The Scientific Activist

This week’s Ask a ScienceBlogger question is “What are some unsung successes that have occurred as a result of using science to guide policy?” I think there are several good answers to this question, including several successes in basic science (the NIH, basic science funding), health (vaccination, AIDS relief), space (NASA, the Hubble Telescope), and environmental (the formation of the EPA, the Kyoto Treaty) policy. One success that might not be so obvious, though, was the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT).

When it was signed and ratified in 1963 by 113 countries, including almost all of the world’s nuclear powers (except France and China), the PTBT, sometimes referred to as the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons above ground. It was largely successful–with none of the signatories having since performed such a test–and it was an important step in deescalating the threat of Cold War Era nuclear annihilation. On top of that, it was to a large degree influenced by the actions of one scientist in particular.

Although by the early 1960s the dangers of continued nuclear weapon buildup were becoming increasingly clear, the success of the PTBT was largely influenced by science, particularly by studies on the detrimental public health effects nuclear testing posed to the general population. The preeminent chemist Linus Pauling played a central role in these efforts, working with other scientists to study how the fallout from nuclear testing would influence rates of birth defects, and then going on to publicize these findings widely. In 1958 he presented a petition, signed by 9,235 scientists wishing to end nuclear testing, to the United Nations, and during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Pauling and his wife Ava gave up to 100 lectures a year on the subject. As a reward for his diligent efforts and their eventual success, Pauling was awarded the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize in conjunction with the signing of the PTBT.

Although Linus Pauling was a controversial figure, he had built up a large amount of credibility through his scientific work, and the world was willing to hear him out when he applied his scientific thinking to a political issue. Thus, the PTBT serves as an excellent example of how society benefits when policy-makers pay attention to the science behind an issue and take it into account when making major decisions.


  1. #1 David Robinson
    July 5, 2006

    Calling the Kyoto Protocol an “unsung success” seems generous. Isn’t it really more of a sung un-success?

  2. #2 Nick Anthis
    July 5, 2006

    It probably has been overemphasized, and I was getting at that by listing what I thought would be pretty obvious or common answers to that question. The main thing holding back Kyoto, of course, is the lack of U.S. participation in it. That’s a failure on the part of the U.S., though, not Kyoto.

  3. #3 Jordan
    July 5, 2006

    Are you kidding? “the main thing holding back Kyoto is the evil USA” (of course! brilliant!). Kyoto is held back because of the unrealistic stresses that it would impose on the first world economy, for which many signatory countries are now thankful for it not being implemented, and “of course” the highy politicized unscientific nature of climate “research” on the effects of anthopogenic CO2 emissions.

  4. #4 Nick Anthis
    July 5, 2006

    “…and ‘of course’ the highy politicized unscientific nature of climate ‘research’ on the effects of anthopogenic CO2 emissions.”

    If you did take the time to look at the research on global warming, you’d be hardpressed to not find it convincing. The people who continue to oppose it are those who have other interests at heart, not the science. And, it is those people who are politicizing the research, not the other way around. As far as the economic impact of Kyoto, it’s really just a question of whether we want to address the problem of global warming now or wait until it gets worse. Either way, it’s not going away on its own.

  5. #5 Ian B Gibson
    July 5, 2006

    Kyoto is held back because of the unrealistic stresses that it would impose on the first world economy

    Reworded: “We’d have to rethink some of the nasty implications of unfettered economic growth, and maybe even take a slight material hit, so we have determined that the best course of action is to deny everything and carry on regardless”.

    1988: “There is no global warming”

    1995: “There is global warming, but it’s of entirely natural origin”

    2001: “There is global warming, but it’s mainly of natural origin”

    2006: “There is global warming, we are probably the main cause of it, but there’s nothing we can do about it now, so the best course is to keep going like we are and hope for a technological breakthrough. Besides, I need my SUV to drive to work in..”

    Why can’t they just admit that we are responsible for global warming, but they couldn’t care less..?