The comically ambitious and perennially unrealized five-year plans that were a hallmark of the dysfunctional Soviet political system throughout the middle of the 20th century have discouraged serious thinkers from using the phrase. Perhaps because of fear of being associated with Soviet blunders, forward-looking policy gurus seem to prefer 10-year or 25-year outlooks. But having experienced the dizzying pace of developments in information technology and genetics in recent years, it requires a rich blend of hubris and foolishness to attempt long-term forecasts based on anticipated scientific and technological progress.
Although we have never used the phrase five-year plan, for the past 25 years Issues in Science and Technology has been publishing such plans. As a quarterly, we cannot keep pace with action on pending legislation. And because the problems we address are complex and the scientific and technological components often not yet well understood by policymakers, it does not make sense to expect effective action to be taken quickly. But because U.S. election cycles range from two to six years, it is difficult to convince members of Congress or administration officials to consider actions that extend beyond five years. Our only practical option has been to publish five-year plans.
For our special 25th anniversary edition, we decided to come clean. We specifically asked a very distinguished group of leading thinkers in science, technology, and health policy to produce five-year plans.
Part of our inspiration can be found in our lead article. The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States and his enthusiastic statements about the importance of science and technology (S&T) have produced an audible buzz in the S&T policy community. A wave of optimism has produced a flood of ideas about what can be achieved with S&T, and the highly respected scientists whom President Obama has appointed to a number of key positions are open, even eager, to hear suggestions for action. We hope that the articles published in this issue will receive attention, and since presidential science advisor John Holdren was a longtime member of the Issues editorial board, our hope seems reasonable.
Even though most Issues articles aim to influence U.S. policymakers, a large number also aim to understand a topic in its global context. In some cases, global action is necessary to tackle a problem effectively; in other cases, national policies have effects far beyond that country’s borders. Two of the authors in this issue are particularly alert to the global dimensions of S&T policy. Koji Omi is the founder and director of the Science and Technology in Society forum, which convenes an international annual meeting of leaders in government, industry, academia, and nongovernmental organizations to address the world’s most pressing problems. Ismail Serageldin chaired the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, founded and chaired the Global Water Partnership, and served on the board of the Academy of Sciences of the Developing World.
Other authors also attack problems with a keen awareness that U.S. action alone will not be sufficient. A global perspective clearly informs the articles by Vaclav Smil on energy, Pamela Matson on sustainability, Carl Safina on fisheries, Gilbert Omenn on genetics in medicine, Lewis Branscomb on goal-focused research, Michael Nelson on cloud computing, and Bruce Alberts and Niles Eldredge on science education. Indeed, the global dimensions of many U.S. policy discussions is reflected in Issues Web site traffic, about one-third of which comes from outside the United States.
But a clear vision of the future requires not just a transcendence of national boundaries, but a determination to escape the blinders of disciplinary boundaries. Scientific researchers are reaping the benefits of interdisciplinary work, and we are erasing the artificial divide between basic and applied work, between science and engineering. But research breakthroughs and novel products and processes will not be sufficient to address the world’s needs. Eliminating hunger will require economic and institutional change. The world’s fisheries will not be saved unless we understand the needs of fishing communities. Electronic health records will not advance unless we understood the individual’s desire for and right to privacy. Advances in computing will deliver their full potential only when we attend to the social structure of innovation that takes place not just in corporate research labs but in thousands of small companies and in the creativity of millions of individual inventors and entrepreneurs. S&T undoubtedly can contribute much to creating a healthier, more prosperous, and more equitable world, but only if they are integrated with the insights of the social sciences and the humanities. The authors in this issue are working to break down the disciplinary walls.
The final ingredient in tackling big problems that transcend boundaries and disciplines is in a sense to think small; that is, to focus on self-knowledge and self-interest. Words of praise from an inspiring new U.S. president make a heady potion, but as Daniel Sarewitz points out, we as individuals and as a community are not immune to self-delusion. As he warns, “a scientific-technological elite unchecked by healthy skepticism and political pluralism may well indulge in its own excesses.” Indeed, many of the problems that we aim to solve with S&T are to a large extent the result of the unwise use of S&T. Making wise use of the ever more powerful tools we are developing will require concomitant growth in our understanding of our social relations and of our individual nature.
After devoting most of his speech to the potential of S&T to help address the world’s problems, President Obama ended with an acknowledgement of its limits: “Science can’t answer every question, and indeed, it seems at times the more we plumb the mysteries of the physical world, the more humble we must be.” I suspect that most us have expressed a similar sentiment. The challenge is to apply this principle to our own behavior.
Perhaps the exercise of developing five-year plans can introduce the discipline necessary to confront our human plight in all its humbling complexity. When gazing far into the future, one can soar beyond considerations such as institutional intransigence, ideological rancor, religious certainty, political machinations, and general human pettiness and myopia. But if one needs to accomplish something in five years, the messy realities of the humanity we are stuck with cannot be ignored. It adds new meaning to the phrase think globally, act locally.
A key reason for the failure of the Soviet five-year plans was their stubborn belief that they could escape history, create a completely different social and economic order, and transform human nature. They simply narrowed their field of vision to screen out anything that might derail their single-minded notion of progress. A laser-like focus on a single problem can be an effective strategy in some types of scientific research, but tunnel vision is almost always a liability in conceiving public policy. As the poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen writes in his song “Anthem”:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
On a 25th anniversary it is common to talk about the next 25 years of triumph and glory. That sounds wonderful, but let’s begin with another five years of muddling through and see what we can learn along the way.