The Royal Society's Wider Role

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Science  25 Jun 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5986, pp. 1611
DOI: 10.1126/science.1193400

The royal society is currently celebrating its 350th anniversary. In its earlier years, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Samuel Pepys, and other “ingenious and curious gentlemen” met regularly in London. Their motto was to “accept nothing on authority.” They did experiments, peered through newly invented telescopes and microscopes, and dissected weird animals. But, as well as indulging their curiosity, they were immersed in the practical agenda of their era: improving navigation, exploring the New World, and rebuilding London after the Great Fire of 1666. Today, our horizons have hugely expanded. Earth no longer offers an open frontier but seems constricted and crowded—a “pale blue dot” in the immense cosmos. But the Royal Society's core values have enduring relevance. Today's scientists, like their forbears, probe nature and nature's laws by observation and experiment, but they should also engage broadly with the needs of society and with public affairs.

Such engagement is needed more than ever before, and on a global scale. Science transforms our lives, sometimes with staggering speed. Spin-offs from molecular genomics could soon change our lives as much as those from the microchip have already done. We must confront widely held anxieties that genetics, brain science, and artificial intelligence may “run away” too fast. And rapid advances raise profound questions: Is the world getting warmer, and why? Who should access the “readout” of our personal genetic code? How will lengthening life span affect society? Should nuclear power stations or wind farms keep the lights on? Should we use more insecticides or plant genetically modified crops? How much should computers be allowed to invade our privacy? Such critical questions transcend party politics, but because they are long-term, they tend to be trumped by more urgent items. Many require action on an international scale, as all parts of the world are more closely networked today than ever before.


Most people live lives that are safer and healthier than those of their ancestors. We have tamed some of the risks from nature. But gross inequalities still leave two billion deprived of some basic needs. World population is destined to rise to around nine billion by mid-century; were the rise to continue beyond that point, it would create even more pressure on resources and the environment. We've now entered a unique century, the first in the 45 million centuries of Earth's history, in which one species—ours—could determine, for good or ill, the entire planet's future.

I conclude as I began, with a flashback; this time to the atomic scientists of the Manhattan Project during World War II. Fate had assigned them a pivotal role in history. Many returned with relief to peacetime academic pursuits. But the ivory tower wasn't, for them, a sanctuary. Hans Bethe, Rudolf Peierls, Jo Rotblat, and others worked throughout their lives to control the power they had helped unleash. These men were an elite group—the alchemists of their time, possessors of secret knowledge. Today's dominant issues, in contrast, span all the sciences, are far more open, and are often global. There is less demarcation between experts and laypersons. Campaigners and bloggers enrich the debate. But professionals have special obligations; the atomic scientists were fine exemplars of this. Scientists shouldn't be indifferent to the fruits of their ideas. They should try to foster benign spin-offs, and they should prevent, so far as they can, dubious or threatening applications.

Unprecedented pressures confront the world, but there are unprecedented prospects too. The benefits of globalization must be fairly shared. There's a widening gap between what science allows us to do and what is prudent or ethical. Everyone should debate these choices, but the agenda must be guided by science academies and by individual scientific citizens, engaging, from all political perspectives, with the media and with a public attuned to the scope and limits of science. There is a greater role than ever for the Royal Society and its sister academies around the world.

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