Nicholas Goldberg: Can scientists moonlight as activists — or does that violate an important ethical code?
In the 1970s, physicist Stanley Pons invented the world’s first transponder. Transponders use microwaves to read coded messages on cellphones and other devices. In the late 1990s, Pons became the first scientist to market a commercial transponder to the consumer market, and he sold millions of them to cellphones and other devices.
And he did so while working at MIT, a place where scientists are taught to think about ethics and society and to be humble enough to allow themselves to look into the world for answers.
In 2004, Pons received the Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing the transponder. Now, Pons, along with Robert Lefkowitz, another researcher at MIT, are suing the federal government for its role in developing the technology in the name of making the cell phone industry more efficient. The government’s response to this lawsuit: We’re not going to say whether you have a case because we’re going to treat your science as an “activist” and a threat to the industry.
And that threat is real. The federal government is seeking to enforce an outdated copyright law that has held back technological progress for decades. It’s forcing manufacturers to pay steep royalties on technology that is already available free and in the open, and that no one is required to pay a dime to use.
So here’s a story about what can happen when science gets forced into becoming politics. A story about the relationship between science and activism.
It’s all part of a bigger story about how science and politics are both important, but in different contexts. It’s a story about the power and privilege of the scientific community. And it’s a story about how far we should go to protect science from the destructive whims of those who want to take it into the field of politics.
At the same time, I’d like to talk about the ethics