The Power of the Individual

The life of Leo Szilard has important lessons for scientists eager to influence public policy.

William Lanouette’s fascinating biography of Leo Szilard, Genius in the Shadows, does more than reveal the life of a brilliant physicist and maverick social activist; it sheds a perceptive light on the role of scientists in public policy. World War II is usually recognized as the coming of age of science in U.S. politics. Albert Einstein had become the world’s first science celebrity and a person to whom presidents felt obliged to listen. The Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb was an unprecedented federal investment in research, and questions about how to use the insights of nuclear physics for military and civilian purposes brought scientists into direct conversation with the nation’s leaders. And it was at this time that Vannevar Bush laid the foundation for a postwar science policy that would put government in the dominant role in funding basic research.

Some scientists see the period after the war as a golden age when scientists, or at least physicists, were treated with deference in the corridors of power. They wonder why the influence of scientists has not grown with the expanding importance of science in all aspects of modern life. In fact, scientists have become more influential in policy debates concerning health, energy, the environment, transportation, and other areas. There may not be the same sized headlines as when Robert Oppenheimer testified to Congress about nuclear weapons, but there are far more scientists actively influencing public policy. In addition, policymakers and the public have become much better informed about science. Scientific literacy is not what it should be, but we have to remember that nuclear physics was a complete mystery to virtually all Americans in the 1940s. Besides, the science was developing so fast that even the scientists at the forefront were often taken by surprise. As late as 1939, even Enrico Fermi, who directed the team that created the first nuclear chain reaction, did not believe that such a reaction was possible.

What is instructive about Szilard’s life, however, is not the political influence of scientists as a group. Szilard’s efforts to convince the government to develop nuclear weapons and his subsequent campaigns to establish civilian and international control of the power of the atom are an inspiring example of how a determined individual can play a major role in public policy. He believed that scientists should have more influence in policymaking in general-not because of their knowledge but because of their ability to think rationally. This faith in reason was a weakness in Szilard’s political thinking, however, because it prevented him from understanding the emotional forces that must also be taken into account. Indeed, it was the scientific hyperrationality of someone like Szilard that Roald Hoffman had in mind when he wrote “Why Scientists Shouldn’t Run the World” (Issues, Winter 1990-91).

But Szilard was not expecting to be influential in policy debates just because he was a scientist. An avid newspaper reader, he was extremely well informed about public affairs. And although he often used the reputation of his friend Einstein to gain access to decisionmakers, he believed firmly that it was the power of his ideas that deserved attention. He felt the same way about science. Even as an unemployed and relatively unknown physicist, he expected the giants in the field to respect his ideas if they made sense. In fact, he approached biologists in the same way in spite of his total lack of training in the discipline.

The key to Szilard’s effectiveness and influence was that his sense of responsibility for making the world a better place compelled him to work so hard to advance his ideas. Once he decided that something should be done, he devoted enormous energy, resourcefulness, and chutzpah to advancing his proposal. He didn’t assume that he should be listened to just because he was a brilliant physicist, and he accepted that even the most enlightened thinking had to be promoted vigorously to be influential. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he was way ahead of his time in recognizing the threat posed by Hitler, the importance of nuclear weapons, and the problems with nuclear weapons that would arise after the war.

Not everything that Szilard advocated was wise; reason sometimes overwhelmed common sense. And although we can admire his intelligence and enthusiasm, Szilard’s compulsive travel, social idiosyncrasies, and driven personality are not a model one would want to see widely imitated. Still, his life illustrates important lessons for scientists who want to influence public policy. First, the most important policies are those that address issues bigger than science itself. Szilard studied and cared deeply about the larger issues of governance, not just the role of science. Second, he understood that his scientific training did not entitle him to influence and that the quality of his thinking did not mean that the world’s leaders would come knocking at his door. He knew that to make a difference in the world it is necessary to think broadly; to win support through compelling analysis, not reputation; and to work tirelessly to promote one’s ideas.

What Szilard did was to approach public policy with the same rigor, determination, and persistence with which good scientists approach science. What works in advancing science can also work in improving policy.

Cite this Article

Finneran, Kevin. “The Power of the Individual.” Issues in Science and Technology 14, no. 1 (Fall 1997).

Vol. XIV, No. 1, Fall 1997