Needed: A New Social Contract with Science

Article excerpt

We live in a time of great challenges Wand opportunities, one in which scientists are tremendously lucky and privileged to be able to indulge their passions for science and simultaneously provide something useful to society. With this privilege, of course, comes serious responsibility. The rapidly approaching close of a millennium provides an opportune occasion for reflection and evaluation of the extent to which scientists are fulfilling these responsibilities.

Although the scientific enterprise in the U.S. and abroad has been phenomenally successful in producing a wealth of knowledge that, in turn, has brought untold benefits to humanity, the scientific enterprise is not sufficiently forward-looking or fully prepared to face the formidable challenges ahead. Part of scientists' collective responsibility to society should include a community-wide reexamination of their goals and alteration of their course, if appropriate. Despite the plethora of reports examining the future of the scientific enterprise in this country, there is a need for a different perspective on these issues, firmly embedded in the changes occurring in the natural and social worlds.

Science has provided tremendous insights into our bodies, minds, world, galaxy, and universe. Those that have emerged from space, defense, and medical research, among others -- all of which depend on basic research across all disciplines -- have been nothing short of astounding. Space exploration, for example, has brought about not only new understanding of the nature of the cosmos and wonderful products and technologies, but a new sense of the world and of ourselves. Scientific information is exploding on all fronts, and the dizzying array of new knowledge, benefits, economic opportunities, and products ranging from laser surgery to genetic testing, from global positioning systems to prediction of El Nino events, from the discovery of ground-breaking drugs from natural products to innovative information systems, are an obvious boon.

Much of the investment that produced this wealth was a result of strong bipartisan and societal support for science beginning in the 1960s. This was predicated in part upon an unwritten social contract with science -- specifically, the expectation that investment in research would deliver America from the Cold War, allow the U.S. to win the space race, and conquer diseases. The scientific enterprise that has produced this wealth widely is admired and envied. The question is whether this enterprise is prepared for the future. The real challenges have not been appreciated fully or acknowledged properly.

How is the world changing? First and foremost, the explosive growth of the human population lies at the core of the broad array of other occurrences. In 50 years, twice as many people will need to be fed. Although the exact slope of the increase is not known for certain, the direction is clear. The vast majority of this expansion is occurring in developing countries.

As recognized by the 1994 United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the precise slope of the growth curve is not fixed yet. There are options and choices about the trajectory, although time is of the essence. The Cairo conference set as a goal the stabilization of the world's population at 7,270,000,000 by the year 2015 and the avoidance of an explosion to 12,500,000,000 by 2050. The key to achieving these goals is a population policy that goes beyond traditional family planning and empowers women through education, political equity, and better health care. The rationale is simple: Educated and secure women produce fewer children and contribute to economic development. The challenges in actually accomplishing these goals are overwhelming. Encouraging progress is being made, but is dwarfed by the magnitude of the problem, the relatively short time for altering the course, and the unwillingness of most countries to fund fully the solutions proposed. …

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