by Imran Khan, Chief Executive of the BSA.

This blog post was originally published on 11 November 2014.


Science is often seen as an unrelentingly positive force. It cures diseases, feeds the world, provides technological wonders, and gives us a sense of awe. But Remembrance Day reminds us that it can have an uglier face, too.

Everyone has their own perspective on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Do we recall our armed forces, or all victims of war? Do we remember our dead, or everyone's? Is it a private matter of conscience, or a public one for society?

Part of what makes these questions so difficult to answer is the role that science plays in our history.

The first World War was one of the earliest conflicts in which we used chemistry to gas each other in our hundreds and in our thousands. Mustard gas, chlorine, phosgene were all developed and deployed by both sides, despite previous treaties having banned them. Nearly 200,000 British troops alone were struck by chemical attacks; non-fatal doses often scarred or afflicted soldiers for life.

The chemistry of World War II managed to be even more unpalatable. Zyklon B, originally developed by scientists in the inter-war period as a fumigating agent, was used to kill a million innocent people during the Holocaust.

Ironically, both World Wars proved to political leaders that science and scientists can win you wars. The Manhattan Project, which gave us atomic weapons, was a scientific enterprise. It was run and completed by scientists and engineers, proving Einstein's mass-energy equivalence concept in the process.

The two resulting nuclear bombs that were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima are estimated to have killed a quarter of a million people, both military and civilian. Around half of those people died slowly, from radiation burns and sickness in the two months following the attack.

The post-war Nuremberg Trials, and later that of Adolf Eichman, made us question how far people really would 'just follow orders'. So the psychologist, Stanley Milgram, went out in the 1970s to test those ideas in his famous experiments.

Milgram had men in white lab coats tell ordinary Americans to electrocute other ordinary Americans - played by actors - ostensibly to death. His 'scientists' told their subjects that "the experiment required" them to inflict electric shocks on the actors - and many of the subjects willingly complied, to further the cause of science. The experiments were later deemed to be beyond the pale.

And today of course, our worst fears around war revolve around our scientific weapons. They've become our greatest strength and greatest weakness.

Our nuclear arsenal can strike anywhere at any time, and yet we live in fear that we are powerless to stop terrorists deploying biological and chemical threats against us. Despite the precision of science, it has given the world weapons that will not distinguish friend from foe, soldier from civilian, or the powerful from the powerless.

These are not fears from another age or world. Chemical weapons have been used in Syria, where we're told British "jihadi" fighters are heading to, and maybe returning from. Last year's controversy over US-based scientists being asked not to publish their work on how bird flu could be made more virulent rumbles on.

I have deliberately given a simplistic view. History, of course, shows us that war has given us many of our most valuable inventions - the internet, GPS, new surgical techniques, and modern air travel, to name a tiny fraction - all sprung from military research. That work has paid incalculable dividends.

We know that science is neither intrinsically good nor evil, but neither does it exist in a moral vacuum.

The cost borne by victims of our worst scientific achievements cannot be repaid, but it should be remembered. It should remind us that science is like many other aspects of our culture; it can shape us, but our attitudes can also shape science's products in return - both good and bad, they should belong to us all.