No science, no sustainability… the implications.

If vigorous advance of science and technology is a necessary condition for sustainability, then getting the social contract between science and society right is vital to humanity’s prospects.

What features of that social contract matter? Today’s post considers one that’s particularly sobering.

First, let’s go over a bit of groundwork:

Think of sustainability as the ability to provide food, water, and energy for the world’s seven billion people (going on nine billion); simultaneously building resilience to hazards, and maintaining ecosystem services and air- and water quality; all the while preserving (or even adding to) the same opportunities and options for future generations. A clearly meritorious, perhaps even defining, societal goal.

Significantly, this goal can never be actually achieved – not in any steady state. It can only be sought, or perhaps neared, through continuous innovation, that is: through steadily maintained scientific and technological advance, accompanied by constant societal uptake.

Some might be dismayed by this. But in fact, given the wonderful way our lives work, this turns out to be  good news. Sustainability’s elusive nature gives each generation challenge, suspense – and in the process, meaning. Our lives and work – and similarly, the efforts and labors of our children, and theirs – will always matter. We all have to keep moving forward if we hope to postpone entropy’s inexorable drive toward decline and decay.

So – no science, no sustainability? That’s a reality[1] — one that will always be with us.

One implication?

If society is to be sustainable, science needs to remain non-partisan. This has been a fundamental, unshakeable tenet of the social contract between science and society as long as anybody can remember. Science is, and should be, fundamentally non-partisan. If critical thinking and innovation aren’t cultural values, universally held; if somehow support for science is confined to a single subculture; if science is supported only by members of one or the other political party – then the advance of science will accelerate or slow along with the fortunes of that party. In such a cyclical regime, when those favoring science are out of power, then entropy begins to win. Worse yet, because science is a long game, and advances best under steady, uninterruptible support, even in the “good times” of the political cycle, the progress of science and its ability to benefit society will be compromised.

Science and scientists were accorded such non-partisan favor by both Republicans and Democrats following World War II, and pretty much throughout the Cold War that followed. But over the past two decades, that social contract has frayed.

Success, not failure, of the innovation and public support for it has contributed to this problem. Specifically, physical science and technology, especially nuclear technology, helped the United States maintain its national security during the Cold War. Near the Cold War’s end, breakthroughs in the bio-sciences and technologies have contributed to medical care and public health. But the costs of the innovation enterprise have ratcheted up. Investments in science visibly compete with investments in other priorities of the national agenda – e.g., critical infrastructure and the social safety net.

Then there’s the matter of who pays for science – and who benefits. As the applications of science and technology have conferred benefit (whether in health care, or information technology, or the geosciences and social sciences), it’s at the same time become increasingly clear to the public that the costs and benefits of science aren’t necessarily equitably distributed – across states and communities, ethnic groups, gender, and more. Some are enjoying the full benefits; others are being left further and further behind.

Finally –and this is awkward – scientists themselves haven’t helped. It’s easy, and tempting, to point the accusing finger to the other side. There’s a certain chicken-egg quality to the disaffection of some political parties for certain branches of science, and the estrangement between scientists and politicians in return. However, there is no excuse for scientists to be complacent about any resulting distrust (or worse yet, enmity).

We need to do better – in two respects.

For starters, we’ve got to be resolute in our focus on science. However tempting or satisfying in the short term it might be to favor this or that political action in response to scientific findings – whether related to health issues such as vaccinations, or food issues raised by genomic-modification of plants and animals, we need to confine scientific input to the policy process to analysis of the impact of policy options – versus, say, favoring this or that particular option over another.

In the same way, we need to be broadband, full-spectrum, even-handed in our outreach. We need to court all political parties, all national constituencies, with respect to the importance of science, the need for STEM education and critical thinking in public school curricula, etc. In that regard one particular trend is worrisome – the trend over the years for Congressional Science Fellows to work in Democratic versus Republican offices. We can’t afford complacency; AAAS and the partners should be seeking to remedy this with vigor.

All this discussion hints brings us to the second implication:

If society is to be sustainable, science needs to become (more effectively) partisan. We don’t face a mere challenge – we face a true conundrum[2],[3].  As soon as science isn’t something pursued on a purely individual basis – as soon as science is supported in financial and other ways by society – then at that very moment, science has inherently become political – and in most societies worldwide, that means science has become partisan. (Fact is, since science is a human construct; we’ve been living with this reality from the get-go.)

There’s no escaping this. The only choice then becomes – will science and scientists become astutely, adeptly political? Or will we blunder through the political policy process – breaking things and building up animosity as we go? One metric of our political competence might be something like the following: political competence (or competent partisanship?) is the ability to solve a given problem without compromising our ability to solve the next one. At a minimum, this means we can’t focus solely on science; we have to keep one eye out for how our science is being used by society.

One way out, that at least deserves further thought: if partisanship creates the conundrum, then perhaps scientists, in addition to favoring STEM education, public support, and all the rest, might reasonably also study what makes societies partisan, and perhaps even consider whether or how society might possibly trend less partisan, without losing any precious diversity.

And lead the charge , by modeling the desired less-partisan behavior ourselves.


[1]And the subject not just of the previous LOTRW post, but also of eight years of blogging, as well as the book by the same name.

[2] Conundrum a an intricate and difficult problem

  • He is faced with the conundrumof trying to find a job without having experience.

b a question or problem having only a conjectural answer

  • … the political conundrumsinvolved, particularly the problem of how the richer areas … can be made to subsidize the poorer.

[3] Bill Gail is the master of conundrums, as the collection of ten in his 2014 book powerfully demonstrates. So it’s fitting to accompany this assertion with an apology for today’s presumption, with a tip of the hat in his direction, and with a reminder to everyone who hasn’t yet done so, to drop what they’re doing and buy and read his book.)


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