Science for the Globe

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Science  08 Feb 2008:
Vol. 319, Issue 5864, pp. 697
DOI: 10.1126/science.1155011

Science and technology (S&T) can be viewed from many angles. At this year's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which starts on 14 February in Boston, we look at them from a global perspective. Our ever-shrinking, flattening world invites a global focus on almost any issue. But in the United States, national competitiveness is often the key concern driving S&T policy, whereas the global perspective, which comes naturally to many scientists, is given short shrift. Indeed, a host of topics come to the fore when S&T are viewed globally, including international cooperation on big science projects, economic development, worldwide treatment and prevention of infectious disease, responses to climate change, and mitigation of global warming. In planning the annual meeting, it was evident that all elements had international dimensions, and the meeting reflects this reality.


Appropriately, this issue of Science focuses on the cities, which hold so much of the world's population at high density that they pose many of the most pressing problems of the world. Urbanization generates air pollution, first evident years ago in the United States but now a worldwide plague. Take Beijing, where running Olympic events this year will depend on temporary industrial and transportation shutdowns. This quick fix may work, but what's needed for long-term clean air in cities is an application of technology-based rules and processes, such as industrial emissions standards. Here, the United States leads. My adopted hometown of Pasadena, California, recovered its dramatic view of the San Gabriel Mountains because Los Angeles took the air-quality problem seriously. International technology-sharing can help cities in less developed nations solve their own air-quality problems.

Cleaning up emissions, whether particulate pollution or greenhouse gases, is one of the world's grand challenges for S&T. It has to be faced head on because solutions will be costly. This challenge to our inventiveness should be seen as an opportunity to create new industries. Countries that accept the challenge will reap huge rewards, as other nations recognize that they must find less-polluting ways to generate energy.

That recognition is coming fast, and the time to respond is now. The United States ought to take the lead here, because it is responsible for much of the world's burden of greenhouse gases and because it has such an effective engine of innovation in its universities and industries. For U.S. companies, there's a market incentive: the opportunity to be first movers in an international competition to solve a major environmental problem.

The AAAS annual meeting will explore many of these issues and, as a biologist, I am gratified that the program will also emphasize health. Bringing health benefits to the less-developed world has become a philanthropic priority for wealthy Americans such as the Gates family and for the governments of many developed countries. The concentration of resources for treating and preventing AIDS is heartening. However, as HIV researcher Daniel Halperin recently emphasized in the New York Times, donors could take a more balanced approach to improving health in the world's poor countries. Cleaning the air and water, treating sewage, dealing with diarrhea, and mounting immunization programs are all needed. So is improving the availability of health practitioners to treat non-HIV-related disease, which cannot be ignored even though AIDS is so widespread.

When I entered science in the early 1960s, my elder colleagues, particularly physicists who had worked on the atomic bomb, emphasized that S&T were not the province of one country but resources for the world. After World War II, U.S. politicians often took a more domestic focus, but the international activities of scientists such as the Pugwash Conferences reminded the nation that science and scientific concerns transcend national borders. The tensions between national security and science remain unresolved, and the terrorist challenges we now face have produced a greater emphasis on national concerns. I hope that this annual meeting will provide a counterforce, reminding us that in a shrinking world, the problems of any nation are the problems of every nation.

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