‘socio-economic worth’.

Our assessment of socio-economic worth is largely a sham. We scientists should not lend ourselves to it – though we routinely do. We should, instead, insist on applying the criterion of quality. That this criterion is real, is evidenced by the awesome success of science – peer-reviewed science – in this century.

Have we failed, as scientists, to explain science? Seemingly. Have we, too often, kept silent because we thought it expedient? Undoubtedly.

Being a Citizen

Though neglectful of their responsibility to protect science, scientists are increasingly aware of their responsibility to society. But what is this responsibility?

Some dreamers demand that scientists only discover things that can be used for good. That is impossible. Science gives us a powerful vocabulary, and it is impossible to produce a vocabulary with which one can only say nice things.

Others think it the responsibility of scientists to coerce the rest of society, because they have the power that derives from special knowledge. But scientists, like any other group, are not permitted to seize the levers of power. Nor should they be blamed for failing to do so. They must work through democratic channels. Anything else would be incredible arrogance.

What responsibilities remain? Plenty. Scientists are only beginning to come to terms with them.

In the time that I have been a scientist, I have seen huge changes in our perception of these responsibilities. Let me give some examples.

In the late 1950s a major topic under discussion was whether Canada should acquire nuclear weapons. The United States was trying to get Canada to do the decent thing, and arm itself with nukes. The weapons were, after all, for the defense of North America.

Individual scientists like myself – and many more conspicuous – pointed to the dangers of radioactive fallout over Canada if we were to launch nuclear weapons to intercept incoming bombers. On the face of it, this was technical advice. But more truthfully it was a philosophical position. We chose to make our calculations concerning fall-out because we were opposed to the acquisition of nuclear weapons; not the reverse.

I do not mean to discount the technical element. I merely want to stress (as I did in the context of discovery) that what the scientist sees is influenced by what he believes.

Much the same applied to the next public debate, which had to do with nuclear fall-out shelters. Technical arguments were once more advanced (by myself, among others) to illustrate the absurdity of sheltering a nation from a determined nuclear attack. At a deeper level, however, we were objecting to an outlook according to which security was to be found in the life of a troglodyte.

We were appalled by the abandonment of attempts at coexistence in favour of the life of a mole. Better to die in the pursuit of civilized values, we believed, than in a flight underground. We were offering a value system couched in the language of science.

Around 1970 my scientist friends in the U.S. indoctrinated me in a fresh question of policy. In the war in Vietnam, the United States was using herbicides (Agent Orange) and a tear gas (CS2). This could well be construed as being in contravention of the Geneva Protocol, which for almost half a century had banned the use of chemical weapons. It was, at that date, one of the few instruments of international law regulating the use of weapons, and was correspondingly precious.

I went off to see our Ministers of Defence and of Foreign Affairs, as well as the Prime Minister. God knows how I got into their offices, but I did. They gave me a hard time – as was proper – protesting, “these things are used for killing weeds and for riot control; how can you say they are weapons of war?” The answer was that when employed to prosecute a war, they had become weapons of war. They were being used to expose the enemy, so as to kill him.

One does not need to be a chemist to make that point. But it helps to come from a community with a commitment to objectivity, and a degree of independence from special interests. Under this scientific and moral pressure, the Canadian government conceded publicly that the use of these weapons in Vietnam was, in their view, a contravention of the Geneva Protocol. The government of the United States was not pleased.

What we in the scientific community were seeking, in our idealism, was a world ruled by law. The moral force that we brought to this debate derived from our membership in an international community ruled by law – albeit unwritten law. For without the acceptance and enforcement of standards of probity, there would be no functioning scientific community.

And without steps being taken to widen this realm of rule-based co-operation, beyond the narrow bounds of science and similar professions, there will be anarchy leading ultimately to all-out war. But technology had made such war intolerable. The solution is to be found not in more technology, but in less war.

When in March 1983 President Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as Star Wars, this issue was clearly joined. President Reagan was offering a technical fix to the threat of nuclear war. The SDI, he made it clear, was to be the scientist’s antidote to the nuclear poison. However, in the process of distributing this illusory antidote, we were to abandon the only genuine defence against nuclear missiles, which lay as it still lies, in institutionalised restraint.

The SDI was an invitation to a new arms race; one in nuclear-shields which would proceed in parallel to the continuing arms race in swords. With missile-defences back in the news today, this is a lesson to remember.

In the course of these political struggles, scientists became increasingly aware of themselves as an international non-governmental organization. This NGO bases itself, I claim, not primarily on its technical expertise but on its moral tenets. In science, we have a group of individuals supporting one another, world-wide, in an endeavour whose success depends upon placing the truth ahead of personal advantage.

Not all succeed in doing this, but all are agreed in its necessity. In science, truth must take precedence not only over individual advantage, but also over ‘group advantage’ – sectional interests such as nationality, creed or ethnicity.

This assertion of higher purpose has made scientists (and all scholars) supporters of human rights. Our championing of human rights puts to rest the notion that what we are offering is primarily technical expertise. Technical expertise has nothing directly to do with human rights. It is once more the moral force of science – evident in such individuals as Einstein, Russell, Pauling, and Sakharov – that makes it effective.

Our community’s voyage of self-discovery is not over. I believe that it will lead us to a more active support of democracy, wherever it is threatened.

That notion would have seemed preposterous when I began my life as a scientist. But no longer. Today, Academies of Science use their influence around the world in support of human rights. They should do the same for democracy, for the death of democracy is the death of free enquiry. The bell tolls for us.



* This article was published previously in The Globe and Mail (Canada), 29 April 2000 issue.

First published 12 March 2001

To cite this section
MLA style: John Polanyi – Article. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. Tue. 26 Sep 2023. <>

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