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Why Scientists Should Not Be Spies

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 21, 2011

In a commentary on my “Species Seekers and Spies” column, Lukas Rieppel, a PhD candidate at Harvard, adds some interesting examples to the list of scientists who were also spies.  But I was most impressed with this paragraph, in which Franz Boas gets at the fundamental problem of scientists using their research as a cover:

During World War One, the Columbia University Anthropologist Franz Boas serendipitously learned that Sylvanus Morley and a number of other archeologists were gathering intelligence for the United States Government.  After the war, he wrote a strongly worded letter  denouncing their actions to The Nation that was published in December, 1919.  In it, he argued that espionage work and scientific research were fundamentally at odds, because “the very essence of [a scientist’s] life is in the service of truth.”  As such, anyone “who uses science as a cover for political spying … prostitutes science in an unpardonable way and forfeits the right to be classed as a scientist.”  As a result of their unconscionable actions, he concluded, “every nation will look with distrust upon the visiting foreign investigator who wants to do honest work,” thus making it all but impossible to conduct serious natural history research.  Rather than having it’s intended effect, though, the publication of this letter led to an official censure of Boas by the American Anthropological Association and led to his resignation from the National Research Council.

One Response to “Why Scientists Should Not Be Spies”

  1. Barbara Harris said

    Here’s a related article from the BBC:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7042090.stm
    I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I can see why scientists may feel that collaborating with the armed forces compromises their professional pursuit and is a conflict of interest. But I also think that for the armed forces to be culturally tone-deaf as it conducts its business in other countries is a prescription for disaster.

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