2006 : WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?

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Former President, The Royal Society; Emeritus Professor of Cosmology & Astrophysics, University of Cambridge; Master, Trinity College; Author, From Here to Infinity
Science may be 'running out of control'

Public opinion surveys (at least in the UK) reveal a generally positive attitude to science. However, this is coupled with widespread worry that science may be 'running out of control'. This latter idea is, I think, a dangerous one, because if widely believed it could be self-fulfilling.

In the 21st century, technology will change the world faster than ever — the global environment, our lifestyles, even human nature itself. We are far more empowered by science than any previous generation was: it offers immense potential — especially for the developing world — but there could be catastrophic downsides. We are living in the first century when the greatest risks come from human actions rather than from nature.

Almost any scientific discovery has a potential for evil as well as for good; its applications can be channelled either way, depending on our personal and political choices; we can't accept the benefits without also confronting the risks. The decisions that we make, individually and collectively, will determine whether the outcomes of 21st century sciences are benign or devastating. But there's' a real danger that that, rather than campaigning energetically for optimum policies, we'll be lulled into inaction by a feeling of fatalism — a belief that science is advancing so fast, and is so much influenced by commercial and political pressures, that nothing we can do makes any difference.

The present share-out of resources and effort between different sciences is the outcome of a complicated 'tension' between many extraneous factors. And the balance is suboptimal. This seems so whether we judge in purely intellectual terms, or take account of likely benefit to human welfare. Some subjects have had the 'inside track' and gained disproportionate resources. Others, such as environmental researches, renewable energy sources, biodiversity studies and so forth, deserve more effort. Within medical research the focus is disproportionately on cancer and cardiovascular studies, the ailments that loom largest in prosperous countries, rather than on the infectious diseases endemic in the tropics.

Choices on how science is applied — to medicine, the environment, and so forth — should be the outcome of debate extending way beyond the scientific community. Far more research and development can be done than we actually want or can afford to do; and there are many applications of science that we should consciously eschew.

Even if all the world's scientific academies agreed that a specific type of research had a specially disquieting net 'downside' and all countries, in unison, imposed a ban, what is the chance that it could be enforced effectively enough? In view of the failure to control drug smuggling or homicides, it is unrealistic to expect that, when the genie is out of the bottle, we can ever be fully secure against the misuse of science. And in our ever more interconnected world, commercial pressure are harder to control and regulate. The challenges and difficulties of 'controlling' science in this century will indeed be daunting.

Cynics would go further, and say that anything that is scientifically and technically possible will be done — somewhere, sometime — despite ethical and prudential objections, and whatever the regulatory regime. Whether this idea is true or false, it's an exceedingly dangerous one, because it's engenders despairing pessimism, and demotivates efforts to secure a safer and fairer world. The future will best be safeguarded — and science has the best chance of being applied optimally — through the efforts of people who are less fatalistic.