Citizens and scientists often see science-related topics issues through different sets of eyes. This is hardly a new reality, but there are particularly stark differences across the board in these surveys.
The largest differences are found in beliefs about the safety of eating genetically modified foods. Fully 88% of AAAS scientists say it is generally safe to eat genetically modified (GM) foods compared with 37% of the general public who say the same, a gap of 51 percentage points. Sizable opinion differences occur on both biomedical science as well as physical science topics: Only two of the 13 comparisons find a difference of less than 10 percentage points.
There is no single direction of differences between the groups. For example, when it comes to building more nuclear power plants scientists are more inclined than the general public to favor the idea (65% vs. 45%, respectively), while when it comes to increasing the use of hydraulic fracturing scientists are less inclined than the general public to favor the idea (31% vs. 39%, respectively).
The remainder of this chapter looks at attitudes of the public and scientists on each of these issues. In addition, we look at opinions on several issues asked only of the general public related to bioengineering, genetic modifications, and perceptions of scientific consensus on evolution, climate change, the creation of the universe, and health effects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Throughout, we briefly evaluate patterns in science and technology attitudes by gender, age, race/ethnicity and education. More details on views among the general public by subgroups, including by education, science knowledge, religion and political groups, are forthcoming in a separate report.
Safety of Genetically Modified Foods – 51-Point Gap
A minority of adults (37%) say that eating genetically modified foods is generally safe, while 57% say they believe it is unsafe. By contrast, nearly all AAAS scientists (88%) say they consider eating GMOs to be generally safe.
The general public also tends to be skeptical about the scientific understanding of GMO effects. A minority of adults (28%) say they think scientists have a clear understanding of the health effects of genetically modified crops while 67% say their view is that scientists do not clearly understand this.
Patterns Among the General Public
Among the general public, those with a college degree are closely divided over whether eating genetically modified foods is safe: 49% of those with college degrees say it is generally safe, while 47% say it is generally unsafe. Those with a college degree are still substantially less likely than AAAS scientists to consider GM foods safe to eat, however (49% compared with 88%).
Fewer women (28%) than men (47%) believe eating GM foods is safe. Opinions also tend to vary by race and ethnicity with fewer blacks (24%) and Hispanics (32%) than whites (41%) saying that GM foods are safe to eat. Views about GMOs are roughly the same among both younger (ages 18 to 49) and older (50 and older) adults.
About half of U.S. adults report that they always (25%) or sometimes (25%) look to see if products are genetically modified when they are food shopping. Some 31% say they never look for such labels and 17% say they do not often look.
Not surprisingly, those who consider GM foods unsafe tend to check for GM food labels more often: 35% of this group always looks to see if products are genetically modified, compared with 9% among those who consider such foods generally safe to eat.
Animal Research – 42-Point Gap
The general public is closely divided when it comes to the use of animals in research. Some 47% favor and a nearly equal share (50%) oppose animal research. Support for the use of animals in research is down slightly from 52% in 2009. By contrast, there is strong consensus among AAAS scientists for the use of animals in research (89% to 9%).
Patterns Among the General Public
Among the general public, men and women differ strongly in their views about animal research. Six-in-ten men favor the use of animal research. By contrast, 35% of women favor animal research while 62% oppose it. College graduates, especially those who studied science in college, tend to express more support than do those with less education for using animals in scientific research.
Food Grown with Pesticides – 40-Point Gap
A similar pattern occurs when it comes to the safety of eating foods grown with pesticides. About seven-in-ten (69%) adults say that eating such foods is generally unsafe, while 28% say it is safe. By contrast, 68% of AAAS scientists consider eating foods grown with pesticides to be generally safe, and 31% say it is generally unsafe.
Patterns Among the General Public
As with views about the safety of eating GM foods, those with more education are more likely than those with less schooling to say that foods grown with pesticides are safe to eat. And, more men than women say such foods are safe, though a minority of both groups consider eating foods with grown with pesticides to be safe (38% among men and 18% among women). There are no differences in views on this issue by age.
Beliefs about Human Evolution – 33-Point Gap
About two-thirds (65%) of Americans say that “humans and other living things have evolved over time” while 31% say “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” Public beliefs about human evolution are similar to when asked in previous Pew Research surveys, including the 2009 poll.
Roughly half of those who say that humans have evolved over time believe that evolution has occurred from natural processes such as natural selection (35% of all adults), while a somewhat smaller share (24% of all adults) believe a supreme being guided the evolution of humans and other living things.
Patterns Among the General Public
Three-quarters (75%) of college graduates believe that humans have evolved over time, compared with 56% of those who ended their formal education with a high school diploma or less. Beliefs about evolution also differ strongly by religion and political group, as was also the case in past surveys. A detailed analysis of religious and political group beliefs about science and technology topics based on these new survey findings is forthcoming.
Regardless of their personal beliefs about evolution, 66% of the public say they believe that scientists generally agree that humans have evolved over time while 29% say that scientists do not agree about this.
About half (47%) of those who personally believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time also see scientists as generally in agreement that humans have evolved. Three-quarters of those who believe humans have evolved also see scientists as largely in agreement about evolution.
Perceptions of scientific consensus around the creation of the universe are less uniform. Some 42% of the public as whole says that scientists generally agree the universe was created in a single event often called “the big bang,” while 52% say that scientists are divided in their views about creation of the universe.
Patterns Among the General Public
Perceptions of scientific consensus on both evolution and the creation of the universe tend to vary by education. About three-quarters of college graduates (76%) say scientists generally agree about evolution, compared with 58% of those with a high school education or less. Similarly, about half of those with a college degree (52%) say that scientists generally believe the universe was created in a single, violent event compared with 33% of those with a high school degree or less education who say the same. Perceptions of scientific consensus also tend to vary by age with younger generations (ages 18 to 49) more likely than older ones to see scientists as in agreement on these topics.
Vaccines and Access to Experimental Treatments – 18-Point Gap
Asked about whether vaccines for childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) and polio should be required or left up to parental choice, 68% of adults say such vaccines should be required while 30% say that parents should be able to decide whether or not to vaccinate their children. Scientists are more likely than the general public to say that such vaccines should be required for all children: 86% of scientists say this compared with 68% among the general public.
Opinion about childhood vaccines among both the public and scientists is about the same as in 2009. Scientists are a bit more likely to say that vaccines should be required (up from 82% to 86% today). Thus the divide between public and scientists’ views has ticked up from 13 to 18 percentage points today.
Patterns Among the General Public
Younger adults are less inclined than older generations to believe vaccines should be required for all children: 37% of adults under age 50 say parents should be able to decide not to vaccinate their children compared with 22% of those ages 50 and older. Men and women hold similar views about requiring vaccines. There are no significant differences in views about this issue by education or race and ethnicity.
Climate Change – 37-Point Gap
Public attitudes about climate change have become increasingly contentious over the past several years. The new Pew Research survey included two separate measures to gauge public attitudes about climate change. When asked to pick among three choices, 50% say that climate change is occurring mostly because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels, 23% say that climate change is mostly because of natural patterns in the earth’s environment, and another 25% say there is no solid evidence the earth is getting warmer. The share of the public saying climate change is due to human activity is about the same as when last asked in a 2009 Pew Research survey, but more now say there is no solid evidence of warming (25% today, up from 11% in 2009) and fewer say that warming is occurring due to natural patterns in the environment (23% today, down from 36% in 2009).
AAAS scientists’ views about climate change, using the same three-choice measure, contrast starkly with that of the public. Fully 87% of scientists say climate change is occurring due to human activity, 9% say climate change is mostly due to natural patterns and just 3% of this group says there is no solid evidence the earth is getting warmer. An overwhelming majority of AAAS scientists from all disciplinary specialties believe that climate change is mostly due to human activity. Those with a primary specialty in the earth sciences hold about the same views as all AAAS scientists surveyed (89% say climate change is mostly due to human activity). In 2009, 84% of AAAS scientists said the earth was warming mostly because of human activity.
Scientists are also considerably more inclined than the general public as a whole to see climate change as a problem. Fully 77% of AAAS scientists say that climate change is a very serious problem. In a 2013 Pew Research survey, a third of adults said that “global warming” was a very serious problem. The highest share of those holding that view since the question was first asked in 2006 was 45% in 2007.
There are a number of ways to canvass opinion about climate change issues. In a separate series of questions, adults in the general public were asked whether or not there is solid evidence that the average temperature of the earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades. Fully 72% of adults say there is solid evidence of warming, while a quarter (25%) say there is no solid evidence of this.
Follow-up questions find that most of those who believe the earth is warming think warming is due to human activity (46% of all adults), rather than natural patterns in the earth’s environment (22% of all adults). Those who say there is no solid evidence the earth is getting warmer are split between those who say the evidence is not yet clear (11% of all adults) and that warming is not occurring (13% of all adults).
Americans’ views of the evidence related to climate change have fluctuated somewhat over the last few years. Since 2012, roughly two-thirds or more of Americans see solid evidence the earth is warming, up from roughly six-in-ten in 2009 to 2010. But when the Pew Research Center asked this question in August 2006 and early 2007, 77% said there was solid evidence that the average temperature on earth had been increasing.
Views about the role of human activity in climate change have followed a similar trajectory.
Patterns Among the General Public
Views about climate change tend to differ by party and political ideology, as also was the case in past surveys. Democrats are more likely than either political independents or Republicans to say there is solid evidence the earth is warming. And, moderate or liberal Republicans are more likely to say the earth is warming than are conservative Republicans. Past Pew Research surveys have also shown more skepticism among Tea Party Republicans that the earth is warming.
Consistent with past surveys, there are wide differences in views about climate change by age, with adults ages 65 and older more skeptical than younger age groups that there is solid evidence the earth is warming.
A majority of Americans (57%) say they believe that scientists generally agree that the earth is warming because of human activity, while 37% say that scientists generally do not agree. Perceptions of where the scientific community stands on climate change have fluctuated from a low of 44% in 2010 who said that scientists agree about human activity as the main cause of warming temperatures to a high of 57% saying this today.
These public perceptions tend to be associated with individual views on the issue. For example, those who believe the earth is getting warmer due to human activity are most inclined to see scientists as in agreement on this point. Those who say either that climate change is occurring due to natural patterns in the earth’s environment or who do not believe there is solid evidence of climate change are more inclined to see scientists as divided.
Patterns Among the General Public
As with perceptions of scientific consensus on other topics, public perceptions that scientists tend to agree about climate change tend to vary by education and age. College graduates are more likely than those with less formal education to say that scientists generally agree the earth is getting warmer due to human activity. Younger generations (ages 18 to 49) are more likely than older ones to see scientists in agreement about climate change.
Population Growth and Natural Resources – 23-Point Gap
A majority of Americans express concern that world population growth will strain the planet’s natural resources: 59% of adults have a pessimistic view about the effect of population growth saying it will be a major problem because there will not be enough food and resources to go around. Nearly four-in-ten (38%) take the view that growth will not be a major problem because the world will find a way to stretch its natural resources.
By comparison, AAAS scientists are particularly likely to express concern about world population growth and natural resources. Fully 82% say population growth will be a major problem while 17% say this will not be a major problem because the world will find a way to stretch its natural resources.
Patterns Among the General Public
African-Americans are more optimistic that new solutions will emerge to address the strains on natural resource caused by a growing world population. Whites and Hispanics, by comparison, are more likely to see the growing world population as leading to a major problem. There are no differences or only modest differences in viewpoints about this issue by gender, age or education.
Off-shore Drilling and Nuclear Power each has a 20-Point Gap; Fracking has 8-Point Gap
There is a 20-point gap between public and scientists’ views on two older energy technologies: offshore oil drilling and nuclear power, but the gap runs in opposite directions for each.
About half of Americans (52%) favor allowing more offshore oil drilling in U.S. waters, while 44% are opposed. By contrast, most AAAS scientists oppose more offshore drilling by a margin of 66% to 32%.
The opposite pattern occurs in views about nuclear power. About half of Americans (51%) oppose building more nuclear power plants, while 45% are in favor. AAAS scientists show more support for nuclear power: 65% favor building more nuclear power plants while 33% are opposed. A majority of scientists support more nuclear power plants regardless of disciplinary specialty.
One newer form of energy development — increased use of genetically-engineered plants as a fuel alternative to gasoline — draws strong support among both the public and AAAS scientists. Fully 68% of Americans and 78% of AAAS scientists favor increased use of this technology.
Views about the increased use of hydraulic fracturing or ”fracking” tilt in the opposite direction. A minority of the public (39%) supports the increased use of fracking to extract oil and natural gas from underground rock formations, while about half (51%) are opposed. By comparison, opinion about fracking among AAAS scientists is more negative: 31% of scientists favor the increased use of fracking while 66% are opposed. However, scientists’ views about fracking vary across specialty areas. Engineers are more supportive of the increased use of fracking (53% favor) while those with biological or medical specialties are less supportive (25% favor). Those with a specialty in the earth sciences fall somewhere in between these two groups (42% favor).
Public support for the increased use of fracking has declined since March 2013 when there was more support (48%) than opposition (38%). An earlier Pew Research analysis found that opposition to increased fracking has grown since 2013 particularly among Midwesterners, women, and those under age 50.
Patterns Among the General Public
Men express more support than women for building nuclear power plants, more offshore drilling, and increased use of fracking. Both men and women hold about the same views when it comes to bioengineered fuel alternatives from plants. There are no or only modest differences by education on these energy issues.
Views about the U.S. Space Program
View of Human Astronauts 12-Point Gap; Modest Difference on Value of Space Station
Many Americans, particularly those among the older generations, recount memories of the “space race” era and the historic events of NASA’s Apollo 11 landing a manned aircraft on the moon in 1969. NASA’s space shuttle program, which helped build the International Space Station, came to an end in 2011.
A majority of Americans see the space station as a good investment for the country: 64% say the space station has been a good investment, 29% say it has not. Views among AAAS scientists are also broadly positive: 68% of scientists say the space station has been a good investment for the country and 31% dissent from that view.
While sending humans into space has been a prominent feature of the U.S. space program in past decades, the future role of human astronauts in the U.S. space program is unclear.The Pew Research survey asked respondents to consider whether the use of human astronauts in the U.S. space program is essential or not essential given the relative costs of manned vs. robotic space exploration. A majority of Americans (59%) take the view that human astronauts are an essential part of future U.S. space exploration. AAAS scientists, by contrast, are closely divided over whether or not human astronauts are essential in the space program going forward; 47% say that human astronauts are essential while 52% say they are not essential.
There are only modest differences among scientists by specialty area about this issue. Among those who identify their specialty as physics or astronomy 41% say human astronauts are essential and 58% say they are not essential for the future U.S. space program.
Patterns Among the General Public
Men are more likely than women to say that human astronauts are essential for the future of the U.S. space program (66% vs. 52%, respectively). Views about this issue are roughly the same among age, education racial and ethnic groups.
Access to Experimental Drugs
The Pew Research survey also asked the general public (but not the AAAS scientists) for their views about giving more people access to experimental drug treatments before clinical trials have shown whether such drugs are safe and effective for a specific disease or condition. The general public tends to favor this idea by a margin of 54% to 43%.
Patterns Among the General Public
Some 59% of whites favor this idea, compared with about half of Hispanics (48%) and 36% of African-Americans. College graduates and those with higher family incomes tend to be more strongly in favor of this idea than are those with less education or income, respectively. Men and women are about equally likely to favor increased access to experimental drugs before clinical trials are complete, as are those under and over age 50.
New technologies in science and medicine are generating an increasingly wide array of medical treatments. One such treatment involves creating artificial organs such as hearts or kidneys for transplant in humans needing organ replacement. The Pew Research survey asked the general public (but not the AAAS scientists) whether or not they felt the use of bioengineering to create artificial organs was an “appropriate use of medical advances” or was “taking such advances too far.” Fully 74% of adults say that bioengineering of organs is appropriate while 23% say this is taking medical advances too far.
Patterns Among the General Public
Whites are more inclined than African-Americans and Hispanics to say bioengineered organs are appropriate, although majorities in each of the three groups say this is appropriate. There are also modest differences in views about this issue by education and gender; college graduates more so than those with less education say bioengineering of organs is an appropriate use of medical advances. In addition, men more than women say bioengineered organs are an appropriate use of medical advances.
Modifying a Baby’s Genes
The survey also asked the public about two possibilities in the realm of genetic modifications. One question sought people’s views about changing a baby’s genetic characteristics in order to make the baby more intelligent. A separate question asked about changing a baby’s genetic characteristics in order to reduce the risk of serious diseases. Public views about the appropriateness of genetic therapies of this sort differ widely depending on the circumstances considered.
An overwhelming majority of adults (83%) say that modifying genetic characteristics to make a baby more intelligent is “taking medical advances too far.” Just 15% say this would be an appropriate use of medical advances.
By comparison, fewer are negative about genetic treatment to reduce the risk of serious diseases. But opinion about this circumstance is closely divided, with about half of adults (50%) saying genetic changes for this purpose would be taking medical advances too far and a nearly equal share of 46% saying this would be an appropriate use of medical advances.
Patterns Among the General Public
Women are a bit more negative than men about genetic modifications to reduce the risk of serious diseases (54% among women vs. 47% among men say this would be taking medical advances too far). Strong majorities of both men and women are opposed to modifications aimed at increasing a baby’s intelligence, although opinion is more negative among women (87%) than it is among men ( 78%). There are no differences, or only modest differences, in views about genetic modification in these circumstances by race, ethnicity, or education. Younger and older adults also tend to hold similar views on these questions However, those under age 30 are a bit more likely than older adults to say that changing a baby’s genetic characteristics in order to reduce disease risk is appropriate.
The Role of Science and Technology in Future Design
by Jerome Karle
1985 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
The role of science and technology in future design will be discussed from the perspective of someone who has lived all his life in the United States and whose scientific experience has spanned the years since the late 1930s. It is likely that the reader will find in my discussion characteristics that apply to many developed countries and developing ones. Inasmuch as scientific progress is highly dependent on financial support and, in modern times, on general societal support, it is appropriate to discuss the interaction of science and society. Using the United States as an example, some of the topics to be discussed are the views of public officials who influence the distribution of research funds, the response of funding agencies and the views of scientists. Finally, we shall look at the co-evolution of science and society and attempt to draw some conclusions concerning their related future and the implications for the future of technology.
Views of Public Officials
Public officials who are involved in setting or influencing science policy have expressed opinions that indicate that they intend to change the basis for supporting research and development. They speak in terms of a "paradigm shift" based on some new perception of the role of science in society. The word paradigm has several meanings, but in the way it is used here the words "pattern" or "model" may be good substitutes. In other words, the public officials wish to alter somewhat the pattern of funding for science. Their motivation is to orient research more toward programs that, for example, ensure a stronger economy and improvements in the environment. It is becoming increasingly apparent that those public officials who control public funds, will be reluctant to fund research programs that they consider unrelated to national needs.
An example of priority-setting by public officials was the vote in the House of Representatives against further construction of the high energy accelerator known as the superconducting super collider. This shift in spending priorities implies that nuclear physics may receive less support in the future if it continues to be viewed as less related to the new national priorities than other scientific disciplines.
Views of Funding Agencies
The effect of the intention of federal officials to shift public research funds toward research programs that serve the national priorities has already affected the nature of the funding available at the funding agencies. For example, at the National Science Foundation, a small increase in funding for the chemistry division is directed toward so-called strategic research initiatives that involve, for example, advanced materials and processing, biotechnology, environmental chemistry and high-performance computing. It is likely that this trend will continue. The Federal Coordinating Council on Science, Engineering and Technology identified the current national priority areas as high-performance computing, advanced materials, manufacturing research and education, biotechnology and global change. The expressed intention is to get more effort into those areas, but not to have them be entirely exclusive.
Views of Scientists
Many questions arose in the scientific community as a consequence of the use of words such as "new paradigm," "strategic areas", "priorities," and "national competitiveness" in statements concerning the future funding of science. The questions concerned many aspects of the support of science, such as, is the paradigm really new, who decides which areas are strategic and who sets the priorities, and are the important contributions of curiosity-driven basic research to be largely sacrificed.
The indications so far are quite clear that the government expects to shift publicly funded research activity into the areas that are deemed strategic. Is this a new paradigm or merely a shift in emphasis? Quite apparently there has been over the years heavy funding and much research in the strategic (priority) areas. There also has been in the United States, a major Industry-University cooperative research program conducted by the National Science Foundation. It celebrated its 20th year of operation in January, 1994. An account of this very successful and extensive program has been presented in the January 24, 1994 issue of Chemical and Engineering News published by the American Chemical Society. The motivation of this cooperative program is to develop and transfer industrially relevant technologies from the university into practice. There are currently more than 50 active centers involving about 1,000 faculty members, about 1,000 graduate students and 78 universities. More than 700 organizations sponsor the centers, including government agencies, national laboratories and about 500 industrial firms. A table in the article lists 55 research topics covering a broad array of technologies. It is pointed out that the success rate is very high, namely only 6% of the centers have failed. Major investments have been made by sponsor organizations, based on center technologies. There are also many other industry-university collaborations that are not part of the National Science Foundation program.
Do we really have a "new paradigm" and, if so, what is it? Performing research in the interest of national needs is not new. Cooperating with industry is not new. Setting priorities is not new. What could be new? It is indicated that what is new is that by control of public funds curiosity driven research is to be curtailed to some unspecified degree in favor of research perceived to be in the national interest. This, I believe is the source of the apprehension among scientists. The major developments in science and technology generally derive from curiosity driven research and these developments have had over time great impact on the national interest, enriching the country with whole new industries and making contributions to the health, welfare, comfort and security of society. Is curtailing curiosity driven research in the national interest?
The Impact of Curiosity Driven Basic Research
Many scientific groups have produced literature that describes, in terms of many examples, how curiosity driven research has led to important developments in the interest of society. The October, 1993 issue of Physics Today celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of the journal, Physical Review. A major part of this issue was devoted to the matter of basic research. An article by Robert K. Adair and Ernest M. Henley pointed out that "a century of fundamental physics research has appeared in the Physical Review. Such research is the seed corn of the technological harvest that sustains modern society." In an article on the laser, Nicolaas Bloembergen points out that "the first paper reporting an operating laser was rejected by Physical Review Letters in 1960. Now lasers are a huge and growing industry, but the pioneers' chief motivation was the physics." In an article on fiber optics, Alister M. Glass notes that "fundamental research in glass science, optics and quantum mechanics has matured into a technology that is now driving a communications revolution." In an article on superconductivity, Theodore H. Geballe states that "it took half a century to understand Kamerlingh Onnes' discovery, and another quarter-century to make it useful. Presumably we won't have to wait that long to make practical use of the new high-temperature superconductors." Other articles concerned nuclear magnetic resonance, semiconductors, nanostructures and medical cyclotrons, all subjects of great technological and medical importance that originated in basic physical research.
In a preface for a publication of the American Chemical Society, Science and Serendipity, the President of the ACS in 1992, Ernest L. Eliel, writes about "The Importance of Basic Research." He writes that "many people believe - having read about the life of Thomas Edison - that useful products are the result of targeted research, that is, of research specifically designed to produce a desired product. But the examples given in this booklet show that progress is often made in a different way. Like the princes of Serendip, researchers often find different, sometimes greater, riches than the ones they are seeking. For example, the tetrafluoroethylene cylinder that gave rise to Teflon was meant to be used in the preparation of new refrigerants. And the anti-AIDS drug AZT was designed as a remedy for cancer." He goes on to say that "most research stories are of a different kind, however. The investigators were interested in some natural phenomenon, sometimes evident, sometimes conjectured, sometimes predicted by theory. Thus, Rosenberg's research on the potential effects of electric fields on cell division led to the discovery of an important cancer drug; Kendall's work on the hormones of the adrenal gland led to an anti-inflammatory substance; Carothers' work on giant molecules led to the invention of Nylon; Bloch and Purcell's fundamental work in the absorption of radio frequency by atomic nuclei in a magnetic field led to MRI. Development of gene splicing by Cohen and Boyer produced, among other products, better insulin. Haagen-Smit's work on air pollutants spawned the catalytic converter. Reinitzer's discovery of liquid crystals is about to revolutionize computer and flat-panel television screens, and the discovery of the laser - initially a laboratory curiosity - is used in such diverse applications as the reattachment of a detached retina and the reading of barcodes in supermarkets. All of these discoveries are detailed in this booklet (Science and Serendipity). Ernest Eliel goes on to point, out that "the road from fundamental discovery to practical application is often quite long, ranging from about 10 years in the example of Nylon to some 80 years in the case of liquid crystals." He concludes that "if we stop doing fundamental research now, the 'well' that supplies the applications will eventually run dry. In other words, without continuing fundamental research, the opportunities for new technology are eventually going to shrink."
Some of the other topics in the brochure on Science and Serendipity, that were included to document further the importance of basic research, concerned several examples of the impact of chemistry on medicine. There are, in fact, countless such examples. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in their Newsletter of May, 1993 considered basic biomedical research and its benefits to society. I quote from the FASEB Public Affairs Bulletin of May, 1993. "There have been recent suggestions that tighter linkage between basic research and national goals should become a criterion for research support. Concerns also have been raised that science is being practiced for its own sake, and that it would be better for the nation if research were oriented more toward specific industrial applications." They go on to point out that "the available evidence, however, clearly indicates that the desired linkage already exists. Indeed, a majority of scientists are intimately involved in the study and treatment of common human diseases and collaborate closely with clinical scientists. Industries involved in biomedical development have been remarkably efficient in commercial application of treatment modalities based on discoveries resulting from fundamental research funded primarily by the federal government.
"A critical factor in sustaining the competitive position of biomedical-based industries is for basic research to continue to provide a stream of ideas and discoveries that can be translated into new products. It is essential to provide adequate federal support for a broad base of fundamental research, rather than shifting to a major emphasis on directed research, because the paths to success are unpredictable and subject to rapid change.
"History has repeatedly demonstrated that it is not possible to predict which efforts in fundamental research will lead to critical insights about how to prevent and treat disease; it is therefore essential to support a sufficient number of meritorious projects in basic research so that opportunities do not go unrealized. Although its primary aim is to fill the gaps in our understanding of how life processes work, basic research has borne enormous fruit in terms of its practical applications. We recognize that during a time when resources are constrained, it may be tempting to direct funding to projects that appear likely to provide early practical returns, but we emphasize that support for a wide-ranging portfolio of untargeted research has proven to be the better investment. This provides the broader base of knowledge from which all new medical applications arise. Decisions regarding what research to fund must be based on informed judgments about which projects represent the most meritorious ideas."
FASEB continues with a discussion of economic benefits and a number of examples of basic research-driven medical breakthroughs. "Society reaps substantial benefit from basic research. Technologies derived from basic research have saved millions of lives and billions of dollars in health care costs. According to an estimate by the National Institutes of Health on the economic benefits of 26 recent advances in the diagnosis and treatment of disease, some $6 billion in medical costs are saved annually by those innovations alone. The significance of these basic research-derived developments, however, transcends the lowering of medical costs: the lives of children as well as adults are saved, and our citizens are spared prolonged illness or permanent disability. Fuller, more productive lives impact positively on the nation's economic and social progress."
FASEB continues with thirteen examples of contributions by basic research to the diagnosis and treatment of numerous diseases, most of them very serious. Also noted in this Public Affairs Bulletin is that "our ability to know in advance all that is relevant is very poor" (Robert Frosch) and that, in suggesting new ideas for the management of funding for science, never considered were "the serious consequences of harming the system."
Up to this point, we have been concerned with basic science and its support by government funds in a modern society. Although there is also some support by private institutions established for that purpose and also some industrial investment in generally product-oriented basic research, the greatest amount of support by far comes from public funds. One of the ways that the public is repaid for their support is through the technology that fundamental research generates. I suspect that the economic return from technology alone more than compensates for the monies expended for the entire basic research effort. I have no estimate, however, of whether my suspicion is true or not. It should be noted that the public gains much more than the economic value of technology. It gains culture, comfort, convenience, security, recreation, health and the extension of life. What monetary value can be put on the triumphs of health over debilitating or fatal disease? The monetary value has to be higher than the purely economic savings that were noted above in the 26 examples referred to in the FASEB Bulletin.
The word "technology" means industrial science and is usually associated with major activities such as manufacturing, transportation and communication. Technology has been, in fact, closely associated with the evolution of man starting with tools, clothing, fire, shelter and various other basic survival items. The co-evolution persists and, since basic science is now very much a part of developing technologies, the term co-evolution of science and society which is used at times very much implies the co-evolution of both basic science and industrial science with society. Advances in technology are generally accompanied by social changes as a consequence of changing economies and ways of carrying out life's various activities. An important question arises concerning how basic scientific discoveries eventually lead to new technologies and what that may mean to the rational support of basic research and the future of science and technology in the developed and developing world.
There are great uncertainties in the process that starts with basic research and ends with an economically successful technology. The successful discovery of a new development in research that appears to have technological significance does not ensure the economic success of technologies that may be based on it.
Nathan Rosenberg of Stanford University, in a speech, "Uncertainty and Technological Change", before the National Academy of Sciences (April, 1994), pointed out that there are great uncertainties regarding economic success even in research that is generally directed toward a specific technological goal. He notes that uncertainties derive from many sources, for example, failure to appreciate the extent to which a market may expand from future improvement of the technology, the fact that technologies arise with characteristics that are not immediately appreciated, and failure to comprehend the significance of improvements in complementary inventions, that is inventions that enhance the potential of the original technology. Rosenberg also points out that many new technological regimes take many years before they replace an established technology and that technological revolutions are never completed overnight. They require a long gestation period. Initially it is very difficult to conceptualize the nature of entirely new systems that develop by evolving over time. Rosenberg goes on to note that major or "breakthrough" innovations induce other innovations and their "ultimate impact depends on identifying certain specific categories of human needs and catering to them in novel or more cost effective ways. New technologies need to pass an economic test, not just a technological one."
What does this mean with regard to government managed research? I quote from Rosenberg's speech.
"I become distinctly nervous when I hear it urged upon the research community that it should unfurl the flag of 'relevance' to social and economic needs. The burden of much of what I said is that we frequently simply do not know what new findings may turn out to be relevant, or to what particular realm of human activity that relevance may eventually apply. Indeed, I have been staking the broad claim that a pervasive uncertainty characterizes, not just basic research, where it is generally acknowledged, but the realm of product design and new product development as well - i.e., the D of R&D. Consequently, early precommitment to any specific, large-scale technology project, as opposed to a more limited, sequential decision-making approach, is likely to be hazardous - i.e., unnecessarily costly. Evidence for this assertion abounds in such fields as weapons procurement, the space program, research on the development of an artificial heart, and synthetic fuels.
"The pervasiveness of uncertainty suggests that the government should ordinarily resist the temptation to play the role of a champion of any one technological alternative, such as nuclear power, or any narrowly concentrated focus of research support, such as the War on Cancer. Rather, it would seem to make a great deal of sense to manage a deliberately diversified research portfolio, a portfolio that will illuminate a range of alternatives in the event of a reordering of social or economic priorities. My criticism of the federal government's postwar energy policy is not that it made a major commitment to nuclear power that subsequently turned out to be problem-ridden. Rather, the criticism is aimed at the single-mindedness of the focus on nuclear power that led to a comparative neglect of many other alternatives, including not only alternative energy sources but improvements in the efficiency of energy utilization."
To these words, I add those (noted by FASEB) of Bruce Ferguson, Executive Vice President of Orbital Sciences Corporation, a space technology firm. Ferguson said, "The federal government should focus its research and development spending on those areas for which the benefits are diffuse and likely to be realized over many years, rather than areas for which benefits are concentrated on particular products or firms over a few years. These areas are not well covered by corporate investment, yet are vital to the long-term economic strength of the country."
Some reactions to "strategic" research are recounted in an article in Nature of February 10, 1994 (Vol. 367, pp. 495-496) from which I quote some passages. The concept of strategic research "is not an unfamiliar cry, witness last year's debate in Britain about harnessing of research to 'wealth creation.' Nor, of course, is the objective in any way disreputable; what scientist would not be cheered to know that his or her research won practical benefits for the wider world as well as a modicum of understanding? The difficulties are those of telling in advance which particular pieces of research will lead to 'new technologies' and then to 'jobs'.
"The recent past is littered with examples of adventurous goal-directed programmes of research and development which have failed for intrinsic reasons or which, alternatively, have been technically successful, but unusable for economic or other reasons."
The article goes on to say that the affection for strategic research in the United States may prove short-lived. "In Britain, much the same seems to be happening. Having pinned its reorganization of research on the doctrine of science for wealth-creation, the government appears now to be more conscious of the problems it has undertaken to solve. Indeed, the prime minister, John Major, seemed to be suggesting in a speech last week that the British part of the research enterprise deserves respect of the kind accorded to other social institutions at the heart of his 'back to basics' rhetoric. After more than a decade of needless damage-doing, that would be only prudent."
As a final remark, the article ends with the statement: "On the grander questions, on both sides of the Atlantic, it seems likely that the first flush of enthusiasm for turning research into prosperity will be abated by the reality of the difficulties of doing so. When governments discover in the course of seeking radical reorganization that the best they can do with their parts of the research enterprise is to cherish them, the lessons are likely to be remembered. If the outcome in the research community is a more vivid awareness of how much the world at large looks to research for its improvement, so much the better."
The Future of Science, Technology and Society
In discussing the future of science (including industrial science) and society, it is valuable to recount some of the important points that emerged from the previous discussion.
1. As a consequence of recognizing the economic benefits that derive from the development of novel, successful technologies, governments have been attempting to direct research, supported with public funds, toward subjects that are perceived as national priorities. This contrasts with broad-based "curiosity" oriented basic research.
2. The views of scientists, a distinguished economist, some industrial leaders and an editorial comment in a distinguished science journal provide very strong indications that governmental management of goal-oriented research is replete with uncertainties and pitfalls and, although well-motivated, may cause serious damage to the scientific culture. This, of course, would defeat the original purpose, since the co-evolution of science and society is a very-well documented and irrefutable phenomenon.
3. Strong arguments are presented in this article by individuals and groups that support the current system of governmental funding of a very broad range of scientific efforts as probably being as close to optimal with regard to national priorities as is possible. No one can predict with any certainty what the most successful inventions and technologies will be in the future. The economic return on federally supported funding was the subject of a report by the Council of Economic Advisors to President Clinton. This report was released in November 1995. It documents high returns to the economy and the importance of governmental involvement. 1
4. By any measure, basic scientific research has made monumental contributions to technology and national priorities. The bond between basic research and the development of both novel and current technologies has been and is well in place.
There is no question that science and society will continue to co-evolve. The nature of this evolution will certainly be affected by the extent to which governments set funding priorities. Societies whose governments recognize the dependence of the development of successful novel technologies on broadly supported basic research are more likely to be healthier and economically prosperous in the future than those that do not. Because of the unpredictability of the details of the new science and technology that will evolve, the details of social evolution are also unpredictable.
1. The CEA Report on Economic Returns from R&D is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.whitehouse.gov.
First published 29 June 2000
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MLA style: "The Role of Science and Technology in Future Design". Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 13 Mar 2018. <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/themes/chemistry/karle/>