The capacity of science to advance the lives of people across the globe is under threat in a “post-truth” world in which facts no longer shape public opinions and scientific findings are being devalued, a situation that requires the scientific enterprise to drive global cooperation, collaboration and the continued application of responsible stewardship of science.
Margaret Hamburg, chair of the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, outlined these realities and stressed the need for the scientific community to continue “to advance science, ethically, responsibly, and in constant dialogue with our communities” during a keynote address to the World Science Forum in Budapest, Hungary on Nov. 20-23.
“We find ourselves in a world of growing nationalism, at a time when so many of the problems before us demand global solutions. As a pursuit, science is a global enterprise. Science has never limited itself to national borders … and today, the need for international collaboration is more pronounced than ever. Nonetheless, the scientific community faces disturbing new political pressures that we must work to resist and reverse,” said Hamburg.
Hamburg’s address before the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which helped establish the World Science Forum in collaboration with the United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, AAAS and other groups, opened against a political backdrop that has transferred control of the Academy to a government-controlled body.
The change prompted by Hungary’s controlling nationalist Fidesz party, has drawn opposition from scientists and Academy members led by László Lovász, a highly honored mathematician and the Academy president. “The planned institutional and funding structure runs counter to the European principles of research funding and jeopardizes scientific freedom,” said the Academy in a statement about the now government-controlled body.
The theme of the biennial World Science Forum focused on “science, ethics and responsibility” and many speakers and sessions called on the scientific community to reach a consensus about ethical principles needed to guide research.
The necessity of new ethical rules to guide research was sparked by Chinese scientist He Jiankui’s revelation that he had used gene-editing technology to edit the genomes of two human embryos, the first gene edited babies, opening the door to potential further use of CRISPR-Cas9 technology for germline genome editing that alters hereditary material able to be passed on for generations.
“Without a doubt, the chance to harness advances in science and technology to make a positive difference in the world is compelling and very real,” Hamburg said. “But we must also acknowledge that new discoveries and technology-driven trends are disrupting norms in major ways and raising questions and concerns that must be addressed.”
Hamburg, a physician and scientist, pointed to the incident in her keynote address and noted that she serves on the World Health Organization’s “Expert Advisory Committee on Developing Global Standards for Governance and Oversight of Human Genome editing” to examine, scientific, medical, ethical, social and legal challenges that have arisen alongside technological advances to identify requirements needed to govern technology’s use.
Beyond gene editing tools, computer technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies present just some of the advances that hold both the promise of improving human lives and the challenge that applications such as driverless cars, drones and facial recognition are generating, causing “new resentments and anxieties about appropriate applications of science and technology and how to wield their powers responsibly,” said Hamburg.
“The pace of discovery in theses realms is incredible and the possibilities they could unlock are unfathomable,” noted Hamburg. “But they are raising difficult, sweeping questions about ethics and privacy, the future of work and the workforce, and perhaps what it means to be human,” she said. “As we seek to harness the most value and promise from these innovations, we must also have the foresight to plan for and avoid potentially harmful, unintended consequences.”
For this, Hamburg said, the scientific enterprise, as “force multipliers,” must “harness the best of people. As we navigate uncharted waters, evidence must be our North Star, and integrity, not ideology, must be our driver.”
AAAS also was represented at the Forum by Julia MacKenzie, senior director of International Affairs, who held a topical session examining the human right to science, a freedom that AAAS’ Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program has long worked to expand globally. MacKenzie also held a training exercise for scientists engaged in science diplomacy and William Colglazier, editor-in-chief of Science Diplomacy, and senior AAAS scholar, held a parliamentary session examining two decades of science diplomacy.
“Ethics and scientific responsibility are vast and important topics that are enriched by a diversity of views,” said MacKenzie. “That’s part of what is so important about the Forum — it brings together international experts from a variety of disciplines to discuss complicated issues.”
Hamburg singled out the scientific community’s responsibility to help “identify and define solutions” in urging the global science community to leverage its strength and “bring together people, ideas, and solutions from across real and artificial borders, including scientific disciplines, sectors of society, backgrounds, ideologies, geographies and traditions.”