Beckman's First Director an Advocate for Science

Ted Brown, left, escorts Arnold and Mabel Beckman through the Beckman Institute during building construction.
Ted Brown, left, escorts Arnold and Mabel Beckman through the Beckman Institute during building construction.

All Ted Brown wanted to do back in 1986 was return to the life of a professor and researcher after serving in an administrative post at the University of Illinois. But he found himself being pulled toward a deeper calling: overseeing the founding and operation of a new center dedicated to an interdisciplinary approach to research called the Beckman Institute.

Ted Brown Guided Founding of Beckman, Now Focuses on Role of Science in Society

Semi-retired but still active today as an author and editor, Brown is an advocate for the important roles he thinks science and scientists should play in our society. He is putting the finishing touches on a book on science's role in and relationship to government, the law, the public, and many other aspects of society.

"Scientists as a group, and particularly I'm thinking about academic scientists and those who work in research, have got to do more to explain themselves to society at large and to actually become advocates for things in the society that they believe in." - Ted Brown

"Basically what I'm trying to get at is how does science operate in the larger society?" Brown said. "How does it influence what society does? When science pronounces on something, what causes people to believe or not believe what science has to say and what are the other forces that are competing with it?"

When the book, titled Imperfect Oracle: The Authority and Moral Authority of Science in Society, comes out, it's a safe bet people will want to read what Brown has to say. He is a Fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, author of a college chemistry textbook that is now in its 11th edition and - in what he says is his greatest accomplishment - the Founding Director of the Beckman Institute.

It was Brown who, as Vice Chancellor for Research at the U of I, circulated a memo in 1983 that floated the idea of a facility that would break down the traditional barriers separating scientific disciplines. The notes from a subsequent meeting about the project quote Brown as saying: "The proposal should be interdisciplinary, not confined to a single department or even a single college."

It was Brown who nurtured the concept of an interdisciplinary center along, who helped in the appeal for funds to Arnold and Mabel Beckman and it was Brown who, upon returning from summer vacation in 1985, was stunned to hear the Beckmans had donated the then-record amount of $40M to build a facility. He served as the Beckman Institute's interim director during the planning stages, but intended to return to teaching and research once a permanent director could be found.

"I kept getting more and more deeply involved and finally I got to the point where I said, you know I've got so much invested in this and I love this idea so much that I would like to be a candidate to be the director," Brown said. "So I put my name in and after a while - it took longer than I hoped - they finally offered the job to me."

Brown remained director until 1993 when Jiri Jonas took over, but he still has an indirect connection to the Institute as a member of the Board of Directors of the Beckman Foundation. Brown said he made the right decision by switching from fulltime teacher and researcher to a directorship because of what he was able to accomplish as head of the Beckman Institute.

These days Brown spends most of the year in Florida and the summer months in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In addition to reviewing edits to the latest edition of his chemistry textbook, Brown is thinking and writing about science and society, and he is passionate about one aspect of that subject. When he decided to forgo research on a full-time basis by becoming head of the Beckman Institute, Brown was making a commitment to something larger than his own research interests. And while he doesn't expect or want other scientists to give up their research work, he does wish more of them would broaden their horizons when it comes to public life.

"Scientists are dedicated people, they love their work, but there is always a conflict," Brown said. "If a scientist could have his way, the basic scientists, the ones who are in academe or in these research laboratories, they often wish the rest of the world would go away and let them play.

"But that tendency to isolate themselves from society is actually harmful to science's relationship with society," Brown added. "You can't have that privilege anymore, if you ever did. Science is part of society, and if science can't explain itself to society in a way that makes the general public understand what it is and how it works and what it does, then scientists can't expect to get support for what they do or to get understanding of their outlook."

Brown said his new book uses historical and other examples to show how science has, over the centuries, had to establish itself as a voice of authority in society while competing with other forces such as government and religion. That effort continues today, he said.

"Look at the struggle that scientists have had in getting the government to recognize that there is such a thing as climate change occurring," Brown said. "So scientific authority rests upon its expertise, but if people refuse to recognize its expertise then that authority dwindles.

"Also there are ways in which politics or other forces can operate to try to diminish the authority of science. For example, saying 'well, we don't have enough evidence' or 'there isn't a consensus.' One of the essential ingredients in scientific authority is that if it's to have authority with the public at large there has to be at least the impression that there is consensus. Well, scientists don't readily arrive at consensus. It is part of science that, internally, things are always in a state of ferment or dispute. Yet when it faces the outside world, science is supposed to give the impression that there is a consensus on matters."

Brown believes too many people today don't understand how science works, something that has implications for our society as a whole. He lays some of the blame for that at the feet of scientists.

"Part of the problem is the scientists themselves try to give this impression that we have some special super-rational, objective way of viewing the world and when we come up with scientific evidence it's irrefutable," he said. "This is baloney. Scientists don't have some sort of special access to the truth; they have a rational way of going about trying to understand the world. However, there is always ambiguity and there is always room for flexibility; theories are just models."

One way Brown believes scientists can reach a larger audience is through the use of metaphor. In fact, he wrote a book titled Making Truth: Metaphor in Science that explored how theories and models are not objective truth, but simply metaphorical representations of what the world is like. Brown said he came to appreciate the value of using metaphor in science through his associations with cognitive scientists at Beckman.

"They got me interested in the roles of metaphor in science and I kept thinking more and more about how scientists use metaphor to understand the world," Brown said.

Brown said metaphors that are used in science, such as biological examples like protein folding and quorum sensing in bacterial colonies, are not only essential to the doing of science, but also serve as valuable tools in helping people understand scientific concepts.

"There are countless examples in which experience from the everyday macroscopic world gets transferred into the world of the invisible," he said. "The book by (George) Lakoff and (Mark) Johnson called Metaphors We Live By was a terrific little book that talked about conceptual metaphor and how our embodied interactions with the world give rise to these metaphorical tools that we all use all the time. I just tried to adopt the same principles and apply them to the ways in which scientists think.

"People say 'well, metaphor is nice, but it's dispensable' especially the people who believe that science approaches absolute truth in some way. For them metaphor is sort of vague and it's not objective. But the truth of the matter is you can't do without metaphor."

Whether it's through the use of metaphor or other means, Brown hopes science's role in society will become more integrated with other facets of how we live.

"I think it absolutely has to become more integrated with society," Brown said. "Scientists as a group, and particularly I'm thinking about academic scientists and those who work in research, have got to do more to explain themselves to society at large and to actually become advocates for things in the society that they believe in. And that means exposing themselves in ways that they'd never had to do before.

"I think scientists have to realize that we will probably never have a world where scientific rationalism is the dominant mode. It runs too counter to so much of what we learn from infant development onward and to the social forces that bear upon us from earliest childhood. The things that you learn from your surroundings and at a developmental stage get deeply, deeply ingrained. I think scientists have to learn how to live in accommodation with these other things."

Brown will be returning to campus this spring, where he will be sharing his thoughts on science and society during a talk for the School of Chemical Sciences. Brown will deliver the annual Krug Lecture of the Zeta Chapter of Alpha Chi Sigma, the chemical professional fraternity, on April 5. The talk, titled The Voice of Science in Society, will focus on science's voice, or lack thereof, in the concerns of our society. It's a topic that is close to Brown's heart these days.

This article is part of the Winter 2008 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.