Agenda for a better world

June 18, 1999

Federico Mayor, Unesco's director general, sets the scene for next week's World Conference on Science in Budapest

In seeking a new relationship between science and society, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and the International Council for Science have certainly set an ambitious goal for the World Conference on Science. Whether we manage to set in motion the process that will lead to this new relationship depends not only on our own efforts, not only on the participants in Budapest and on a new funding commitment by governments, but also on the active involvement of stakeholders everywhere. This means that the practitioners of science and in particular those working in academia have a key role to play in ensuring that the aims determined in Budapest are met.

The WCS will see the launch of a number of new projects and partnerships which, in order to grow into a global trend towards the re-shaping of the way science is carried out, need to trigger a large-scale response within the research community. Strong participation by scientists in this first set of initiatives and in the creation of many more parallel or partner activities is vital. In the systematic redefinition of research priorities, scientists around the globe can introduce a transfer of knowledge dimension or social development targets into many existing or planned research projects where these are lacking and would be highly suitable. We are, in short, counting on the practitioners of science for this essential multiplier effect.

Many areas of research - from fresh water to high-particle physics - can benefit from greater global or, at the very least, regional involvement of the best talents. Other areas of science lending themselves particularly well to local applications will also play a strategic part in this new departure. Biotechnology is one example. A Unesco education and training centre in South Africa has been training young researchers from the region in plant cell culture, genome analysis and other techniques, as applied to local staples such as maize and cassava. Nearly half of those trained since 1996 have been women, one of whom then persuaded her national university to set up its own tissue culture teaching and research laboratory. The multiplying effect of this type of "science for development" project - in fact, science with development might better describe a relationship characterised by empowerment and community-relevance - has to take on even greater momentum.

A new departure for scientific research cannot be envisaged without a new departure for science education. Once again, the scientists and academics have a central role to play, firstly by ensuring that the latest research feeds directly into science curricula. Science needs to be taught in the same ways that it is now practised, in multidisciplinary structures, with both public and private funding, bringing together all kinds of students - postgraduate, technical and vocational, managerial and executive - to learn within a system of results-oriented team-work. If students experience this environment from an early stage, they will learn to reconcile the requirements of university-industry partnerships with the spirit of free inquiry and curiosity-led research that must remain the hallmark of higher education.

This versatility will be the great strength of the next generation of scientists. To cultivate it requires changes that centres of learning can enact swiftly. While the all-too-familiar sight of tomorrow's scientists being trained on obsolete technology will not disappear until funding levels rise (and that, I hope, will follow renewed government commitment to science spending), we can do away far more quickly with the equally widespread sight of the scientists of tomorrow being educated according to the methods of yesteryear.

Universities' responsibilities for science education for the 21st century do not stop at science students. If humanities students are systematically offered science modules, there will emerge a generation of well-educated professionals far more at ease with the "two cultures". This is of fundamental importance for the new relationship between science and society, particularly given the likely impact on public opinion of a heightened advisory function for science in policy-making. For a major reinforcement of scientific advice in the policy arena will move science perceptibly closer to people's daily lives. Public opinion is already highly sensitive to the power of science. It is perceived either as causing or as holding the solution to particular situations and sometimes both.

When science is called upon to advise and even arbitrate in fundamental policy matters such as those concerning health, food or the environment, there are always nuances if not downright differences in interpretations of the data. Then scientific argument, scientific doubts and unknowns leave the laboratory and the pages of the specialised journals and are aired under a very public spotlight. Given the inevitability of this exposure, science can never expect the advisory function to be a smooth ride. Better communication of science and a prompt, accurate account of its ability to respond on a given issue may improve matters. So may the reassurance provided by a neutral, globally representative framework for scientific policy advice. Unesco will undoubtedly have an increasingly important role to play at the global level in providing a space for scientific debate that allows the advisory function to operate without panic or pressure.

Academia too will see its role take on ever greater importance in a changing relationship between science and society. Significant academic work is already being produced in social science studies of science - for example, on women and science. Such work has begun to break out of the confines of academia and into the policy arena. Much more of this vigorous, policy-oriented, theoretical work will be needed. It will be needed to steer the redirecting of the relationship between science and society, to give this new departure solid theoretical foundations and to assess the progress made.

There is a realisation today that science possesses a huge force for change - a potential that must be used to the full - and a new awareness that this unprecedented power for change does not necessarily signify progress. Bertrand Russell wrote: "Change is scientific, progress is ethical; change is indubitable, whereas progress is a matter of controversy". A new relationship between science and society has to bring those two forces - for change and for progress - far closer together. The "scientism" that claimed science was progress is a thing of the past. I expect academia to take up the ethical challenge of ensuring that the change triggered by the science of the 21st century can indeed be equated with progress, by helping to develop new strategies for incorporating social development goals.

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