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Does science really need a new social contract?

I would like to comment on your editorial of 24 June addressing demands for a "new social contract for science". In principle, I recognise the validity of some of your statements, such as the need for a clear description of what such a contract might look like. I also recognise some of the specific difficulties you have identified, which are part of a much more complex problem. Nevertheless for poor countries, some of your opinions seem wide of the mark.

Social relations between scientists, as well as between the scientific community and the wider society, are governed not only by implicit, but also by actual, rules. This is one part of the social contract that is entirely valid. Examples of such rules include research priorities, the methods and instruments of research, the conditions for validating new knowledge, preferred channels of communications, explicit and implicit statements about intellectual property, and so on.

In addition, however, other factors need to be taken into account, such as the distribution of responsibilities between countries, the amount of money allocated to research, the distribution of research topics, and conditions for scientific exchange and co-operation.

At present, the world faces a situation in which the metropolis is on one side, and the periphery on the opposite one. As a result, there are a few rich countries that possess a lot of knowledge, and many poor countries that lack it.

Unfortunately, globalisation has encouraged the concentration — rather than the exchange — of information and knowledge. This in turn has worsened the distribution of incomes and created deeper levels of poverty in our countries. This is one on the main reasons for claiming that neither problems within the scientific community, nor between science and society, are what is really important. The central problem is related to the need for the 'endogenisation' of science and technology by society, and the existing relations between rich and poor countries. It is a big problem, with difficult solutions.

This is why a global campaign is needed for a collective proposal on a new contract for science, which would be the result of many efforts, reflect many points of view, and result in a true agreement around the world. Many different groups and organisations have a significant role to play in this process, coming both from different sectors of society (such as political, economic, government, religious, and ethnic groups) and different levels of social organisation (for example, at the local, regional or national levels).

Finally, changes must be achieved through a cultural process. This is the reason for spreading the campaign. The goal of everyone should be to develop a safer and more harmonious way of life for everyone. That is sufficient reason for a new contract for science; rather than merely reforming the old one.

Prof. Carlos Arroyave, University of Antioquia, Colombia, 8 July 2002