3rd GEOSS Science and Technology Stakeholder Workshop
March 23-25, 2015, Norfolk, VA, USA

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Science and Society: Symbiotic or Askew?

Dork Sahagian, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA, USA

Science has a long history of serving society, from the harnessing of fire, to development of tools and technology for commerce and war, and now to addressing global issues. In long-term symbiosis, science provided social systems with the knowledge required for development and security, while society ensured that the scientific community had the resources and support needed to function most effectively. In modern times, 20th century scientists were viewed like “industrialists,” working to exploit natural resources for growing economies in an “open world” in which consumption and disposal were accommodated by the physical, chemical, and biological processes throughout the global ecosystem. In the 21st century, however, society is increasingly treating scientists as “physicians,” turning to the scientific community to find ways to repair damage caused by overexploitation of the very resources that enabled rapid economic development, and that are now in jeopardy. As societies begin to understand that their economies and long-term well-being depend on the rate at which the global and local environment provide a broad spectrum of good and services, and that this rate is rapidly declining due to overexploitation, science is in a position to provide the knowledge necessary to restore the rate of provision of these goods and services. In effect, we are “living off the interest” that the stock within the global ecosystem provides, but in recent decades, we have rapidly “eaten into the principal” thus reducing the “interest,” just when we need to increase it due to the burgeoning human population’s demand for energy, food, and material goods. Although the modern scientific community has been aware of this unsustainable situation, communication between science and society has fallen to all-time lows in many areas, rendering science and society askew in that they are operating toward different goals, and the gulf widens. As a result, political decisions are often made that exacerbate the reduction of ecosystem goods and services, while the scientific community is marginalized in its influence on the political process.

In 2000, at the turn of the century, the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme followed on the approach of the 19th century mathematician, David Gilbert, and challenged 21st century scientists with 23 difficult questions, the answers to which could provide the guidance needed to restore and sustain the rate of provision of environmental goods and services that would support future societies. Some of these questions pertain to the operation of the Earth system, while others are more strategic, relating to societal goals. One of the most difficult of these was the question “What kind of nature do societies want?” This kind of normative question is not subject to scientific analysis, but relies on an organized vision regarding the future of each society’s relation with the natural environment and what it provides.

While society needs from science the answers to such questions and many others, science needs the support of society to make any progress at all toward answering them. As the gulf between the scientific and political communities widens, global environmental issues are often politicized and support is reduced for the very scientific community that could help ease the transition into a sustainable relation with the global ecosystem. For example, the U.N. Millennium Goals include the eradication of poverty, and the Post-2015 Agenda involves stabilization of global climate. Yet, research on climate change is being stifled in some key societies. Aggressive policies based on the best scientific insights available at this point will be necessary in order for these two U.N. goals not to be in direct conflict.

As scientific techniques, models and results become more complex, the distancing from mainstream society is exacerbated by numerous misconceptions and miscommunications. These include concepts such as truth, objectivity, uncertainty, and underlying motivations. Miscommunication is sometimes caused by drastically different vernacular in scientific and lay circles. Scientists have become notorious for speaking in terms that make sense strictly in a scientific context, but not in a social or political context, in vain attempts toward “turning them all into scientists.” While we would like to think that the entire citizenry should become scientifically astute, this approach is clearly untenable. Yet, only an informed populace can appreciate and thus benefit from the role of science in decision-making. So a critical question becomes “How can we most effectively provide scientific results and understanding to the general population in the face of rampant misinformation promoted by those in whose short-term interest it is to prevent decision-making based on science?”

The way forward necessarily involves a scientific community that understands and works within the value system of the society that depends on it (and that it depends on). This requires “speaking their language” not only in words, but in context. As such, outreach and education efforts on the part of scientists need to be both re-oriented and intensified. While decisions regarding resource consumption and distribution, human population, and the logical basis for decision-making may appear obvious to scientists, understanding that the world-view of much of the population is quite different will enable the scientific community to more effectively provide the needed insights in the service of society.