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Scientists celebrate the past
and prepare for challenging future
After four decades of scholarship and work in both developed and developing nations, Ismail Serageldin can imagine a future of human disaster on an unprecedented scale. Water already is scarce. Wetlands vital to the web of life are being lost to development. The gap between rich and poor is growing into a chasm.
And yet, at a conference celebrating the 30th anniversary of the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows program, the former World Bank vice president made clear that he does not lose hope. We are in an emerging age of science, he said; scientists, engineers and technology experts have the knowledge-and the moral obligation-to address fundamental needs in the most impoverished lands on Earth.
"We're moving to a knowledge-based society where science becomes central," said Serageldin, now director of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. "There is a clear movement from brawn to brains in producing wealth." But unless scientists in the developed world help to seed science and technology in poor countries, he warned, "science will exacerbate the divide between the rich and the poor, providing more for those who have much and nothing for those with nothing."
The keynote speech was an emblem of the concern and cautious optimism that prevailed during the two-day conference at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and it drew a sustained standing ovation from an audience of several hundred scientists, engineers and others. They were brought together 13-14 May to celebrate the growth and long-running success of the Science and Technology Fellows program, but the focus of the event was captured in its title: "Vision 2033: Linking Science and Policy for Tomorrow's World."
The fellows program was founded in 1973, and the anniversary event had been slated for last September until the threat posed by Hurricane Isabel forced a postponement. But the delay did not dampen the celebration of the program's success and influence. At its birth, the program was sponsored by four science and engineering organizations; during the past 30 years, it has been backed by 60 such groups. About 1,600 fellows have gone through the program, some advancing to top government and policy positions. The U.S. Senate passed a resolution last month honoring the fellows program for the "new insights and ideas [and] extensive knowledge" it has brought to federal policy-making.
"We have benefited from the effort to bring science expertise to the policy process," said Carnegie Institution President Richard Meserve, a AAAS board member. "Sound science advice to policymakers is essential if effective policy is to be achieved."
It was a theme common to many of the presentationsand one that resonated through a panel on science, technology and global security, where problem-solving requires pragmatic preparations for worst-possible scenarios.
"It is absolutely critical that the scientific community engage more broadly," said Maureen I. McCarthy, a former AAAS defense policy fellow who now directs the Office of Research and Development in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. "There is nothing more powerful than the intellectual brains of the United States. It is the best deterrence for terrorism…. Innovations in science and technology will deter terrorism and make the world safer."
Other experts expressed their concerns more graphically. "We're heading toward a world where the power to kill everybody could end up in the hands of anybody," said Victor A. Utgoff, deputy director of the Strategy, Forces and Resources Division at the Alexandria, Va.-based Institute for Defense Analysis. "Al-Qaeda is attempting to obtain weapons of mass destruction. It's their holy duty to obtain them."
To forestall disaster, Utgoff said, nations must strike an agreement that creating WMD is illegal and must act decisively against weapons proliferators. And security will demand more effective measures for detecting WMD programs before the weapons can be used.
But Utgoff was skeptical that such collaborations would happen soon. If fact, he offered a grim prediction: "A strong shock will occur in the future to lead to the development of a super surveillance system." Perhaps then, he added, "science and technology will provide the capability to detect reasonably well-hidden weapons of mass destruction programs through the external and internal surveillance of facilities and people."
Even that initiative could be complicated, he said, by the appearance of new types of WMD that are more difficult to detect.
Princeton Professor Frank N. von Hippel, co-director of the Program on Science and Global Security, shared Utgoff's concern with al-Qaeda. But, he warned, the U.S. government must take care to craft defense policies that are efficient and effective.
"The weaponization of space appears to be a priority for some politicians," von Hippel said, noting that more than $100 billion has been spent on the so-called Star Wars missile defense system. "Most independent scientists see such proposals as completely senseless. Attacking another country's satellites can be done cheaper from Earth. For a space program to work, you'd have to launch thousands of weapons to orbit the Earth in order to make it effective.
"Science must be effective. Scientists need to advise policy-makers."
Given the prevailing political climate, that might be difficult, said R. Alta Charo, the associate dean for Research and Faculty Development and a professor of law and medical ethics at the University of Wisconsin. She warned of a conservative movement that "believes there is something unnatural about scientific discovery, that science risks upsetting the natural order."
That may be, said novelist and technology journalist Bruce Sterling, known in some quarters as the "godfather of cyberpunk." But the culture wars are an enduring feature of American culture, he said. "People who don't believe in Darwin today, won't believe 30 years from now."
Sterling, author of Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next 50 Years and a new novel, The Zenith Angle, said it may take some sort of dramatic paradigm-shift to create the enlightenment needed to address the challenges of the future in a humane and effective way.
"It's very encouraging to see people go out and grapple with these things," he said in an interview after the conference. But, he added, scientists lack political clout. "Scientists don't have enough money to buy their own senators," he said.
Rush Holt is an exception. A physicist and former AAAS Science and Technology Fellow, Holt is now in his third term as a Democrat representing a New Jersey district in the U.S. House of Representatives. He, too, seems to yearn for a shift in Washington that would encourage more methodical efforts to study problems and solve them.
"This business, in Washington, inside the beltway, breeds arrogance," Holt said. But, he added, "there is in science an egalitarianism. Scientists have democratized knowledge. If you ask questions so they can be answered verifiably, you can be a scientist. It's a progression toward the truth."
According to Holt, that's what makes the AAAS Science and Technology Fellows program "an antidote to this affliction." The fellows bring a new way of looking at the world, a new and crucial perspective on solving problems. "You fight battles not only for today, but also for tomorrow," he said. "It is a great public service that many of us [in Congress] have come to value."
Edward W. Lempinen
with contribution from Monica Amarelo
1 June 2004