High-tech holds the key to global stability

January 22, 1999

Science and technology need a new dispensation for the new century, according to Roger Dittmann, national coordinator of the US Federation of Scholars and Scientists, who is speaking at the AAAS today.

While a strong policy focus of the conference is on science as a creator of wealth, some speakers will focus on its role in attacking world poverty,environmental degradation and militarism. Dittmann, emeritus professor of physics at California State University, said that such issues as the brain drain and the crossover between science and military spending mean that new organisations, priorities and sources of funds for science are needed. Most science, he says, goes on in the developed world and 40 per cent in the US alone.

Dittmann's main priority is the creation of bodies, centred on a reformed United Nations, capable of pushing new research priorities to drive sustainable development. But he adds that there could be important commercial consequences. For example, almost every country in the world has its own system for assessing the safety of food and drugs. But since "the effect upon people in the US, in most cases, does not differ significantly from the effect on the same species living in other countries", there is no point organising this activity on a national scale.

While Dittmann's hope is that such a development would save resources, it would also be a godsend to drugs companies or high-technology food manufacturers. They could cut out the years of testing that are needed before new technology can enter the market.

The same applies, he says, to space exploration. Despite America's objection to a world space agency, Russia, France and other nations, who are keener on the idea, could set one up and overtake the United States's space effort.

This step, Dittmann says, would enhance international stability by allowing satellite data collected by nationally owned spy satellites to be publicly available. There is already a proposal for a United Nations International Satellite Monitoring Agency to fill this role.

Dittmann calls for a slew of UN agencies to be set up or strengthened to remove wasteful and overlapping national ones.

He adds that this system could be funded by "revenue sources huge in comparison to the current UN budget", which would be available for science if, for example, the international system took over some space activities. Charging for remote sensing data including meteorological information, or for satellite communications, would produce big sums. An alternative would be pollution taxes, or "severance taxes" on non-renewable raw materials shipped internationally. Even at a rate of 1 per cent, such a tax would yield immense sums.

* Rodney Nichols of the New York Academy of Sciences says that new organisations for international research cooperation will be an essential part of the new world science system.

Many existing public and private scientific global institutions are not organised to fulfil the rising expectations for them, he says, much less to achieve new goals for global action. National economic demands to take advantage of technological advances - together with the growing scale and long duration of many research projects - make it difficult to achieve international collaborations.

Complicating the situation, effective electronic communications are producing new styles in research as well as much easier global contacts, raising the issue of what active investigators around the world need from international organisations.

The NYAS and other organisations are studying these issues and have found that new global scientific organisations are essential.

In addition, even US national interests are well served by the systems that exist today.

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