A “social contract” between society and the science community

I have sometimes thought that, given society’s needs (and the professed need to act in a way “conduce to the life support systems of Earth”), it’s a little selfish for individual scientists to study just whatever interests them, and that perhaps a new “social contract” between society and the science community is needed.  

Interestingly, in the chapter of the book in which the Hilbertian program for Earth system science is detailed, the authors discuss this idea, and I thought I’d quote one part of it:

Sustainability Science

The last half century has seen a number of transitions in how society views the relationships among environment, development, and knowledge. Only very recently, however, has it become evident that the Anthropocene crisis forces humanity to manage consciously a transition toward sustainable use of the Earth. Looking back over the last twenty  years, few science-based ideas have rised from obscurity to take such a conspicuous position in international affairs as “sustainable development.”  Beginning shorty after the Rio Conference of 1992, however, it became increasingly clear that the enthusiasm with which much of the political world embraced sustainability ideas put environmental politics, negotiations, and agreements at center stage in the resulting debate, with science and technology relegated to the side wings if not thrown out altogether. At the same time, efforts to make progress in the implementation of sustainable development were increasingly being stalled by lack of technical knowledge rather than just weakness of political will: How could the decline in productivity for African agriculture be reversed while preserving biodiversity? How much greenhouse warming was too much? How could progress toward sustainability be reliably measured? The realization graduatlly began to sink in with the advocates of sustainability that all the negotiations in the world were not going to exact much progress on technical questions such as these.

In response to this mismatch of demand and supply, a number of efforts were initiated during the 1990s to reconsider how science might be better harnessed to achieve social goals of sustainable development in Vernadsky’s would-be semi-intelligent “noosphere.” The results of those efforts were synthesizes as part of the international scientific community’s input to the Johannesburg Summit (1). One immediate outcome from this activity was the realization that the range of organized, disciplined, reflective activity needed for intelligently and effectively guiding a sustainability transition was much broader than what is conventionally subsumed under the term of “science.” The Earth systems sciences noted above clealy have a role to play in promoting such a transition. So, however, does technology, innovation, and the tacit knowledge of practice. Even more bradly, there was clearly a need to mobilize the humanistic perspectives that would hel pus to understand where ideas about environment, development, and sustainability interacted with other dimensions of human though about what we thingk we are and want to be. The term that has come closest to embracing this wide range of activities in English is “knowledge.” Perhaps even more appropriate… … is the German idea of Wissenschaft, embracing as it does the systematic pursuit of all knowledge, learning, and scholarship. Some of the key findings of this dialogue regarding what is needed from Wissenschaft – and the Wissenschaftler who pursue it – in a noosphere bent on sustainability are summarized below.

Changing Orientations

If Wissenschaft is to help advance sustainability, then a substantial part of our agenda needs to be driven by what society thinks it needs, not just by what scholars think is interesting (1). This is not to advocate a return to sterile debates about the primacy of “basic” versus “applied,” or “disciplinary” versus “interdisciplinary” research. Rather, it is to embrace the historical experience summarized by Donald Stokes (2) in his book Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation,which argues that just as Pasteur created the field of microbiology in his pursuit of practical solutions to problems of great social important,so it is possible today to do “cutting-edge research and development in the service of public objectives” (3). Which objectives is, of course a matter of values – in this case values about what society actually means when it declares “sustainable development” to be a “high table” goal for the twenty-first century.

(1) ICSU, TWAS, and ISTS (Intl. Council for Science, Third World Academy of Science, and Initiative on Science and Technology for Sustainability). 2002. Science and Technology for Sustainable Development. Series on Science for Sustainable Development, vol. 9. Paris: Intl. Council for Science. http://www.icsu.org.Library/WSSD-Rep/Vol1.pdf
(2) Stokes, D. 1997. Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.
(3) Branscomb, L., G. Holton, and G. Sonnert. 2001. Science for Society: Cutting-edge basic research in the service of public objectives. http://www.cspo.org/products/reports/scienceforsociety.pdf

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