Scientists of the world unite to stay independent

January 22, 1999

Scientists around the world are feeling optimistic. They have new money and - as our supplement (pages 21-28) on the American Association for the Advancement of Science shows - new challenges to spend it on. Except in Russia, fears of big spending cuts since the end of the cold war have proven inaccurate. Instead, there is cash for potentially world-changing research on cancer, ageing, climate change and other issues.

The next stage is for the world science community to use this strength constructively. The development in Europe of the Large Hadron Collider, a single world machine for the next stage in the particle physics race, is a positive sign of global science thinking, despite the protests of American scientists who wanted the US to have its own. But the billions spent on the International Space Station prove that governments still like to use science as a cover for prestige photo-opportunities that add little to knowledge.

If science is to enhance its world status, it needs first to ensure its independence. So the efforts of Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web Consortium (page 14), which supports a non-commercial world system for scholarly communications, deserve full support. So do efforts to rebuild science in Africa, where it is near collapse as are economic and social systems.

In the longer term, scientific independence comes from having excellent scientists with understanding and informed paymasters. But companies want assured access to the profits that can flow from academic research, and governments are more aware of the sensitivity of scientific and policy findings.

Because many moral and political issues are linked to emerging science, especially to fast-growing biotechnology, these relationships need to be managed carefully. The public is entitled to expect that universities will be the place to find experts to provide unbiased advice on potentially disturbing new developments. Tougher bargaining and an insistence on openness ought to be the starting point for funding discussions, and world agreement that there will be no compromise on these issues would be a significant step forward.

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