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The contemporary global context for science: How science can be a transformative power for peace and development during times of complexity and rapid change

To mark World Science Day for Peace and Development on Sunday 10 November 2019 and its theme of Open Science, the International Science Council explores its vision of science as a global public good – a vision that is vitally important in a world of global complexity and pressing global challenges. In this essay, we ask ourselves, what are the major opportunities and challenges facing global society, and what are the emerging areas of science that can benefit from international cooperation?

Today, more people are involved in scientific research and its application than ever before, and we increasingly depend on scientific knowledge to understand a wide spectrum of contemporary affairs. On the planetary scale, this means understanding how humanity has become a defining geological force, shaping many of the natural processes that have created and sustained the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere and hydrosphere, and which form the bedrock of the human economy and life support system. At the level of individuals and societies, we urgently need scientific research on how to shift our unsustainable lifestyles, consumption and production patterns onto a more sustainable pathway. These challenges are most prominently reflected in the UN’s 2030 Agenda and its set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Meeting the goals will require far more global cooperation and deep social change. Such imperatives for global society demand that scientists assist in the development and promotion of policies and public action that can create transformation.

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 integrated national economies within a global market and increased the mobility of capital and labour, a process that 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. This is reflected in the increasing proportion of research and development that now occurs in the private sector, raising the question of whether scientists in the private sector should be subject to the same norms of openness, scrutiny and responsibility as those in the public sector.

At the same time, a technological revolution of historic proportions is disrupting existing patterns of behaviour, organization and production, with profound economic and social implications. 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. Modern digital devices have an unprecedented capacity to characterize complexity and find optimal solutions for complex problems that are relevant to all the sciences, and to all national science systems. Yet we must avoid such advances creating a digital divide, by ensuring that all countries and science systems are able to share in the benefits of digital transformation.

In a world of complexity, the methods of science have proven to be the most effective means of creating reliable knowledge. Science has the power to transform understanding. And science itself is undergoing a transformation.

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. 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 require integrated responses from across the disciplines of science.

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. There are pressures for more effective mobilization of international funding to address urgent global challenges; for strengthened cross-disciplinary 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 to retain the openness to scrutiny that scientific rigour demands, as part of the developing paradigm of a more open and engaged science, and in adapting incentive systems so that they encourage these new modes of working.

A sense of international responsibility in the face of truly global challenges has led to many examples of international science cooperation that transcend political difference and societal conflict. 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 maximise 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.

This piece is inspired by The Contemporary Global Context, a long-form think piece written by Geoffrey Boulton for our recently published Action Plan for 2019 – 2021: Advancing Science as a Global Public Good.  You are free to republish on your website, newsletters and in print form, with reference to Geoffrey Boulton and the ISC.

If you share our vision for science that transforms, share this piece and find out more about how you can work with us to advance science as a global public good in our Action Plan.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash.

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