The Contemporary Global Context

The ISC has adopted a bold vision that is vitally important in a world of growing complexity and pressing global challenges.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

Within this context, the Council is committed to supporting the development of all science, from discovery to application, and including the full range of disciplines, from the natural and social sciences to the behavioural, data and technological sciences. It will work with its members to represent, champion and apply science at global, regional and national levels, and to stimulate policies for science that enhance its creativity, maintain its integrity, and continually adapt it to a changing world. As the “global voice for science” the ISC must be responsive to public priorities and concerns. It must promote and apply ways of working that maximize the role of scientific understanding in policy and in public discourse. And it must work to ensure that the science system itself is efficient and creative in these purposes

Within this broad frame of responsibilities, the Council must prioritize its actions in response to continual assessments of the contemporary global setting. What are the major opportunities and challenges for global society to which science should respond? What are the emerging areas of science that benefit from international cooperation and have major implications for society? And how should the practice of science adapt to the changing environment of demands and opportunities?


Major challenges for society to which science should respond

Humanity has become a defining geological force. It has created a novel global ecology which is harmful to many of the natural processes that have created and sustained the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere and hydrosphere, and that form the bedrock of the human economy and life support system. Human impacts, which continue to grow, are of such a magnitude as to pose a credible existential threat to the wellbeing of the planet’s human population.

Despite enormous progress the world still faces endemic issues of conflict, poverty and inequality, with unsustainable lifestyles, consumption and production patterns. A fundamental challenge to contemporary science is to identify manageable pathways to global sustainability through the complex web of cause and effect connecting planetary, social and economic processes, and to assist in the creation and promotion of policies and public action that can move societies along them. It is a challenge most prominently reflected in the UN’s 2030 Agenda and its set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals. It is associated with calls for more global cooperation and deep social change. But how does equitable cooperation and real social transformation come about and how, if at all, can it be initiated, fostered and steered? What are the possible levers, and who are the potential agents of change? What decision-making processes are required to foster effective and acceptable processes of transformation?

Such imperatives for global society coincide with a technological revolution of historic proportions. Today’s digital technologies are a good example of a ‘general-purpose technology’ that continually transforms itself, progressively penetrating almost all domains of private and public life. It disrupts existing patterns of behaviour, organization and production and boosts productivity across all sectors and industries because of its costeffectiveness, with profound economic and social implications. It has ushered in a new era of datadriven science, with concomitant pressures for change in the social organization of science. It has had profound impacts on social networks and public discourse, and enabled novel dimensions of cyber-crime, cyber-warfare and interstate cyber-subversion. It offers widespread challenges to privacy, to many ethical standards, and to legal systems. The global ’knowledge space’ is increasingly contested through web technologies that do not discriminate between the true and the false, and by technology companies that see benefit in privatizing publicly funded data, with the potential to control access to knowledge. The potential danger is of a society that is less open and more susceptible to the loss of scientific freedom.

These issues arise within a shifting geopolitical frame, where the rules-based international system developed over the past 70 years is under pressure, and international configurations of power and influence are changing. Several decades of globalization have progressively integrated national economies within a global market and increased the mobility of capital and labour, but this process now appears to have stalled in a setting of resurgent nationalism. There has been a global shift of resource and influence from public to private sectors, with a related loss of public capacity to implement major policy shifts in both the national and the international arenas. There has been an increase in both intra- and inter-state migration, driven by conflict, climate change, land degradation and annexation. Some states have responded to these trends by increasing barriers to mobility, reflected, for science, in increasing difficulty in travelling for scientific purposes.


Emerging science with major societal implications

The human capital involved in scientific research and its application is greater than ever before, reflecting the centrality of scientific understanding to contemporary human affairs. Major advances have occurred across the whole spectrum of science, partly driven by curiosity about the fundamental processes that animate nature and society, and partly in response to the complexities of a world that needs science more than ever, and where the ‘social’ and the ‘natural’ are inextricably entwined.

The vast new data streams created by the digital revolution have provided new resources for discovery, and brought the approaches of artificial intelligence into their own as a powerful, generic suite of methods. They mimic cognitive functions such as trial-and-error learning and pattern recognition that have always been essential components of scientific analysis, but are now supercharged through the data acquisition and processing power of modern digital devices. Their unprecedented capacity to characterize complexity and find optimal solutions for complex problems is relevant to all the sciences, and to all national science systems. They have huge potential for social benefit in providing efficient solutions for human healthcare, in enhancing societal interactions, in creating business opportunities and in enhancing governmental efficiency. But they also create dilemmas through their potential to alter societal dynamics and to disrupt patterns of employment through the creation of learning machines that displace human roles, or through autonomous systems that have the potential to dispense with human decision-makers.

Similarly, deep shifts of capacity and potential are being generated in the life and biomedical sciences, where the discoveries of 20th-century genomics have created the foundation for a theoretical fusion of molecular and evolutionary biology. Coupled with new experimental tools, rich data resources and AI, they have created new understanding of genetic and neural systems that offer pathways for solutions to basic problems and applications at every level of organization, from the molecular to whole populations. Such applications lie in the domain of human health and wellbeing, but also in the functioning of the biosphere and the future of life on Earth. Exploiting this wealth of opportunity depends upon integrating contributions from physicists, chemists, computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians and social scientists with the work of biologists. The potential benefits of these technologies are profound, and include gene editing for the treatment of genetic disease or in sustaining food security. At the same time, they raise ethical, philosophical, societal, legal and even existential questions that will sometimes require careful deliberation involving wider society.

Developments in these two domains of science and technology are beginning to converge in ways that have the potential to transform human wellbeing: from brain development, to mental health, to social interaction, to the sense of human autonomy and agency, to the control of identity and privacy, and on to the relationship between the individual and the institutions of civic life. They increasingly draw on many other domains of science and technology, and pose deep questions that require integrated responses from across scientific disciplines.


Adapting the practice of science to changing demands and novel opportunities

The methods of science have proven to be the most effective means of creating reliable knowledge. In a world of complexity, such knowledge is vital in creating public policy and conditioning public discourse. More effective bridges are required between the science community, the policy communities and the wider public space, and there needs to be greater mutual trust between them.

The organization of national and international science systems, and the working habits scientists have developed in earlier eras, are under pressure from changing priorities, technologies and social norms. There are pressures for more effective mobilization of international funding to address urgent global challenges; for strengthened crossdisciplinary collaboration; for the promotion and recognition of under-represented groups; for incentives that are better adapted to current priorities; and for adaptation to the opportunities and challenges of novel developments in science. A particular priority is for open data and open access to scientific results, part of the developing paradigm of a more open and engaged science, and in replacing the perverse incentive systems that have created the current massive global scientific publishing bubble. More than half of all research and development now occurs in the private sector, including an increasing proportion of basic research. How do the demands on scientists differ between different sectors? Are there standards of integrity and responsibility that should be common to all? Are sector-specific systems of societal dialogue, adaptive regulation and anticipatory governance needed to protect and optimize the public good?

The many changes in the environment in which scientists work inevitably pose questions about the extent of their responsibilities and norms of behaviour, whether they work in publicly or privately funded organizations. What are their responsibilities, and how do they relate to their peers and to other societal stakeholders? A sense of international responsibility in the face of truly global challenges has led to many examples of international cooperation that transcend political difference and societal conflict. The science community, however, is one where some countries and regions have enormous resources to advance and apply science, whilst others struggle to remain engaged. At a time of increased geopolitical complexity, should the science system address global inequalities, encouraging benefit sharing, global exchange and cooperation at all levels? Should the community be an advocate for global science that informs social and political priorities? How should the scientific community act to defend the norms of scientific behaviour when they are under threat?

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