Science: a force for the common good

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Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan of Jordan discusses how global cooperation on science can benefit a knowledge-hungry world.

Science can help to fulfil people’s hopes and, properly applied, is our main defence against threats to our existence.

But in our modern and mismanaged world, so many of the benefits of scientific achievements have been limited to a comfortable minority of our global population — to the wealthier nations and to the elites of the developing world. Perhaps more worryingly, the development of scientific knowledge is also being hampered by short-term economic interests.

Developing nations — some with more power than others — must challenge notions of the ‘ownership’ of science. Should our greatest innovative tool belong to a narrow echelon of a vast global population, or instead applied to achieving global goals that could improve the lives of millions and bring stability and security to our planet?

The answer to that is easy. But we must say clearly that we should not allow this imbalanced situation to continue — and what must be done to change course.

Global approach needed

Consider the changing landscape of global science. It is naïve to believe that this challenging new century can see ‘business as usual’ for science and big business. Scientific and economic leadership cannot be considered in isolation from global currents in power, politics and the increasingly desperate scramble for resources.

Most of our pressing challenges cannot be tackled at national or regional levels. Climate change, energy, poverty, disease, under-development and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction — these are assaults on global prospects for survival.

They demand both technological and policy responses. And they require that science is used in a considered and cooperative way — a response that places rational policies ahead of politics.

This new global age requires a global approach. To avoid fractures between cultures and within societies, science must be given back to people as a tool for positive change, to promote opportunities and to guarantee security.

Science can rebuild societies

In my own West Asia/North Africa region, injustice, unemployment, illiteracy and poverty caused the unbearable tension between governments and societies that led to the Arab Spring. The stifling of scientific freedom by the region’s elite contributed greatly to the upheaval.  

Just a few weeks ago, at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Special Meeting on Economic Growth and Job Creation in the Arab World, calls were made to address the needs of young people and to promote greater economic cooperation between and within Arab countries.

Many younger participants at the meeting emphasised that ideology was not the cause of the region’s unrest. They said dignity, opportunity, democracy and justice must underpin all policies when planning the future of the Arab world.

And this is where science offers hope that has been absent for so many generations.

The Arab Spring highlighted that this is an age of knowledge, and that the young people of the Middle East are thirsty for that knowledge. They can imagine a far better world and they will not be constrained by the physical and mental borders that trapped their parents and grandparents.

According to the World Bank, 100 million jobs must be created in the Middle East by 2020 to avoid a catastrophe for the new generation. As scientists and policymakers consider the benefits that science can bring, they must remember that a vital part of rebuilding societies is the re-establishment of a link between science and dignity.

Collaborate now for development

Emerging nations offer hope for a better, science-driven future. In Brazil, scientific expansion began only in the late 1950s, yet already the country accounts for some three per cent of the world’s scientific research.

India has also become a leader in educating talent for research and development, clearing a path for cutting-edge subjects such as biotechnology, nanotechnology and information science, much of it the result of significant increases in government spending on R&D.  

But the beauty of scientific enquiry is that it can produce astounding results in any context or culture. With the right approach to funding and mentoring, we can nurture a new generation of creative scientists in all emerging nations.

I am also constantly mindful of the importance of international scientific collaborations. Take the High Panel on Science for Development, a new advisory body of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It is aiming to encourage scientific development and cooperation — and I hope that ‘state-centric’ approaches to knowledge will soon seem very ‘last century’.

Knowledge sharing and efforts that nurture real progress must begin now, with international diplomacy and trade that facilitate global science. How diplomacy connects with science, and how the developed and less developed economies forge relationships, will determine whether we will emerge with a sustainable framework for development, or will remain bound by inequality and divisive ideology.

Science and sound reasoning must inform and reform the political discourse. And any genuine political and social reform must be guided by science and knowledge. Only the unique medium of science allows us to work with each other as equals, applying standards to help understand challenges and to innovate for a brighter future.

Her Royal Highness Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan is founder and president of El Hassan Science City, president of Jordan’s Royal Scientific Society and chair of the board of trustees of the Princess Sumaya University for Technology. This article is based on a presentation made to the World Science Forum in Budapest, Hungary, last month.