The Science of Sustainable Development
The Symposium on Marshaling Technology for Development was convened to initiate close collaboration between two great institutions on the problems facing the developing countries. Since 1945, the World Bank has been the world's premier development organization. The National Academy of Sciences and its associated entities - the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council - are among the world's leading scientific organizations.
In 1863, under a charter granted by President Abraham Lincoln, 50 American scientists joined together to establish an American academy of sciences. The charter specified that the scientists were to advise the government on science and technology issues and receive no compensation for doing so. That tradition has endured - through the 1916 establishment of the National Research Council as the operating arm of the Academy and the later founding of the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, which are all part of the same “Academy complex.”
Today, the National Research Council is a mature organization, operating with an annual budget of about $180 million. The three academies have about 4,000 members, and the National [Research Council is staffed by 1,100 individuals, many of whom are widely experienced in science and science policy. Their work is to facilitate the efforts of the some 7,000 volunteer scientists and engineers who serve on about 600 committees, studying everything from what to do with the waste plutonium taken out of atomic weapons to what standards should be applied to the teaching of science in the public schools.
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: AN INSTITUTIONAL PRIORITY
The topic of this symposium is of great importance to the National Research Council - in fact, the Governing Board of the National Research Council has designated sustainable development as a major area of focus over the next few years. To this end, the Academy recently initiated a Global Commons Project with a gift from a private donor, and a substantial part of income from the Academy's endowment fund is currently being used to support studies in this area.
But the topic of technology and development is, of course, bigger than one academy and one nation. One of the objectives of the Academy is to mobilize the world scientific community through the more than 60 existing academies of science and engineering. We aim to make a significant contribution to the application of science and technology to development, in part by bringing this important issue to the attention of the world's governments and institutions such as the World Bank. As a step in that direction, in October 1993 representatives of the world's science academies met together for the first time in New Delhi and drafted a statement on population that was presented to the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo in September 1994.
Closer to home, in 1991 the Academy began to help Mexican scientists to create the same kind of relationship between their academies and their government that the National Academy of Sciences enjoys with the U.S. government - that is, the government asks the Academy to study specific problems; it funds the studies; and then it leaves the study committees free to produce their findings until the final products are released and announced to the world.
In 1995, the Mexican and U.S. academies of sciences and engineering carried out their first joint study, which dealt with the future of Mexico City's water supply. One of the byproducts of that study was a decision by the Mexican government to help set up a national research council in Mexico following the U.S. model. Similar study activities are just beginning with the academies of India and China on population and land use, and with the academies (or equivalents) of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestine Liberation Organization on regional water resource management.
THE POWER AND PRODUCTIVITY OF SCIENCE
A look at the nature of science itself may help to answer the question: How can science contribute more effectively to international development?
Today, because governments are questioning their level of support for science, scientists have to try harder than ever before to explain to the public why they do science and how it is productive. People who have studied the productivity of fundamental scientific research have concluded that it is enormously beneficial to the economy and to society. In fact, recent analyses have found that the annual social rate of return from fundamental scientific research is between 20 and 50 percent.
Why is science such a powerful and productive endeavor? An analogy can be drawn from my 30 years as a cellular and molecular biologist. Unexpectedly powerful “system properties” emerge from what might be called organized complexity. The human brain is a prime example. Out of the billions of synapses between brain cells arise properties - “intelligence,” “consciousness,” and “will” - that cannot be deduced from the properties or actions of each individual brain cell. It is amazing that such a thing as our brain exists, and that it came about by natural selection during the evolution of complex human beings.
In biology, the complexity just described has been organized through trial and error - mutation, natural selection, mutation, natural selection - occurring for billions of years. In society, and in science, the role of the organizer of complexity is played by human intelligence. Consider, for example, the computer and telecommunications revolution. No one could have imagined how all the pieces of knowledge about electronics, materials, and mathematics would fit together and keep on developing in ever more powerful ways. In the end, what has been produced is something that is much different than anyone expected. And this has been characteristic of science and technology throughout history. Anyone who looks back now at the predictions made 30 years ago or even 10 years ago would recognize how wrong those predictions were. We must assume that the same will someday be said of our predictions, and we must keep our minds completely open to the impressive products that will be derived from science and technology throughout an unpredictable future.
All this leads back to the initial question: How can science contribute more effectively to international development? The more we recognize the power of science and technology and what it can do for society in practical ways, the more we must recognize that the world in the future is going to be a very different place. Advanced countries like the United States will presumably be enjoying all the benefits of science and technology. But other countries may have no significant scientific capacity at all. Moreover, the gap between the two types of societies could grow wider and wider. The old view was that science was a luxury for a developing country - an intellectual activity perhaps like a symphony orchestra, not an important priority. Such a view, however, is completely wrong.
CONDITIONS FOR THE APPLICATION OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY TO DEVELOPMENT
What are the minimum conditions that will allow a developing country to use science and technology to make the right kind of decisions and to prosper? The first requirement is the presence of science and technology expertise in each country and in each region. Scientists and engineers are multipurpose resources; not only do they carry out research and development, but they also serve as interpreters and communicators of knowledge. They know what the needs are in their countries, and they can advise their own governments and their own industries of opportunities and perils in new technologies. They also can communicate with the world science and technology community to help to focus attention on the urgent problems of their region.
This symposium faces an important challenge: to define exactly the kind of international network of scientists and engineers needed to maximize the impact of science and technology on development. One example of the kind of new tools we should be using is a set of carefully designed data and discussion platforms on the Internet. Each platform would be designed to connect the scientists and engineers in developed and developing countries in a particular field, such as agriculture, water science, or health science. The platforms would have to be divided into sensible subcompartments - water purification, arid land irrigation, and so on - that are easy to use, even by novices. Each platform would include a database that provides access to the most useful recent review articles, as well as to abstracts of the literature already compiled in other electronic databases. A crucial feature of such a platform would be its facilitation of connections by electronic mail on Internet to a large collection of the appropriate human brains. Such a device would enable scientists in the developing world to connect electronically with other scientists who have the knowledge and experience applicable to the specific problem that they are confronting, whether these scientists are in a developed or developing country.
Today, not all parts of the world have access to the Internet. But they will have it soon; satellites and other devices will make it possible for a scientist to connect to the Internet no matter where he or she is in the developing world. This is an exciting tool that promises to alter the meaning of the term international science - providing that wise decisions are made now in planning for the future.
As it evolves, science will become an ever more productive endeavor which will generate changes in society and in the world economy that cannot be predicted. The products of science and technology will be a crucial element in achieving “sustainable” economic prosperity. Capabilities in science and technology, however, are not well distributed among the countries of the world, but tend to be concentrated in the most developed countries. A very important priority for the future, then, is the improvement of such capabilities everywhere, building the capacity of all countries to use science and technology for their own prosperity. The communications revolution, in particular the Internet, will make possible new connections between scientists and engineers throughout the world, thereby creating the opportunity for a very powerful international science effort. The world's scientific academies and other scientific institutions - individually, collectively, and globally - will represent an important avenue for creating the many changes required to marshal the world's science and technology expertise to help create a more prosperous and sustainable world.
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