News: News Archives
Princeton President-Emeritus Urges Scientists to Engage in Dialogue, Humility
In the 2006 William D. Carey Lecture at AAAS, Princeton President Emeritus Harold T. Shapiro reminded scientists that their advances sometimes cause deep cultural uneasiness, and urged them to engage in constructive dialogue with other sectors of American society.
Science has brought extraordinary benefits and enrichment to society, said Shapiro, an economist, author and expert in bioethics. Still, he added, scientists must remember that humility and a willingness to listen can be crucial to the long-term health of their relationship with the broader society that supports them.
“We need to constantly remind ourselves that although science can be an independent agent of change, for the most part it is tied to the values, laws, incentives and aspirations of the social, cultural, political and economic environment,” he said. “Friends of science need to understand that ultimately scientists and non-scientists alike are part of a common moral community, bound one to another by a shared vision of the kind of society we would like to become…and by the nature of the obligations we have to the interests of others.
“As a result, the scientific community has an enormous stake not simply in the amount of resources made available to them, but in the nature and health of the society we are trying to build together.”
Shapiro delivered his lecture Thursday night in Washington, D.C., speaking to an audience attending the 31st annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy. The late William Carey, for whom the lecture is named, served as executive officer of AAAS from 1975-1987 and had a pivotal role in shaping the environment in which U.S. science and technology grew and prospered. He was the catalyst for the study of research and development in the federal budget and other initiatives which serve as the foundation for many of today’s AAAS programs.
The lectureship recognizes individuals who exemplify Carey’s leadership in articulating public policy issues that arise from the fields of science and technology.
Shapiro served as Princeton’s president from January 1988 to June 2001, and he chaired the National Bioethics Advisory Commission from 1996 to 2001. He previously had served as president of the University of Michigan from 1980 to 1988. He currently serves as chairman of the board for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and as a director of numerous businesses and associations, including the U.S. Olympic Committee and the National Advisory Council for Human Genome Research. [For more biographical information, click here.]
In his address, Shapiro stressed that science is more than the process of discovery and the application of new knowledge. It also is “part of a great humanitarian adventure aimed at the enhancement of the human condition and a better understanding of ourselves and the natural world,” he said.
Its discoveries have improved life and fundamentally changed civilizations, he said, but science must not forget that other individuals and other sectors of the culture are engaged in work that is similarly important.
“Humility remains an important human characteristic even for scientists,” Shapiro said. “Scientists need to recognize, for example, that other areas of human activity also have been critical participants in this vast humanitarian effort, providing quite different but equally imaginative, equally creative and equally valuable contributions to the evolution of human societies. The evolving literary, artistic, political institutions and imaginations have also been central to this humanitarian enterprise, to say nothing of the world’s great religions, whose narratives have done so much to sustain human efforts over such a long period of time.”
During the lecture, Shapiro did not directly address the current conflicts between science and some schools of religious thought, but in comments afterward, he cited stem cell research and cloning as issues where the strain is manifest.
While he was at the National Bioethics Advisory Commission, he said, the commission encountered disagreement from a variety of religious groups. But, he said, efforts were made to open and deepen a dialogue with the groups, both to explain the position of science and to listen to the position of religion and accommodate it where possible. Even if that engagement did not produce agreement between the various sides, he said, it helped to cultivate respect and further communication.
One root of the conflict is that the dramatic changes precipitated by scientific discoveryeconomic, ethical and cultural changesmake many people and groups uneasy.
“The point is,” he said, “that important scientific discoveries often disrupt those critical human narratives that, whatever their shortcomings, make life meaningful and sustain human efforts in the face of the many uncontrollable contingencies that impact the lives of individuals.”
During his address, Shapiro also suggested that scientists be more understanding of the dilemmas confronting policy-makers. Different groups competing in the political and policy spheres have different visions and values; no group or interest holds the moral high ground alone. Compromise is essential, but on some acute disagreements, it proves almost impossible. It falls to public officials to work out the conflict, he said. Ultimately, he said, they have an unenviable job: They must take one side or another while trying to “hold out the possibility of sustaining enough social solidarity to enable initiatives to go forward.”
Edward W. Lempinen
27 April 2006