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Work on weapons adds to public distrust of science

Academics need to remain independent and remember their ethical obligations.


The partial transparency concerning the technology needed to retain Britain's nuclear weapons, represented by the Feature “Science of nuclear warheads” (Nature 415, 853–857; 2002) by Keith O'Nions et al., is to be welcomed. Yet it is disappointing that the authors do not discuss the alternative of decommissioning and destroying such weapons — required if Britain is to adhere to international law and to the agreements it has signed, such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The apparent subordination of science to government is one cause of current public distrust of scientists and of student reluctance to embark upon scientific careers. Views such as those in the article concerning nuclear-warhead science can only add to this alienation.

O'Nions et al. call for new appointees to develop “a deeper theoretical and experimental understanding” of the science needed to underwrite “the safety and performance of the ageing Trident stockpile”. But they do not explain what “performance” means in this context, and could perhaps agree that in a slightly modified political climate, safety could be assured by dismantling and destroying warheads.

The problems of doing this, and the verification needed, may well require the temporary involvement of high-calibre scientists and engineers. Whether we can or should hire them to maintain the threats is doubtful, and few able students interested in fundamental science are likely to see the latter as a desirable career.

The US National Ignition Facility and the supercomputing devices discussed in the Feature are means by which weapons of mass destruction can be developed and partially tested without breaching the letter of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. O'Nions et al. describe a retention programme that, they say, would not only recruit high-calibre staff but “work with British academics and industry” to retain indefinitely “the reliability and safety of Britain's independent nuclear warhead”.

This ignores the need for the “British academic community” (if there is such a thing) to stay independent of government pressure; to consider the ethical dimension of their collaborations; to continue open international links, including with the former Soviet Union and politically unstable parts of the developing world; and to advise students on careers with both intellectual challenge and moral probity.

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Nicholls, P. Work on weapons adds to public distrust of science. Nature 416, 677 (2002).

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