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Rationality and restraint will be in high demand during a year that seems destined to test to the limits of our ability to weld democratic politics to the fruits of science.

It would be nice to be able to offer readers of this website a Happy New Year. Unfortunately, whatever else 2003 is likely to bring — and the prospect is not entirely bleak — it is highly likely that this will include unhappiness for many. In the circumstances, the best that we can hope for is that the forces of rationality and restraint will ultimately win out over the challenges faced in many parts of the world.

The most obvious of such challenges lie in the military sphere. In less than a month's time, the United Nations will have to decide whether Iraq has done enough to persuade its critics that it has eliminated the store of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that many are convinced it has been stockpiling.

The chances appear high that Iraq will fail this test, and that some form of military action against it will as a result be demanded by the United States. If this happens, it is essential at the very least that any such action be clearly focussed on the military threat that it is intended to head off — and that the action has, through the UN, the endorsement of the international community.

A failure on either of these counts will only reinforce the views of those who argue that the US strategy is motivated as much by political (and economic) considerations as they are by a genuine concern for the security of Iraq's neighbour states. And that could provoke a backlash whose consequences would be even more dangerous and widespread than any damage that Iraq's weapons alone could inflict.

The same is true of the other political hotspot to have come to attention over the past few weeks: North Korea. Here the provocation is Korea's apparent decision to disregard the international monitoring procedures established to ensure that it does not use its nuclear power programme to produce nuclear weapons. So far, the US response has been tempered with the rationality and restraint apparently lacking in its approach to Iraq. But the North Korean crisis will only dissolve if this approach is adopted on both sides; many will be watching nervously in the weeks ahead to see if this takes place.

Keeping a perspective on HIV/AIDS

It is not only in the military sphere that these twin attributes are required. They will be equally necessary to tackle one of biggest scourges facing the modern world, which is already destined to cause many more deaths than military conflict in the Gulf is likely to incur, namely the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The news on this front in 2002 has not been all bad. Scientific progress, particularly in the development of a viable vaccine, has admittedly been relatively slow. But there are indications that the reservations that had previously been holding back some African leaders, particularly South African president Thabo Mbeki, from an all-out attack on the disease have been dissipated. In Africa, at least, the battle has now shifted to the level of the community, where ignorance of HIV/AIDS continues to flourish too widely, leading to stigmatisation and discrimination that only make the disease more difficult to combat.

Elsewhere, this same battle for hearts and minds has only just begun in earnest. Much attention in 2002 was focused on two of the world's most populous nations, India and China, where a full-blown war on HIV/AIDS is only just beginning. In both cases, the respective governments have been giving out mixed signals about their level of concern over the potential health catastrophe they are facing. While launching ambitious public-education campaigns, they have also sent out equivocal political messages that create a space within which restraint and moderation can disappear (as witnessed, for example, in reports of HIV/AIDS workers being beaten up in India).

The roots of famine

Somewhat different in nature, but no less severe for those facing its consequences, is the spectre of the worst famine for many years that is confronting large swathes of southern Africa as widespread drought leads to the failure of crops. There is no single reason for this (even though political factors can play a role, as they have in exacerbating food shortages in Zimbabwe). Nor are there any short-term solutions, apart from underlining the massive aid effort that is likely to be required in the months ahead.

But the impending African famine gives added urgency to informed debate on two critical issues that are, directly or indirectly, linked to it. The first is the question of climate change. It is obviously not possible to make a direct causal link between the effects of human-induced global warming and the current drought; but the scientific evidence suggests that such droughts are likely to increase in frequency and severity if this process remains unchecked.

Once again 2002 held mixed fortunes on this battle-front. The good news lay in the fact that Canada's hard-fought decision to ratify the Kyoto Protocol — against the wishes of several of its powerful provinces — means that the implementation of the international agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions now awaits only one further promised signatory, namely Russia. The less good news is that efforts on this front continued to be undermined by the US refusal to sign the Kyoto accord, as well as by the failure of international negotiators to launch a solid process for agreeing on what should happen once the time-frame covered by the accord expires.

The second issue raised by the African famine is even more contentious, namely the role of genetically modified (GM) crops in meeting the food requirements of the developing world. Here, science alone does not offer a clear path forward. It is as naïve — and as premature — to argue that GM crops are unlikely to inflict significant changes on the local environment as it is to maintain that their consumption poses a significant threat to human health.

If the scientific evidence points to anything, it is the need for caution. As even China has recently realised, effective and trustworthy regulatory regimes are required if public in confidence in GM technology is to be bolstered. But the stakes in the GM debate are much higher in the developing world than in the developed world, whether measured in terms of potential health benefits or potential political costs. This means that the demand for caution also applies to the terms under which the international debate on this issue is conducted. As with the potential military confrontations in Iraq and North Korea, sharp political rhetoric on either side will only inflame passions and make a peaceful resolution more unlikely.

Reasons for optimism

With so many challenges facing the world in 2003, it is difficult to remain optimistic. Nevertheless there are signs of hope. Some are at the political level, such as last weekend's decision by the Kenyan people to replace a discredited and corrupt regime with one that promises a more stable and transparent basis for modernisation. Others are in the scientific field, where there are indications, for example, of a renewed commitment to significantly strengthened biomedical research directly relevant to the health needs of the developing world.

Indeed, in many ways linking the promises of democratic politics and need-related science in a way that secures genuine social progress and enhances our global security remains a top issue on the international agenda in the year ahead. Furthermore it does not take much imagination to see how this underlies, in some form, each of the more overt challenges described above. For each in its own way concerns the political handling of the fruits and impacts of modern science.

If the world can leave 2003 slightly wiser on these issues than it entered it, that in itself will be no small achievement. If it is safer as a result, that will be a bonus.

© SciDev.Net 2002