Monday, February 27, 2017

Science and Social Responsibility

On the edge of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. stands a building housing the National Academies of Science, an organization founded by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to advance scientific knowledge for the purpose of improving people’s lives. Near the main entrance to the building is a memorial to Albert Einstein, one of history’s pre-eminent scientists. The memorial centers on a Robert Berks sculpture of Einstein that contains several engraved quotations by and about Einstein.

Given the current political and social climate, one statement by Einstein particularly struck me when I visited the memorial on Presidents Day: “As long as I have any choice in the matter, I shall live only in a country where civil liberty, tolerance, and equality of all citizens before the law prevail.” I wonder if this brilliant, Jewish, immigrant, scientist who changed the course of history, would have made the choice to live in the United States today. And how many like him are making that decision today?

Another Einstein quotation also spoke to today’s environment: “The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true.” I wish he would have added the logical next sentence which would be that there is also a duty to use the truth in decisions, policies, and plans that impact the well-being of humanity. If he had, perhaps this 2002 statement by the Institute of Medicine (part of the National Academies of Science) would have been more influential in shaping current health and social policies: “The health of populations and individuals is shaped by a wide range of factors in the social, economic, natural, built, and political environments…(and we must) take into account the potential effects of social connectedness, economic inequality, social norms, and public policies on health-related behaviors and on health status…Health care services and biomedical technologies can generally only address the immediate causes of disease … and do so on an individual basis. Preventive approaches (like policies on education, housing, living wage, or clean air) that focus on populations are likely to have broader impact.”

This disconnect between knowledge and actions was on my mind when I left the Einstein Memorial for the memorials to a couple of presidents (the real reason I was at the National Mall on Presidents Day). These presidents led the nation during some of the darkest times in American history – Abraham Lincoln, who led our country through a civil war in which 700,000 people died while freeing more than 4 million slaves, and Franklin Roosevelt, who led our country through the Great Depression and a global conflict against fascism and genocide that claimed the lives of 70 million people.

These monuments reminded me that, as important as they are, data and truth aren’t the primary factors that influence policies and programs. Values, ideologies, history, culture, and dreams for the future are often the most powerful forces in guiding our actions. Fortunately, even during times of crisis and challenge the basic values and dreams of our democracy have endured and kept us moving forward. To help remind us of their importance and relevance, they are etched in stone on these two monuments. The Lincoln Memorial highlights those values with the words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg and Second Inaugural Addresses: “With malice toward none, with charity for all” – “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

The emphasis at the Franklin Roosevelt Memorial is on the "four essential human freedoms…freedom of speech and expression…freedom of every person to worship God in his own way…freedom from want...freedom from fear.” Roosevelt also underscored the importance of social cohesion and the need to focus on the conditions essential for a nation to thrive. This great leader reminded us of the need to embrace the value of the social justice, which is also at the core of public health. “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much, it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

Visiting these three memorials was a needed balm for today’s challenging environment and a great preparation for the public health meeting that brought me to Washington because they embody not only the heart and soul of our country’s values but the heart and soul of public health – science and social justice. In our civic endeavors we must work to assure that our country’s core values are embedded in all public policies. As public health workers, it is our solemn duty to discover truth and to share and use that truth to advance policies and programs that improve health and advance health equity.

Einstein was a good example of responsible civic and professional work. My hope is that the statement on the Einstein sculpture that describes this icon would also be applicable to all of us: “a scientist whose work led to a new understanding of the world and who believed his work was a solemn trust to be used for the common good.” That work is more important now than ever.