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Gerhard Herzberg: Political and Scientific Responsibility

By: Denisa Popa

Denisa Popa

Contributing Historian

Denisa Popa is a PhD student at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST) at the University of Toronto. Her doctoral research focuses on Canadian medical history. She holds an MA from the IHPST and a Hon. BSc in Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, also from the University of Toronto. Denisa is excited to join the Defining Moments Canada team as a Contributing Historian for the Herzberg50 project.

Nobel-winning scientists have a special responsibility when it comes to promoting their disciplines. As significant contributors to the production of knowledge, Nobel laureates are leaders in their fields and can influence both the future of their fields and the political discussions surrounding them. In 1984, during an event celebrating his 80th birthday, Gerhard Herzberg reflected on his career and the obligations on distinguished scientists.[i]   

Clearly when we want to apply the discoveries made in pure science, the question of responsibility for the consequences must come up. An original discovery is neither good nor bad. It is the public and the politicians who have to decide whether to apply it […] Scientists do have the responsibility to communicate to the public and the political leaders the basic knowledge needed to make such decisions.[ii]

This was not the first time that Herzberg spoke publicly about the interaction between politics and scientific research in Canada. As a scientist, he felt a responsibility to Canada and a duty to advocate for the independence of scientists from political and administrative restrictions. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, amidst intense debates surrounding science research and policy in Canada, Herzberg publicly argued that scientists (and not politicians) should be the ones deciding what topics researchers should pursue. He further asserted that pure research pursued only with the intent of advancing scientific knowledge (as opposed to new technological applications) must be supported financially by the state. As Herzberg noted, discoveries that arise out of basic science research would lead to technological applications at some point in the future. More importantly, though, he viewed basic science research as vital to our “human heritage,” much like art and literature.[iii]

“Gerhard Herzberg’s 80th Birthday Party 1984, Portrait of Gerhard Herzberg” Dr. Gerhard Herzberg Fond, National Research Council of Canada.  

Science, Politics and Policy in Canada

As Paul Dufour, a former science policy advisor, explains in this article, the 1960s represented a time when public and political views towards science were shifting and science research was becoming more closely examined.[iv] As he sees it, “Science was at times seen to be the problem rather than the solution for social and economic ills.”[v] These evolving public attitudes triggered debates about Canada’s science policy (or lack thereof), as well the role of its scientific institutions, including the National Research Council.[vi] Indeed, during this era, the federal government created more bureaucracy to oversee science research, something that, according to Dufour, Herzberg believed “would constrain the flow of creativity and the independence of ideas.”[vii]

By the early 1960s, the government released the report of the Royal Commission on Government Organization, overseen by businessman J. Grant Glassco. While the so-called Glassco Report provided a “general study of departments and agencies of the Federal Government,” a particular focus was on the “scientific activities of government departments.”[viii] The commission made several recommendations “for new structures to assist in the formulation of a national science policy.”[ix] The Commission criticized the NRC, claiming it “was no longer broadly representative of the Canadian scientific community” because it focused too heavily on basic science research (as opposed to applied research).[x]

The Glassco report was only the beginning of the political criticisms the NRC would face. By the late 1960s discussions surrounding the development of a national Canadian science policy intensified. In 1968 a Senate Special Committee on Science Policy was founded by Senator Maurice Lamontagne. Two years later, the Committee released a report entitled, “A Critical Review: Past and Present.”[xi] According to this report, the NRC had largely failed in advancing Canadian science. The report’s second volume included 45 recommendations, several of which suggested drastic reductions to the NRC’s role in Canadian science, effectively proposing “the dismemberment of the NRC,” as Herzberg’s biographer Boris Stoicheff put it.[xii]

In addition, this report featured renewed calls for a national science policy. “In effect,” Stoicheff wrote, “these recommendations meant the end of the NRC as the scientific institution known and acclaimed worldwide.”[xiii] One year after the Senate’s initial report was published, Herzberg received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry – in part for the spectroscopy research he conducted while at the NRC. On multiple occasions Herzberg publicly challenged some of the claims about the NRC and the state of Canadian science research made in these reports. 

Herzberg Weighs In

In his biography, Stoicheff devotes an entire chapter to Herzberg’s attempts to challenge “the new politics of science.”[xiv] He explains that it was rare for Herzberg to weigh in on politics. However, “once the reputations of Steacie, Mackenzie, and the NRC were impugned and the freedom of scientists was attacked, he reluctantly came forward to air his personal views on the dangerous course that was being taken.”[xv] The first time Herzberg spoke out publicly on this topic was in 1965 at Queen’s University. His speech, entitled “Pure Science and the Government,” highlighted the important role that concepts developed from basic science research play in developing technology.[xvi] Herzberg was directly responding to the Glassco Report when he argued that science should be free from bureaucratic influence and conducted “for its own sake.”[xvii] Scientists, he added, should not be pushed towards applied research because of economic reasons or politics, and funding must be available for pure science research:

There are clearly two principal reasons for the support of pure science in Canada, and elsewhere. One is strictly mercenary. Experience has shown that pure science represents the goose that lays the golden eggs; it helps applied science and technology in their development as I have tried to exemplify by the examples given earlier. Many people do not seem to appreciate this point fully. The other reason for support of pure science by government funds is that scientific research of the purest kind is an intellectual activity which, just like art, music, literature, archaeology, and many other fields, helps us to understand who we are, and what is the nature of the world in which we live.[xviii]

“Dr. Gerhard Herzberg, Director of the Division of Pure Physics, National Research Council of Canada, portrait, 1964 (preferred pose)” Dr. Gerhard Herzberg Fond, National Research Council of Canada.  

In 1971, only a few months before the Nobel was announced, Herzberg attended a symposium on science policy in Kingston and delivered a paper entitled, “Bureaucracy and the Republic of Science.”[xix] He addressed and critiqued the report released by Senator Lamontagne’s Senate Special Committee on Science Policy. To begin, Herzberg argued that politicians should not decide how scientific work is carried out or how science institutions are organized. Such matters are best left to scientists themselves. He also continued to advocate for increased support for pure science research. Finally, he offers his own recommendation on how we can advance Canadian science.

The problem is not how to introduce more reorganization, more co-ordination; the problem is how to reduce interference with the work of scientists and engineers by bureaucrats, committees and apparently endless surveys.[xx]

Herzberg ends off with a memorable line that sums up his argument well: “Bureaucracy is a far greater danger to Canada and to science than the republic of science.”[xxi]

While his reflections on science policy and bureaucracy were in response to a series of specific political events, Herzberg’s ideas continue to be relevant today. Stressing the importance of scientific literacy and communication, Herzberg urged politicians to listen to and consult with researchers when making science policy decisions.

Almost half a century later, leaders in science and medicine released Canada’s Fundamental Science Review. The report, published in 2017, reflected on the need for more economic and institutional support for Canadian research and surveyed many of the same topics that Herzberg had raised in his speeches. Those issues continue to be relevant today as the world confronts the COVID-19 pandemic and scientific research is used to inform public health policy.

The next post in this series will explore Herzberg’s informal role as Canada’s Ambassador of Science and how he continues to support the next generation of Canada’s scientists today.

References

Boris Stoicheff, Gerhard Herzberg: An Illustrious Life in Science (Ottawa: NRC Press, 2002).

Gerhard Herzberg, “Looking Back: The Scientist’s Responsibility” in The Value of Science in Society and Culture: Selections from the Speeches, Essays and Articles of G. Herzberg, eds. A.M. Herzberg and P. Dufour (Kingston: Queen’s University, School of Policy Studies, 2019), 91-95.

Gerhard Herzberg, “Pure Science and Government” in The Value of Science in Society and Culture: Selections from the Speeches, Essays and Articles of G. Herzberg, eds. A.M. Herzberg and P. Dufour (Kingston: Queen’s University, School of Policy Studies, 2019), 13-24.

Gerhard Herzberg, “Bureaucracy in Science” in The Value of Science in Society and Culture: Selections from the Speeches, Essays and Articles of G. Herzberg, eds. A.M. Herzberg and P. Dufour (Kingston: Queen’s University, School of Policy Studies, 2019), 29-36.

Paul Dufour, “Of Nobel Laureates, Liberal Education and Social Responsibility”, Defining Moments Canada.

“Investing in Canada’s Future- Executive Summary” Canada’s Fundamental Science Review, Advisory Panel for the Review of Federal Support for Fundamental Science (2017).


[i] Gerhard Herzberg, “Looking Back: The Scientist’s Responsibility” in The Value of Science in Society and Culture: Selections from the Speeches, Essays and Articles of G. Herzberg, eds. A.M. Herzberg and P. Dufour (Kingston: Queen’s University, School of Policy Studies, 2019), 91-95.

[ii] Ibid., 94.

[iii] Ibid., 94-95.

[iv] Paul Dufour, “Of Nobel Laureates, Liberal Education and Social Responsibility”, Defining Moments Canada.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Dufour, “Of Nobel Laureates” and Boris Stoicheff, Gerhard Herzberg: An Illustrious Life in Science (Ottawa: NRC Press, 2002), Chapter 19.

[vii] Dufour, “Of Nobel Laureates”

[viii] Stoicheff, An Illustrious Life, pg. 309.

[ix] Ibid., 309.

[x] Ibid., 309.

[xi] Ibid., 310-311.

[xii] Ibid., 352.

[xiii] Ibid., 352.

[xiv] Ibid., Chapter 19

[xv] Ibid., 311

[xvi] Gerhard Herzberg, “Pure Science and Government” in The Value of Science in Society and Culture: Selections from the Speeches, Essays and Articles of G. Herzberg, eds. A.M. Herzberg and P. Dufour (Kingston: Queen’s University, School of Policy Studies, 2019), pg. 13.

[xvii] Ibid., 13-14.

[xviii] Ibid., 15.

[xix] Gerhard Herzberg, “Bureaucracy in Science” in The Value of Science in Society and Culture: Selections from the Speeches, Essays and Articles of G. Herzberg, eds. A.M. Herzberg and P. Dufour (Kingston: Queen’s University, School of Policy Studies, 2019), pg. 29.

[xx] Ibid., 34.

[xxi] Ibid., 36.