THE SCIENTIST AS GLOBAL CITIZEN
Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy
World Conference on Science
June 26, 1999
(As Delivered by Bruce Alberts President, National Academy of Sciences)
Neal Lane wanted me to say at the start that it was a great honor for him to be one of the opening speakers at this conference. By bringing together thousands of scientists and policymakers, this meeting provides a compelling demonstration of both the scope and the importance of scientific knowledge. We are all privileged to be at the center of an activity that will have such a profound influence on humanity's future.
And we are fortunate to be working in science and technology during this exciting time of ferment, progress, and change.
Looking to the future, we see that we have a busy agenda ahead of us. We must coordinate research projects that are global in scale. We must choose, from an ever-widening array of possible projects, those that have the greatest potential scientific returns. We must ensure that scientists everywhere on the planet are able to contribute effectively to problems that will require all of the effort we can muster.
The growth of scientific knowledge is certain to be the single most influential force of the next 100 years, as it has been for the past 100 years. We cannot predict how science will continue to change the
world, but it will change it profoundly. We can only lament, as did the American Benjamin Franklin 200 years ago, that we will not be here a century from today to see the wonders that science has wrought.
The implications of science for society go well beyond the results of research. We can learn much about 21st century society by examining the nature of science. We also can predict that the links between science and society will become tighter and more numerous.
One critical aspect of this close relationship between science and society is the increasing role for what Neal Lane has termed "global citizen scientists." Our social institutions have an increasing need for individuals who can stand at the interface between new knowledge on the one hand, and major national and international societal needs on the other hand, and act as a channel to pass information in both directions between them. These individuals have responsibilities that extend both internally to the scientific community and externally to the broader society.
There are two social trends that are generating the need for global citizen scientists. The first trend is the advent of a global, information-based economy, and the second is the growing internationalization of science itself.
For the second half of the 20th century, the industrialized societies have been undergoing a transformation so profound that some have labeled it the third major revolution in human history: after the development of agriculture, and then the industrial revolution. This transformation has many aspects, some of which are scientific, some technological, and some purely cultural. But the driving force behind many of these changes is the transition from societies based on tangible resources to societies based on knowledge.
For the past several centuries, the modern world has been organized around resources, such as land, fossil fuels, heavy industry, or armaments. These resources will remain important in the 21st century, just as the industrial revolution did not diminish the importance of agriculture. But the most valuable resource of the 21st century will not be a tangible object. It will be knowledge – along with the educated and well trained people who can take advantage of that knowledge – in short, people who can think!
Knowledge differs in a fundamental way from conventional resources. Physical resources are inherently limited. And their distribution is a limited-sum game.
In contrast, the distribution of knowledge is an unlimited-sum game. Knowledge can be reproduced at virtually no cost. The pursuit of knowledge is self-catalytic: knowledge generates more knowledge in an exponentially increasing, feedback spiral.
The shift toward a knowledge-based economy has revolutionary implications for national governments. Consider foreign policy. Diplomacy changes in fundamental ways when information from CNN television reaches policymakers and the public in real time, or when industrial competition rivals military competition as a determinant of national power. The foreign affairs agencies and ministries of countries around the world now face the formidable task of reinventing themselves for the information age.
The ground rules for governments as a whole have changed. Nongovernmental organizations now have budgets in the billions of dollars and deliver more official developmental assistance than does the United Nations. They are active partners in international negotiations over such crucial issues as the global environment, the delivery of health care, and debt restructuring.
The fundamental relations among governments are themselves being transformed by the advent of the information age. North-South relations typically have been dominated by considerations of natural resources. In the 21st century, issues affecting the flow of knowledge among industrialized and developing nations will take center stage.
Science has in many ways been the instigator of these changes, yet it, too, is being substantially altered by the growing role of information in modern society.
These trends call for an increased involvement by global citizen-scientists.
In recent years, Neal Lane has become famous among U.S. scientists and engineers for his focus on the need for scientists to use their technical knowledge to help address societal objectives. In their new capacity of "civic scientist," scientists and engineers must step outside of their campuses, laboratories, and institutes to engage in an active dialogue with their fellow citizens. They must learn about the many ways in which technical knowledge is used in the broader society and discuss with their fellow citizens the issues that are critical to the future.
Of course, this does not mean that, researchers should reduce their efforts to identify and probe the seminal scientific and technical questions, wherever they may lead. The history of science demonstrates the enormous benefits that scientific knowledge can deliver to society, very often in completely unanticipated ways. As a global scientific community, we must maintain a strong and balanced research effort to push forward the frontiers of fundamental knowledge wherever we can. Only in that way will we make the great discoveries and advances that enrich our culture, and that will ultimately lead to a healthier and more prosperous life for all inhabitants of our planet.
But science has become so integrated into the rest of society that scientists must also look beyond the intriguing research questions, into questions that examine the ways in which new scientific knowledge may be most effectively used in society.
Engaging in a dialogue with the public involves listening as well as speaking. There is a great need for the public to have a better understanding of science. But there is an equally great need for scientists to have a better understanding of the public.
It is particularly important that this dialogue with scientists extend to policymakers. Scientists traditionally have served as advisors to policymakers, providing input as needed to policy decisions. Now the flow of information in the opposite direction must intensify. Scientists must listen carefully to the needs expressed by policymakers and work creatively and energetically to meet those needs.
When Neal Lane makes this argument to U.S. audiences, the implied context is typically local, regional, and national. He urges scientists and engineers to get involved in societal issues in their communities, in their states, or at the national level.
But the case for the civic scientist applies just as forcefully at the international level.
Of course, science has always been among the most international of human activities. The Russian writer and physician Anton Chekhov made this point when he observed: "There is no national science just as there is no national multiplication table." Similarly, the statutes of the International Council for Science call upon the organization to "observe and actively uphold the principle of the universality of science."
In recent decades, this international character of science has become institutionalized in common practice. The percentage of papers with authors from more than one country has steadily grown. Scientific meetings draw attendees from around the world. The growing sophistication of the scientific communities in many countries has diversified and strengthened our mutual pursuits. This will only continue.
Modern communications have been both a tool and a catalyst in this internationalization of science. The Internet now makes it as easy to communicate with someone on the other side of the world as with someone across the hall. The international scientific community has become what Marshall McLuhan termed a global village. The consequences of this rapid communication and sharing of ideas are not only scientific; they are social and cultural as well.
A second factor contributing to the internationalization of science is the increasing number of fundamental scientific challenges that are either too complex or too resource-intensive for any one nation – or those that are intrinsically global in scope and importance.
There are many such areas of investigation, from the Human Genome Project, to global change research to elementary particle physics. Neal Lane wanted to mention one with which he has had some recent experience. Since 1995 UNESCO has provided critical financial support for the formation and conceptual design of the Pierre Auger project, which consists of a pair of observatories dedicated to determining the origins of the highest-energy cosmic rays that strike the Earth.
These cosmic rays are among of the most mysterious phenomena in nature. An observatory now under construction in Argentina, which is arranged in a grid 10 times the size of Paris, will record the so called air "showers" caused by the entry of these high-energy particles into the atmosphere. A second observatory, to be built at a location yet to be determined, will allow studies of cosmic rays that strike the Northern Hemisphere. To date, this project has involved more than 250 scientists from almost 20 countries. It is an excellent example of the kinds of collaborative efforts that organizations like UNESCO and ICSU can generate.
A third factor behind the internationalization of science is the emergence of issues with dire societal consequences that transcend national boundaries. These include climatic disruption, loss of biodiversity, the degradation of marine environments, the emergence of new infectious diseases, the proliferation of nuclear materials, and international trafficking in narcotics.
Several remarkable statistics help to convey the magnitude of these problems. Between one-third and one-half of the land surface of the Earth has been transformed by human action. More than half
of all the accessible fresh water on the planet is now put to use by humans. Two-thirds of our major marine fisheries are fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted.
The practical importance of these problems does not make the science involved in addressing them less challenging or less intellectually stimulating. On the contrary, these problems with profound societal relevance have become the focal points around which much of today's most exciting research is arrayed – issues such as global climate change, industrial ecology, and the properties of complex computer networks.
We need also to emphasize what I believe is the greatest problem we face – the remaining and, in many cases, the growing inequities within and among nations. This is the point made so well today by both Dr. Vargas and Dr. Swaminathan. Pervasive poverty degrades the dignity of all of us, no matter where it occurs, – North, South, East, or West. There is a global imperative to close the widening gap between the haves and have-nots in the world – not through hand-outs, but through building knowledge, and very importantly the capacity to use it.
The two trends that I have described -- the advent of an information-based economy, and the growing internationalization of science -- reflect and reinforce each other. In turn, these two trends have created new roles and responsibilities for scientists and engineers.
These responsibilities are of two types, which I characterized earlier as looking inward toward the rest of the scientific community and looking outward toward the broader society.
With regard to the first – those directed toward the scientific community – scientists have long appreciated the importance of maintaining strong domestic science and technology bases. Furthermore, they recognize that advances by one research group or in one discipline contribute to the progress of other groups or disciplines, so that strengths in any strengthen the whole enterprise.
With the rapid internationalization of science, the same arguments apply just as forcefully on a global scale. By helping science anywhere, scientists strengthen science everywhere.
This win-win characteristic of modern science is a consequence of the cumulative nature of scientific knowledge. Science has undergone incredible growth over the past half-century. More than 80 percent of all the scientists who have ever lived are alive at this moment. Of all the science ever performed in human history, most has been done by people who are alive right now.
This growth of the scientific community has produced a tremendous quickening of scientific thought. Advances anywhere in the world race along formal and informal lines of communication, speeding the generation of more knowledge. Strengthening the worldwide scientific community is therefore to the advantage of all scientists.
There are many possible ways for scientists to strengthen the international scientific community. For example, the U.S. government manages approximately 33 bilateral science and technology "umbrella agreements" with other nations. Under these umbrella agreements are hundreds of implementing agreements between U.S. technical agencies and their counterparts in those countries. By engaging in collaborative efforts under these agreements, scientists advance their own research programs, while also contributing to the infrastructure of international cooperation.
These international collaborations have many other benefits. For example, they have proven to be an extremely valuable tool for engaging with former Warsaw Pact countries at the end of the Cold War. Based on the success of those agreements, the United States is pursuing similar cooperative efforts with other countries in transition, including Russia and South Africa.
The internal responsibilities toward the scientific community that I have been discussing are important, but the responsibilities of scientists do not stop there.
The major problems facing our global society – such as poverty, environmental degradation, disease, and sustainable energy production – are complex human problems. None of these problems will be solved solely with science and engineering. But none will be solved without science and engineering.
There are many examples of the ways in which scientists and engineers have stepped up and begun to grapple with these questions, and I'll cite just a few. For example, President Clinton's Committee
of Advisors on Science and Technology called by its initials, PCAST – has taken on a number of crucial international issues. In one such recent effort, they looked at energy R&D with particularly high payoffs to future society. As the world moves toward competitive energy markets, it is important for governments to build mechanisms into these markets that can advance public benefits. For example, the PCAST report encouraged increased collaboration with developing countries on technology and environment issues, international demonstration and commercialization activities, and support for equitable access to energy resources.
Neal Lane also wanted to emphasize the good example set by the scientists, engineers, and policymakers who are attending this meeting. We are here to strengthen existing mechanisms of cooperation in science, as well as between scientists and policymakers, and to create new mechanisms that will address both national and international needs. There are few more important tasks in our interconnected world.
The years ahead will see many new and exciting ways in which scientists can contribute to this task.
For one, scientists have an opportunity and a responsibility to become much more engaged in foreign affairs. As I mentioned earlier, traditional diplomacy faces great challenges in adapting to a networked world. By working with or within foreign service agencies, scientists can help them make the transitions needed to deal with our new knowledge-based global system.
Finally, scientists have many new roles to play in education. Fostering a continued, lifelong engagement in science and technology among citizens of all ages is a challenge that both Neal Lane and I are addressing in the U.S. But all countries need to build a cadre of well-trained scientists and engineers who can work at the frontiers of science and its applications. And all countries need to foster public understanding of science and technology so that people support and can take advantage of the products of new knowledge. As with science, itself, excellence in science education should know no national boundaries. There is much here also that we all need to begin to share.
Let me end by admitting that the world today faces great challenges – as severe as any that human beings have ever faced. We scientists could declare the task of solving these problems too great, too complex, and thus impossible. We could then go back to focusing exclusively on our narrow scientific concerns.
But I would draw a parallel with the founding of the United Nations. There were some who said it could not be done and should therefore not be attempted. But there were many more who said, "This will not be easy, but we cannot risk not trying."
It is certain that our responsibilities extend beyond the world of science. We are the ones who will help determine the ways in which new knowledge intersects with societal goals and values. We are the ones who can stand at the crossroads of human knowledge and human needs, and help our world chart the course ahead.
This is a challenging task, but also a necessary and an important one. Science has been a great source for good in our world. It had an important role in my country's own Revolution, through which we won our independence. One of the architects of the United States government, and our third President, was Thomas Jefferson, who – as many of you know – was a practicing scientist.
I believe that people all over the world – not just Americans -- can look up to Jefferson as a model of the civic scientist. Jefferson loved scientific inquiry, and he made it a practice to carry in his pockets some of the scientific tools of his day – thermometer, surveying compass, magnifying glass, even a small globe.
But he coupled his love of science with a passion for freedom and human rights, and it is for these activities that he is famous today. In fact, Jefferson saw a link – not a contradiction – between the two main pursuits of his life. He wrote, "The main object of all science is the freedom and happiness of man." It is our responsibility to continue to strive for Jefferson's noble goal.
Thank you for the privilege of being able to address this great conference.
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