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The Role of Science and Technology in Society and Governance

Toward a New Contract between
Science and Society
Kananaskis Village, Alberta (Canada), 1-3 November 1998

Executive Summary
of the Report of the North American Meeting
held in advance of  the World Conference on Science

Contents
Introduction
Science in Transition
Communication and Education
North-South Issues
Economics versus Sustainable Development
Science Policy and Ethics
Integrating Issues - Science and Society
Contacts

 Introduction    Back to top

Representatives from Mexico, the USA and Canada met in Alberta, Canada, to examine the impact of scientific change on society and its governance. Preparing for the 1999 World Conference on Science, the group looked at many aspects of the links between science and society — strengths, weaknesses, benefits, pitfalls and possible future directions. The full report and its appendices summarizes the group’s reflections and is addressed to the World Conference on Science.

Brief presentations on four selected topics where the applications of science affect virtually everyone — agriculture and food production, genetic research in medicine, global change, and energy — helped to ground the discussion in real issues. By intention, many points raised cut across the specific introductory topics. The report groups the resulting discussion under six broad themes: science in transition; communication and education; North-South issues; economics versus sustainable development; science policy and ethics; and integrating issues.

The meeting was not intended to define an official North American position; rather, participants were invited in their capacity as professional scientists, to present their personal perspectives on the changing role of science in society and governance in an open forum. From this frank and penetrating exchange, a number of general observations and conclusions emerged that are relevant to the concept and agenda of the World Science Conference. These are accompanied by suggestions for action recommended by some or several participants.

Science in Transition    Back to top

In the past, our scientific methods and institutions have tended to emphasize the study of individual natural processes rather than systems, analysis more than synthesis, and understanding nature more than predicting its behaviour. And in many instances, science has focussed on short-term, small-scale problems, often in monodisciplinary mode, rather than on long-term, large-scale or integrated problems. While these approaches and perspectives have built up a considerable base of knowledge and led to a vast portfolio of useful technologies, especially in the 20th century, many of the problems now facing humankind can be solved only if we approach science more holistically. Greater effort is needed to understand integrated natural systems on multiple time and space scales.

Scientific findings must also be applied at the right scales. The impact of technological interventions on individual people, communities and the environment must also be carefully considered. To do this, science needs to become more multidisciplinary and its practitioners should continue to promote cooperation and integration between the social and natural sciences. A holistic approach also demands that science draw on the contributions of the humanities (such as history and philosophy), local knowledge systems, aboriginal wisdom, and the wide variety of cultural values.

The influence of science on people’s lives is growing. While recent benefits to humanity are unparalleled in the history of the human species, in some instances the impact has been harmful or the long-term effects give causes for serious concerns. A considerable measure of public mistrust of science and fear of technology exists today. In part, this stems from the belief by some individuals and communities that they will be the ones to suffer the indirect negative consequences of technical innovations introduced to benefit only a privileged minority. The power of science to bring about change places a duty on scientists to proceed with great caution both in what they do and what they say. Scientists should reflect on the social consequences of the technological applications or dissemination of partial information of their work and explain to the public and policy makers alike the degree of scientific uncertainty or incompleteness in their findings. At the same time, though, they should not hesitate to fully exploit the predictive power of science, duly qualified, to help people cope with environmental change, especially in cases of direct threats like natural disasters or water shortages.

The current trend toward privatization in many countries is influencing the focus and practice of science. While in some instances the net result may be to increase research capacity and knowledge in selected areas, there is major concern that the trend may be undermining public-sector science, especially fundamental research and efforts to solve socially important problems of no interest to commercial enterprises. Patent protection of private intellectual property, for example, makes the job of public research more difficult. There is also concern over the social implications of private ownership and control of technology, and its effect on broad public scientific literacy, and on options for public choice.

Another major trend shaping science is globalization. The end of the Cold War, growing technology demand from emerging economies, world recognition of the interconnectedness of the planet’s biophysical systems and improved communications, especially via the Internet -- all these forces are boosting cross-border scientific cooperation and information exchange between individual researchers, institutions and governments. However, much of the expansion is occurring in just a handful of scientifically advanced countries. For science to be truly global, more effort is needed to ensure all countries, rich and poor, and a wide range of world cultures are included in collaborative research and technology transfer. This is especially important in areas like global climate change which will affect, sooner or later, all human beings. With the right policies in place, joint scientific work in critical areas such as the Arctic, for example, could serve as a model for other types of global cooperation.

A major challenge for global science is to find institutional arrangements conducive to success. The proliferation of international networks and programs, the so-called "acronym jungle", reflects a rather ad hoc approach, necessitated in part by the narrowness of purposes of established scientific institutions and the lack of strategic, integrated support by national governments in areas like global change or international aid. What is needed is the formation of true international partnerships that allow scientists in different disciplines and countries to fully support each other’s aims and share resources and management duties to mutual advantage.

Recommendations
Scientists and scientific institutions should    Back to top

  • promote multidisciplinary approaches to research, encourage cooperation between the social and natural sciences, and draw lessons from the humanities, local knowledge systems and aboriginal wisdom;

  • encourage a holistic approach to problem solving that takes into account a realistic range of socioeconomic conditions and effects, as well as multiple time and space scales, where appropriate;

  • carefully explain the implications and the inherent limitations of their research findings to the public;

  • fully exploit the predictive power of science to serve social needs with candid awareness of the limitations of scientific predictions;

  • promote the inclusion of scientists from resource-poor countries in international cooperative projects and maximize their access to information and technology;

  • encourage the creation of science-coordination mechanisms at the highest level of the United Nations, fully involving the governments of all countries, as a way to promote integrated responses to global problems.

Communication and Education    Back to top

Within the general public, there is certain measure of mistrust and even fear of science and technology (S&T). Some is based on public experience, but much is the consequence of a significant communications gap between scientists and society. Many reasons are advanced for these attitudes: public ignorance or misunderstanding of science, inaccurate or biased media coverage, uneven distribution of the costs and benefits of science among different sub-groups in society, lack of public control over the applications of S&T, and the inability of some scientists to communicate ideas in plain language. The issue of nuclear waste disposal is one example of how the gap between scientific findings (which, in this case, suggest that safe disposal technologies exist that are at least as safe as other industrial risks accepted by society) and public opinion and behaviour (continuing opposition to the use of such technologies) may sometimes appear intractable, that is, not amenable to solution simply through improved communication or further technical research.

Good scientific communication via the mass media is especially important in those areas directly and strongly affecting people’s lives — for example, before, during and after natural disasters such as storms, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, as well as in the general area of global change or depletion of natural resources. In communicating their ideas, scientists should make clear the limitations of their predictions and other pronouncements. But they should not shy away from public pronouncements just because their messages contradict public wishes or expectations; indeed, they should be prepared for negative reactions in those instances, and carefully explain the basis for their scientific conclusions or opinions.

Apart from communication by the mass media which is largely unidirectional, communication in the sense of an ongoing dialogue between scientists, the public, and policy-makers is also important. This may take many forms: public policy consultations and review committees, science fairs, open houses, and public information services provided by universities, research institutes and private companies. As the demand for transparency and accountability in science grows, communication of this type — as well as public participation in decision making about the applications of S&T — becomes imperative. Unfortunately, resources for such dialogue are lacking not only among scientific institutions but among those groups in society who have a particular stake in scientific developments and therefore something to gain through contact with scientists. Increasing privitization of scientific activity also discourages open communication of scientific findings and uncertainties.

Science education, particularly training in multidisciplinary and team approaches to research, is also in need of reinforcement. Many science education programs still focus on individual student assignments and individual evaluation, whereas the trend in both the public and private sector is toward team work, and the needs of society are increasingly met by the concerted efforts of many areas of investigation. Science, if it is to appeal strongly to youth, also needs to be demystified by educators — that is, presented in an attractive, stimulating fashion, with the abstractions of theory strongly linked to everyday life.

Furthermore, students need to be more fully involved in public discussion of science and its applications. Not only are they the ones who will be most affected by the current direction of science, they are also the scientists and policy makers of tomorrow.

Recommendations    Back to top

  • To improve the quality of science journalism, the mass media should engage more journalists with scientific training. At the same time, the mass media and specialized educators should be enlisted to help train scientists or their spokespersons in the fundamentals of public communication and to familiarize them with the expectations and operating parameters of the mass media.

  • The concept of scientific clearing houses — services to help journalists interpret scientific data, decipher technical language, and distinguish scientifically credible claims from unsubstantiated ones — should be promoted. UNESCO national commissions should also consider setting up scientific information services aimed at improving the quality and quantity of science stories in the media and ensuring that differing viewpoints are presented.

  • Science community partnerships -- for example, between research institutes, private firms, the media, and governments — are an effective and practical way to share the costs of communicating science to the public. These should be encouraged.

  • Educational authorities should encourage teamwork training and multidisciplinary approaches to science education. They should also attempt to demystify science to make it attractive to a larger proportion of students. University and private-sector experience with team-oriented research should be documented and analyzed with a view to identifying the best current practices in North America.

North-South Issues    Back to top

Science in the developing world differs from that in the industrialized world in three main ways: budgets are much smaller, research agendas are different because the socioeconomic and biophysical problems to be solved are different, and there is a lower level of access to and public understanding of scientific information and technology. The North-South knowledge gap is viewed by some as the most pressing social and economic aspects of modern science.

Many developing countries have well-qualified scientists but often they are few in number and lack the resources and political support needed to solve complex problems or to apply their knowledge to national issues. In Mexico, where agriculture remains an important part of the national economy, scientific work related to food production and food security is complicated by a web of social problems such as rural poverty, social discrimination against peasants, migration to cities because of changes in land use, weak transportation and marketing services, and lack of farmer access to credit. In the area of health, too, the problems of developing countries are much different than those of developed countries. Chagas’ Disease and schistosomiasis, for example, are endemic in many developing nations, yet they receive very little attention by health scientists and pharmaceutical firms in industrialized countries.

While there are number of North-South cooperative programs to support science in developing countries and improve technology transfer, much more should be done. Water management, tropical disease research, and energy-efficiency technology were identified as areas where the current co-operative programs are weak, but in which the industrialized countries can provide valuable assistance to developing countries.

In the case of international research on large-scale problems like global change, most developing countries are unable to contribute to those scientific components requiring sophisticated research facilities and technologies. However, there are other effective but inexpensive ways for them to participate, such as regional monitoring and carrying out studies of local conditions and effects. It was suggested, for example, that Mexico could contribute to research on climate change by carrying out, at very low cost, epidemiological studies of a possible link between urban air quality and recently observed seasonal increases in cardiovascular disease and pregnancy-related hypertension. ICSU has an important role in ensuring that developing countries are involved in global change studies on imaginative but affordable and practical ways.

Another symptom of the North-South science gap is the inequitable distribution of profits generated by new technologies and products based on plant genetic resources obtained from developing countries.

Recommendations    Back to top

  • Efforts should be stepped up to give developing countries better access to scientific expertise, information and technology, especially in the areas of disaster relief, health, energy, and water management. In particular, the scientific and technical know-how of military organizations should be harnessed to monitor and alleviate the effects of disasters around the world.

  • Measures are needed to systematically involve all countries in research on global change. Developing countries’ scientific knowledge of local conditions and effects should be harnessed in the worldwide effort to understand, predict and adapt to global change and the growing understanding of changes in climate, water, and soil incorporated in international assistance programmes.

  • Countries and communities should be fairly compensated for their contribution of plant genetic resources that lead to commercially profitable technologies.

  • As a priority, science should address the basic needs of the sick and disadvantaged in the poorest countries.

Economics versus Sustainable Development    Back to top

Science today seems caught in a cross-fire between two opposing world views. On the one hand, science is a major tool of the ideology currently driving the world economy, namely that of the free market system, continual growth and the pursuit of personal wealth. On the other hand, science is increasingly being called on to produce knowledge and technology that promote environmentally sustainable, people-oriented development and long-term management of resources.

The world economy continues to rely heavily on cheap oil, a non-renewable resource and major contributor of greenhouse gases. Fossil fuels - oil, coal, natural gas - will continue to power world industry for several decades. The fact that they will do so despite the availability of technically feasible alternative "green" energy technologies, brings the dilemma into sharp relief. Examples of the conflict between current economic forces and the need for sustainable development can be found in many other domains as well. The imposition of structural adjustment policies by international financial institutions, for example, has forced some countries to reorient agricultural research and production to focus on cash crops that generate foreign currency rather than food crops for local consumption. In some cases, such policies have put food security and the continued production of the land in jeopardy, created enormous personal hardship for citizens, and led to social unrest.

Free trade arrangements, too, may pose a threat to some of the underlying components of sustainable development, affecting biodiversity, community self-reliance, and local knowledge systems. In some cases, the elimination of trade barriers between countries has led farmers to abandon the cultivation of traditional crop varieties that were well adapted to local conditions and tastes, in favour of imported varieties that may respond better to newly expanded markets.

Deregulation and privatization are two trends aimed at improving commercial competitiveness, and stimulating economic growth. Yet in some sectors such as energy production and food it is becoming clear that these trends cannot be reconciled with the requirement imposed by sustainable development that hidden environmental and social costs of economic production — that is, costs bourne by present or future society but not normally reflected in prices of goods and services like energy, be taken into account.

In the past, developments in the energy field have had more to do with the protection of vested economic interests than with concern for the public good or environmental conservation. The prospect of that approach being perpetuated is a major concern for the future of energy science, since fossil fuels are a finite resource and a major contributor of greenhouse gases, and research or energy alternatives is handicapped.

Recommendations    Back to top

  • Policy makers must accept that, for certain key areas like energy development, decisions must not be based only on political expediency — such as the prospect of short-term economic benefits and job creation. To do so denigrates the role of forward-thinking research and development (R&D) and undermines long-term social development. Rather, what is needed is a vision of the world that looks "seven generations" ahead, in the manner of the holistic philosophies of North American aboriginal people.

  • Public debate on the dangers of "consumptive" lifestyles typical of the industrialized countries, needs to be reactivated. If everyone on the planet lived as many North Americans do, we would need the resources of "seven Planet Earths". As this is clearly impossible, the implications of inevitable major changes soon to come should be openly discussed at all levels of society.

  • Scientists need to cultivate a new vision of science — one that promotes the development of sustainable "closed" systems of production and consumption, which are compatible with the recycling behaviour and equilibrium of natural systems.

  • Agencies that provide research grants should be broader in their terms of reference and more neutral and flexible so that scientists are not continually pushed to find short-term solutions when long-term ones are needed. In some countries, the allocation of research funds is controlled by small powerful groups who engage in favouritism for their own personal gain or prestige. Governments should ensure that systems for evaluating and funding project proposals are fair, objective, and transparent.

Science Policy and Ethics    Back to top

Scientific advances are never, in themselves, a guarantee of social benefit. Technology has to be treated as a servant of society, not a master. Increasing commercial productivity, while at the same time necessary, unemployment and poverty is not a socially acceptable solution. Science must be fully integrated with broad societal needs, but this tenet is not yet fully accepted. One reason for public mistrust of science is that ordinary people feel they will sometimes end up being the ones to suffer the costs of technological innovation. It was suggested repeatedly at the North American meeting that the time has come to introduce an international code of ethical conduct for scientists to ensure that science is directed for the public good.

Scientists in their daily work are sometimes isolated from mainstream society, making it difficult for them to be clearly aware of public needs. Conversely, policy makers, in need of sometimes urgent advice on technical matters, sometimes urgent, may be unaware of the scientific expertise residing under their very noses. Society has much to gain by the proactive involvement of scientists in policy making.

Medical biotechnology is a leading-edge area of science in which the pace of progress is perhaps faster than society’s capacity to deal with the ethical and social implications. Genetic research, while offering major benefits for disease diagnosis and treatment, also poses serious questions about the nature and sanctity of human life and the protection of human rights. The possibility that genetic technology could be commandeered by powerful groups to pursue goals in their own interests but which may be socially destructive or discriminatory is not to be considered lightly. It is an issue of particular importance to disabled persons. Greater dialogue between scientists, policy makers and the public, especially those groups disproportionately affected by technological developments, is clearly needed.

A major concern is that recent advances in health sciences will lead to the "genetification of medicine", that is, a trend toward understanding and explaining human beings and human health largely in terms of genes and their interactions. A worry here is that the role of environmental and social factors will increasingly receive insufficient attention, leading to a one-dimensional view of diseases and disabilities.

A further ethical issue for science is what has been referred to as the "commodification" of basic human needs such as food, shelter, clothing, fuel and health services. In many countries, many of these items have traditionally been supplied through non-monetary social support structures, often family-based. As cash economies and government welfare programmes increasingly treat these necessities of life simply as commodities to be bought and sold, there is a serious risk that technological innovations, stimulated by scientists working within a commercial framework, will be exploited mainly by well-to-do minorities, with little or no benefit to the poor. The potential of science to improve human social conditions in non-material ways needs much more attention.

Recommendations    Back to top

  • The gaining of scientific knowledge must not be assumed to lead automatically to direct commercial policy exploitation of that knowledge. Often the knowledge is of greatest benefit if it increases public understanding and awareness. Scientists cannot always control the application of their findings. However, they have a responsibility to engage in public dialogue about the implications of scientific findings and to help distinguish between socially beneficial and socially harmful applications.

  • Action is needed at the international level to protect the human species from human-induced genetic alteration and to ensure that technological applications in the fields of human genetics are ethically and socially sound. Review committees at the institutional and national levels, such as those that examine and appraise research projects, can help focus attention on key ethical and safety issues. However, stronger and higher-level mechanisms for decision-making and enforcement in this area of science are also needed. UNESCO has an important role to play in this regard.

  • Scientists should be more proactive in policy making. This could be done by promoting, among governments around the world, the concept of "science/policy contracts". These agreements would recognize the value of scientific advice, but also make clear that such advice is but one ingredient in decision-making and not necessarily the overriding one. Such contracts should set clear performance standards by which the inputs of scientists can be evaluated.

  • The world scientific community should consider adopting an international code of ethical conduct for scientists, similar to the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians. This code would apply a similar principle of measurability to scientific behaviour that scientists so cherish in their day-to-day pursuit of knowledge.

  • (In a commentary subsequent to the workshop, one participant suggested that the Engineer’s Pledge, which undoubtedly has influenced the ethical conduct of professional engineers in several countries, could also be a model for principles of conduct of science in general, adapted to express consideration for all of humankind, ecological integrity, and long-term consequences).

Integrating Issues - Science and Society    Back to top

Advances in science and its resulting technologies, such as global communication, satellite images of Earth, together with the popular fascination with dinosaurs etc., have irrevocably expanded the space and time scales with which people at many levels of society now view their world. Science is largely responsible for a growing public awareness that people share the planet with all other living creatures, that the environment which supports all life is subject to change, and that human activities are presently changing this environment and threaten to change it seriously. In the past two centuries, science has been used mainly as a tool for economic expansion and military power for the wealthier segments of the human race. It is now clear that the current consumption of natural resources and increasing stresses on the regional and local environment cannot continue indefinitely without breakdown of the natural support systems that make present civilizations possible. Science, which helped to bring about this situation, now has an over-riding responsibility to help societies make a transition from an obsession with growth to achievement of a dynamically stable and sustainable ecological and economic system. In this transition, an alliance between modern technical science and the holistic wisdom from indigenous societies and philosophers from all cultures can be very important.

In the coming century, the rate of change of natural and human conditions and issues can be expected to continue to accelerate. Scientists have an increasing obligation to become involved with policy-makers and the public in finding and implementing solutions or means of adaptation to issues that are both local and world-wide, such as reconciling the present competitive profit motive with the common good; providing for contributions from and benefits to marginalized elements of society and minority cultures; justifying current expenditures to prevent costs or damages to future generations; rewarding collective rather than individual efforts. The role of science in society and governance has never been more important.

Contacts    Back to top
For further information, contact: annette.roy@canadacouncil.ca

 

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