The Role of Science and Technology in Society and Governance
Toward a New Contract
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 groups 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.
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 peoples 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 planets 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 others aims and share resources and management duties to mutual advantage.
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 peoples 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.
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.
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.
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 societys 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.
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.