Mr. President, allow me to start with a personal reminiscence. When I was being interviewed for my first teaching job, almost four decades ago, the head of the search committee a nuclear physicist told me in dismissive tones: "Well, now that we scientists have been able to harness the power of nuclear forces, let's see if you so-called social scientists can teach us how to use it." His tone of voice and smirk clearly meant that he didn't believe for a moment that we "soft" scientists were up to even such an easy task as that of preventing humanity from the misuse of nuclear energy.
Things haven't much improved since. To-day's issue of the Los Angeles Times (12/2/02), for instance, carries three stories on the front page that relate to the issue I am raising: One of them laments the fact that patients are increasingly refusing to participate in drug trials and medical experiments because they mistrust scientists; another warns about the leakage in the former Soviet arsenal of deadly weapons; and the third consists of a huge color photo of the black waves carrying spilled oil advancing on Spanish beaches.
Now you and I know that it is childish to blame such problems on science or on scientists. It is not their fault that their brilliant advances are so tragically misused, corrupted, trivialized. Yet I am afraid that the majority of our countrymen are going to draw that conclusion, with consequences that are too dire to contemplate. A re run of the Dark Ages would be much worse than the original.
Unfortunately our colleagues in the "hard" sciences have not been entirely helpful either. Their mantra has been: "Our task is to push further the boundaries of knowledge; what happens afterwards is not our responsibility; that's for society to decide." Fair enough: But let anyone else suggest how science should be used and he'll be crucified as a philistine. We all wish to have the proverbial cake and to eat it, too. Sooner or later, however, reality does intervene. It is perhaps time for this to happen to science.
The point is, Mr. President, that a National Bureau for the Support of Science, with Cabinet status, is getting to be a necessity. It should not be a body controlled by scientists. Just as war is too important to be left up to generals, and religion too important to be left in the hands of clergy, so is science too important to be given over to scientists. Nor should it be under the control God forbid of business interests or politicians. It is much easier to specify who should not control such a board than who should, but the task is too urgent for us to be deterred by such an obstacle. It should be a parliament composed by people who have demonstrated concern for the future of humanity: Scientists as well as laypeople yes, even businesspersons, clergy, and generals.
The task of such a bureau would be to allocate a goodly proportion of the national revenue to projects that are important to our survival and wellbeing. Not to the discovery of more foul chemicals, deadly viruses, or laser guns circling around the planet. Instead, ways to produce clean energy, clean water, to keep biodiversity from disappearing should be supported. We should be preparing for the future, Mr. President, not continuing to invest in a mythical past. Currently science is at the service of speculators and mindless traffickers in destruction. It is time the rest of society reclaimed its right to have a voice in determining what their lives shall be like.
When people raise concerns about the headlong advance of science and technology they are inevitably ridiculed as Luddites who are trying to interfere with progress. You should not let this fact deter you, Mr. President. Instead, you should remind those who protest that if there is one issue on which scientists agree is that evolution is in itself blind and unconcerned with our or of any other species' wellbeing. It would be strange to exempt scientific progress from this conclusion. Left to itself, the great power of science can be easily misused and misdirected. If we do our best to direct it we may still fail, but at least we tried.
Davidson Professor of Management
Claremont Graduate University
Author of Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience; The Evolving Self; Creativity; and Finding Flow.