The Civic Scientist and Science Policy
Although scientist and nonscientist alike can marvel at the power of our knowledge in science and technology, it is the intersection of this knowledge with the goals and needs of society that is our larger responsibility. Understanding this crossroads of knowledge and needs and then acting on behalf of society will present our most challenging task.
In the past few years I have spoken to many groups of my colleague scientists and engineers about a new, additional role that, I believe, we must play in society. I termed this role the "civic scientist," with civic meaning "concerning or affecting the community or the people." In this new civic capacity, scientists and engineers step beyond their campuses, laboratories, and institutes and into the center of their communities to engage in active dialogue with their fellow citizens.
Do I mean that we go out and teach science to shopkeepers, lawyers, consultants, and construction workers? Not entirely. To engage in dialogue is to listen as well as to speak. While there is great need for the public to have a better understanding of science,* and we should promote this in every way possible, there is as great a need for scientists to have a better understanding of the public.
We are all aware that the advancement of civilization has, in many respects, been driven by the scientific and technological research of each succeeding generation. We so frequently hear and use the phrase "science and society" that perhaps it has become a cliché. I think we would agree that this phrase has meant that science has "a relationship with" or "a role in" society. Within this context, the world scientific community has unraveled many of the secrets of nature, and of its many life forms.
We would agree that science is a force absolutely fundamental to our well-being and, in fact, survival. Science and society are interdependent. We are only slowly coming to recognize that science and engineering must be seriously concerned with the many and great unsolved problems of humankind.
I have frequently pointed out that we are able to do increasingly outstanding research at the same time that many societal disparities and problems are also increasing. Although the long-held professional goals of teaching and research are noble and significant, perhaps they are not enough. Nor is it sufficient for those of us who have chosen public service on behalf of science and engineering to simply keep the research enterprise healthy and balanced, as vitally important as that is. A further goal for all of us must be to understand the physical, moral, and social problems that hold our civilization in the grip of numerous contradictions.
For instance, we know that education is a primary catalyst for opening opportunities at all stages of life. The training we achieve as scientists and engineers places us high on the educational ladder in terms of knowledge and skills. We of all people know and appreciate the value of that training. So, we of all communities should concern ourselves with the disparities of educational opportunity in our society.
Although many of us may not think of issues such as this as our responsibility, one of history's most eminent scientists spoke of this very issue decades ago. In l931, before World War II and in the deepest days of economic depression, Einstein admonished the science community in an address at the California Institute of Technology. He said, "Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors, concern for the great unsolved problems of the organization of labor and the distribution of goodsin order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations."
Here we are, 67 years later, finally building consensus for his wisdom. As guidance, Einstein takes us back to our fundamental values and our concern for humanity and its fate. It is, I believe, in those terms that we must consider a new agenda for science and technology in the 21st century.
Let me be more explicit. Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, the era of East-West rivalry has been eclipsed by an emerging era of North-South realities and relationships. President Clinton's recent trip to Africa exemplifies this recognition. This emerging era comes with new challenges, shared international responsibility, and also important opportunity. Much of this opportunity will be powered by the world science, engineering, and technology community.
There is a global imperative to close the widening gap between haves and have-notsnot through handouts or hand-downs but through building knowledge and capacity. Moreover, this must happen in our own nation as well as in poorer nations so that all citizens are able to sustain themselves and their families with dignity and a healthy standard of living.
Although the 130-plus developing countries already account for four-fifths of the world's people, they account for only one-sixth of its economic output. This pervasive condition of poverty has far-reaching implications for all the world's citizens and nations. Poverty degrades the dignity of us all as human beings no matter where it occurs, North, South, East, or West.
And so, we must be mindful to think not only of saving our planet for future generations, which clearly warrants our serious attention, but of saving the planet's current generation. Our reverence for humanity's habitat must include a reverence and compassion for humanity itself. Our only hope of saving either rests in a commitment to save both. Sustainable development must not mean sustaining poverty in those places where it exists, here or abroad.
I return again to the hope and optimism of Einstein. When describing simple rules of guidance, he said, "From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity." Einstein understood that the sheer acceptance of new values does not necessarily promote change. In addition to that articulation, we must be actively civic and civically active in order to move beyond our words and warnings. This is something akin to the expression, "You can't live on rhetoric alone."
The major problems facing the whole global society are human problems. Science and technology will play a vital role. But these problems emerge out of complex patterns of overlapping consequences, and they will require more than technical solutions.
For example, over the last several decades, the investment that industrial nations have made in improved nutrition, medical technologies, and public health have all coalesced to boost life expectancy in Europe and the United States from less than 47 years in 1890 to 75.5 years in 1993. Japan has done even better. More recently, this trend is also emerging in developing countries, as was first reported in the journal Science 2 years ago (Vol. 273, July 5, 1996). This is surely an advance to celebrate for all humanity.
However, as this life-expectancy trend increases, nations will struggle to support their elderly populations, with a decreasing proportion of their populations at wage-earning age. Thus our triumph of better health and longer life will also pose an economic dilemma. But Einstein would tell us there is opportunity here. Our job is to create it.
We cannot deny that there are overlapping consequences of poverty, planetary devastation, illiteracy, aging populations, communicable diseases, mass migrations of immigrants, agricultural output, energy supply, and other issues. Grappling with these issues collectively might seem like a completely unmanageable task, at best. But we cannot make choices among them either. They are all needs on a common tableau and operate in fluctuating balances over time. We can, however, make the same leaps of majestic proportion that created every other milestone of human progress, if we have the collective will to do so.
These leaps often began with a new technical capability, which slowly set in motion a cultural change, a change in attitudes. For example, the Gutenberg movable-type printing press provided the technical capability to broadly diffuse knowledge. Eventually, the cultural change of who could or would be educated began to expand.
The information revolution we are experiencing right now, enabled by the extraordinary advances in computing and communications, promises such a cultural change of yet unknown proportions. But information alone will not solve our problems. We also have to make things.
In that direction, our expanding knowledge has opened our eyes to the power and wonders of the very, very, very small, where each "very" counts as 103. In that realm, Rick Smalley, professor of chemistry at Rice University and the 1996 Nobel Laureate in chemistry, explains a "wet" and a "dry" nano world, a domain where important distances are measured in nanometers (109 meters).
All life forms, which are built up of water-filled cells, comprise the wet side of the nanometer scale. On the dry side we have the potential for, among other things, all manner of electrical devices, including computers with their minute inner workings and the vast outer world they have opened.
In thinking about Dr. Smalley's work in nanotechnology and the problems of providing sufficient clean energy for a planet of 6 billion people, let me quote from a presentation he made in December 1995. He said, "in principle, you could do it with solar energy, but we don't know how to do it yetyou could take each and every photon, every little corpuscle of light that hits the Earth, even on a cloudy day, wherever you put solar collectors, and change it efficiently into some form of stored energyAll this, intrinsically, is going to have to occur on the nanometer scale."
We know that energy, environment, and economics form the triumviral challenge of the coming century; they are inextricably wedded. If we are able to develop such new technical capabilities, they will, by their very nature, create cultural changes in energy use, economic development, and environmental protection. Developing such technical capabilities with their economic potential will require that our researchers continue to push back the frontiers of virtually every field of science and technology.
Envisioning is often an important predecessor to development. Most of us ordinary folks have at one time or another scoffed at the visionaries of this world. (One of them, Congressman George E. Brown, Jr. (DCA), delivered the 1998 Carey Lecture, see chapter 3.) I am always struck by the expression, "it was an idea whose time had come." That's a polite way of telling us that the idea had been proposed long before by some visionary thinker but that culturally and psychologically most people could not internalize its value or concept. We could not envision what the visionaries could see. It takes us a much longer time to see as they see.
As we think about creating a complex global problem-solving agenda, we must first acknowledge that it is surely the greatest challenge the world scientific and engineering community could be asked to undertake. It will engage all fields from physics to psychology, from economics to biology, from electrical engineering to sociology. And in the long run it will require more than science and engineering. Policymakers will be crucial to any and all solutions.
Science and technology and public policy empower each other's goals. In contemporary society, neither could be appropriately effective without being a partner-participant with the other.
Scientists and engineers cannot be expected to solve the vast societal problems from within their own professional community. On the other hand, few, if any, of these problems could be solved without the science community's knowledge and skill base as a foundation. Intelligent public policy helps lead us toward the cultural and institutional change required to meet these needs. Only with a combination of the two can we hope to succeed.
We could, with some legitimacy, declare the task too great, too complex, and thus too impossible. Many of us might be inclined to view these real-world dynamic systems as chaotic to a large power, without any "attractors" (strange or otherwise). There were many who said the same about the concept of the United Nations. But there were some who said this will not be easy, but we cannot risk not trying.
The 21st century presents daunting challenges and extraordinary opportunities. If we accept those challenges and recognize those opportunities we will not only advance the frontiers of science but also address the great unsolved problems of humanity.
In the final analysis, this larger engagement does not mean a focused or fixed research agenda. It does mean openness to new research challenges and unprecedented partnerships among diverse fields and interests. It does mean a commitment to effective communication of knowledge, and connections between discovery and the use of new knowledge in service to society. And it especially means placing a high priority on education and learning for all youngsters wherever they begin their lives.
We can help America, and all nations, not only solve existing problems but also prevent future ones. If we come to this task with passion and commitment, we will also inspire future generations to do the same.
*I use the word "science" to refer to both science and engineering research. From this perspective, science is not so much a collection of traditional disciplines, but rather a way of knowing about nature (including humans and human-made devices), methodologies, and engineered systems.
Neal Lane is assistant to the president for science and technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. He was director of the National Science Foundation at the time of his colloquium presentation. This article is based on remarks delivered at the 23rd Annual AAAS Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy, held April 29May 1, 1998, in Washington, DC.