Kurt Gottfried Wins AAAS Scientific Freedom, Responsibility Award

Kurt Gottfried co-founded the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1969, and currently serves as a professor emeritus of physics at Cornell University. | Cornell University

Kurt Gottfried, a recognized leader in the scientific community on missile defense and nuclear terrorism, has been awarded the 2016 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Gottfried, currently a professor emeritus of physics at Cornell University, was honored by AAAS “for his long and distinguished career as a ‘civic scientist,’ through his advocacy for arms control, human rights, and integrity in the use of science in public policy making.”

In 1969, Gottfried helped to found the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), acting on his concerns about the militarization of scientific research and the Vietnam War. He was among the first to publicly raise concerns about missile defense strategies, AAAS noted, developing a draft treaty to ban space weapons and presenting it to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The UCS grew to include concerned citizens, as well as scientists, and expanded its work to address environmental issues. The organization began a petition to urge government support of the Kyoto Protocols. Nobel Prize-winning scientist Dr. Harold Varmus has said that the UCS “has set a high standard in fearlessly providing reliable, if often controversial, advice to the public and government.”

Gottfried has also worked as a human rights advocate, traveling to the Soviet Union during the Cold War to meet with dissidents. He served on the executive committee of Scientists for Andrei Sakharov, Yuri Orlov and Natan Sharansky. Gottfried later helped Orlov find employment as a professor at Cornell, after Orlov’s release from prison. Gottfried co-founded American Physical Society’s Committee on International Freedom of Scientists, and served as its first chair.

Gottfried was also dedicated to alerting the public when the government distorted science for political goals. AAAS noted that while he understood that scientific information is seldom the only consideration in government decision-making, he spoke out when those decisions were not scientifically sound. He recruited 62 preeminent scientists to help draft and release a statement titled “Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policy Making” in February 2004. The document charged President George W. Bush’s administration with “[manipulating] the process through which science enters into its decisions.”

One of the signatories of that statement was Neal Lane, Senior Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, who nominated Gottfried for the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award. Lane previously served as assistant to the president for science and technology during the Clinton administration, and director of the National Science Foundation.

In his nomination letter, Lane described Gottfried is “richly deserving of this prestigious award,” and wrote that he “has encouraged fellow scientists to become involved in public policy, speak out on issues at the interface of science, technology and society, and hold governments accountable.”

Lane concluded his letter by writing that Gottfried “is an icon for what many of us have come to call the ‘civic scientist.’”

Gottfried completed his undergraduate degree in Engineering Physics at McGill University in Montreal, QBC, Canada in 1951, and his Ph.D. in theoretical physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955. He has served as a physics professor at Cornell University since 1964. AAAS also noted that Gottfried has served on the senior staff of the European Center for Nuclear Research.

The AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award was established in 1980. The award honors scientists, engineers or their organizations whose exemplary actions have served to foster scientific freedom and responsibility. Such achievements can include acting to protect the public's health, safety or welfare; focusing public attention on important issues related to scientific research, education, and public policy by their responsible participation in public debates; or establishing important new precedents in carrying out the social responsibilities or in defending the professional freedom of scientists and engineers. The award includes a $5,000 prize and a commemorative plaque.

The AAAS Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award will be bestowed upon Gottfried during the 183rd AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston, Mass., February 16-20, 2017. The AAAS Awards Ceremony and Reception will be held at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, February 17, in the Republic Ballroom of the Sheraton Boston Hotel.