Back to UNESCO World Science Conference


Forum II

Science in Society : Towards a New Contract

Paul Hoyningen-Huene, Marcel Weber, and Eric Oberheim
Centre for Philosophy and Ethics of Science
University of Hanover, Germany
E-mail: hoyningen@mbox.ww.uni-hannover.de

 

2.1    Public Perception of Science : Between Acceptance and Rejection    backtop_meet.gif (1986 bytes)

The public perception of science is not something stable. It has constantly changed throughout history, and it continues to fluctuate today. It also varies from culture to culture as well as within different sectors of the same culture. But for most of its lifetime, modern science has been seen as an indisputable vehicle for progress. The progress envisioned was of a material as well as of a spiritual and often even of a political nature. Materially, science was able to solve many problems of physical survival. Spiritually, science brought reason into areas where superstition or religious prejudices had dominated. Furthermore, in the political arena, science as an in principle anti-authoritarian and democratic enterprise has gradually transformed institutions and patterns of thinking dating back to the Middle Ages.

In some of the founding documents of modern science dating from the 17th century, science's promise was clearly expressed. Scholarly freedom was granted under the condition that science not interfere with politics or religious teaching. The enlightenment movement in Europe was deeply influenced by modern science and its achievements. The existence of modern science showed that reason can inform practice in unprecedented ways.

Science has fostered a great number of innovations improving human living conditions. By laying the foundations for the production of goods, contributing to public health, providing energy and new information channels, and through a myriad of other innovations, modern science has lived up to many of the expectations connected with it from its beginnings. So far, mainly the industrialised regions of the North have benefited from modern science and technology. A major challenge for the 21st century is to make these benefits more available to people living in less developed countries in order to fight poverty, disease, and environmental degradation.

Within the last few decades, this thoroughly positive assessment of science has been challenged, mainly in the industrialised countries. While there may be some unfounded accusations, a more critical appraisal of science and technology is indeed justified. The overly progressivist view holds that science can only have benign consequences because it is a product of reason. This naive conviction received its first serious blow with the advent of chemical warfare in World War I. However, this did not yet seriously undermine the public perception of science as something essentially and inevitably good. It would take World War II, especially the horror of the atomic bomb, to shake seriously the public belief in science as something intrinsically good. Despite its indubitable essential use of reason, science is not simply good for humankind by its very nature, but it is an extremely powerful instrument that can be directed toward very different purposes. Science and technology are not good in themselves, but they are when used wisely. Given this perspective, the more radical anti-science tendencies in some wealthier countries can be interpreted as an expression of disappointment. But this disappointment is grounded in an overly optimistic view of science in the first place, namely, that science and all of its effects are good by their very nature, which is simply false.

However, the more sober criticisms of science that have surfaced in recent decades should be viewed as being part of a learning process of how to develop and apply science more carefully and more wisely in the future. Such criticism is important in order to pinpoint actual and potential problems and to promote constructive debate among scientists, policy-makers, and the public.

Public surveys conducted in various countries indicate, on average, a considerable degree of public interest in science, as well as a certain amount of appreciation of scientific achievements and their actual and potential contributions toward improving living conditions. However, moderate scepticism as well as outright hostility towards modern science and/or its technological applications have been expressed for quite a number of different reasons by a wide range of groups. Typical sources of discontent with modern science include religious beliefs which may conflict with scientific theories, unwillingness to accept risks associated with new technologies, concerns about human dignity and animal rights, fear that technological change could veer, or has already veered, out of control, and pacifistic repugnance of military-industrial complexes. Others include various kinds of romanticism about nature and pre-industrial forms of life, or the idea that science and its claims to universality are yet another manifestation of Western cultural imperialism.

Some of these sceptical ideas thrive in the institutions of higher learning themselves, whereas others have the character of grass-roots movements or broader socio-political movements. Some reflect real challenges, whereas others may amount to unfounded accusations. In order to separate the two, so as to address the former and dispel the latter, scientists are advised to engage actively in open discourse not only with policy-makers, but also with the public. Furthermore, the social sciences and humanities could contribute to bridging the existing gaps between scientists and the general public.

Recent surveys of public scientific literacy in several major industrial nations have come to a somewhat sobering conclusion: a considerable fraction of the general public lacks knowledge of even some of the simplest scientific facts, such as that the Earth revolves around the sun, or that antibiotics are ineffective against viruses. With some notable exceptions such as belief in the theory of evolution, the average degree of scientific literacy seems largely independent of culture and of a nation's scientific and economic competitiveness. A surprisingly large number of those surveyed reported a very high interest in science, which seems to be somewhat at odds with the low scientific literacy measured by the surveys. Although these studies do not necessarily reflect how much people really care about science, they do show that science still enjoys high social prestige.

It is frequently assumed that a negative attitude towards the sciences must be based on an insufficient level of scientific literacy. However, such a 'deficit model' of the public understanding of science is rejected by most social scientists studying the interaction of science and society. While improving scientific literacy world wide is a desirable goal regardless of the adequacy of the deficit model (see section 1.5), problems at the science-society interface should not simply be attributed to public ignorance.

Parts of the public have the feeling that science and technology are becoming increasingly powerful, and that lay-people have little impact on how this power is used. For some, science has even come to be seen as infringing on democratic rights. Another reason for contemporary dissatisfaction with science reflects impatience. When there is a promise that AIDS will soon be cured, it is natural that people suffering from the condition are angered by delays. But perhaps the main reason for the decline in public confidence in scientists and technical experts and their respective institutions lies in their past failures to anticipate and control possible negative consequences of science and technology. There are a significant number of widely known examples where unexpected effects threatened the environment or public health. Recall, for instance, the careless use of DDT, the series of thalidomide-induced birth defects, the toxic chemical spills from Bhopal or Seveso, or the nuclear reactor incident from Chernobyl. The human tragedy involved in these non-natural disasters provides a ready explanation for the current crisis in confidence: non-specialists simply make a rational decision in revoking their faith in the experts and institutions who either were not aware of the possible hazards or were ignoring them. What has made things worse is the phenomenon known as 'hired brain' experts, who back powerful lobby interests with convoluted technical reports. While it is clear that risks cannot be completely eliminated and that unforeseen events can always occur, it is of utmost importance for the future to improve transparency and risk control. In addition, public consensus on the acceptable levels of risk for different kinds of technology must be established. This is the only way of restoring public confidence.

One proposed approach is known as 'citizen participation' in technology assessment, an idea which goes back to the 1970s (e.g., the public hearings held by the Experimentation Review Board in Cambridge, Massachusetts). By and large, it has been shown since then that well-informed lay people can come to intelligent and responsible conclusions in science and technology policy, for example, in assessing the safety and ethical soundness of genetic engineering techniques. A highly efficient procedure, which has been developed over the last few years, is known as the 'consensus conference', where a group of lay people work closely together with specialists to reach informed conclusions on the safety of specific technological systems, the soundness of the underlying knowledge, or whatever issues that may affect the public. For example, after Denmark, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, a French Conférence des citoyens on genetically modified organisms held in 1998 concluded that more research is necessary in order to assess accurately the ecological safety of releasing genetically modified plants outside of contained facilities. Another possibility are direct plebiscites at the regional or national level. The Swiss electorate, for instance, has recently been called to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment which intended to ban the production, acquisition, and distribution of transgenic animals, and the deliberate release of any genetically engineered organisms. With such democratic procedures, the responsibility for difficult policy decisions can be better distributed. In addition, one of the main causes of public mistrust in science could be eliminated.

2.2   Science for Development   backtop_meet.gif (1986 bytes)

Fundamental research plays a crucial role in the development of the natural sciences and their application (see section 1.2). Education is equally vital and complementary to research (see section 1.5). International co-operation can help reduce the glaring disparities in science and technology that lie at the heart of developmental problems by promoting the exchange of individuals, resources, and ideas (see section 1.4). By now, science and technology has been universally recognised as an important tool which can help solve a myriad of problems including malnutrition, infectious diseases, water-shortage, environmental degradation, and biodiversity depletion. Developing scientific research facilities can also help sustain economic growth and employment, as well as social equity. Science and science education, based on a solid primary education, have also become a cultural necessity for raising awareness of various aspects of the health and prosperity of the population, and for providing the skills for coping with the bewildering advances made possible by science and technology. A viable strategy aimed at addressing this complicated knot of challenges must proceed on various fronts.

First of all, in many countries, the national research potential in science has to be strengthened and the institutional facilities improved. Any sustainable strategy cannot overlook the need for forcefully promoting science education at the primary level. To this end, ICSU recently established the Programme on Capacity Building in Science (PCBS). In addition, emphasis in university education and post-doctoral training have to be placed on the development of low-cost laboratory equipment and practical work manuals, the introduction of recent discoveries and crucial new concepts into course curricula, and the training of laboratory technicians, etc. Training programmes like those offered at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics at Trieste, Italy (co-sponsored by UNESCO) are a very good example of international co-operation, but local and regional institutions should be strengthened or created, taking special care to gear these towards the specific needs and working conditions of the different countries and local regions. International co-operation has to be broadened and strengthened through collaborative actions with intergovernmental bodies like UNESCO and non-governmental organisations like ICSU.

Recent developments in computer and information technology, biotechnology, and energy use are expected to bring about radical changes to peoples' lives. The combined advances in computer technology and microelectronics seem likely to result in a decrease in the number of commercial outlets for products from less industrialised countries because the latter will be less competitive. Automated manufacturing procedures bring the threat of unemployment to countries where there are adequate supplies of labour, but not of capital. Yet these technologies also offer great benefits to those countries capable of exploiting them; for example, in data processing, communications, manufacturing, and quality control. Applied microbiology and biotechnology offer the possibility of producing a great number of substances and compounds essential to human life and prosperity. Improved fermentation processes with higher yields, improved fertilisation techniques, cheap production of biologically produced fuels for cooking and heating, and biotechnological production of foodstuffs all offer distinct benefits, especially to developing countries. Furthermore, biotechnology is particularly important for those regions which are rich in biodiversity. If biological resources are not utilised locally, there is a risk that they will be exploited by foreign-owned or multinational corporations which may not sufficiently compensate the local regions with economic benefits. Renewable forms of energy like sunlight, which are sometimes more effective and accessible than conventional forms, while at the same time environmentally less destructive, are especially attractive options because they promise savings on energy imports. More generally, humankind should be careful not to insist in making the same mistakes that were made by industrialised countries when they opted for unsustainable modes of production and consumption, and science can be a great partner in the effort to correct these mistakes. Although the neglect of sustainability may appear to produce quicker returns in some cases, in the longer run the consequences will be disastrous for everyone. But in some cases, pressing vital needs may require immediate attention at the expense of sustainability. The international community should assist them in compensating the costs of sustainable policies.

The exploitation of scientific knowledge through the production of marketable goods requires an economic and industrial infrastructure, especially skilled labour, production facilities, and capital. These goods are in short supply in non-industrialised countries. In their quest to expand the manufacturing base and with their relative lack of capital for launching new industries, developing countries have to compete with each other when attracting capital through foreign investment. The availability of skilled workers is a major attraction in the competition for such investment. Thus again, education in general, and science education in particular, are of utmost importance for industrial development, as UNESCO has repeatedly emphasised (see section 1.5). In addition, there is a need to build up the infrastructure necessary for development, and for proper governmental policies to back up this process. Countries in Southeast Asia which provided these necessities have registered phenomenal development in recent decades.

One area in which countries should, in their own vital interests, invest in scientific research concerns the causes and consequences of disasters caused by natural phenomena such as floods, earthquakes, El Niño, and tsunamis. The consequences of these natural hazards are often specific to particular regions, depending on topographical features, settlement structure, housing, preventive measures, and the like. Some natural disasters must be confronted by the international community, as they are of global proportions, and UNESCO and ICSU play an active role in addressing them. But the local consequences of natural disasters are still a burden primarily for the respective region, and these regions should be as well-prepared as possible to cope with those consequences. Another research area that has region-specific aspects and is of vital interest to many countries is water research. Knowledge of the availability of freshwater resources and water use technologies are of vital importance, especially in vulnerable environments, for example in arid and semi-arid zones. It is also highly relevant to activities aimed at mitigating desertification and rehabilitating degraded land. Sustainable practices for water resource management have to be found in such environments.

The argument that developing countries should not participate in the international research effort in fundamental science because the latter is irrelevant to their most pressing needs and therefore a bad investment of their resources is fallacious. There is an air of condescension to this view which smacks of cultural colonialism. The developing countries do not want to be reduced to mere spectators in the drama of fundamental science, and for good reasons. Research in fundamental science attracts bright young people and provides them with state-of-the-art scientific knowledge and problem-solving skills which cannot be learned from books alone. Thus, fundamental science is an important source of scientific and technical expertise which is of prime importance for a country's transition from a less developed to a more advanced nation (see section 1.2).

One problem which needs to be addressed is a particular form of international migration. International migration is a complex phenomenon and can have many diverse causes. Historically, many nations have benefited from migration. However, when the migration is of highly educated and skilled people who go from poorer to richer countries, there is a special problem - the so-called 'brain drain'. Normally this phenomenon, when it refers to the migration of scientists, is the result of poor working conditions, lack of resources, scarcity of jobs, unstable institutional and governmental support for science and technology, as well as lack of incentives to scientists and science students, etc. Those countries which have fewer scientists per capita and badly need to increase their numbers, are also just the ones that are 'exporting' them to the richer countries. Brain drain, which so severely affects some of the less developed countries, can only be reversed by changing the above mentioned conditions. Of course, international co-operation may help in counteracting or mitigating the negative effects of such migration.

Countries with fewer scientific resources or less scientific capacity need to be better integrated in the information flow within the scientific community. The increasing cost of journals and books limits the accessibility of scientific information in such countries (see section 1.4). Furthermore, many scientists in less developed countries find it difficult to present their research results in international journals, which are published mainly in Europe and North America. Again, international bodies are needed to alleviate the problem. The exchange of professors and researches on temporary assignment, joint research projects, and multi-media teams electronically linked can help alleviate the problem. UNESCO is actively engaged in strengthening existing networks involved in collecting, storing, retrieving, and disseminating information relating to the sciences, as well as sharing data bases, and publishing directories. A special effort should be made to facilitate access, especially for researchers in developing countries, to scientific information through the development of electronic networks. If these challenges can be met, then science can promote a country's development by helping it achieve economic growth, employment, and social equity, as well as effective protection of the environment and prudent and sustainable use of natural resources.

2.3     Setting Priorities in a New Socio-economic Context   backtop_meet.gif (1986 bytes)

Organising and financing scientific research is a key challenge facing governments all over the pworld. The growth of science has been strained as the rising costs of fundamental scientific research confront limited national budgets. In order to overcome this bottleneck, universities are seeking tighter collaboration with private-sector industry. The number of patents filed by universities and university-industry collaborations has greatly increased over the last few years. Thus, we are witnessing an increasing commercialisation of scientific knowledge. This is at loggerheads with some values associated with science, as outlined below.

Moving science closer to the market does undoubtedly promote more efficient and more effective mechanisms for advancing commercial technologies. Bringing the production of scientific knowledge closer to the market helps put knowledge to practical use. Conversely, coupling research to commercial interests provides powerful incentives for generating new knowledge. But could an increase in private-sector funding offset a decrease in public-sector funding? After all, private companies in major industrialised countries spend considerable portions of their income on research, as do governments, if they find it profitable. The US aerospace industry is an impressive example, as are pharmaceutical companies all around the world. However, only a small fraction of private R&D expenditure goes into research in fundamental science. Most of it concentrates on specific product development with foreseeable profits.

Furthermore, as industry continues to finance an increasing portion of scientific research, the public character of scientific knowledge is under a growing threat. In fact, fundamental scientific research is carried out under the open principle: new knowledge is disclosed and disseminated quickly and completely. Economists explain that this principle of open science provides private incentives to generate public goods. In order for scientific knowledge to be effectively used both in the generation of new knowledge and in its application to problem-solving on a global and local scale, the fruits of fundamental scientific research must not only be accessible, but also widely distributed and quickly disseminated. This is essential both for the development of new knowledge and for the application of existing knowledge to practical problems. But this stands in direct conflict with the current socio-economic trend towards the commercialisation of knowledge. Commercial constraints generate significant restrictions on the disclosure and dissemination of scientific knowledge and may even threaten the autonomy of fundamental science. Market forces generate the need for either the explicit protection of knowledge through patents or for secrecy in order to provide incentives for investing in knowledge production. These tendencies increasingly confront the traditional notion that fundamental discoveries supported by public funds should be designated as public goods.

In this context, it is important to recognise that new information and communication technologies (see section 1.4) may have a paradoxical effect on unrestricted knowledge distribution. The Internet is widely believed to promote an increase in the free flow of information. While it is indeed a powerful means of knowledge distribution, it may create incentives for companies to withhold information or raise the costs of access to it in order to extract the full value and recognition of a scientific discovery.

Thus, while closer co-operation between science and industry contributes to the public good by promoting increasingly effective mechanisms for technical applications, traditional academic norms, such as the commitment to the free flow of information and the full public disclosure of research results, threaten to deteriorate. This is an important trade-off for society which generates important policy issues: should we halt the contraction of the institutional space of open research? How can we protect the autonomy of science without inhibiting the benefits of closer ties between science and industry? How can fundamental research be managed in a context favouring market orientation?

The commercialisation of scientific knowledge in a policy context which promotes short-term benefits at the cost of long-term projects also threatens fundamental research funding and could inhibit international co-operation on projects which require attention on a global scale. As is well-known, we are living in a world in which the present value of future benefits is largely under-rated. Historically high levels of real rates of interest since the 1990s reflect a social preference for current consumption at the expense of investment in the future. Current corporate trends actually promote short-term thinking which can erode support for a company's fundamental scientific research programme. The emphasis on quick returns has made it difficult for companies to finance long-term investments. As public research projects adapt themselves to commercial needs, publicly funded fundamental research is following suit and priorities are also moving to short-term projects. This reallocation often occurs at the expense of curiosity driven research with no foreseeable results. But such research has led to significant and important break-throughs in the past as illustrated in the introduction. Because the science-society contract has been renegotiated, and the deal is now much tighter for the scientific party, difficult policy issues are now pressing. They often force hard choices on resource allocation - independently of a country's level of industrialisation. Effective strategic planning and priority setting strategies are increasingly necessary in order for the efficient allocation of increasingly limited funds. But the results have not always been successful. For example, global spending on malaria research by both the public and private sectors has sharply declined just as an increasing resistance to existing drugs makes the need for research and development greater than ever. Clearly, greater international coordination will be needed in order to fund increasingly global challenges.

But, cost-benefit analysis cannot provide an adequate basis for decision-making concerning fundamental research funding for two reasons. First, as mentioned earlier, the benefits of fundamental research are often unforeseeable. Second, policy decisions made today could have considerable effects on the welfare of future generations, which are not accounted for in a cost-benefit analysis. In the coming century, we are faced with the pressing need for new approaches which take inter-generation equity into account. Global science policy must address questions such as what kinds of mechanisms can serve the interests of future generations. Another problem concerns how access to public information (such as human genome data) can be maintained. Little consensus has been reached about how best to meet these challenges and others like them. There is a pressing need to develop new approaches.

One possible avenue for generating funding for fundamental scientific research which is often over-looked, and which could perhaps avoid some of the tension generated by commercial interests, is the use of charity organisations. There is some evidence suggesting that charitable motives are a very effective means of raising money for scientific research. For example, in France, the telethon for research on myopathic diseases, which takes place annually, now raises more money than the department of life sciences of the CNRS (Centre national pour la recherche scientifique). Part of the success of such operations can be attributed to the participation of popular public figures such as movie stars and sport heros.

But given the inherent limitations on these various sources of funding (industry, charities), as we face the 21st century, science management and science policy will have to invent and implement new mechanisms for generating an investment in fundamental science and the healthy distribution of scientific knowledge.

2.4    Science: the Gender Issue    backtop_meet.gif (1986 bytes)

Science, by its very essence, is an enterprise which should be neutral with respect to the particulars of those who practise it. The reality is that, on average, women are under-represented in the sciences. The degree of this under-representation varies somewhat from discipline to discipline as well as from country to country. The skew in gender ratio towards males increases as one moves from the undergraduate to the graduate and post-doctoral levels. It is largest in the senior positions. To some extent, in many countries the under-representation of women in the sciences mirrors the general dominance of males in most occupations enjoying a high social prestige. For instance, in many professions outside of science, the percentage of woman decreases as the position increases hierarchically. But in addition, there are specific social and institutional mechanisms responsible for the under-representation of women in science that must be identified and eliminated wherever possible. The basis for this postulate is two-fold. First, this asymmetry violates the now widely accepted principle of gender equality. Second, by not giving equal opportunities to women, science does not make adequate use of its most precious resource, namely, human talent. Women may bring different perspectives into play, observe neglected areas, generate different ideas, place different emphases, make different value judgements, and so on. Science can neglect this variety only to its own disadvantage and to the disadvantage of the global community. Science is dependent on the flow of new ideas. Creativity and the generation of new perspectives is a notoriously scarce resource which can have a notoriously deep impact.

What are the main social causes of gender inequality in science? What are the mechanisms that erode the comparatively high percentage of female undergraduate students as one moves up the ladder to graduate students, junior researchers, and senior researchers? A whole array of factors which inhibit women in their pursuit of a scientific career have been identified by recent social science research.

First, as early as the secondary school level, co-education does not seem to have only beneficial effects in science classes. Typically, male students dominate the class-room leaving little space for different learning and communication patterns practised by some female students. Discouragement and lower self-confidence may result.

Second, false stereotypes about women's purportedly lower abilities to understand or practise science are widespread. They tend to amplify all the adverse factors, and in addition, create the false impression that no discriminatory social factors and circumstances are causally relevant. For instance, lower average grades of female students in high school science find an easy explanation in a supposed asymmetry in the distribution of abilities, but this dubious explanation leaves the relevant questions about social mechanisms unasked.

Third, gender-related cultural values are too often still in place, discouraging young women from pursuing a professional career in science. If the pursuit of a scientific career is seen as 'masculine', then it does not come as a surprise that many women are reluctant to choose science as a profession.

Fourth, recent studies indicate that in many places it is still the case that women need more scientific credentials than their male colleagues to have an equal chance of securing a post or obtaining funding for a research project. In other words, women are still actively discriminated against. Evaluations of scientific research conducted by governments or independent institutes frequently fail to take women into account due to the lack of gender-specific indicators. This causes a lack of transparency and makes it impossible to address these problems systematically and to take appropriate actions to correct the inequalities.

Fifth, there are certain features of the academic career system which make it difficult to harmonise family lives with research requirements. Science is, in many areas, highly competitive. Creative scientific work is almost always done under time pressure because there is always the danger that someone else will be first, and in scientific research and publication 'the winner takes all'. Thus, part-time research which allows for a synchronously balanced time investment in raising children and in doing science is much more the exception than the rule - both for men and for women. But also diachronically, allocation of time between science and family needs meets serious difficulties. Research typically moves so quickly that after even a small interruption, one may not even understand the very questions that are currently being asked. Furthermore, due to a widespread lack of day-care facilities at scientific institutions, the parallel pursuit of science and parenthood meets with serious difficulties.

Lastly, the high relocation rate required of young scientists cannot easily be met by those responsible for young children. Thus, as long as women are more strongly involved in child-raising than men, these factors will strongly hinder women from pursuing a scientific career, and may force especially women into making an inhuman choice between science and parenthood.

Another important issue concerns the marginal role of women in science policy in a wide sense. This is, of course, due to their lower presence in both the scientific and administrative systems. Setting research priorities, allocating grants, evaluating research activities, assessing the safety of technological systems, etc. are activities mostly done by men. Thus, women are not sufficiently involved in decisions which affect them to the same or even to a greater extent than men. By virtue of their different historical, cultural, and social position, and also because of different interests, women often have a different vision of how to put science to use for the benefit of society, e.g., in biotechnology. Again, there are two aspects to this question, the aspect of gender equality, and the loss of talent necessary for future development. In the future, full use must be made of women's competence, experience, and potential.

Finally, further analysis of the different specific effects science and technology have on women and men is necessary, both with respect to its positive and negative consequences. Policy decisions on resource allocation can motivate gender issues. For example, breast cancer and birth-control pills raise issues about gender equality in resource allocation. While this is most obvious in the field of biotechnology, it may be relevant in other fields as well. This holds for more and less industrialised countries alike. It is particularly pressing in regions of the world where women have virtually no influence on policy decisions, and yet bear the main burden in the daily functioning of the community.

Paradoxically, in spite of the existing asymmetry in science with respect to gender, the sciences may increasingly be powerful factors for the advancement of women. In a world which is increasingly becoming knowledge-based, the neglect of a huge source of talent is plainly dysfunctional, even if considerations of fairness were left aside. In addition, with the further dissemination of information technologies, many workplaces will no longer depend on a particular location, thus allowing for new patterns of co-existence between private and professional life.

2.5      A new Social Contract for Science    backtop_meet.gif (1986 bytes)

The idea of a social contract for science is a way of describing the relationship between science and society. To express this relationship in such terms, the mutual benefits must be identified. Over the last few decades, governments have funded universities and other research institutions without providing many directives about how this money should be spent. In return, these institutions delivered exploitable knowledge which benefited society in the form of contributions to economic growth, public health, national prestige, and national security. During the Cold War, this last contribution was seen as especially important, as is reflected by the large portion of the investment in science devoted to military-related research by industrialised countries. For society, science was the only eligible partner for such a contract; no other institution, existing or imagined, had a similar potential for meeting society's needs. The traditional science-society contract was predicated on the assumption that market forces cannot guarantee the optimal allocation of resources to research. Market forces tend to direct the flow of investment to areas where short-term returns on investment through marketable goods are expected (see section 2.3). But the advantages society expected from science were of a different nature. National security and better public health, for example, are not marketable goods.

For a variety of reasons, this traditional contract needs to be replaced by a new one which meets the needs of society in the 21st century. With the end of the Cold War, national security has assumed a lower priority in many countries. The economic context in which science operates has changed and is expected to be different in the future. As outlined in section 2.3, an increasing portion of scientific research will be undertaken by the private sector and by university-industry collaborations. To some extent, this is turning scientific knowledge from a public into a private good. Most importantly, science could help meet some urgent societal needs, including sustainable development and global environmental issues. The urgency of these problems matches that of the national security needs during the Cold War. As in the old contract, science can deliver goods which no other institution can provide.

What are the main features that this new contract should have in order to make the best use of science in the 21st century? First, the new social contract for science should acknowledge that investment in science is, among other things, a matter of intergenerational equity. Just as we now harvest the fruits of scientific advances made by previous generations, future generations, too, will want to stand 'on the shoulders of giants'. The contract should protect the commitment to fundamental science and its associated freedom of research as a benefit to all humankind, present and future.

Second, the contract must also take into consideration that in the 21st century, the boundary between fundamental and applied science will become increasingly blurred in many areas. The reason for this tendency is that increasingly, the discovery and understanding of new phenomena come hand in hand with the applications or developments made possible by them. This trend can already be clearly seen in such areas of research as the human genome, cancer, as well as in biotechnology and nuclear fusion. This development raises a host of challenges, especially concerning the effective distribution of investment and revenue between the private and public sectors.

Third, the new contract should recognise that science can operate most efficiently if important scientific information is allowed to spread rapidly and internationally. At the same time, the contract should concede that the cost of weakening the openness of science may sometimes be compensated by more effective mechanisms for advancing commercial technology. In other words, the possibility of delaying the disclosure of certain kinds of scientific knowledge in order to produce competitive marketable goods provides a commercial incentive for research and development. Thus, mechanisms will have to be established which regulate under which circumstances the non-disclosure of scientific findings is acceptable, especially when these findings substantially profit from publicly funded scientific institutions. Furthermore, the problem of intellectual property rights will have to be discussed anew, given the powerful new means of electronic storage and dissemination of information.

Fourth, due attention must be given to the fact that human civilisation is a major environmental force on our planet. If the current trend continues, the results will be disastrous. The global climate system is likely to be profoundly changed. Rising sea levels and the destruction of the planet's ozone shield add to the severity of the situation. The current practice of using the energy trapped in fossil fuels is not sustainable at the present rate. While carbon dioxide emissions could immediately be reduced through energy conservation, 'cleaner' forms of energy would be invaluable. Science has already made the use of new forms of energy possible, such as photoelectric or nuclear energy. Although the latter is controversial, the examples provide reasons to believe that further progress can and will be made in energy technology. Another related challenge that the international community faces is the depletion of biodiversity on a global scale due to habitat fragmentation and destruction. Science should also provide more effective advice on conservation policy. New means for utilising biological resources could be developed which would create powerful incentives for their conservation.

Fifth, in order to confront these global challenges, the contract should promote stronger interaction between scientific disciplines, and interdisciplinary co-operation which includes the social and human sciences. This holds especially for the articulation of relevant research questions: approaches that neglect the human dimension of a complex problem tend to produce answers that are irrelevant for its solution. Scientists will have to improve their skills for carrying out problem-oriented, instead of discipline-oriented, research. This point also reiterates the blurring between fundamental and applied research (see above, number 2). Governmental, intergovernmental, and non-governmental agencies will have to co-operate at a higher intensity then hitherto practised, especially on global and long-term projects. In order to confront many of the most pressing challenges, new international research networks will have to be created and existing ones will have to be strengthened.

Sixth, the contract should contain a strong commitment to increasing the representation of women at all levels of the scientific community. The mechanisms discouraging young women from pursuing a scientific career and discriminatory practices in scientific institutions need to be identified and eliminated. Statistical censuses which take into account gender as a relevant parameter are urgently required in order to monitor attempts at increasing the representation of women at all levels. Furthermore, decision-making in science and technology policy, which frequently affect women and men differently, must involve more women than is presently the case.

Seventh, the contract should recognise that scientists have a special responsibility. In the traditional contract, the scientist's responsibility almost exclusively concerned the scientific quality of their work. In return for public funds, science had to deliver reliable knowledge, irrespective of its potential use. The latter belonged to the responsibility of those applying this knowledge to practical ends.   Science was viewed as being 'value-free', that is, disconnected from evaluations of its applications. In the new contract, scientists are committed to an even stronger form of responsibility. It should be noted at the outset, however, that it is very difficult to determine where the scientist's responsibility ends. Due to the moral issues that sometimes arise directly from their research, scientific responsibility now includes a new ethical dimension. It is part of a scientist’s responsibility to keep the public well-informed, both about potential advances, imminent risks, long term effects, and potential dangers of their work. As initially only the scientists may be aware of these various aspects, they should exercise good judgement, wisdom, and humility. They should refrain from the arrogant assumption that their scientific competence extends to issues involving social norms and values. They should be committed to the peaceful, productive use of scientific knowledge. Scientists should not be the sole arbiters of the value of their work and its consequences for society. The ethical issues which science and technology generate should not be decided by market forces either: they should be decided by informed citizen participation, based upon the best available knowledge.

Eighth, it is a vital part of this responsibility that scientists communicate their knowledge to the public in order to increase the public understanding of science, to inform policy decisions, and to make new findings accessible to those who might need them. More efficient bridges need to be built between policy, management, and science, as well as between the public and private sectors. A concomitant requirement exists for the training of interdisciplinary scientists who have special competence in working at the policy-science, management-science, and public-science interfaces. These will be needed to improve risk-benefit assessments, health and safety standards, efficient allocation of resources, and for targeting potentially fruitful local investment opportunities. These goals would be helped by appropriate university curricula and by a more flexible reward system for professional scientists.

Ninth, the contract should acknowledge the need to bridge the widening knowledge gap in order to promote socio-economic development in less developed countries by strengthening their scientific research and teaching capacities. Strengthening the research capacities must include a science policy that is adapted to the respective local situation. For example, science policy models that are effective in a highly industrialised country may be completey inadequate in a less industrialised one. Strengthening the teaching capacities includes improving basic science education at the primary level, as well as in higher-education. Science education should also be recognized as a useful resource outside of the laboratory, and increasing scientific literacy is necessary to optimise informed public policies. The main goal must be to distribute the technological benefits of science more equally around the world.

Finally, the new social contract for science should commit the scientific community to addressing the most urgent needs of society in proportion to their importance. As the development of the atomic bomb demonstrates, scientists can respond to urgent societal needs quickly. One of the most urgent needs in the 21st century will consist in the development of clean technology and the sustainable use and management of natural resources, in order to improve the living conditions prevailing in most countries around the world. Scientific knowledge should play a greater role in addressing some of the most pressing global challenges such as poverty, environment, health, and food and water security. To meet these challenges, scientific research will be needed more than ever. Another continuing challenge for scientists must be the battle against infectious diseases, such as malaria and AIDS.

In conclusion, the new contract should promote political, economic, and social co-operation in an effort to direct scientific knowledge and technologies toward the benefit of humankind. A firm commitment to scientific research and education by all nations, predicated on the new social contract for science outlined above, will be a necessary prerequisite for achieving real human and social development in the 21st century. It will promote human rights and the dignity of human beings. It will bring together skilled and dedicated people, and represent humanity in all of its diversity. It will promote the creative exchange of ideas toward a more peaceful world. It will be a continuing project drawing from across the globe working towards our common future.

Back to UNESCO Home PageBack to Science Sector Home PageBack to WCS Home Page