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  • Science and society: still uncomfortable bedfellows


A new report from the International Council for Science (ICSU) highlights the need to come to terms with the increasing complexity of relations between science, technology and society in an era of globalisation.

Last week, to the surprise of some but the approval of many, the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency and its director-general, the Egyptian diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei. The award recognises the extent to which the responsible application of science and technology in the modern world requires both imagination and vigilance.

The tensions between the potential civilian and military uses of nuclear technology have for many years epitomised this conflict. Indeed, in the decades after the first atomic bomb was dropped, it was that physicists experienced the competing pulls of science and society more acutely than colleagues in other disciplines, and were at the forefront of moves to find an acceptable compromise between scientific, political and ethical pressures.

Since then, much has changed. One key factor has been the growth of molecular biology and its application to genetics, throwing up a wide range of both new medical possibilities and challenging ethical dilemmas. A second, more recently, has been the spread of globalisation, the source of new conflicts over the ownership and control of all forms of scientific knowledge with potential commercial applications.

Given the growing number and complexity of the potential sources of conflict between science and society, it is all the more welcome to see the issue being addressed head-on by the International Council for Science (ICSU). A report* by an independent review panel, due to be discussed at ICSU's 28th General Assembly in Suzhou, China, next week, provides a valuable overview of the range of issues that now fall into this category, as well as of the difficulties in designing suitable mechanisms to handle them.

But whatever these mechanisms are, it is important that they are embedded into the practice of science, and not isolated from it. The working group's report suggests that the next step is to create a science and society committee within ICSU "to review issues arising at the intersection of science, technology and society", and to work with ICSU member organisations and others to address some of the issues that its report raises.

This could be an effective monitoring device for potential abuses, and could certainly provide a useful forum for addressing new challenges as they arise. It would also help focus efforts on curbing the more excessive abuses that occur.

The danger, however, is that it could 'ghettoise' such a discussion, rather than ensuring that it has the maximum possible impact. That is likely to require more radical moves to change important aspects of the way that science is practiced.

Changing relationships

The ICSU report identifies five areas in which, it says, changes have occurred with important implications for the international science community. These are:

  • changes in the mobility and global flows of science and scientists
  • changes in the production of scientific knowledge, including the growth of 'hybrid' public-private sponsorship that raises concerns about the impartiality of science
  • new risks and uncertainties arising from changes in the speed and scale of technological innovation
  • changes in the way that science and technology are governed, particularly as a result of globalisation; and
  • changes in the nature of expertise within civil society on the relationship between science and society.

Two key statements summarise many of the report's conclusions. Firstly, it states "the self-regulation of science no longer seems adequate to handle all of the pressures placed on scientific integrity". This contains the important recognition that society at large has both the right and the responsibility to determine the framework within which scientists work.

Secondly, it concludes that "national structures alone no longer seem sufficient for ensuring scientific freedom and responsibility at the global level". In other words, the changing global dynamics of the science/society relationship requires a changing response appropriate to the scale of the globalisation process.

In the second context, for example, the panel, recommends that ICSU could promote international dialogue on ethical guidelines and best practices governing communication between experts and the public, and both transparency and access in expert advisory panels.

Another key area the report rightly draws attention to are journalistic practices for communicating scientific information and related uncertainties. The report points out, for example, that the Internet has not only brought much of the world closer together, but has also introduced new vulnerabilities,

"The role of the media, including their use of new information and communication technologies, is pervasive, but their impact on social values and cohesion remain poorly understood," it says.  Indeed it points out that ICSU could play a central role in initiating a broad-ranging reflection on the communication of science within society.

Respect for diversity

Many of these recommendations contain important points that identify potential mechanisms for opening up the transparency of decision-making around science, and ensuring that the activities of scientists respect the goals and priorities of the societies that support them.

There is a danger, however, lurking in attempts to place science within a universal code of ethics that is applicable to all individuals in all societies. The universality of science itself — i.e. the validity of scientific findings in all social and cultural settings — makes it tempting to do this. But, given the importance of preserving cultural traditions and identifies, even in a modern science-based society, it would be wrong to make a direct link between the two.

Indeed one can often detect a disconcerting missionary zeal behind the attempts of those who seek to do so. The admission attributed last week to US President George W. Bush that religious ideas had determined his decision to invade Iraq epitomises the dangers of mixing religion and politics. Not necessarily because the decision itself was misguided (although a strong case can be made that it was). Rather because it automatically turns those who hold alternative religious beliefs into political opponents.

The tensions this can create — and the potential danger that it could inflict on science itself — were vividly illustrated by last year's debate in the United Nations on human cloning. Those countries that disapprove of such research, on the grounds that it leads to the destruction of living human embryos, came close to persuading the UN to adopting a global ban on it within all UN member states.

Yet several countries where such religious views about human life are not shared indicated that that they would defy such a ban, in the interests of medical science. A UN ban on human cloning would not only have risked being ignored by scientists in many countries around the world who are already engaged in this research with the full support of their governments, but would also have undermined the role of the United Nations itself as an impartial upholder of all human rights.

The ICSU panel recognises such danger. It acknowledges that ethical concerns about developments in science have gained prominence in many countries, and within international organisations. But it also points out that these concerns have raised questions about ethics "as a possible vehicle for the imposition of dominant values and standards".

The response to this danger does not lie in subjecting the science/society relationship to closer academic scrutiny, or even closer monitoring. Rather, it will depend on society's ability to build genuinely democratic structures — whether at the national, regional or international level — that respect the diversity of individual cultures and value systems.

That respect needs to be embedded in the practice of science at all levels. There are no easy ways of doing so. But the growing power of the Internet provides one useful vehicle, both by highlighting needs and opportunities, and by creating networks of individuals and institutions who can share experiences and coordinate strategies towards achieving this goal.

*Science and Society: Rights and responsibilities. ICSU Strategic Review, July 2005. Click here to read the full report.

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