As the scientific biopic Oppenheimer draws crowds to theaters, we should not just contemplate how nuclear weapons have reshaped the world, but also take inspiration from its story of scientists courageously engaging directly in politics. Especially when it wasn’t popular.

Handwringing over the proper place of scientists has long preoccupied political observers in the U.S., both inside and outside the scientific community. We need look back no further than the pandemic’s intense debates over vaccines and shutdowns for examples. Speaking outor even helping to craft good public policydoesn’t come naturally to every scientist. 

But the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his peers shows that scientists have a duty to engage with politics and that failing to speak out carries its own consequences.

A recent poll found that over 90 percent of scientists now consider political activism a “sometimes,” “most of the time,” or “always” responsibility. Scientists across the world see the gap between research and policy and recognize the need to undertake the often-uncomfortable duty of fact-checking leaders and informing the public. But there is even more that scientific experts can and should do. What we call science policy entrepreneurship, working with scientific experts and concerned people to craft solutions for lawmakers, offers a crucial way to generate smart policy.

Smart science policy is not just about preventing worst consequences; it also promises better lives. For decades, government leaders weren’t equipped to understand the long-reaching dangers of lead contamination, carbon emissions and wildfire suppression. Thanks to scientists and local advocates, we now know that the 9.2 million lead pipes remaining in the U.S. threaten children, just like we now know human activity drives climate change and “putting it out” is not the only or the best solution to wildfires

Such findings, however, have little impact without political results. Science-driven public policy is a natural extension of research; that’s how many of the signatories of the Szilard petition (atomic scientists’ plea to Harry Truman against the hasty use of the bomb) saw it. That’s how the Federation of Atomic Scientists (the forerunners of the Federation of American Scientists, the organization that I lead) saw it when it published One World Or None, voicing scientists’ concerns (including Oppenheimer’s) about the nuclear age they had helped unleash. That’s how we still see it today. Science policy is where theory and data turn into practice; it is what gives us environmental protections, vaccines and the Internet.

And the prescription for today’s challenges, just as it was in Oppenheimer’s time, is not despairit is new and better public policy. The best public policy is based on evidence rooted in science and scaled for impact with scientists’ help. FAS does its part by publishing policy memos from medical doctors calling for transformation of on-demand oxygen infrastructure, from bioengineers with ideas for research on climate-resilient GMO crops, to microbiologists outlining the need for honeybee-supplement regulation. But scientists, engineers, technologists and experts whom we seek out and who reach out to us are part of a centuries-long tradition of science advocates who see a problem and pose a solution. 

The wonder—and dread—of Oppenheimer’s drive for scientific discovery draws much of the attention around his story, both for the military might it granted to the United States, and the lives shattered by the nuclear bomb. But the period of his life where his security clearance was stripped—because of the communist paranoia of the McCarthy era, Oppenheimer’s opposition to a more powerful hydrogen bomb, and his frosty relationship with President Harry Truman–merits just as much consideration. That turn toward presenting all the evidence, not just the science that furthered U.S. military power, was a turn toward science for a better world. This is at the core of all science advocacy today. 

What good is the research, if not to improve the lives of all on Earth? 

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by theauthor or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.