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A Summary of the 1996 Sigma Xi Forum

Science, Technology and the Global Society

Global Research Challenges Require International Response

SAN DIEGO—The high standard of living industrial nations enjoy owes much to scientific and technological progress, but the problems global society will face in the 21st century require new research approaches and new mechanisms of international cooperation to ensure a bright future for humankind.

As the research community comes to grips with a rapidly changing world and shifting political priorities, it will take more than innovation in the laboratory to foster scientific advances and solve pressing problems.

These were among the themes of the 1996 Sigma Xi Forum, Science, Technology, and the Global Society, held March 7-8 at the Town and Country Hotel. The forum brought together a diversity of viewpoints on global issues in research and on current and future directions in science and technology, in both industrial and developing countries.

Speakers for the two-day conference included leaders in science, technology, industry, government and the humanities from Russia, Germany, Japan, Canada, Mexico and India, as well as the U.S. Most of the 230 participants were members of Sigma Xi, an independent, non-profit research society for scientists and engineers with more than 500 chapters in the U.S. and abroad. They were urged to continue the discussions in their chapters and to act on recommendations developed at the conference.

Sigma Xi's annual forums focus on issues at the intersection of science and society, including K-12 science education, ethics and values in research, and global change and the human prospect. The 1995 Forum looked at the changing environment for research in the aftermath of the Cold War. Some of the same issues were discussed from a global perspective at this year's forum.

Rodney W. Nichols, president of the New York Academy of Sciences, said, "National economies are like 10-speed bicycles; most of them have gears that never get used. Innovation is part of the action of every gear pushing economic growth. For the future, managing innovation more effectively—engaging all the gears it drives—will be essential for raising productivity and living standards. Some nations need to build their science bases, others their links between technology and commerce. Smaller or poorer countries wonder how much they can or must do to foster innovation. Clarity begins at home: each nation must oil all the gears of its economic bicycle with its own styles of innovation."

American Nobel laureate and 1995-96 Sigma Xi President Frederick C. Robbins, who contributed critical research to the development of a polio vaccine, noted that while we have good reason to celebrate science's successes, we have also come to realize that there is a downside to science. "The improvements in the quality of life are too great, and the urge of humans to pursue their curiosity and to explore the unknown is something that will find expression one way or another. We have gone too far down the road to turn back. However, it does behoove those of us engaged in science to be aware that there can be negative outcomes of even the most beneficial advances."

Inroads made against childhood diseases have helped prolong the average life span in the industrialized world, he noted, but the increasing numbers of elderly in the population are having a profound impact upon the health care system and society, in general, that is seriously stressing our resources. "Television and computers have provided much that is good," Robbins also noted. "However, since these are activities that are utilized privately, the impact on society can be one of fragmentation and personal isolation, to say nothing of the hazard to the health of the 'couch potato.'"

As an indication of things to come, Hewlett-Packard Company co-founder David Packard showed the audience a bound, color-illustrated copy of Charles Dickens' classic book A Christmas Carol that he had retrieved in its entirety, electronically, off of the Internet, at a cost of about $14.

Albert D. Wheelon, retired chairman of Hughes Aircraft Co., predicted that industrial funding of university research will increase as corporations downsize their own research capabilities. "The biggest challenge will be to make connections between [corporate] donors and research faculty," he said, comparing the task to executive recruiting. "Executive recruiting firms came into being to make these connections. There is no analogous mechanism for introducing corporate sponsors and university researchers across a wide spectrum of research."

A highlight of the forum was an inspiring talk to a crowd of about 450 by Jane Goodall on her pioneering work over the last 35 years with chimpanzees in Tanzania. As the 1996 recipient of Sigma Xi's highest honor, the William Procter Prize for Scientific Achievement, she was cited for a career that "embodies the environmental ethic." Despite environmental degradation in Africa and elsewhere, which so often in the Third World is driven by dire poverty, Goodall said she remains hopeful and optimistic that the human species can solve problems and come to live in harmony with nature.

Former Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh described an industry-government economic development plan, called the Ben Franklin Partnership, that gave new life to his hard pressed "rust belt" state as a whole and transformed Pittsburgh into a leading high tech center. "The name was not chosen inadvertently," Thornburgh said. "It was chosen because Ben Franklin was not only a scientist, an inventor, a businessman, an educator and author, but a good politician. It took all of those instincts combined to create the kind of partnership that could move our state out of the past and into the future."

Anne V. T. Whyte, a director of the Canadian International Development Research Center, described some of the many problems developing countries face. One emerging concern that may lead to more confrontation is the exploitation of local knowledge by outside scientists who patent folk remedies, among other products. "This has become a major political issue in countries like India," she said, "where thousands of farmers demonstrated against the patenting of seeds that resulted from thousands of years of selection and field trials by farmers before the latest improvement by the seed companies."

Other speakers included John M. Rowell, former assistant vice president, Solid State Science and Technology, Bell Communications Research; Gueorgui S. Golitsyn, director, Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow; William R. Wiley, senior vice president for science and technology policy, Battelle Memorial Institute; Yoichi Kaya, executive advisor, Jyukankyo Research Institute, Tokyo, Japan; and Josef Rembser, former director-general, German Ministry for Research and Technology.

Stanford University Provost Condoleezza Rice gave the 1996 John P. McGovern Science and Society Lecture. Rice served in the White House as a special advisor to the president on Soviet affairs in 1989-91 during the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Also on the program were Patricia A. Buffler, dean of the UC-Berkeley School of Public Health; Father J. Bryan Hehir, a professor of the practice in religion and society at the Harvard Divinity School and executive committee member of the Harvard Center for International Affairs; Daniel Kevles, faculty chairman at the California Institute of Technology; Vulimiri Ramalingaswami, a professor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences; David Goldston, legislative director to U.S. Congressman Sherwood Boehlert; Jose Sarukhan, rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico; and Stephen E. Toulmin, Henry R. Luce Professor in the Center for Multiethnic and Transnational Studies at the University of Southern California.

Forum breakout groups were asked to consider three important questions with regard to the future of science in the global society: What should science and technology do? What can they do? And what will scientists do, individually and collectively? The recommendations included:

  • Researchers should become more involved in the political process. One way of doing that is to get to know legislators' staff members through their local offices. Researchers can be helpful in an advisory capacity on issues in science and technology and should work to underpin policy decisions with good science.
  • Science classes should include a "site visit" component, whereby students visit practicing scientists.
  • Interdisciplinary research should be encouraged through changes in incentives and rewards.
  • Scientists should strive to become more effective advocates for science and technology by communicating the value and significance of their research to the general public.

Forum funders included the U.S. Department of Energy, Battelle Memorial Institute, and Sigma Xi. A proceedings volume with speakers' text and breakout group conclusions and recommendations will be available by winter 1997.


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