News: News Archives
Facing an "Extreme Future," Nations—and Researchers—Must Collaborate, Experts Say
With the world facing stresses on energy, water, food supplies and social services that seem destined to grow more dire, 21st century science will have to adopt new, more global approaches in organization and funding to provide solutions, experts told an 8 May session of the 33rd annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.
James Canton, chief executive officer of the Institute for Global Futures, predicts the world will face an "extreme future" by 2020, with energy supplies failing to keep pace with the economic growth; developed nations continuing to experience declines in population; 95% of the world's 8 billion people living in developing nations; the rise of 100 megacities with more than 10 million people each; and a wealth gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" that continues to widen.
"We're going to be challenged on food, energy, water and climate change," Canton said during a panel discussion on the world science and technology will face—and help create—in the decades ahead. To address that future, he said, science must help accelerate social innovations and find new ways to manage complexity. He said innovation will continue to be a major driver of U.S. economic growth, with a convergence of scientific research in the fields of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, cognitive science and quantum technologies.
But Canton said the future is not just about American competitiveness. "It's about changing the conversation and narrative to meet grand challenges," he said.
Melinda Kimble, senior vice president of the United Nations Foundation, also described urgent challenges that she said endanger planetary sustainability, including climate change, energy demand, water stress, random urbanization and socioeconomic disparities.
In attacking such problems, she said, "system change is difficult." It will be particularly hard to stabilize global greenhouse gas emissions by 2015, for example. The United States already has surpassed its 1990 levels by about 15%, Kimble said, and China has surpassed its 1990 levels by 45%.
Water also is a tough challenge, given the rapidly declining availability of fresh water in countries with the highest fertility rates, Kimble said "We have no immediate solution to that," she said. Also of major concern, she said, is the rapid loss of species, with a corresponding loss in the potential to use byproducts from plant species to improve human health; and ocean acidification due to the uptake of carbon dioxide emissions from human industrial activity, "a huge problem that we are barely talking about."
Still, all is not bleak. Existing technologies can provide some immediate relief in the area of energy use, Kimble said. She called for more efficient energy use in buildings and transport, wider use of compact fluorescent lights, and use of new, more efficient solar cells and wind turbines. There also are promising technologies on the horizon, including new fuels, new engine designs, and use of carbon capture and storage equipment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at power plants.
But to institute such changes, Kimble said, will require substantial global efforts and a renewed commitment by the United States to treaties and other mechanisms of global governance. She noted that the United States has failed to ratify several important environmental treaties, including the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, the Basel Convention on the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes, and the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions.
As a reservoir of first-rate science and technology, the United States should be at the forefront of efforts to address global environmental challenges, Kimble said. But to meet those challenges, it also will be important to develop new, more nimble policy mechanisms. "We are going to need new institutions, both globally and perhaps nationally, to do this," Kimble said.
Christopher T. Hill
Christopher T. Hill, professor of public policy and technology at George Mason University, agreed on the desirability of global institutions for funding and pursuit of important R&D projects. He mentioned one possibility: a World Science Foundation, which could provide multinational research support to investigators.
"I like the World Science Foundation idea," Kimble said, but added: "I don't know how we get there."
There is no question that there has been a rapid increase in the number of countries and institutions able to develop new technologies, Hill said. "Folks everywhere can do amazing things," he said. But that globalization of science—with the networking and outsourcing that goes with it—has profound implications for U.S. science.
Hill predicts that the United States may become a "post-scientific" society over the next half-century and perhaps faster. "Science still matters in a post-scientific society," Hill said, "but it may not be our science."
In the coming decades, Hill argues, creating wealth and jobs in the United States will depend less on world leadership in basic research in the natural sciences and engineering and more on the ability to structure human work and organizational practices in radical new ways. While science and technology will continue to be important for America's economic future, the nation may rely less on producing new scientific advances at home and more on exploiting science that is developed elsewhere in the world.
A declining interest in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is not unique to the United States, Hill said. Perhaps, he suggested, students are making rational choices about which careers are likely to pay the best in the years ahead.
The science and technology community will have to adapt to new circumstances, Hill said. Research and development activities will become more applied and more focused on problem-solving, he predicts. R&D teams will frequently operate as global teams, organized as cooperatives on a single project, as prime contractors and subcontractors on the model of industrial outsourcing, or "unwittingly as contributors of ideas, data, and findings to teams working everywhere." He also said that a hallmark of good science and engineering will be the ability of teams to work across cultures and with people of diverse backgrounds and interests.
But Hill also had a warning. He predicted that money for R&D as well as for education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is likely to become even more difficult to come by in the United States. "It's not going to get any easier, regardless of the outcome of the November elections," he said. "The pent-up demands from every sector of society that depends on federal funding are so great that I wouldn't be at all surprised to see R&D funding stagnant or even decline over the next several years."
14 May 2008