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If only people had heeded his words then. Niels Bohr Archive

Open science to fight big threats like the nuclear bomb

In 1943, when Niels Bohr, one of 20th century’s greatest scientists, was briefed on the Anglo-American nuclear weapons project, he was worried about the political consequences more than the scientific challenges. While he contributed to developing the bomb, Bohr made diplomatic approaches to the US and the UK to try to persuade Western statesmen to inform their Russian allies about the new weapon. After the war, his continued efforts culminated in an open letter to the United Nations in 1950.

Bohr realised immediately how a nuclear arms race with competing, secret research environments and fear of new technological breakthroughs would come to shape relations between the great powers. He believed that openness could eliminate the fear that would fuel an arms race and simultaneously through international cooperation provide technologies that solve world’s problems.

Social science research into nuclear strategy proves Bohr was right. He argued that the atomic bomb would make a dramatic difference, and he warned that nuclear weapons would fundamentally transform the nature of warfare and relations between superpowers. That this was not obvious at the time is illustrated by the response of a politician with an unusual interest in the history of warfare, Winston Churchill, who rejected Bohr, stating that the atomic bomb was “just a bigger bomb” and made “no difference to the principles of war”.

We must adopt Bohr’s approach today. Breakthroughs in science and technology are sometimes so radical in nature that our habitual ways of organising important social issues are inadequate, and entirely new principles and procedures must be devised.

To follow this approach, basic science researchers need to work on predicting where fundamental changes can occur. With social scientists, they must be involved in thinking through how these changes are likely to affect society. Today, just like in Bohr’s time, there are relevant military examples such as space weapons, autonomous drones and cyber war. But now we need to look also at non-military developments, such as energy and climate technologies, medicines for global health and bioethics.

As part of the 2013 centennnial of Bohr’s theory of the atom a recent conference in Copenhagen took a major stab at updating this – a principled and open-minded look at emerging science and technology across a wide range of fields.

Not utopian any more

Openness is more important than ever, but it is a principle with both opportunities and limitations. Because ideas and knowledge are at the core of many of the greatest challenges we face today, it is crucial to be aware of how the free movement of ideas is restricted, promoted and shaped. Who gets access to what information? Who regulates this access? Can a principle be formulated that can serve as a guide?

Bohr proposed openness as an almost utopian idea – today it can be a reality. With the internet and smartphones, data and ideas flow across borders, and cooperation in research, innovation and activism happens on a scale that confirms Bohr’s idea that technological possibilities are expolited best with openness. The international research centre CERN in Switzerland, where the world wide web was born, is a good example, where fundamental research is shared by thousands of scientists in many countries, all at the same time.

This technologically aided scale of openness can not be taken for granted. The future of the internet is being shaped by decisions in many areas – legal rulings on intellectual property rights, economic strategies decided by giant internet corporations, attempts by some governments to control communication, technical design of protocols, and international struggles over regulation of domains and addresses.

The extent of the reach that British and American intelligence services have on cyberspace has intensified struggles that threaten to roll back global openness. That is why, at the recent conference in Copenhagen, we had a comprehensive session with the participation of, among others, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and Caspar Bowden, former chief privacy advisor for Microsoft, about how the openness of the internet can be defended and expanded.

While eight US computer and internet giants have signed a joint statement calling for restrictions on mass surveillance, their initiative does not address the trump card called “state security”, which currently threatens to dominate the internet. To just say “hands-off” and hope to get back to status-quo ante-NSA is slightly naive. Cyber security has risen on the security agenda of all states, and without a strategy for moving forward to a system where security is ensured in an open format that defuses competitive cyberarms races, the internet may not be able to breakout of increasing control by state security. The situation has striking parallels to the nuclear revolution, and Niels Bohr’s analysis and recommendations offers a missing element in relation to the current debate on the internet and surveillance.

You can help

We need to do get three things right. First, the challenge of identifying qualitatively new science and technology which call for political adjustments. Second, the principle of openness and its utility for defusing dangers and maximising positive use of the new possibilities. Third, finding the best means of communicating this to wider world.

Bohr chose the approach of direct and personal contact with the world’s most powerful leaders. Later he made a personal appeal to the United Nations in his own name. This is not an option for individual researchers today. Most obviously in the area of climate change, an organised system for condensing scientific results for the political system has been devised in the form of the IPCC. The panel has played a crucial but also controversial role. Multiplying this model to all other relevant fields would both create a confusing cacophony, and would still be limited to fields that are already recognised as relevant, not suitable for spotting new problems. It is a major challenge to design institutions and procedures for interaction between science and policy.

We don’t have a perfect answer, but in an open letter like Bohr’s we identified turning points and presented principles for the extension of openness. We launched an open letter, to which everyone can contribute. When the message is consolidated, we hope that leaders of the world will this time be open to trying Bohr’s ideas set in the modern context. The success of the open movement, be it Wikipedia, open source software or open access to scholarly knowledge, has shown that it is time that threats to world security are discussed openly too.

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