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  • Science, Johannesburg and the challenges of 2002


Shortly before Christmas, the International Herald Tribune published the results of a survey carried out jointly with the Pew Research Center of a selected number of 'opinion-makers' in 24 countries. The survey asked, among other questions, what they considered to be the main factors that had contributed to the terrorist attacks of 11 September, an event that will forever dominate memories of the past year.

Several familiar reasons were blamed for dislike of the United States, including resentment of its power in the world, and its support for Israel in the Middle East conflict. At the top of the list, however, was an additional factor cited by almost half of those interviewed: "policies which may have contributed to the growing gap between rich and poor"; this was cited by more than half of those surveyed - and 88 per cent of US respondents!

One should not read too much into what was, admittedly, a relatively small survey. Even though poverty provides a social environment in which both fundamentalism and terrorism can flourish easily, the links are - perhaps fortunately - not deterministic. Nevertheless the events of 11 September provide a salutary warning to developed nations that helping the rest of the world to create a better future for itself is not merely a question of altruism or moral obligation; it has become an issue of self-interest.

The year ahead will provide numerous opportunities to demonstrate this new awareness. In particular, the scientific and technical communities will have an important role to play in ensuring that the benefits of scientific progress are distributed more widely and more fairly than they have been in the past. In this context, we are gratified by the strong and enthusiastic response that we have received to the launch of SciDev.Net. This appears to reflect a genuine concern in the research community to meet responsibilities inherent in the unspoken social contract between science and society - namely that society will support science provided that science can demonstrate its value to society.

If there is a single event at which this commitment will be tested to the full in 2002, it is the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), which opens in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the end of August. Although its billing as Rio+10 projects the summit as being focused on the need to protect the natural environment - the third of such global meetings organised by the United Nations, starting with the Stockholm environment conference of 1972 - the title selected by the organisers reflects a much broader agenda. This is the need for international agreement on policies that promote all aspects of sustainable development, including in particular the alleviation of poverty and ill health.

It is essential that science has a voice at the negotiating table in Johannesburg. Any development strategy, and in particular any such strategy that seeks to minimize its disruptive impact on the natural environment, will only succeed if it is built on sound knowledge. At the same time, consensus on the content of this knowledge base can, as the case of global warming has illustrated through the contribution of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, provide a valuable tool for forging the political consensus needed to introduce effective policies.

There are already signs that, prompted by groups such as the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the Third World Academy of Sciences, the UN has taken this message on board in the preparatory process for Johannesburg.

Hopefully these good intentions will be carried through to the meeting itself. If the message can be extended to endorsing developing country needs for capacity building and empowerment in science and technology, and if these commitments can be made explicit in any agreement forged in Johannesburg, so much the better.

At the same time, however, it will be important for scientists and technologists engaged in this process to acknowledge that, if the terms of the social contract described above have not changed, the conditions under which it operates have, in some cases dramatically. For example, close links between scientific advances and the spreading power of multinational corporations have, perhaps unsurprisingly, led to the one being identified with the other; look at the extent to which global distrust of genetically-modified foods frequently has its origins less in any concern over inherent dangers in these foods than in concern over the goals and priorities of the corporations that promote them.

Another example is the case of AIDS, where some of those who still challenge the link with HIV appear to draw on a concern that acknowledging this link will boost the profits of the companies that produce the most effective treatments for the infection. Or think more broadly of how many people see the environmental threats to be addressed at the World Summit as by-products of the very science that others claim will help resolve them.

The distrust of science that such situations reflect means that any contribution scientists and technologists seek to make in Johannesburg must be both realistic and modest. It must be realistic in the sense that there are no quick technical fixes to the problems that the meeting will be addressing (and it would be dishonest to pretend that there are). And modest in the sense that the new social contract requires listening and responding to the way that those seeking a way out of poverty express their own needs for a sustainable future - not lecturing them on what this future should look like.

If there has been a silver lining to the tragic events of 11 September, it lies here. In parallel with the human tragedies experienced in Washington and New York, there has been in many quarters a sense that the dreadful events also highlighted an element of arrogance previously held by developed nations about their scientific and technological superiority; this has since evolved into an awareness that all societies, however technologically sophisticated, remain vulnerable, particularly if basic social and economic inequalities are not addressed.

Almost 40 years ago, this danger was identified by McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser to President John Kennedy, when he pointed out that "there is no safety in unlimited technological hubris." The lesson we all still need to appreciate fully is that hubris is not an essential component of scientific and technological progress. But social commitment is. The Johannesburg meeting will provide an opportunity to put this lesson into effect.

Happy New Year to all our readers!

© SciDev.Net 2002

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