“Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all — that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things, but for the benefit and use of life, and that they perfect and govern it in charity. For it was from lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell; but of charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever come in danger by it.”– Francis Bacon
Scientists want most of all to see their science harnessed for human benefit.
A simple idea, but it raises three questions:
1. Why? Why do scientists want this?
Scientists are first and foremost human. The greatest human yearning is to lead a life of significance, to make a difference – to matter. Gaining a new bit of knowledge and understanding? Realizing the implications of a physical or social experiment, or an observation of the natural world, or a bit of mathematics? That engenders a corresponding though usually fleeting measure of private joy. Sharing that advance, that new understanding, with others through a conference talk or a journal article? More gratifying still. A wonderful thing. But what scientists have known for centuries, and what Francis Bacon articulated so well, is that these are inferior satisfactions. And what brings a lasting peace of mind, and enduring contentment, and gratitude beyond imagining, is to see such understanding improve the human condition broadly and for the long haul.
2. What is the reality – the situation on the ground?
Has science been – is science being– harnessed for human benefit? Most would see the situation as mixed. Science has led to great extensions of life and the quality of that life. Human numbers have exploded. In many ways, today’s much-larger populations are better housed, better nourished, generally more secure, longer-lived, and enjoying a better experience across that span of life than prior generations. The green revolution, the eradication of smallpox and polio, the harnessing of electricity and yes, even the development and use of fossil fuels – these and many more innovations have all played a role.
But much is left undone, or even heading in the wrong direction. Vaccines of proven efficacy and safety are not fully used. Root threats to human health – poor nutrition, stress, lack of sleep and exercise – though identified, remain unaddressed. Economic understanding of the need to balance opportunity for some with equity for many has been ignored, or used as a weapon for political debate. Information technology has broadened access to knowledge but at the same time has led to deliberate falsification of fact, malicious trolling and cyber bullying, and the erosion of privacy. Science has been harnessed to subjugate entire nations, to make war, to foment terror, to destroy biodiversity, shrink habitats, and degrade air, water, and soil. So far, science has merely made us better off; it has failed to make us better.
3. What will it take to use science more effectively?
More can and should be done to harness science to the benefit of life. But how can this be accomplished?
The fuller answer requires myriad small actions, all woven together and interconnected, and sustained and evolving over time. Such work will in truth be never-ending – harnessing science for societal benefit will always remain an aspiration more than an accomplishment. But here are a few tangible first steps.
First, the world’s strategic planning should accommodate scientists at the table at the outset, and at the highest levels. National agendas are typically set with an eye to future needs and human concerns as best leaders can discern these. But the meansto their achievement are too often visualized or couched only in terms of the tools of the past. They fail to incorporate new possibilities offered by more powerful tools in the pipeline. Scientists are uniquely positioned to see such possibilities, but too often in the dark as how their efforts might be applied. We’d all be better off if leaders and nations were requesting help from science and eagerly awaiting it, versus sitting in critical judgment on it once the science arrives.
Second, leaders and peoples should do what they can to foster a culture of innovation. The future will always present constant change and demand the same of ecosystems and human populations. The societies that will thrive will be those comfortable with, adapting to, and when the occasion demands, even driving such change.
Third, toward this latter end, countries should invest far more heavily in public K-12 education, and especially STEM education, emphasizing critical thinking throughout. This is especially important in democracies such as the United States, where governments and the private sector need informed publics holding them accountable.
Fourth, and finally, it should go without saying (but since it doesn’t, it’s emphasized here) these goals can be achieved only by adopting diversity, equity, and inclusion as the essential starting point.
All of this should be done out of what those Elizabethans called charity – what we today would call love.
If we look past our selfish, momentary preoccupations – superiority or fame or fortune or individual advancement – putting these things aside in favor of working together, scientists and non-scientists alike, for the benefit and use of life, we’ll make Francis Bacon proud.
And we’ll fulfill our God-given purpose.