From screen to sector: four policy conversations reflected in Oppenheimer

21 August 2023

If you’re a movie enthusiast, like me, you probably caught Oppenheimer during its opening week. As the narrative unfolded, popcorn in hand, I was drawn to certain moments. 

Some of these moments made me smile – like the subtle reference to submarine strategy through the “secret laboratory”, which will resonate with fellow thinktankers! But some mirrored key conversations among practitioners of policy research. Conversations that have the capacity to shape the future of the sector. 

I’d like to highlight four of these key conversations and moments here, using them as points of departure for deeper reflection. For those of you who are yet to watch the film, I’ll do my best to steer clear of any spoilers!  (The quotes under each heading are from the film.)

1. Should the path to discovering new knowledge be guided by a moral compass?

“Just because we’re building it doesn’t mean we get to say how it gets used.”

Oppenheimer’s defence for devising the atomic bomb encapsulates a classic research dilemma: intellectual autonomy v ethical responsibility. Artificial intelligence (AI) researchers are referring to this dilemma as their “Oppenheimer moment”, highlighting the relevance of this issue today. 

Researchers often associate their role with intellectual curiosity, leaving the responsibility of using evidence with the decision-makers. Yet, researchers claim credit for positive policy outcomes while distancing themselves from any negative consequences. So, where does the researcher’s responsibility end and the decision-maker’s responsibility begin?

To understand a researcher’s role in the implementation chain, we must navigate the ethical terrain of policy development. Policy researchers operate at the intersection of intellectual inquiry and social concerns. After all, they seek to influence public policy. 

Ruth Levine calls this the “moral core” of evidence-informed policy, where ethical values guide empirical analysis toward social progress. While researchers may not always have a say in how evidence is used, they contribute to the “narratives that support the intervention”.  This makes them “accessories” to policy successes and failures. 

2. Can (and should) researchers forecast the future? 

“We imagine a future, and our imaginings horrify us. They won’t fear it until they understand it. And they won’t understand it until they’ve used it.”

The scientists in the film debate different futures: Will the world end all wars after witnessing the bomb’s devastating effect? Or will it trigger mutual destruction? Could devastation be avoided if people are made aware of what may happen? 

It raises the question, when governments become preoccupied with the issues of yesterday and today, who bears the responsibility for thinking about tomorrow? 

I’ve contemplated this question when looking at my own country. Sri Lanka’s story is a cautionary tale of short-sighted governance. Many worry that it will follow the paths of Lebanon or Argentina. That’s why learning from Gala Díaz Langou, an Argentinian thinktanker, on embracing forward-thinking approaches has been encouraging (see the Democracy 40 project). 

Researchers possess the tools to engage in foresight and futures thinking, with many already pursuing this work. What will set today’s forecasting work apart from the scientists in the film is the emphasis on participatory discussions, inviting people to co-create the future(s) they want to inherit. 

3. Evidence gathering and use are performed on a political stage.

“Survival in Washington is about knowing how to get things done.”

Politics matters. We know this. And we must keep remembering its impact on our work. 

The film unveils the complex web of political ideologies, geopolitics, agendas and bureaucratic processes that shape evidence gathering and use. 

Even scientific innovation is not immune to the contextual pressures of fear, paranoia, repression and competition, which form the backdrop of the film’s story. These pressures influence funding, research priorities, resource allocation, and the pace and openness of evidence generation.  

That’s why mantras like “supply more evidence” or “stick to the science”, which overemphasise technical aspects, present challenges. They overlook the influence of values, trade-offs and ideologies on evidence generation and uptake. Justin Parkhurst’s The Politics of Evidence offers a good starting point in understanding these dynamics. 

The film’s narrative also delves into the researchers’ personal politics, revealing its impact on their advocacy and their communication of science: experts take substantial credibility and security risks when challenging dominant political narratives. They too grapple with struggles, beliefs and fears. 

Daniel Kammen discusses some of these aspects in the context of his resignation letter to former President Trump. The letter served as an act of protest, with the first letter of each paragraph spelling out the word IMPEACH.  

4. Data does not speak for itself: what’s unsaid also matters.   


I didn’t expect Oppenheimer to depict the serious implications of creating the bomb. Despite my disappointment, I wasn’t surprised that it omitted exploitative uranium extraction or the cruelties imposed on the Japanese people. 

As the film’s title suggests, it mainly delivers the story from Oppenheimer’s perspective. We mostly see what he sees. 

This limitation tells us about the reality of data collection. Seeing the story unfold through the subjective lens of the researcher reveals how data hierarchies, gaps, omissions and interpretations complicate our grasp of objective data. These complexities influence which data are considered important and which are missed out. 

Melanie Feinberg’s experiment illustrates this well. When Feinberg tasked her student with designing a schema for a sock, she discovered a paradox: the more objective the student tried to be, the more evident their subjective choices became. 

Feinberg showed how “data is created” through the observer’s lens. Creating it well requires objectivity and subjectivity to be seen as complementary rather than opposing forces. In this context, embracing diverse perspectives, drawing from experiential wisdom and upholding methodological transparency are important.  

Whether you like or dislike the film, Oppenheimer’s potential to stimulate conversations across generations remains undeniable. It’s already gaining traction as one of the best films of the century. 

The significance of the insights that we glean from it and critically engage with will endure in our line of work. 

When you get a chance to watch the film, I’d love to hear about the moments that left an impression on you. Let me know what you think at [email protected].