Science on the Agenda

Opinion / by Adam Bly /

Seed editor-in-chief Adam Bly answers the 2007 Edge Question: What are you optimistic about? Why?

Read other responses to the 2007 Edge Question here.

I am optimistic that science is recapturing the attention and imagination of world leaders.

Witness, for example, the agendas of the World Economic Forum, the Clinton Global Initiative, or the African Union Summit; science has made a well-timed transition from a topic of peripheral interest to the leaders of the world to one inextricably tied to issues of development, global health, innovation, competitiveness, and energy. At a time when science is spurring markets, arts and ideas, it is now making its way into our halls of power with considerable momentum.

The critical challenge is for our understanding of science to keep up with our growing interest in science. Our new global science culture demands a new level of science literacy, for general populations and indeed for the leaders that govern them. What constitutes a science literate citizen in the 21st century is one of the most important questions we need to collectively address today.

We can certainly imagine that it is no simple task to convince a continent struggling with clear and present threats that it should think about its future, let alone take action. But across the developing world, science literacy is emerging as a primary focus of its leadership. The argument goes as follows: move away from dependence on short-term relief and toward the development of a long-term scientific infrastructure that generates its own solutions. This fundamentally entails an investment in people who will shape their own sustainable science culture.

This month’s African Union Summit in Addis Ababa will focus almost exclusively on this very topic. This comes on the heels of a consensus by the continent’s education ministers that science “is the most important tool available for addressing challenges to development and poverty eradication, and participating in the global economy.” China, for the first time, has made raising science literacy an official part of its development strategy. It is worth noting that China’s plan calls for science literacy to extend across demographics—from urban workers to rural communities to government officials—each for different reasons but all for a common goal.

This past year we have heard about the potential for the West to generate intellectual ROI from its aid to the developing world—new insight into disease for example. It is exciting to imagine how this cross-continental laboratory may pioneer new approaches to science literacy with global consequence.

Science solves problems. And this should be its consistent tagline in the developing world. In the developed world, however, science will spark more than solutions. It can spark a renaissance.

It is simple to tie science to money and military, drugs and technologies, present and future. It will be those leaders in the developed world who embrace science’s blue sky potential, its ability to inspire us and change us long-term, who will most significantly affect their nations and the world. Now is the time for courageous science leadership.

In Europe, the Large Hadron Collider, the biggest science experiment of our time and herald of a new era of Big Science, will go online next year, corralling the collective imagination of (at least) a continent. Tony Blair has reaffirmed that Britain’s “future prosperity rests more than ever before on the hard work and genius of our scientists.” And Germany’s newly elected physical chemist-turned-Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has made science one of the priorities for Germany’s upcoming EU presidency.

In 1969, Robert Wilson, then the director of Fermilab, testified before the US Congress in support of his multi-million dollar particle accelerator. He said: “It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”

It will take inspired, informed, and heroic leaders to drive our global science culture forward—toward the development of Africa, the emergence of a renaissance or an outcome we have yet to imagine. After an all-too-long period where it felt like science and scientists had lost their seat at the table, I am optimistic we’re about to witness a new era of science-savvy.

Originally published January 5, 2007

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