“Occupy” Science for the 21st century

Colin Macilwain‘s Nov. 23, 2011 column, Science’s attitudes must reflect a world in crisis, for Nature reminded me of the “Occupy” movement and ‘the 99% who are effectively supporting 1% of the population. Excerpted from Macilwain’s Nov. 23, 2011 column,

At the World Science Forum in Budapest last week, some scientific leaders finally acknowledged the new reality. In particular, representatives of developing countries — which account for a fast-growing share of global science — talked of radical reorientation of research priorities to better match the pressing needs of their populations. And behind the scenes, analysts are mapping out fascinating, and sometimes alarming, possible scenarios for global science after the crash.

Questions were soon raised, however, when Princess Sumaya bint el Hassan of Jordan’s Royal Scientific Society captured the mood of the developing world. “We must ask ourselves why so much scientific research is driven by the consumer needs of a tiny elite,” she said. “We’re being naive if we envisage business-as-usual for science in the new century.”

Apparently, the International Council for Science (ICSU) has been conducting a foresight exercise led by Dr. John Mark s. From the presentation description on the World Science Forum 2011 programme speakers page,

Dr. John Marks is an independent science policy consultant and research manager. Recent assignments include the interim directorship of the Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity Naturalis and Chair of the international review panel of the research of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute. He is Chair of the ICSU Taskforce on Foresight, a member of the Netherlands UNESCO Committee and a member of the Board of the Netherlands space research organisation SRON.

In the current foresight a scenario approach is used to define four world views differing in economic, social, political, and environmental context and with different positions of science. These worlds lead to different challenges and consequences for international collaboration in science.
ICSU’s global multi-disciplinary membership composed of professional scientific societies and national academies of science, as well as its partners and stakeholders, have been engaged through consultations. The aim was to solicit viewpoints and, ultimately, buy‐in on the organization’s future direction. The collection and analysis of potential key drivers and creation of exploratory scenarios is designed also to assist ICSU Members and others in their own strategic thinking.
Using these insights, ICSU is designing a ‘success scenario’ to imagine how the international science landscape would look if it is optimally serving the needs of societies across the globe; to consider what actions ICSU and other actors would need to take to realise this; and to test the plausibility and  robustness of such actions.

According to Macilwain, these were the four scenarios presented (from Macilwain’s Nov. 23, 2011 column),

The first and most sunny, with more globalization and high engagement, would see a series of positive outcomes, including much more interdisciplinary research. The second — more globalization but low engagement — is rather like what we had before the crash, only worse. The ICSU PowerPoint slide for this showed bunches of vainglorious yuppies with mobile phones and portable computers, doubtless creating more gizmos and expensive drugs that most people in the world can’t afford. The third scenario would have more nationalism, with high engagement. That might create a series of little Denmarks pulling away from each other to deal with their own problems, with their own research strategies and regulatory regimes.

Finally, and most ominously, there’s more nationalism, with less engagement. This predicts old-fashioned, stick-to-your-knitting, single-discipline science, aligned with resurgent nationalism.

The ICSU foresight exercise will be completed in February 2012.

The 2011 Canadian Science Policy Conference (Nov. 16-18, 2011) was being held at roughly the same time as the World Science Forum 2011 (Nov. 16-19, 2011) and it is tempting to consider the new political interest being shown by scientists in Canada as being reflective of an international movement.

I’m not sure that notion stands up to scrutiny since the World Science Forum was first convened in 1999 and has been convened bianually since. From the History page,

In convening a World Conference on Science for the Twenty-First Century: a New Commitment, from 26 June to 1 July 1999 in Budapest, Hungary, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Council for Science (ICSU), in co-operation with other partners, initiated a unique forum for a much-needed debate between the scientific community and society.
Inspired by the success of the World Conference on Science, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in partnership with UNESCO, ICSU and AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] established a series of follow-up events called World Science Forum, taking place biannually in Budapest.
During the three days of each Forum over 500 scientists, decision-makers from the world of politics, industry, representatives of the civil society and the media express their views on the new challenges facing science in the 21st century. Participants from almost 100 countries convene every second year on and around World Science Day, the 10th of November – a day dedicated to science by UNESCO. To commemorate this day, the UNESCO Science Prizes are awarded here at World Science Forum.

The 2011 event is a beginning of a new era in the history of World Science Forum. In order to distribute the achievements of this enterprise and to make it a true world event, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences with the consent of UNESCO, ICSU, and AAAS has proposed to change the format of WSF so that it is organised on every second occasion in a partner country. What with the welcome offer of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences it has been decided that the 2013 World Science Forum will be organized in Rio de Janeiro.

The question I have is this, are Canadian scientists even asking some of the questions that are being considered on the international stage (even with Macilwain’s misgivings)?

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