In October 2022 the president of Stony Brook University, Maurie McInnis, began her “State of the university” address with a tribute to Brookhaven National Laboratory. Stony Brook, she reminded her audience, helps to manage the “bustling” lab, which is located near Stony Brook on Long Island. It provides “eureka moments” for students, she said, helping them define and realize their goals. The lab helps students make a difference, both to themselves and to the world.
These were stirring words. Still, I couldn’t help being reminded of the havoc that occurred at Brookhaven 25 years ago after it was announced that there had been a non-hazardous leak from the spent fuel of the lab’s research reactor. It’s a dramatic and almost unbelievable story that I cover in a new book written with former Brookhaven interim director Peter Bond entitled The Leak: Politics, Activism, and Loss of Trust at Brookhaven National Laboratory.
Federal, state and local health environmental experts found the leak harmless. But its impact was spun way out of proportion by politicians and activists. Their loud voices, which were amplified by media commentators, unqualified “experts” and celebrities such as Alec Baldwin and Christie Brinkley, convinced many nearby residents that they were in imminent danger of meltdowns, cancer and other deadly diseases.
These concerns led not only to the reactor being closed down in 1999 but also to calls for the entire Brookhaven lab to be shut. That didn’t happen, but the incident did lead to the firing of Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI) – the group of nine universities that had managed Brookhaven since it was founded in 1947. In fact, Stony Brook’s partnership with the lab was a direct result of that firing, as it was chosen to replace AUI.
So why didn’t all the lab’s nearby residents simply accept the word of the experts – of the federal, state and local authorities who, after numerous extensive and thorough studies, concluded that the leak at Brookhaven was non-hazardous? The reason is visible in the unfolding drama portrayed in The Leak. Simply put, experts don’t come with a stamp of approval; they become that way only after they’ve spoken to people who hear them as experts.
All about the acoustics
Expertise is often pictured in what one might label the “call-and-response” model. In it, somebody needs information and so seeks out and asks the appropriate authority. That authority delivers the information, and the information-seeker acts accordingly. The call-and-response model assumes that the person knows the voice is from an expert, who is responding appropriately to the person’s questions.
The model works well in certain circumstances, such as when you have to fix your plumbing, mend your car or seek medical advice. But it doesn’t apply in larger social contexts, such as the potential threat of a nuclear reactor in a government laboratory. If it had held true, people living near the lab would have listened to how the government experts evaluated the hazard, and accepted their judgment.
The fact that many people in the community ignored the expert voices means (according to the model) that they were responding irrationally. Those people were exposed to an entire spectrum of individuals claiming expertise and shouting different advice. Some of those individuals seemed to be responding to the concerns voiced by the neighbours, while others gave advice that sounded patronizing, irrelevant and too technical.
This situation is better modelled by an “acoustical” picture of expertise. I see this as involving a “soundscape” in which the audibility of a voice depends on where both speaker and hearer are positioned. The soundscape at Brookhaven in 1997 – and in many other public controversies – was cacophonous. But if we want effective action, we need to map that soundscape by identifying which voices are loud or soft, which are clear or staticky, and where and to whom they are speaking.
The critical point
In his book The Great Instauration, published in 1620, the philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon warned that science was in danger of becoming a “magnificent structure without any foundation”. Humans, he said, were apt to ignore, squander and undermine the considerable beneficial powers of science unless they were able to appreciate how it operated in a way they could understand and value.
Bacon was writing before modern science, and had to try to link its promise and potential benefits with the lives of those who needed to support it. These days we live in a world dominated by science and technology but we still need to speak in an acoustical landscape to outline the links between scientific facilities and the lives of those who provide the funding and foundations.
In 1998 the US Department of Energy hosted a “Lessons learned” conference near its headquarters in Washington D.C., attended by representatives from the agency and many US national labs. One delegate was Judy Jackson, the then-head of public affairs at Fermilab near Chicago. When she took the podium, her first slide simply read: “Brookhaven’s experience: ‘There but for the grace of God…’” The damage to valuable and irreplaceable scientific facilities that took place at Brookhaven could, in her view, happen anywhere.
But can we afford to let advanced, multibillion-dollar scientific facilities rely on Divine grace for their survival? The health and welfare of these facilities – their ability to define and fulfil the goals for which they were built – requires a deeper understanding of human nature, not as a tack-on but as a foundation. Why, in other words, do humans find it meaningful not just to build scientific facilities but to close them down too?
It’s a question that is critical to any science-dominated university, including Stony Brook. But when educational goals become focused on technical training and scientific advance – and we ignore the study of the world in which humans live – we are in danger of undermining the very foundations on which the magnificent structures of science are built.
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