We hear the calls for responsible leadership everywhere – contrasting good leaders with rogue bankers and ruthless country leaders. But this call to responsibility is not confined to leadership. I see it spread to pretty much all disciplines and areas of life. Take science, for example. What is responsible science? Science that was conducted in line with ethical codes of conduct, for example? Or science that was conducted for the benefit of society worldwide? Or both? It is not so easy. As a scientist, I often find that people – and especially managers – are tempted to close their eyes to new scientific insights, discoveries, and evidence and discredit them as irresponsible, even if they were conducted for a good reason and with the highest ethical and technological standard.

Why? Many reasons, but mostly out of fear. Humans get afraid if new knowledge contradicts their established views, habits, or creates uncomfortable consequences. If it makes us realize our own vulnerability, finite nature, and the uncontrollability of our environment. This fear gets biggest if we feel our safety is at risk. This is just what happened a few months ago in the case of Ron Fouchier, virologist at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Ron and his team worked on the H5N1 bird flu virus and identified five mutations the virus would have to undergo to become even more easily spreadable – and presumably even more deadly – among human beings. As viruses mutate all the time anyway, Ron thought, knowledge of these specific mutations could help science and pharma develop targeted vaccines and therapies. Thus his research would help prevent another flu pandemic like the Spanish flu in 1918 that killed 100 million people. Authorities on both sides of the Atlantic thought differently. They feared that publication of his findings would entice “rogue” nations or bad scientists to develop a flu-based weapon of mass destruction. So they forbade him to submit his manuscript to academic journals; they even threatened them with a jail sentence. Communities of scientists from all disciplines revolted. Media were full of the story, some painting even more doom and gloom around a new flu pandemic, while others argued that possibilities of abuse should not stop knowledge from being publicized. After the WHO intervened, American and Dutch science advice committee finally agreed to full publication. And yet, many voices still shout that publication of this knowledge is irresponsible due to the potential for its abuse. 

In my opinion, these voices confuse responsibility with safety. I think it is important to ensure our safety, but it is an illusion to ever assume we are – or could be – totally safe. Science has always been pushing the edges and made us feel extremely vulnerable. Think of Copernicus! Where would we be now, in terms of our discoveries, if only “safe” science can be published? If we start censoring science for its safety, where do we draw the line? How many groundbreaking discoveries would have never been exploited for the benefit of humanity if the basic research behind them had been barred from publication?

H. Smith Richardson

CCL Founder H. Smith Richardson

CCL’s founder, H. Smith Richardson, said that it takes boldness to invest in programs of unknown outcomes, but it is of such programs that the greatest discoveries have been made. This blog post is a call for responsible boldness – for overcoming our fear without losing our precaution. Let’s try.

As a leader, have you faced a situation where you felt it your responsibility to share information that you knew would not be well-received, but couldn’t be ignored?

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