Michael Swann was principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, where he was also a professor of natural history. Swann was a biologist and zoologist whose research addressed cell division and fertilization. At the time of his talk, he was advising the British government on science policy. In 1969, he led the Swann Report on The Flow into Employment of Scientists, Engineers and Technologists, issued by the Swann Working Group on Manpower for Scientific Growth of the Committee on Manpower Resources for Science and Technology. In 1985, he again led a Swann Report titled Education for All, produced by the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Children from Ethnic Minority Groups. Swann also served as Chairman of the Governors of the BBC and was awarded a knighthood and a life peerage.

Swann’s lecture was a part of the series “Freedom and Responsibility in Contemporary Society.” In his lecture, Swann confronted the increasing rejection of science as monster by large swaths of society. From the mid-1960s to 1969, he believed, the public approach to science and technology changed from seeing them as forces for good to feeling uneasy about the role of science in our society. First, he described the most evident sources of this shift: the news forms of war, pollution, environmental degradation, labour alienation, and trivialized standards of life made possible by scientific and technological developments. But these, he believed, were easily countered by considering the good science and technology had brought in food production and medical care. The less conspicuous sources of unease were situations where the scientific technological revolution has done much undisputed good, but generated new dimensions of trouble as a result. For example, Swann argued that science had made democracy more available to wide portions of the population, creating a world in which everyone was politically significant. In turn, however, more people were able to meaningfully object to scientific “progress.” Scientists should not, he believed, abdicate responsibility for the effects of their work, but needed to contribute solutions to the problems it generated. Ultimately, there would be no simple solutions, and he urged the audience to understand that instant utopias are not possible, and a bright future would require hard work over long periods to make things better.

Swann’s lecture was held on November 5, 1969.

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