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Are we up to the Challenge?
Recently, the International Council for Science (ICSU) established a Planning Group on Naturaland Human-Induced Environmental Hazards and Disasters. The Group is charged with developing a 10-year research program. Nothing surprising there, you might think, given the 2004 tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and other recent events, but the primary research focus is intriguing. The group’s concern is not so much volcanism, or earthquake mechanisms, or tornadogenesis, or hurricane formation per se (although these and similar topics are included in the charge), but rather the following question: “Why, despite advances in our understanding of the natural and social causes of disasters, are losses from disasters continuing to rise?” Explore the ICSU Web site further, and you’ll come across the following quote, commenting on twenty–first-century issues facing science across the board: “The first challenge, a development problem, is the widening gap between advancing scientific knowledge and technology and society’s ability to capture and use them.” (International Council for Science 2006)
If the gap between science advance and society’s ability to use it is indeed widening, then we as a community—and as individual scientists—ought to be concerned, because the challenge threatens the social contract we’ve enjoyed for decades: the ability to pursue curiosity-driven research, relatively unfettered, and comfortably supported by a taxpaying public on the premise that downstream benefits will more than exceed the costs. We also ought to care on purely humanitarian grounds: a range of social ills—poverty, environmental despoliation, disease, and many more—desperately call for help from science. The urgency is growing. J. F. Rischard provides a remarkably crisp overview of these issues in his book High Noon (Rischard 2002), which many Bulletin readers would find of interest.
Over the years, scientists have tried to respond to such concerns. Investments in applied research, systems development, technology transfer, rapid prototyping, decision-support tools, community-based research and extension services, and other efforts to reconcile the supply and demand for science all attempt to accelerate societal benefit from science and technology. A new breed of experts, known variously as bridgers, information brokers, translators, or interpreters, is emerging to facilitate this work. Additionally, cost–benefit analyses and other socioeconomic research can help prioritize science and technology based on likely societal utility. Attention to societal impacts has even been codified into the National Science Foundation grants process, as the “broader-impacts” dimension.
The efforts to date have been necessary. But have they proven sufficient? So far, the work has been arduous and time consuming. There are many barriers to progress: the complexity and high costs of innovation, especially initially; a preference for old, established ways of doing things, etc. Support for applied research has often been minimal and intermittent. In many institutions, the reward structure for science is heavily tilted in favor of basic research. Support for applications often favors those that lead to private, marketable goods and services, at the expense of public goods.
Two fundamental problems have emerged. First, even as we expend greater efforts to make our science more beneficial to society, we encounter a moving target. Social change is so rapid that our efforts to be relevant fall short.
Second, the benefits of science (though they can be characterized) are not fundamental constants, but vary considerably, depending upon the prevailing policy framework at all levels of government. Some illustrations from our own realm of science readily show the contrast. For example, take electricity deregulation. For decades, electricity in the United States was provided by myriad local utilities, each needing sufficient reserve capacity to meet peak local demand. Because these peaks (associated with extremes of heat and cold) were rare, the excess capacity was idle much of the time, leading to substantial inefficiency. Regional power grids combined with the highly localized nature of extremes of heat and cold, and deregulation, to reduce the margin required. At the same time, however, the decreased margin meant a corresponding rise in the importance of forecasting extremes of heat and cold accurately. Forecast breakdowns are increasingly associated with spikes in the spot prices for electricity, and in some cases, rolling brownouts or blackouts.
By contrast, the management of water resources is so prescribed by a web of policy and regulation that new capabilities for two-to-three week forecasts and seasonal forecasts are not fully useful in this sector (Rayner 2002).
In the future, scientists, policy makers, and the public will have to collaborate more effectively if scientific advance is to rapidly improve the human condition. The AMS Policy Program is dedicated to facilitating such collaborations, through a variety of means. We welcome your ideas and input. —BILL HOOKE
International Council for Science, 2006: ICSU report of the CSPR Assessment Panel on capacity building in science. 44 pp. Rayner, S., D. Lach, H. Ingram, and M. Houck, 2002: Weather forecasts are for wimps: Why water resource managers don’t use climate forecasts. Final Report to NOAA Office of Global Programs, 80 pp. Rischard, J. F., 2002: High Noon: Twenty Global Problems, Twenty Years to Solve Them. Basic Books, 241 pp.