The Responsibility of the Scientist

by Soshichi Uchii

(This is the English, text-only version of my paper in Japanese published in Physics Education in University, 1998-3, Japan Physical Society.)

1. The Atomic Bomb and the Responsibility of the Scientist

Those who began to discuss the problems of the responsibility of the scientist, in Japan, are Hideki Yukawa and Shin'ichiro Tomonaga (two Nobel laureates) who wrote about Pugwash Conferences and published their opinions about related subjects. Let me briefly review some chronological facts. The very beginning is the Russell-Einstein Manifesto (1955). Russell and Einstein were deeply worried about the cold war and the escalation of nuclear armaments race, and they issued the Manifesto with the signatures of eleven scientists, including Yukawa; and the incident of Dai-go-Fukuryu-maru ("Lucky Dragon No.5", the Japanese fishery boat affected by fallout around Bikini Atoll in 1954) was also referred to in the Manifesto. Then, the first Pugwash Conference was held in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, Canada, responding, and in the spirit of the Manifesto, in 1957.

Recent discussions in Japan have somehow widened their scope, and beginning with Junzo Karaki's provocative book Notes on the Social Responsibility of the Scientist (1980), following people, among others, published influencial opinions: Mitsuo Taketani's The Social Responsibility of the Scientist (1982), Yoichiro Murakami's What is the Scientist? (1994), and Shigeru Huzinaga's Robert Oppenheimer (1996).

I began to get involved in these problems when I was asked to write a review of Murakami's book (1994), and I felt serious frustration and uneasiness, after I finished the review (Uchii 1995), that there were many grave deficiencies in Murakami's arguments. For example, Murakami begins his discussion with a review of Karaki's question and accusation against scientists, but Murakami leaves the matter without any serious confrontation with Karaki's argument. Is Karaki's accusation, that physics is responsible for making the atomic bomb and that physicists (even those with no direct connection with the Manhattan Project) should feel guilty for that, worthwhile to listen and examine? I have examined Karaki's book, and if I may give my candid opinion, there are almost nothihg to learn from Karaki, as regards the problems of the scientist's responsibility. However, if you wish to begin your discussion, like Murakami, by referring to and reviewing Karaki's way of seeing the problems, stimulated by the report of the first Pugwash conference, and Karaki's later judgment on Yukawa and Tomonaga that while Tomonaga feels guiltiness Yukawa does not, and therefore Yukawa should be accused, you've got to examine, at least to some extent, the history of Pugwash conferences, and the Russell-Einstein Manifesto (1955) which prepared the ground for these conferences, and many physicists's behaviors involved in the Manhattan Project. Alhough I am a philosopher largely ignorant of these historical facts, I can immediately see the indispensability of such historical examinations; whereas Murakami's book is awfully insufficient, to say the least, in that respect. As it turned out, by my own later research, there were very important sources for the problems of "the social responsibility of the scientist" in these circumstances. (For a brief review of the history of nuclear physics, see Uchii 1999.)

A person with as good perceptivity as Murakami's would never fail to noticed this. As a matter of fact, in Murakami's book where the "irresponsible character of scientific community in general" are severly accused, Leo Szilard (1898-1964) is mentioned as one of Murakami's few instances of exemplary scientists who are responsible. Szilard was one of the earliest to notice the possibility of chain reaction of nuclear fission; and he became a legendary figure in the history of nuclear weapons, because of his role in persuading Einstein to write a letter to Roosevelt (1939) for urging the president to begin a project of the atomic bomb ahead of Nazis Germany. Szilard is also known for his participation in the Manhattan Project (Metallurgical Laboratory, Chicago University), and for his campaign, toward the end of the Pacific War, against using the atomic bomb. However, Murakami's appraisal of Szilard seems to be nothing but an uncritical secondhand opinion, formed without examining primary sources. Let me quote Murakami's words:

This behavior of Szilard seems to be a rare valuable example; he used his knowledge as a specialist (...), and seeing the implications of the military pressure, he formed through sound inferences and good insights a comprehensive judgement about humans and human societies, by combining basic and precise insights or knowledge about the behavioral principles of nations and govenments, with his judgements of international military circumstances. This comprehensive judgement was not a mere judgmenht of a specialist in his specific field but far more than that. (Murakami, What is the Scientist?, 126-7)

This sort of high opinion on Szilard is not uncommon; but we have to ask its ground. If Szilard is such a "rare" example, we need all the more a firm evidence based on historical documents; but you can find none in Murakami's book. Thus I have put a remark "myth?!" on this spot. And as was expected, a contrary view appeared soon. That is an appraisal by S. Huzinaga in his Robert Oppenheimer (1996), by far the best biography of Oppenheimer written in Japanese. Unlike Murakami who quotes mostly from translated documents, Huzinaga (his brother experienced atomic bomb in Nagasaki) goes through many primary sources including the Transcript of "Oppenheimer Hearing" (U.S. Atomic Energy Commission), and his book does not compare to Murakami's "summary case study" in its treatment of documents and general credibility. I can say this because I have myself checked several documents obtained wtithin these several months, and confirmed many of Huzinaga's points.

Now, according to Huzinaga, Szilard is in a word a "fallen idol" (Huzinaga 1996, 226). Rather, it is James Franck (1882-1964) that is appreciated by Huzinaga; Franck was also working at Metallurgical Laboratory, Chicago University, in the Manhattan Project, and he submitted the "Franck Report" (June 11, 1945) to the government which states a clear opinion with careful arguments against using atomic bomb against Japan, among others. The reason why Huzinaga's opinion about Szilard is rather low, contrary to popular or vulgar opinion, may be partly understood in the light of Eugene Wigner's witnesses; Wigner (1902-95) was one of Szilard's best friends, and also working at Metallurgical Laboratory. If you think Murakami's appraisal is valid, you should try to read Wigner's recollection (candid opinions as well as warm feelings are mixed; Szanton 1992, 222-229) on Szilard and see whether your opinion would still stand. Szilard had good foresights and acted energetically, and you do not have to deny this; still I support Huzinaga's appraisal rather than Murakami's.

2. The Franck Report

Now, as I see it, it is the Franck Report that must be regarded as one of the major sources of recent discussions on the responsibility of the scientist. On this report which was written and signed by seven members including Franck and Szilard (at Metallurgical Laboratory), there are already a number of studies, including those by Japanese scholars (e.g. Nakazawa 1995, 141-144, Huzinaga 1996, 222-226). As you can read it today even on the web, you can easily confirm that it is a sincere statement of these scientists' conviction with a high moral tone; and it contains, among others, their assertion that the bomb ought not to be used against Japan, and their deep concern about the grave dangers that are bound to be brought about by the bomb on the world affairs, as well as their proposal for preventing these dangers. In order to see the significance of their foresight, we have to notice the date of this report, June 11 (the Trinity experiment in New Mexico was on July 16).

Now, in this paper, I should like to concentrate only on one question; i.e. what can be learned from this report on the problem of the responsibility of the scientist? Probably, most readers may wonder why these people felt the necessity to write and submit this report. In the Preamble, the reason is stated as follows:

in the past, scientists could disclaim direct responsibility for the use to which mankind had put their disinterested discoveries. We cannot take the same attitude now because the success which we have achieved in the development of nuclear power is fraught with infinitely greater dangers than were all the inventions of the past.

The contemporary readers may find that this idea is already familiar with them. But you have to remember that the Metallurgical Lab is the first location where men succeeded in controlling chain reaction of nuclear fission (December 2, 1942); and that the Manhattan Project itself was a military secret. Thus Franck and other members were a handful of scientists who had the advanced knowledge of nuclear physics and its dreadful applications (and most members of Los Alamos Lab were, presumably, too busy with technical difficulties for constructing the bomb at that time to ponder ethical or political questions of the use of the bomb). And the point is that these scientists clearly refer to their own "responsibility as scientist"; further, the grounds for the responsibility are also stated clearly enough. That is, if a scientific discovery (or invention) is found to have a grave bearing on the welfare or interest of mankind, any scientist who became aware of that (because of their profession) ought to notify that to other people in some fom, and to advise to look for suitable means for avoiding prospective dangers.

I am not quite sure whether a similar view was stated before the Franck Report; but after the Report, the same view has been repeatedly stated, in Russell-Einstein Manifesto, in Pugwash Conference (this conference and its long-time secretary Joseph Rotblat were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995), by Yukawa, Tomonaga, and Rotblat. I will give the evidence later. But before that, let us consider the deeper grounds for such "responsibility" or "duty".

3. The Duty of a Specialist

The area of philosophy that considers the grounds for responsibility or duty in general, is called "ethics"; but for our present problem, no abstruse reasoning should be necessary. We humans are inevitably involved in social life, and we have to play various roles in our society or in many of its subdomains. Professors have duties of professor, carpenters who accepted a job of building a house have duties of carpenter or builder. To be more specific, for a professor (like myself) of a governmental university, there are "professional duties" specified by laws or rules, and in addition, moral duties that "you should perform these duties as honestly as possible".

Here, we have to notice that there are at least two levels of duty (or responsibility). (1) On the one hand, we have duties which are often specifically and publicly determined by laws, rules, or customs. In my case (professor), "one has to teach a certain number of courses in a specified field, and also has to give appropriate advises to one's own students"; or "one has to obtain a permission in order to leave for attending conferences, etc." But however detailed such specified duties may be, it is to a large extent up to individuals whether or not they perform such duties. Fortunately, we humans are a social animal, and we have informal insitutions or tendencies called "morals"; individuals perform many duties more or less by convincing themselves that they ought to do them. Otherwise, they may experience a sort of sanction by other people's disapproval or accusation. (2) Thus we have, on this new level, moral duties accepted and performed by each individual as his/her "ought". In my case, I make effort to give classes punctually, I try to impose assignments to students and return them with my comments, to be strict on attendance, etc. And that's because I think it is morally right to do so. You know how a society becomes sloppier if many people neglect their moral duties, whatever splendid system of "written" duties they may have.

Getting back to our main subject, the "responsibility" referred to in the Franck Report must be understood basically as a duty at the level of moral duty. "Duties as scientist" at the level of (1) may have never been determined explicitly; but don't be too hasty to conclude that talk of (1) is irrelevant here. Even "duties of carpenter" or "duties of silversmith" (not to speak of the medieval guild) may not have been specified explicitly; but we have a fair amount of common understanding, thanks to long-term customs or public understanding formed among people, depending on their jobs and roles in society. Thus the Franck Report is clearly suggesting that "before the atomic bomb, the common understanding of the scientist's duties included neither a duty to consider the actual or prospective consequences from scientific findings nor a duty to warn the public". But nevertheless, the Report insists that "the scientist should not follow the same understanding as regards the development of nuclear power", and thereby suggests that we ought to change our common understanding about the scientist's duty at the level of (1) also. This "ought" is at the level of (2), moral duty; thus we need moral grounds for assserting this. Here, the Report appeals to a general standard for deciding "scientist's duty" or "what scientist ought to do": i.e. the principle that one ought not to bring about grave dangers to mankind. And on this principle, given the factual knowledge about nuclear power, the Report draws its exhortation as its conclusion.

In short, if a scientist can predict with his/her knowledge in a specific field that some such dangers may arise, he/she has a duty to inform of this to people; because there are no one except such a specialist as he/she who can make such a prediction. This reasoning is simple and straightforward, once it is told, but it is convincing enough, and I think it can be regarded as a basic pattern for deriving duties and responsibilities of the scientist. This reasoning assumes a value-judgment that we should try to avoid grave harms to mankind, but anyone can agree on this value-judgment. And I wish to emphasize that the duties and responsibilities derived are closely connected with the scientist's role qua scientist, as a specialist of knowledge in a specific field. If we change the phrase "the scientist's role qua scientist" by other phrases such as "the carpenter's role as a contractor of building" or "the physician's role as a medical specialist", the reasoning can be applied to any other professions in our social life; thus the reasoning may be used as a basis for professional ethics.

4. Russell-Einstein Manifesto

The Franck Report contains, beside the preceding, many other important suggestions, such as predictions of armaments race, a comparison of nuclear weapons with chemical weapons as regards their "inhumanity", a proposal for a demonstration of the bomb as a means for promting Japan's surrender, considerations on the international control of nuclear power, etc.; but we will skip them. I will instead follow the subsequent movements, in order to substantiate my previous claim that the Report is one of the major sources of recent discussions of the scientist's responsibility. Since the Report was classified as secret, it may not have produced a wide direct influence. However, if we analyze the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, activities of Pugwash conferences, etc., we cannot fail to notice that basically the same ideas are repeated again and again, as regards the responsibility of the scientist.

It should be noticed that at the beginning of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, they appeal to the scientists to assemble in conference, in order to appraise and discuss the danger of nuclear weapons which became all the more powerful by the development of H-bombs. We should not overlook this fact which is no less important than their famous phrase that they are speaking "not as members of this or that nation, continent, or creed, but as human beings, members of the species Man". Further, they refer to up-to-date knowledge of scientists (in nuclear physics, as well as related fields), in many passages of this brief Manifesto, and summarize their own opinion as follows: "We have not yet found that the views of experts on this question depend in any degree upon their politics or prejudices. They depend only, so far as our researches have revealed, upon the extent of the particular expert's knowledge. We have found that the men who know most are the most gloomy." Thus you may easily find a strong affinity in this Manifesto and the Franck Report, in that both utilize experts's knowledge and their warnings. And look at the names of eleven members who signed the Manifesto. They include several nuclear physicists, experts of radiology, chemistry, genetics and physiology, and many of them are Nobel laureates of varied nationalities; thus you can see extra messages, which is in accord with the content of the Manifesto, in the list of signatures.

5. Pugwash, Tomonaga, and Rotblat

In response to the Manifesto, the first Pugwash conference was held in 1957, and three topics were discussed: (1) the danger which may be brought about by nuclear energy, (2) the control of nuclear weapons, and (3) the social responsibility of the scientist. These topics beautifully correspond to those discussed in the Franck Report. And the third committee which discussed the topic (3) concluded that the scientists from now on have to realize their own social responsibilities, in addition to defending their own freedom of research. Karaki misunderstood this as saying that the scientist's freedom is first and responsibility is second, and he accused that this assertion is not in harmony with the spirit of the Manifesto; but the emphasisis is no doubt on the responsibility. On this point, Tomonaga (who attended the conference) has left a good exposition (written in 1963), and we can quote it. Tomonaga points out that the interval between scientific discoveries and their technological applications has been rapidly becoming smaller, and then continues:

many of the discoveries directly lead to the development of new technology, and their social influences, whether good or evil, appear immediately. The scientist can see these influences by his own eyes, and if he wishes, he can even direct the influences either to good or to evil. Even granting that the decision to direct the influences in either direction is made by non-scientists, it is still the scientist that can appraise properly what use may lead to good and what to evil, and to what extent the good is desirable and the evil is destructive, on the basis of scientific data. Thus, no one except the scientist can owe the responsibility of the work up to this point. (Tomonaga 1982, 154)

You may notice that this assertion is an extension of the principle which the Franck Report used confining to the problem of the nuclear energy: the responsibility is attributed to the scientist because no one else can bear it. Not only in the context of an exposition of Pugwash conference, but also in his own view, Tomonaga inherited the same idea as that of the Franck Report. This is obvious from another of his statements (written in 1960):

as you can see from the example that a scientific discovery has enabled us to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes but at the same time it has brought about nuclear weapons, since scientific discoveries have so much influence, both good and evil, on human societies, that there arise new responsibilities of the scientist. That is, in the past the scientist is allowed to confine his attention to his own speciality; but now, he has to examine carefully what consequence his research may bring about to man, and he has to accept the job of informing and warning people of that, whether the consequence be good or evil. And the reason he has to accept it is that he knows the consequences of his discovery in advance and more deeply than any ordinary people. (Tomonaga 1982, 70)

Finally, I wish to strengthen my claim by adding another example which exhibits the same ideas as those of the Franck Report; I will quote from Rotblat's Nobel Prize lecture. Joseph Rotblat (1908-) was born in Poland, and he was working at Los Alamos as a member of the British team (see Huzinaga 1996, 220-222). However, when he knew that the German project for manufacturing the atomic bomb was not in progress, he decided to leave Los Alamos and went back to England; then he joined the signatories of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, and served as Secretary of the Pugwash conferences for 17 years. In his Nobel lecture (1995), he says as follows:

From my earliest days I had a passion for science. But science, the exercise of the supreme power of the human intellect, was always linked in my mind with benefit to people. I saw science as being in harmony with humanity. I did not imagine that the second half of my life would be spent on efforts to avert a mortal danger to humanity created by science.

Thus it is clear that Rotblat, just as the Franck Report, assumes human welfare as the source of the value of scientific research. However, he has realized the dangerous aspect of scientific research as sumbolized in the development of the atomic bomb, and he goes on to say that "the time has come to formulate guidelines for the ethical conduct of scientists, perhaps in the form of a voluntary Hippocratic Oath. This would be particularly valuable for young scientists when they embark on a scientific career". And in the passages where he appeals to fellow scientists, he concludes:

At a time when science plays such a powerful role in the life of society, when the destiny of the whole of mankind may hinge on the results of scientific research, it is incumbent on all scientists to be fully conscious of that role, and conduct themselves accordingly. I appeal to my fellow scientists to remember their responsibility to humanity.

This line of argument is quite in conformity with the Franck Report and, of course, the Russell-Einstein Manifesto. As I have indicated repeatedly in this paper, I myself do support this position; and I think the duties and the responsibility of the scientist can be easily derived from the role of the scientist as a specialist of knowledge, together with the value-judgment assumed by Franck, Rotblat, and even the common sense (for more on this, see Uchii 1998, sects. 8-11). What is far more difficult is how each scientist should discharge his/her duty in his/her specific situation. But, for example, Rotblat's activities in the latter half of his life, in Pugwash and other areas, may well become a good example.


It may not be fair to Szilard to believe all of Wigner's witnesses which are made after Szilard's death. However, it is incredibly unlikely that all of the following recollections of Wigner are wrong. What image of Szilard do you form by reading these recollections? In addition, it must be pointed out, as Huzinaga (1996, 233) notes, that Szilard was insisting on the actual use of the atomic bomb in the war, at the end of his letter to Vannevar Bush (January 14, 1944; see Weart and Szilard 1978, 163).

When I had first met Leo Szilard in Berlin, his eccentiricity and selfishness had as yet found no definite purpose. But as Szilard aged, the purpose of his queerness seemed to become clearer. He wanted a high political position. (Szanton 1992, 222)

Szilard had an excessive regard for his own talents. His thouhts revolved too much around himself and his own proper place in the world of affairs. And yet, though most conceited men are complacent, Szilard was incapable of complacency. He did not always see his own deficiencies, but he saw brilliantly many of the deficiencies of the world. And he worked very hard to correct them, often at some sacrifice to himself. (Szanton, 1992, 222-223)

Szilard was not one to hide his ambition. When he reached Chicago in 1942, he did not expect to be a common assistant. He said plainly and firmly that he deserved a high office, preferably full control of the Metallurgical Laboratory. (Szanton 1992, 223)

But I saw clearly then, and see even more clearly now, that Szilard certainly did not deserve the position of a boss. By 1942, he gave less love and attention to pure science than he once had. He was a lesser physicist. (ibid.)

It is never wise to seek prominence in a field whose routine chores do not interest you. I loved the daily work of physics, loved making physical calculations, even those that proved fruitless. Nearly every scientist in the Manhattan Project felt the same way. Szilard was an exception. He took no pleasure in extended calculation. And yet he refused to draw the logical conclusion: that he should not try to be a prominent physicist. (ibid.)

Szilard shared Plato's idea that society should be ruled by an elite. Szilard was never malicious; he had good will for all the stupid people. But he saw no reason for stupid people to craft national policy. Bright people should; people quite a bit like Leo Szilard. (Szanton 1992, 225)

Szilard's admiration for Enrico Fermi was tinged with jealousy. During most of the time that Fermi was laying the foundation for the first large-scale chain reaction, Szilard could not bring himself to watch. He could not bear to play such an insignificant role. (Szanton 1992, 226)

Fermi established the chain reaction on December 2, 1942, as I have described. Leo Szilard was able to bring himself to attend the event. His sense of history was apparently greater than his jealousy of Fermi. (Szanton 1992, 228-229) [BACK]


Dannen, G. (website) "Leo Szilard Online"

"The Franck Report" (1945, web-text)

Rhodes, Richard (1986) The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Simon and Shuster, 1986.

Rotblat, J. (1995, web-text) "Remember your Humanity" (1995 Nobel Peace Prize Speech)

Rotblat, J. (1999, web-text) "Science and Humanity in the Twenty-First Century", The Nobel Foundation.

"Russell-Einstein Manifesto" (1955, web-text)

Smith, A.K. and Weiner, C., eds. (1980) Robert Oppenheimer, Letters and Recollections, Stanford University Press, 1980.

Szanton, A. (1992) The Recollections of Eugene P. Wigner, Plenum Press, 1992.

Uchii, Soshichi (1998, web-text) "Philosophy of Science in Japan, 1-11 "

Uchii, Soshichi (1999, webpage) "The Development of Nuclear Physics, leading to the Atomic Bomb: Timeline"

Weart, S.R. and Szilard, G.W., eds. (1978) Leo Szilard: His Version of the Facts, MIT Press, 1978.

[Literature in Japanese]

Huzinaga, Shigeru(1996)Robert Oppenheimer, Asahi-shinbun-sha, 1996.

Karaki, Junzo(1980)Notes on the Social Responsibility of the Scientist, Chikuma-shobo, 1980 (included in Karaki's Collected Works, vol. 18)

Murakami, Yoichiro(1994)What is the Scientist? Shincho-sha, 1994.

Nakazawa, Shiho(1995)Oppenheimer, Chuo-koron-sha, 1995.

Taketani, Mitsuo(1982)The Social Responsibility of the Scientist, Keiso-shobo, 1982.

Tomonaga, Shin'ichiro(1982)Collected Works, Vol. 5, Misuzu-shobo, 1982.

Uchii, Soshichi(1995)Review of Murakami 1994, Kagaku--Science Journal 65-2, 1995.

Yukawa, Hideki(1989)Collected Works, Vol. 5, Iwanami, 1989.

Last modified, September 8, 2000. (c) Soshichi Uchii.