Honesty, Perseverance, and Objectivity: Lessons from a Life in Public Policy

John F. Ahearne

[John Ahearn is the recipient of the Forum’s 2011 Leo Szilard Lectureship Award, which  is given to recognize outstanding accomplishments by physicists in promoting the use of physics for the benefit of society in such areas as the environment, arms control, and science policy. The citation for his award reads: “For nearly four decades of selfless dedication to the nation, and for providing a voice of reason in advising on the use of physics for the benefit of society in areas as diverse as nuclear energy, arms control, risk communication, biological safety and ethics in science and engineering.” Dr. Ahearne is Executive Director Emeritus and Emeritus Director of the Ethics Program at Sigma Xi; currently, he is Adjunct Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke University. He also served as a Commissioner and Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Dr. Ahearne’s award was formally presented at the APS April meeting held in Anaheim, and we are pleased to print an edited version of the remarks he made on that occasion – Ed. ]

Thank you very much. Looking at the list of previous awardees, many of whom I know and respect, I feel unworthy to belong on that list.  But, fortunately for me, the awards committee thought otherwise. As in a popular song, with a little help from my friends I have received this award. 

The award website states that a purpose is “to promote awareness of the application of physics to social problems….”  So, then, to what social problems have I applied physics? In this talk I will first describe what I see as fundamental characteristics of a physicist, and then describe how I have attempted to apply these characteristics to various policy issues for over more than a half-century.

Being a physicist is an enjoyable way to live.  It provides chances for stimulating involvement with bright people working on projects useful to society. Studying physics develops belief in the value of three relevant characteristics: honesty, perseverance, and objectivity.


My mother, a registered nurse, taught me that honesty is always the best way to deal with people and issues [1]. Michael Bishop, a Nobel laureate for Medicine, provided a clear description of the role of honesty in science. In speaking to a group of high school students, Bishop said “Scientists depend upon the truthfulness of their colleagues; each of us builds our discoveries on the work of others; if that work is false, our constructions fall like a house of cards and we must start all over again.  The great success of science in our time is based on honesty… . [2] ” Certainly, as Bishop noted, we have to rely on the honesty of other scientists in their reporting of results. When cases of dishonesty surface, such as noted in  Frances Houle’s APS Ethics Task Force report,  harm is done to the culture of science, to the public’s belief in science, and, of course, to the individuals involved [3].

There are times when being honest can cause friction.  The increasingly heated words about global warming demonstrate the intense feelings on all sides of the dispute. I have friends on both sides of the debate and know they are honest in their beliefs. Anyone participating in public policy will at times be under pressure to change a position to accommodate a more senior person. My advice is that, if you are sure of your position, do not cave to that pressure.


Ted Williams, a famous American baseball player, said: “Ballplayers are not born great….and luck isn’t a big factor. No one has come up with a substitute for hard work.” Similarly, most research does not produce immediate results.  My experience is with theory.  An idea can provide a beginning path, but to complete the project usually requires months or years of what I could call “enlightened” progress, but what would more accurately be described as dogged perseverance. But perseverance alone is not enough. Physicist Dale Corson, my undergraduate thesis advisor, admonished me when I told him how hard I had worked on my (unsuccessful) project. He said that in the world, rewards come from achievement, not effort. Effectiveness requires both.

One example:  When I was an office director in Systems Analysis in the Defense Department, I and my staff examined the possible conflict in Europe between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.  It was widely accepted that, in such a case, NATO would be run over by the Soviet might. I had developed a good working relationship with the chief analyst in the CIA’s Soviet branch and talked weekly with him.  From these conversations, I learned of the many weaknesses in the Soviet forces. These weaknesses became apparent when the Soviet Union collapsed. My staff and I used that information to analyze a potential non-nuclear conflict, and we concluded that NATO would win. I presented this conclusion to the Secretary of Defense. He disagreed - strongly. I then presented it to senior military officers. After review, they agreed. On this, the Secretary accepted the analysis and took it to NATO. When the Soviet Union collapsed, conditions of the Soviet forces and the attitudes in the Warsaw Pact countries showed the correctness of the CIA analysis.


The world often does not behave the way we wish it would. Recall Edward Teller, quoting Niels Bohr:  “An expert is one who through personal experience has found out all of the mistakes one can make in a narrow field.” Objectivity is what enables one to see beyond wishes and base actions on reality, uncomfortable as that may be. As an example, the recent Fukushima tragedy in Japan wherein a large six-reactor power station has been destroyed challenges the positive descriptions of the Japanese reactor industry and the regulatory body. Objectivity is necessary – hope is not enough.

Over my career, I have been involved with a number of policy issues, including energy studies, nuclear power, nuclear weapons, and health and safety. Many of these involvements have been as a member of or chair of a committee of the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academies.

As a developed industrial country, the United States is heavily dependent on the availability of energy supplies. As the consumer of vast amounts of energy, the United States must be concerned about how to maintain the supply and to minimize environmental damage. For decades a controversial part of the energy portfolio has been nuclear power. Until joining the Carter White House, my involvement with nuclear power had been a course taken as an undergraduate engineering student. As the only staff member with a technical background in the group developing the Carter energy plan, I rapidly became immersed in issues relating to the growth of nuclear power (called by Carter in his presidential campaign the option of last resort), the breeder reactor program, reprocessing and non-proliferation. In these discussions the objective, analytic approach of a physicist enabled me to avoid the heat and instead shine some light on the issues. This eventually led me to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I became a member a few months before the Three Mile Island accident. Practicing honesty and objectivity were crucial in the years following the accident when meeting with large groups of citizens in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania area, in talking with press and media reporters, and in Commission meetings. A valuable lesson from such interactions is that communication to be effective must be two-way.  Listening is as important as telling. When meeting with those who may not have your technical background, it is a serious failing to dismiss their statements. Their insights may be based on understanding local conditions and values that you may not know or have.  Risk communication should not be one-way. Also at times we tend to talk down to the public. One of my students (Lisa Jaworski) commented: “In some sense, scientists have been expecting the public to climb up the ladder of understanding, while refusing to climb down a few rungs.”

Recently, as nuclear power has been resuscitated, although is still weak, I have had many opportunities to endorse or criticize positions taken by advocates and opponents. Again, the characteristics of a physicist are important: be honest, be analytical, and be objective. Of course, this approach seldom satisfies either group. When I was on the Commission and applied these characteristics, the president of a nuclear power association labeled me as “wishy-washy” because he never knew in advance what my position would be.  I prefer the comment by a senior Commission lawyer as I discussed with him a contentious issue. He expressed that, unlike the other commissioners, I did not start with a predetermined position. With surprise, he said: “You’re trying to see what is right!”

Do not succumb to the habit of letting an assistant or a staff member tell you what is important in a document without reading it first.  Getting someone else’s opinion is valuable, but I found that the best preparation for a meeting was to read the documents that would be discussed. In all my positions, when faced with a complex problem I tried to read all that was available on the issue and then work on the analysis. This is not always the practice in DC, where many problems are immediately decided on desired outcomes or on predetermined policy and like-minded supporters are sought. A good physicist will not follow that path.

In the months before the accident in Japan, many advocates of more nuclear power enthusiastically claimed a renaissance was occurring. European governments were expressing interest in postponing previously planned shutdown of operating reactors. Exaggerated claims were not uncommon, particularly in estimates of the costs of new reactors. There was some opposition but the voices were muted or shouted down. All this changed within days, even hours, of the TEPCO accident.  European government leaders scrambled to express positions against nuclear power and opponents surfaced worldwide. Proponents were forced to argue that other operating reactors were safe. But advocacy for new reactors sank. Situations such as these provide the challenges and opportunities for scientists to provide objective analysis.

There are vital roles for scientists in public policy, and we must not be reluctant to become involved. Given my early involvement with nuclear weapons at the Air Force Special Weapons Center in Albuquerque, when opportunities came up in DOE, University of California laboratory oversight panels, or the National Academies, I volunteered to work on such issues as the safety of the weapons facilities, the quality of the work at the national laboratories, the credibility of the “bunker-buster” nuclear weapon, and the methodology for examining the health of the nuclear stockpile. I was privileged to become a member of CISAC, the National Academies standing Committee on International Security and Arms Control. This led to discussions in India, China, and Russia and studies jointly with our Russian colleagues on non-proliferation.

To close, I would like to quote Roland Schenkel, the former Director-General of the European Commission Joint Research Center, who last year wrote: “There are policy-makers who bury their heads in the sand when faced with compelling scientific evidence for unpopular policy changes, believing all too easily that science is an a-la-carte menu. … Feeding science advice into policy-making will be challenging. But what is important is that we defend and assert the inherent integrity of science, demonstrate openness, speak in terms the public can understand and show that we take our duty to society seriously. If we strive to achieve this, then evidence-based policy may just win over policy-based evidence.”

Physicists must meet that challenge.


[1] J. F. Ahearne, “Honesty,” American Scientist 99(2), 120-122 (2011).
[2] Michael Bishop: “Science and Human Values,” commencement address, Redwood High School, Larkspur, CA, 15 June 1990.
[3] “Report of Ethics Task Force to APS Council”, F. Houle, et. al., 2 November 2003. See also “Ethics and the Welfare of the Physics Profession”, Kate Kirby and Frances A. Houle, Physics Today, November 2004, pp. 42-46.
[4] “The Challenge of Feeding Scientific Advice into Policy-Making,” Science 330 (6012), 1749-1751 (24 December 2010).

John F. Ahearne
Chapel Hill, NC

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.