On reading Remember Your Humanity by Joseph Rotblat, 1995 Nobel Peace Prize Lecture.

Bouquet of flowers 1945, oil on canvas, by Lucien Cadene (1887-1958), a native of SW France

On reading is always looking for parallel discussions that may help cajole the Gain of Function (GOF) debate.

Dr. Rotblat shared the prize with the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. And while the film Oppenheimer is doing the rounds it’s well worth reading his lecture. Before doing so, a little background: Prof Józef Rotblat (1908–2005) was a founder and leading inspiration of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs over many decades. The only Manhattan Project scientist to resign on moral grounds, Rotblat became an ardent voice for an end to nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

He emphasized the social responsibility of scientists, and urged young scientists to spend at least 10% of their time thinking about issues other than their chosen field.

Obviously, there are fundamental differences between nuclear physics and GOF virology, the making of powerful bombs and powerful viruses, the Cold War period and the early 21st century. Human nature remains a common theme though, and looking at the world right now, some aspects don’t seem to have changed.

Rotblat starts with a tough quote from Solly Zuckerman who was Chief Scientific Advisor to the British Government in the 1960s. When it comes to nuclear weapons … it is the man in the laboratory who at the start proposes that for this or that arcane reason it would be useful to improve an old or to devise a new nuclear warhead. It is he, the technician, not the commander in the field, who is at the heart of the arms race.

Ouch. This is certainly not the image virologists have of themselves. Yet it overlaps with a line from the IAP 2005 report on biosecurity (Do no harm – 1), notably, They should and recognize that individual good conscience does not justify ignoring the possible misuse of their scientific endeavour.’ Two versions of the same thought.

Rotblat appeals to fellow scientists, You are doing fundamental work, pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge, but often you do it without giving much thought to the impact of your work on society. There are many reasons for keeping your head down, one of which is learnt quickly. Whistle-blowing should become part of the scientist’s ethos. This may bring reprisals; a price to be paid for one’s convictions. The price may be very heavy. Exactly! A (budding) career destroyed. The punitive corporate spirit goes back centuries, so it’s unlikely much will change.

A sentence later he writes, The time has come to formulate guidelines for the ethical conduct of scientists, perhaps in the form of a voluntary Hippocratic Oath, a forerunner of the IAP 2005 statement on biosecurity.

Rotblat then hammers away with variations on his title, I appeal to my fellow scientists to remember their responsibility to humanity, or Remember your humanity and forget the rest.

The non-scientist may not know but virology has had its Chernobyl moment. Unwittingly a H1N1 flu virus, perhaps an insufficiently attenuated virus developed in a lab, precipitated the 1977 flu pandemic. Approximately 700,000 died. As derivatives of this virus circulated as seasonal flu for the next 32 years this virus killed over 10 million people. A very high price to pay.

Is it too much to ask scientists to do no harm? We’re not explicitly asked to do good, although many try. Do no harm is a very low bar, the equivalent of the status quo. Given the phenomenal power of molecular genetics, authorities should take stock.


Two thoughts.

• Twelve years after the GOF controversy erupted over deliberately making novel human viruses, nothing positive has emerged (Deconstructing the Portrait and scientific papers by On reading). At least atom smashing has given us the nuclear reactor which is lauded today for its low carbon footprint.

• On reading is non-plussed that most of the discussion these last 12 years has taken place in the US and still does – notably the current recommendations of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity that has attracted comment and publications (Going Places). Why can’t the Europeans do more, separately or collectively? Or the rest of the world? This says something about the US.

1 Response
  1. Harish Seshadri

    I think we have to move past appealing to scientists’ better sense
    and demand oversight and regulation by external authorities.

    Self-regulation doesn’t work with any group of humans – why
    should we expect it to work with scientists?