Britain's top scientist, the President of the Royal Society, last night launched an unprecedented and outspoken attack on Britain's nuclear weapons programme.
In the prestigious Anniversary Address to the society - Britain's national academy of science - Sir Michael Atiyah described Britain's commitment to nuclear weapons over the past 50 years as "fundamentally misguided, a total waste of resources, and a significant factor in our relative economic decline."
Presidents of the Royal Society never court controversy so the relentless criticism of the Government by Sir Michael, 66, who is internationally renowned as one of the world's foremost mathematicians, is all the more provocative. He condemned the Government's current nuclear policies saying "there seems to be no long-term vision, only a complacent reliance on the status quo." Britain's nuclear status, he went on, was "psychologically understandable but economically disastrous".
Sir Michael was equally dismissive of the conventional arms industry and criticised the UK's arms exports. "As a scientist, I cannot by my silence condone a policy which uses the scientific skills of this country to export potential death and destruction to poorer parts of the world, where their scarce resources would be better employed on food and health."
Anti-personnel mines left behind when a war ends represent "an environmental disaster", he continued.
Scientists could contribute to the technical problem of finding new ways of dealing with such legacies of the past, but these mines should be banned in the future, he said. "I regret that our government, while supporting weaker steps, does not appear to be totally behind such a ban."
The peace dividend - "the conversion of swords into ploughshares" - which should have followed the ending of the Cold War - showed no signs of appearing, he said. "The Ministry of Defence employs many scientists and engineers who might in other circumstances be creating wealth for the nation," but, Sir Michael continued, "I have failed to detect any conscious policy on the redistribution of scientific resources."
Sir Michael said that scientists had a moral duty to voice their concerns on issues relating to the application of science. Over the past 50 years since the building of the atomic bomb, there had been close collaboration between science, Government and industry. While that had brought substantial material benefits, it had "been bought at a price and public suspicion is one of the consequences".
Sir Michael went on: "The crucial question we scientists face is how to conduct our relations with government and industry so as to regain the confidence of the public. The only way is for scientists to speak out openly and freely, to criticise the establishment when necessary, and to demonstrate that independence of thought really is the hallmark of the scientist."
In an interview before he delivered his speech, Sir Michael said that he was expressing his own opinions and not those of the Royal Society, which "cannot embark on controversial political matters" because individual Fellows of the Society would have differing views. He is retiring after five years as president and so feels that in this, his last speech as president, he is freer to express views he has held for many years.
There is no Nobel Prize for mathematics but Sir Michael holds the Fields Medal, which is regarded as being the equivalent, although he remarked yesterday that "it doesn't carry as much money". He is also Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and founder director of the Isaac Newton Institute of Mathematical Sciences.Reuse content