The Global Knowledge Society

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Science  03 Feb 2012:
Vol. 335, Issue 6068, pp. 503
DOI: 10.1126/science.1219498

Knowledge societies rest on a foundation of educational and research excellence. The Internet, advances in communications technology, and the rapidly expanding global fiber optic network are necessary, but not sufficient. It takes people to train, to educate, to collaborate, and to innovate. Building the global knowledge society is the theme of the 2012 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Vancouver (16 to 22 February). Bringing together scientists and educators from more than 50 nations, the meeting tackles global issues and new ways of building connections between developed and developing nations.

Science and technology have long figured in the efforts of societies to gain military advantage. Archimedes invented the defensive engines and burning glasses used to ward off the Roman attack on Syracuse in 214 BC. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were military engineers; Napoleon Bonaparte viewed himself as a scientist. Abraham Lincoln established the U.S. National Academy of Sciences during the Civil War in part to provide advice on military matters.


The emergence of scientists as peacemakers and diplomats is recent. Ongoing meetings between top Soviet and U.S. scientists are often credited with keeping the Cold War cold. Presaging the establishment of formal diplomatic relations, U.S. Presidential Science Advisor Frank Press traveled to China in 1978 to negotiate an Agreement for Cooperation in Science and Technology, signed by President Carter and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.

The use of science in crafting international relations—what we now call science diplomacy—got a boost in President Obama's 2009 Cairo speech, in which he announced that he would send “science envoys” to Muslim-majority nations. Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail, former National Institutes of Health Director Elias Zerhouni, and former National Academy of Sciences President Bruce Alberts, now the Editor-in-Chief of Science, served ably as the inaugural envoys.

Although there is value in sending abroad representatives of the scientific community, an aspect of U.S. culture that commands wide respect, there are also broader objectives between peoples that cry out for the active involvement of many more scientists, engineers, and educators. Today, countries all over the world aspire to have high-skill, high-value economies, to become “knowledge societies” and “knowledge economies.” The extraordinary value of knowledge is, of course, that there are no limits to its growth or the value it can generate.

Going beyond local benefit, it is increasingly important to create a global knowledge society. The array of challenges facing humanity in the 21st century is daunting: developing energy sources that do not contribute to climate warming, building an agriculture that can feed a population that will soon exceed 9 billion with less water and a smaller ecological footprint, improving access to public health measures and clean water, preserving what remains of our biodiversity, restoring degraded ecosystems, controlling population growth, and stimulating economic development. All of these challenges are global in their scope, profoundly interconnected, and dependent on scientific and technological input.

Today's communications technologies make it possible to teach and collaborate with anyone anywhere. Online educational resources and organizations devoted to creating partnerships and networks among scientists, engineers, and educators continue to proliferate.* But in the end, the task of creating a truly global knowledge society, of knitting together the scientific and technical communities of nations to solve humanity's common problems, falls to each and all of us.

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