When Employees Attack. Editorial in Nature, Vol 446, 702 (2007)
Government scientists should be able
to comment publicly — within reason.
Badmouthing one’s government is a
fashionable pastime in some parts of the world. Many US climatologists, even those who
receive federal funding, have grave reservations about the White House’s
continued neglect of international climate agreements, and they aren’t shy
about saying so. In Britain,
meanwhile, scientists as well as political analysts have been quick to
criticize the government’s plan to spend billions on renewing the national
fleet of nuclear-weapons submarines.
Roll those two examples together, and
transplant them into a society where freedom of speech is often seen as being
under pressure from several directions, and you get the case of Claudio
Mendoza. Until recently the head of a government physics laboratory in Venezuela, Mendoza has been demoted after making
sarcastic comments about the government over what he regards as its tendency to
ignore scientists and their advice (see page 711).
What infuriated Mendoza’s paymasters most was probably his
suggestion — made in a newspaper article promoting a play about nuclear weapons
— that president Hugo Chávez might want to pursue a nuclear-weapons programme and
that, if he did so, he was liable to fail because of this alleged disdain for
were not made in any official capacity (his article was signed, with no
affiliation given), raising the fraught question of whether senior government
scientists should be free to make disparaging public comments about the state
institutions that they serve, when they are away from work.
On a facile level, this is a
disagreement about whether it is acceptable for someone to be fired because
their bosses can’t take a joke. In many countries, acerbic comments about the
machinations of politics are a valid and effective mode of public discourse.
But, of course, a line has to be
drawn somewhere. It is hard to escape the feeling that, in this case, it has
been drawn in the wrong place. Many civil servants in other countries might
expect a dressing-down if they behaved in this way, but might justifiably argue that
they have a right to express a grievance. The message coming from Mendoza’s bosses
within the Venezuelan national research institute is an unsavoury one. His
removal from a management position implies that someone who voices contrary
opinions is not fit to be a lab head. What’s more, Mendoza has been warned that he had better
clam up if he doesn’t want to lose his job altogether.
The play that Mendoza was writing
about was Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, the
international hit that deals with a crucial 1941 meeting between Niels Bohr and
Werner Heisenberg, and their struggle to comprehend the feasibility and consequences
of developing nuclear weapons during the Second World War (see Nature 394, 735; 1998).
One of the reasons for the play’s
success was general interest in what physicists of Bohr’s generation thought about
the issues surrounding nuclear weapons. Of course, these thoughts
only became public some time after the United States had built and used
the bomb. But times have moved on, and people in Caracas, as elsewhere, would benefit if their
scientists were be able to participate openly in public debate on nuclear