Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Science, Social Responsibility, and Sustainability

By Dennis D. McDonald

John P. Holden, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), President, The Woods Hole Research Center, and Teresa & John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy, Harvard University, delivered a lecture at the annual meeting of the AAAS on February 15, 2007, titled “Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being.”

The presentation is a compendium of global social, environmental, and development problems. It contains a call to arms for scientists and technologists to participate in improving the world’s conditions.

Holden catalogs the world’s ills in stark, objective terms. His is a comprehensive view. Fundamental problems, he says, act as impediments to sustainable well-being. These include:

  • Persistence of poverty & preventable disease
  • Impoverishment of the environment
  • Pervasiveness of armed conflict
  • Oppression of human rights
  • Wastage of human potential

These problems are exacerbated, he says, by:

  • Non-use, ineffective use, and misuse of science and technology
  • Maldistribution of consumption and investment
  • Incompetence, mismanagement, and corruption
  • Continuing population growth
  • Ignorance, apathy, and denial

Holden does not suggest that science and technology are panaceas to solve the world’s ills. Instead  he emphasize the responsibilities of scientists and technologists to participate in improving things. Here is what he says that individual scientists and technologists can do:

  • Read more and think more about fields and problems outside your normal area of specialization.
  • Improve your communication skills for conveying the relevant essence of your understandings to members of the public and to policy makers.
  • Seek out avenues for doing so.
  • “Tithe” ten percent of your professional time and effort to working to increase the benefits of S&T for the human condition and decrease the liabilities.

Note the emphasis on interdisciplinary learning and communication. He urges scientists and technologists to pay attention to what is going on outside the confines of the specialties, and he emphasizes the importance of communication with the public and policy makers.

Calls for social involvement by scientists are nothing new. Holden’s message, however, comes at a special time. The tools and techniques we have available to us for communication far exceed anything we have ever had before. The Internet and wireless audio and video communications now enable not only the rapid dissemination of knowledge. They also, through continued advances in software and in cost reduction, put the tools of learning, publishing, and communication into the hands of individuals in ways that are much less encumbered by traditional disciplinary boundaries, organizations and institiutions.

Holden’s call for interdisciplinary work and public communication in pursuit of sustainability and social and environmental improvements can have an impact — if people actively work and communicate to make improvements. He suggests a “tithing” approach to time utilization. I also think we need as individuals to pay mare attention to what is going on around us. We shouldn’t just read, study, and work within our narrow careers and discipline; we must actively seek to learn about and communicate with others areas unrelated to our specialties.

Here again I believe that modern trends in networking and communication have vast significance. All professionals must consider what the implications of their work are for society, and they must also be open to learning about what is going on for sources outside their own narrow interests. This may require a re-orientation of individual time and attention along the lines of the “tithing” that Holden proposes. I think this is possible. What do you think?

  • A Powerpoint of Holden’s presentation is here.
  • A RealVideo verson of his presentation is here.
  • An audio Podcast with excerpts is here.
  • A list of my own articles related to Colaboration is here.

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