A Summary of the 1996 Sigma Xi Forum
Science, Technology and the Global Society
Global Research Challenges Require International Response
SAN DIEGOThe 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 effectivelyengaging all the gears it
driveswill 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
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
- 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
- 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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