The Nexus: Where Science Meets Society

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Science  09 Dec 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5754, pp. 1634-1639
DOI: 10.1126/science.310.5754.1634

“The nexus of science and society” is a phrase that can be interpreted in multiple ways. As participants in this meeting, some of you may have been asking yourselves: How, exactly, was this theme derived? Does the “nexus” refer to the manner in which scientific advances address fundamental human needs? Does it refer to the role scientists, themselves, play in various sectors of society, as researchers, discoverers, inventors, educators, government leaders, lobbyists, and concerned citizens?

Could this nexus refer to the cross-disciplinary, multisector partnerships that synergize our best scientific innovation? Or is it the impact that science exerts on other aspects of society, such as national security, economic prosperity, health care, and the overall quality of life? Is not the real nexus simply the way in which scientific viewpoints influence the public policy debate?”

The answer, of course, is yes. That is precisely what is meant. The nexus is all these ideas, rolled into one.

The role that science and scientists play in society—the degree of influence wielded by scientific opinion, the reputation of scientific bodies for impartially rendered insight, the priority accorded to scientific research and education—has been vital to our success as a nation, nearly on a par with our democratic principles and ethical precepts.

Now let me remind you of what you already know: that the frontiers of science have never looked more promising than they do today. Opportunities abound. From nanotechnology, to bioengineering, to terahertz imaging, to string theory, to space science, we are in an age of discovery and innovation. The challenge is how to mine these opportunities for all they are worth to improve human health and welfare and security and to have greater public understanding of, and respect and appreciation for, science.

The Place of the Scientist in the Agora: A Metaphor

To frame these ideas, I would like to introduce the simple metaphor of what the ancient Greeks would have called the agora. This represents the place where, historically, interactions occur among societal sectors and the public at large. The government occupies a quadrant (the decision-makers, the legislators, the bureaucrats, the regulators, the courts, and the body of law itself). Industry and the private economic sector (from merchants to corporations) hold their share of real estate. The religious sector (church, mosque, synagogue, and temple) has its place in the agora. And, last but not least, academia: the educators and students who shape the future. The agora is the societal nexus.

This agora is where the public selects its “truth”; or, put differently, what society will accept as “fact.” This is where leaders make public policy decisions. But what is the role played by science? Where does the scientist stand in this arena? And how does the role of the scientist shape the formation of public policy? It is instructive to consider how the role of science has changed as civilization has evolved. In primitive society, the agora, as I have described it, did not yet exist. Science and religion were frequently merged in a single figure: a medicine man or wise woman. Government, as such, was either vested in this authority figure or subject to it in terms of decisionmaking. Scientific knowledge was passed on by word of mouth to a select few, and breakthroughs occurred by accident, if at all. In this model, substantial improvements to the quality of life were achieved very slowly, sometimes over millennia.

In the Renaissance, science began to emerge as an authority in its own right. Discovery and invention were cause for delight. By the time Francis Bacon wrote The Advancement of Learning in 1605, he and others were ready to suggest a split in jurisdiction between divine philosophy and natural philosophy. While the Church retained its influence over the former, disciplines that had their roots in nature and could be verified empirically (such as navigational astronomy, optics, and medicine) became the province of reason and science. By the time Bacon published Novum Organum in 1620, he was ready to lay out the principles of the scientific method. What followed, logically enough, were the Age of Reason and the Industrial Revolution. In the Industrial Revolution, the search for knowledge—the focus of scientific inquiry and engineering invention—frequently was determined by economic necessity; in other words, the direction of science followed emerging societal needs.

What I would have you consider next is science in the United States in the past half century, dominated by what some refer to as the Vannevar Bush model. A key assumption of this model was that of multisector partnership in scientific endeavors, especially between the government and universities. The core of this approach—government investment in basic research in universities—had three key embedded ideas. First, that basic research would lead to innovations which, in turn, would be exploitable for national security, economic growth, and sustained societal benefit. Second, that although the source of the next discovery could not be predicted, broad-based research investments gave confidence that such discoveries would arise. And third, a concomitant investment would be made in the development of human capital in science and technology, coupled to the support of the research itself.

In the United States, the initial payoff of this model—the specific broad-based utilization of scientific talent for national needs—was realized in terms of winning World War II. The war was won on the talents of scientists and engineers, whose work gave the nation weapons systems, radar, infrared detection, bombers, long-range rockets, and torpedoes. This was primarily the result of the use of immigrant talent developed in European universities and less the result of U.S. investment in developing it, but the point was made.

After the launch of Sputnik by the Soviets, there was an acceleration of investment in science and engineering research and human capital development, leading to U.S. dominance in the arms race and the space race and to advances in energy, health, transportation, and other sectors, in ways that could not have been foreseen when the original investment was made. For instance, when the transistor was invented in 1947, it was thought only that the device might lead to better hearing aids. Instead, as you know, transistors are essential to almost every system or electronic device manufactured today, from computers and cameras to spacecraft and missiles.

The Vannevar Bush model created an environment in which the United States dominated global science and engineering research and innovation for more than five decades. In fact, economists estimate that as much as half of U.S. economic growth over the past half century has been due to advances in science and technology. Consider air transportation, atomic energy, jet and rocket propulsion, other space technologies, communications, television, computers, semiconductors, microchips, laser optics, and fiber optics: developments that have revolutionized life and spawned new industries.

Key Trends of Recent Decades

Before we attempt to diagram the agora of our time—the early 21st century—it is important to understand the convergence of a number of key trends.

Multidisciplinarity. One is embedded in science and engineering research itself. Consider the rise of nanotechnology. If someone asked you to design more effective armor for soldiers, would you begin by studying the manipulation of matter at the molecular level? Probably not. And yet, researchers in nanotechnology (the practice of manipulating matter at the atomic or molecular level) have made great strides toward developing strong protective clothing for soldiers, in the form of “dynamic armor” that can be activated quickly on the battlefield.

In another example, scientists at Johns Hopkins University have developed a self-assembling protein gel that stimulates biological signals to quicken the growth of cells. Using a combination of cells, engineered materials, and biochemical factors, the gel can replace, repair, or regenerate damaged tissues.

Pharmaceutical research has given us the “animal on a chip.” Combining nanotechnology, microfluidics, and biological materials, the “animal on a chip” can reproduce the effects of chemical compounds in the human body. The application of information technology for mathematical modeling and the simulation of chemical reactions in the body, the use of combinatorial chemistry for potential drug identification, and the ability to do accelerated and efficient screening with high-throughput processes will allow faster analysis, shortened time to market, and substantially lower development costs for new pharmaceuticals. So there exists a nexus inherent in the multidisciplinarity of much fundamental and applied research.

Globalization and national security. A second key trend is globalization. The ease of global travel and satellite communication; the interlinkage of financial systems; the constant movement of merchandise, ideas, and technological know-how; and the electronic exchange of information through the Internet (in itself another synergistic innovation) have morphed the agora into a global forum of ideas. Interdependence among nations and cultures is more complex than at any other time in history.

This interdependence has both positive and negative aspects. It brings us enhanced awareness and understanding of global needs, and a greater appreciation of our shared objectives, but it also brings security risks and facilitates the unchecked movement of terrorists and illicit activity. The recent efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency to uncover the nuclear weapons technology network of A. Q. Khan and his associates illustrate, dramatically, the vulnerabilities that have come with globalization.

One direct consequence of our heightened security awareness is that technological advances, now more than ever, are being evaluated and funded on the basis of their security applicability: what might be referred to as a “need-based exploitation” of discovery and innovation. Examples would include the search for foolproof biometrics to safeguard against identity theft, or the use of “hyperspectral imaging” or intricate facial-feature databases to track terrorists or other criminals.

It is natural that, as a country at war, the United States has been focused on making the greatest investments in the areas of most immediate vulnerability and increasing homeland security. These actions, however necessary, have also been costly, and our focus on these immediate priorities may have been at the expense of other, more subtle aspects of security.

As we look to maintain and strengthen our own security, capacity, and sustainability, we must realize their linkages to global security, capacity, and sustainability. Although we are a small fraction of the world's population (about 5%), we are by far its greatest consumer of natural resources. This situation cannot last forever. We are very rich. The larger world is still very poor. Other nations (some emulating our model, others not) expect to improve their standards of living, as they should. We are globally linked. The scientific community has always been linked through scientist-to-scientist contact. But, as a community, we have not always looked, as we should, at the broader, direct role of science and the scientific community in solving global sustainability and human health and welfare issues. This requires broadening our focus, entering the policy debates as they apply, globally, and having our professional institutions focus in this way.


A primary challenge of the developed world is to deal with terrorism and destabilization by dealing with their causes, primarily in the Third World. Fundamental research and the innovations that derive from it give us a way to do this directly, with benefits accruing to all, particularly as they relate to food, health, infrastructure, and environment. Some examples include food, especially genetically engineered, insectresistant crops; health, especially new medicines and new disease treatment modalities; infrastructure and environment, including new engineering solutions for clean water and sustainability; and, of course, energy. No nation can grow and prosper economically without addressing these needs. Science and engineering can be a potent force for security in this positive sense. This is the nexus where science meets society in global terms.

Workforce and education trends. Another subtle aspect of security relates to human capital development. Before the attacks of September 11, 2001, when the Hart-Rudman Commission released its “Road Map for National Security,” one of its five recommendations was “recapitalizing America's strengths in science and education.” The commission said that although we have enjoyed the economic and security benefits of previous investments in science and education, we have now crossed a line and are “consuming capital.” This trend, the commission declared, posed “a greater threat to U.S. national security over the next quarter century than any potential conventional war that we might imagine.”

What is the threat? There are four, actually. First, our scientific and engineering workforce is aging. Half of our scientists and engineers are at least 40 years old, and the average age is rising. As a recent National Science Foundation survey states, “the total number of retirements among science and engineering- degreed workers will dramatically increase over the next 20 years.” In fact, the number of U.S. scientists and engineers reaching retirement age is expected to triple in the next decade. As an example, the Department of Defense expects attrition in its laboratories of 213,000 science, mathematics, engineering, and technology workers in the next 10 years. It reports, likewise, that the number of topsecret “clearable” students pursuing defense-related critical skills degrees is declining. The department projects a demand for science and engineering workers to be up 10% in 5 years, by 2010, and expects tough competition for these workers from industry. Speaking of industry, in the aerospace industry, 27% of workers are eligible to retire in 3 years.

Second, world events and resulting adjustments in federal immigration policy have made the United States less attractive to international students and scientists, long a source of talent that has augmented our own. Since 2001, visa applications from international students and scientists have fallen. Faced with new hurdles, students from other nations are choosing to study elsewhere. The number of international students on U.S. campuses declined in fiscal year 2003 by 2.4%—the first drop in 32 years. There was a 28% decline in the number of applications from abroad to U.S. graduate schools, overall, between 2003 and 2004, and a 36% decline in the number of applications from abroad to U.S. graduate engineering programs in the same time period. The decline of graduate applications from India was 28% and from China 45%.

Third, immigrants make up nearly 40% of U.S. science and engineering workers with doctoral degrees (30% of master's degrees). However, the countries that have been primary sources of science and engineering talent for the United States in recent times (China, India, Taiwan, and South Korea) are making a concerted effort to educate more of their own at home and to fund more research within their borders. Between 1986 and 1999, the number of science and engineering doctorates granted increased 400% in South Korea, 500% in Taiwan, and 5400% (that is correct—5400%) in China. Not surprisingly, the number of South Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese students receiving doctorates in the United States declined in the late 1990s. During the decade from 1991 to 2001, while U.S. spending on research and development was rising about 60%, spending rose more than 300% in South Korea and about 500% in China, albeit from an initially much smaller base. In addition, improving global economies are offering young scientists from these and other countries more job options at home or in other nations. In short, the image of America as the land of opportunity, though still a bright vision, may be losing some of its luster in terms of both educational and career opportunities.

To complete this part of the picture, I also should mention the trend toward global research and development for multinational corporations. What began as a move of U.S. manufacturing bases to produce goods in countries with cheaper labor costs has, in recent years, shifted to include more high-technology jobs, to be where new markets are and where there are well-educated workforces. The present trend is for U.S. (as well as Japanese and Western European) companies with sufficient funds and infrastructure to establish research and development operations in China, India, and other countries where the skilled human capital is available.

Fourth, fewer young Americans are studying science and engineering. Moreover, the proportional emphasis on science and engineering is greater in other nations. Science and engineering degrees now represent 60% of all bachelor's degrees earned in China, 33% in South Korea, and 41% in Taiwan. By contrast, the percentage of those taking a bachelor's degree in science and engineering in the United States remains at roughly 31%. Graduate enrollment in science and engineering reached a peak in 1993, and despite some recent progress, remains below the level of a decade ago. Individually, each of these four factors would be problematic. In combination, they could be devastating.

So we are at a critical juncture. The war on terror, the uneven economic expansion of the recent past, and the U.S. federal budget deficit have weakened U.S. government resolve to invest in basic research and the development of scientific talent. This is happening just when we should be investing more, not less. A true story gives a lesson. As a Cold War continuation of the national defense effort, the Rand Corporation engaged in basic super-secret research. During summers of the early 1950s, a young and somewhat peculiar mathematician from Princeton University joined their ranks. The work of John Forbes Nash on “game theory” would become the most influential theory of rational human behavior, ultimately revolutionizing the field of economics. The work won Nash a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994. Game theory opened alternative ways of thinking and analysis. It gave the government a new way to sell access to public resources through auctions—oil leases, T bills, timber, pollution rights—to corporations and conglomerates, which develop them. Early in his career, Nash succumbed to schizophrenia, recovering miraculously three decades later. His story is told in the book A Beautiful Mind, by Sylvia Nasar, later made into a movie. His story is filled with individuals and institutions that accepted his unique diversity and made every effort to enable him to continue to work.


The Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton itself presents another interesting lesson. In the 1930s and 1940s, when other universities declined to offer positions to Jewish refugee scientists and mathematicians fleeing Nazi Germany, the institute opened its doors. The result was a constellation of brilliance at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, anchored by Albert Einstein, whose “miracle year” we celebrate at this meeting as part of the World Year of Physics. The lesson of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton during the Einstein period and of John Forbes Nash at Princeton University is that talent resides in many places—sometimes unappreciated or underappreciated. The group (or individual) that a society may ignore or neglect may be the very group (or individual) that makes the greatest discoveries or achieves the greatest innovations. We have made such mistakes in the past. We should not make them again.

Multiple voices. The final set of trends I would cite relates to the exponential rise in the volume and availability of information and how that has influenced the role of the scientist and the formation of public policy. In introducing the metaphor of the agora, I restricted my list of its residents to four basic ones: government, industry, religion, and the academy. But in the past century, other influential factors and actors have appeared and are competing for the attention of both citizens and leaders. This includes the media, which convey factual information but also filter, editorialize, and provide commentary. It also includes professional societies, such as this one. Although these have existed for centuries, the variety and profile of today's professional societies increased sharply in the last half of the 20th century.

Think tanks are another factor in the mix. In the 1970s, when think tanks began to emerge, they focused generally on achieving a specific purpose or analyzing a particular social issue, and the results would be presented in a book or at a conference. Today, here in Washington, the number of think tanks has grown to more than 200; the budgets of the largest organizations are in the tens of millions of dollars; and the hundreds of experts they employ flood the forum with journals, op-ed commentaries, and television and radio appearances on every aspect of public affairs, from crop subsidies to urban renewal to matters of ethical and moral choice.

Compounding the difficulty of deciphering this array of opinions, the sophistication of commercial marketing, created to advertise and sell products, has been extended to shape the format of ideas conveyed to the citizen via mass communication media. And finally we have the Internet: an engine of information and disinformation without equal. Global in its reach, staggering in its power, it is transforming the Age of Information.


What happens when the marketplace is populated with self-proclaimed experts? When we have instantly available authorities to support every view? The result is the devaluing of information and even the devaluing of science. This trend threatens the concept of the scientist as the dispassionate, objective voice of reason, as well as the authoritative role of science in helping to shape sound public policy.

A Nexus of Distrust?

How does the public choose its truth? How does society settle on what it will accept as fact? How do our leaders, our elected officials, arrive at useful decisions? What happens to the truth-tellers: the individuals who speak out with facts that may run counter to the prevailing view? And—crucially—with what degree of trust does the average citizen regard the voice of scientific expertise? Is the voice heard?

On issues ranging from genetic engineering and stem cell research to the search for weapons of mass destruction, our public discourse abounds with controversy, and the volume and passion of the rhetoric sometimes drown the voice of science itself. What should be evident is that the nexus of science and society is increasingly an interaction prone to confusion and distrust. The citizen, bombarded by information, is unsure which expert to believe.

Reinforcing Our Strengths

Today I have focused primarily on factors that affect the capacity for innovation, which has its roots in the strength and vitality of scientific enterprise, and that play off each other: the multidisciplinarity inherent in important scientific questions; the interaction of science, globalization, and national security; the availability of science and engineering talent; and the multiple voices speaking for science in the public policy arena.

So what should we do? First, we as a nation must recognize the centrality of science and engineering for our national security, our economic health and well-being, and our ability to help alleviate human suffering worldwide. This means we need a full-fledged national commitment to invest significantly, competitively, and deeply in basic research in science and engineering across a broad disciplinary front, even in the face of competing priorities. It is stunning when people say that science is just another special interest group, because science (and technology) is the root of our success, but it is so embedded that it is taken entirely for granted.

Second, we must have a national focus and commitment to develop the complete talent pool: to reignite the interest in science and mathematics of all of our young people and to identify, nurture, mentor, and support the talent that resides in our new majority: the underrepresented majority population of women and ethnic minorities. This requires a focus on early education and preparation, especially in mathematics. But how do we encourage talented students to commit themselves to the sciences as early as middle school? To stay the often difficult course through high school? To find the means to attend the university and continue through postgraduate work? To transition into the workplace, the laboratory, the design studio?

Some incentives necessarily must be financial. This would require more economic support for students and support for a broader socioeconomic range of students, of all ethnic backgrounds and at all educational levels, through graduate school. An example, as others have suggested, could be patterned on portable fellowships like those once offered as a result of the National Defense Education Act for graduate study in science and engineering.

Third, the scientific community must engage on key public policy issues in a consistent and pro-active, not reactive, way. Public policy is not always (perhaps not often) an ideal forum for fair debate. It is a roiling marketplace where every voice has its own agenda and where an issue can become veiled and confused. But it is a public marketplace for ideas, it is democratic, and it is open. Of course, the public and our political leaders must be willing to listen. There needs to be greater awareness and greater respect for scientists and the role of science in resolving critical national and international issues.

The nexus of science and society is not always comfortable for scientists or for the public at large. But because public institutions largely fund basic research and support the training of students, science and public policy (even politics) are joined. We need to look not only at the technical dimensions of public policy but at the policy dimensions of technological change that springs from basic science.

An example of the nexus of science, technology, and public policy is in the use of risk assessment in the nuclear arena. I was chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) from 1995 to 1999. It is the responsibility of the NRC to ensure safety in the design, construction, and operation of nuclear power plants, and, in so doing, to protect the public and the environment and to preserve national security. The NRC's historical approach to this had been prescriptive, with fixed rules. The public gained comfort when all the rules were strictly enforced, even if the safety basis of the rules was not clearly understood. This sometimes leads to public overreaction to events in nuclear power plants, because of an inability to distinguish significant from nonsignificant events.

Beginning in the 1970s, probabilistic risk assessment was developed as a quantitative way in which to balance the risks of nuclear operations. It was slowly adopted by the NRC and the nuclear industry. But from the mid-1990s forward, that adoption was accelerated. The regulatory framework began moving from prescriptive to risk-informed, meaning a more robust use of probabilistic risk assessment to inform, but not absolutely determine, all regulatory functions and requirements. Science, then, informed but did not determine regulatory policy. But what remains to be done, even today, is to move from risk-informed regulation to helping the public understand how risks are evaluated and balanced, in the nuclear reactor arena as well as in the nuclear waste arena.

Science and technology might suggest that one way of disposing of spent nuclear fuel is to reprocess it, extract plutonium, make MOX fuel, and burn it in nuclear power plants to gain greater efficiency and to meet nonproliferation goals by burning up excess plutonium. This is routine in other nations. But the policy of the U.S. government since the 1970s has been not to separate plutonium through reprocessing, because of proliferation risk, and instead to opt for geologic disposal, with plutonium embedded in a toxic residual fission product matrix. Science can speak to the risks and energy efficiency of one approach or the other, but which way to go is a public policy decision. Science can inform the policy debate but not totally control its outcomes.

Fast forward to today. Terrorism and national security are top-of-the-mind issues in this country and are of concern worldwide. There are various technologies, as mentioned earlier, being used to identify and to track potential terrorists. The public, especially in the United States, has a general feeling of unease, while some worry about the effect of security measures on civil liberties, and others worry about the scientific community itself—about the ease of communication and interaction with scientists worldwide for the advance of science. What is not clear is how much of a comprehensive risk assessment approach to current vulnerabilities exists. This is where the scientific community can play a much-needed role and can contribute to a more open discussion, not of terrorist targets or specifically how risk assessment is used, but at least that it is used. We cannot protect against everything. But we can use risk assessment to deploy resources in an efficacious way, to track the right things, to aggravate people less, and to calm unnecessary public fears.

Fourth, we must engage the public and make science more accessible to all. That is why the AAAS outreach efforts should be more strongly replicated by other, more discipline-specif ic scientif ic and engineering professional societies. It is important that the scientific community, in its outreach, help people not only to see the fun of science but also to understand what science is, what a scientific theory is (as opposed to a belief), how science is done, that accepted scientific models or theories are based on evidence, that hypotheses are tested by experiment, and that theories change as new evidence emerges.

This is important in overcoming mistrust of science and scientists and the movement away from understanding the importance of science to modern life, of its role in addressing issues of human health and welfare. We must address the ethics of the application of science in key areas and how it ties into people's core beliefs. It is a two-way street that needs to be traveled more frequently. It also will help to bring light—and less heat—to issues such as evolution versus intelligent design: the one a scientific theory rooted in experimental results, the other not. What this really means is that the scientific community must understand that the nexus of science and public policy inherently means its nexus with public values. We must meet people where they live. Scientific perspectives will not prevail in all arenas, at all times, but we must engage nonetheless.


More than half a century of U.S. dominance in science and engineering research has both engendered and been driven by a number of unique advantages, which we should identify, retain, and reinforce. They include (i) the most extensive and sophisticated system of higher learning in the world; (ii) a financial system that provides ready access to venture capital and has a long tradition of investment in entrepreneurial projects; (iii) government structures designed to support the scientific enterprise, and government policies that encourage entrepreneurship; (iv) a history and tradition of collaboration between the public and private sectors; and (v) a culture of risk-takers, in which divergent ideas and viewpoints are sought out and welcomed, with the confidence and creativity to achieve innovation.

If we take these advantages and continue to invest in science and engineering research across a range of disciplines, develop our human capital (accessing the complete talent pool), engage on key public policy issues actively and consistently, and engage the public in new, creative, and respectful ways, we can heal rifts, address rising expectations worldwide, ensure our security by helping others to feel secure, and usher in a new “golden age” of scientific discovery.


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