Let (Most) Discussions Begin
“Science must be seen as organized evil,” warned one speaker. “Science is a force that can liberate us from everything from tooth decay to violence and premature death,” declared another. When Columbia University’s Center for Science Policy and Outcomes (www.cspo.org) set out to include a broad perspective on how to govern scientific and technological change in the 21st century, it didn’t pull any punches. Fortunately, reaching consensus was not one of the goals of the “Living with the Genie” conference that took place in Columbia’s Low Library in early March.
As new developments extend and strengthen the importance of science and technology in private as well as public aspects of life, more people will want to have a say in what research is done and how it is used. We should not underestimate how difficult this will be. The Genie conference attracted a remarkable cast of thinkers that included Sun Microsystems cofounder Bill Joy, historian Richard Rhodes, Rockefeller Foundation president Gordon Conway, Columbia University philosopher Philip Kitcher, and former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta. But even this group found it hard to get a firm grip on the questions to be asked, never mind the answers.
Virtually all of the participants shared the belief that science and technology (S&T) will continue to make vital contributions to human welfare, particularly in improving health, agriculture, and economic progress in the developing world. There was also a widely shared perception that most S&T is guided by the needs of rich countries and multinational corporations and that intellectual property laws are an especially powerful barrier to diffusion of the benefits. The conference goal was to initiate discussion, but these two themes will not lead to practical results.
First, almost all of what was identified as a problem of lack of democratic control of S&T actually applies to all aspects of life, not just S&T. Power is not equitably shared within or among countries, regions, or economic classes. Scientist and engineers can participate in the centuries-long movement to broaden participation in societal decisionmaking, but it’s not productive to berate the S&T establishment for reflecting the power relationships that are pervasive in society. It’s hard to see how power relations in S&T can be changed without changes in the larger framework of political power.
Second, few participants expressed any concern about nurturing S&T . The apparent assumption was that insight and innovation flow like water from the mountains in spring and need only be directed to more socially desirable ends. This unwillingness to think about what it takes to generate scientific and technological breakthroughs was particularly evident in the widespread belief that intellectual property rights are a serious problem. The powerful animus against people profiting from sales of essential new medicines or improved crop varieties ignores the fact that these profits motivate researchers and attract resources. Most scientists and engineers want to do work that benefits the world, but it is unrealistic to think that the profit motive is not an effective spur to hard work and creative thinking.
I’d be happy to see the people who develop an AIDS vaccine become incredibly rich. The vaccine will almost certainly be expensive. If we want to ensure that this vaccine becomes available to the poor, we should all chip in and pay for it. If we instead say that it’s unethical to reap huge profits from such a vital medicine, then we will scare away many of the people with the skill to develop that vaccine. Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. I don’t want to wait for the saintly who are not motivated by wealth to develop an AIDS vaccine. I’m in a hurry, and I want the smartest, hardest working, and most creative researchers working on the problem. I don’t care how greedy they are. If they contribute the brainpower, we should be willing to come up with the cash.