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Fall/Winter 2004 Vol. 4 No. 3

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National Academy of Sciences

Photo by Richard Nowitz

Science in Society
for the 21st Century

Through the knowledge accumulated by centuries of investigation of the natural world, science has enabled people to gain a remarkable degree of control over their lives. It is an immensely successful endeavor that has led to an abundance of labor-saving devices, afforded the security provided by modern medicine and public health, and produced powerful communication and transportation technologies. Science and technology have also allowed humans to harness vast natural resources to meet their needs. But, as an indirect effect, the world's population has increased dramatically -- heading for some 9 billion by 2050 -- requiring ever more resources. As exemplified by the global climate change induced by greenhouse gases, we are now altering the Earth in irreparable ways.

Science and technology must be more effectively harnessed to reverse these trends. In an increasingly more crowded and dangerous world, we also need to discredit dogmatism and promote the scientific spirit of tolerance, reason, and rationality. The good news is that, in a world full of conflicting cultural values and competing needs, scientists everywhere share a powerful common culture that respects honesty, generosity, and good ideas, independent of their source. India's Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had it right when he emphasized, some 50 years ago, the importance of imparting a "scientific temper" to his nation.

Achieving a scientific temper for the world will require strong merit-based institutions in each nation that are capable of harnessing science and technology to meet both national and global needs. It will also require an education system that imparts both scientific abilities and scientific values to all citizens -- an "every child a scientist" education goal, in which students everywhere carry out activities that resemble science in their classrooms, starting at age 5.

I have just returned from the inaugural meeting of the Science and Technology in Society Forum in Kyoto, Japan -- designed as an annual event that mixes scientists with leaders from the political and business communities in order to help fill many urgent needs in both industrialized and developing nations. The sense of this forum was perhaps best summarized by Taizo Nishimuro, the chairman of Toshiba Corp., when he stated that "In the past, science has shaped society; in the future, society must also shape science." It is clear that -- as our enterprise becomes even more important to society -- those of us who are scientists must pay more attention to societal concerns: Simply put, we can no longer pretend that we are doing our jobs if we exclusively pursue our own science, while hiding out in our laboratories. Meeting such challenges will require new types of interfaces between scientists and society.

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Copyright 2004 by the National Academy of Sciences