Under the microscope - RSA

Under the microscope


  • Picture of Lord Martin Rees
    Lord Martin Rees
  • Science
  • Technology

Science can save us, but only if we let it

In our responses to Covid-19, we were told to ‘follow the science’ and there has never been a time when ‘experts’ have had such public prominence. Indeed, in its response to the pandemic, science has been our salvation, driving an urgent worldwide effort to develop and deploy vaccines, combined with honest efforts to keep the public informed.

The hope is that we will learn from Covid-19, enabling nations to cope better with emergent pandemics in the future. Novel viruses can emerge unpredictably at any time and spread with devastating speed. And we are now more mindful that our fragile and interconnected society is vulnerable to other ‘high consequence, low probability’ scenarios – massive cyber-attacks, cascading failures of crucial infrastructure, or nuclear war – whose likelihood and impact are rising year-by-year. New technologies offer not only huge benefits but also create new ways for humanity to harm itself, via the consequences of error or terror.

There is a linked set of challenges that do not rise sufficiently high on political agendas because they are not ‘immediate’; indeed, they require actions spanning timescales longer than the electoral cycle.

Foremost among these is preserving the ‘natural capital’ embodied in our planet’s environment. In earlier centuries, the benefits garnered from the natural world seemed an inexhaustible resource. The worst terrors humans confronted – floods, earthquakes and diseases – came from nature, too. But we are deep in the ‘Anthropocene’ era. The human population, now approaching 8 billion, makes demands on energy and resources that are not sustainable without new technology, threatening irreversible changes to the climate and mass extinctions. Novel technologies – especially bio and cyber – are socially transformative but open up the possibility of severe threats if misapplied. The worst threats to humanity are no longer ‘natural’ ones: they are caused (or at least aggravated) by us. We are living in the first era of Earth’s 45-million-century history when one dominant species – ours – can determine, for good or ill, the future of the entire biosphere.

Rising to the challenge

There are some reasons for good cheer. Advances in health, agriculture and communication – the fruits of scientific discovery – have boosted the developing as well as the developed world. Everyday life has been transformed in less than two decades by digital technologies and we would have been far less able to cope with lockdowns without these facilities. Computers double their power every two years. DNA sequencing is a million times cheaper than 20 years ago: spin-offs from developments in genetics could soon be as pervasive as those we have already seen from the microchip.

Without earlier scientific insights, we would be denied the everyday benefits of electricity, vaccines, transport, the internet and AI. We should be evangelists for new technology, not Luddites. It is essential, for instance, for the expanding population of the global south to have enough food and enough clean energy at affordable prices. At the same time, many of us are anxious that technologies are advancing so fast that society may not properly cope with them.

There are other reasons to be anxious. Inequalities within countries, and between countries, are vast. Rapid advances in science raise profound questions. Who should access the ‘readout’ of our personal genetic code? How could lengthening lifespans affect society? Should we build nuclear power stations or wind farms if we want to keep the lights on? Should we use more insecticides or plant genetically modified crops? Should the law allow ‘designer babies’? How much should AI be permitted to invade our privacy? Are we prepared to accept a machine’s decisions on issues that matter to us?

Such choices – decisions on how science is applied – are not just for scientists to make but should involve us all. In any democracy, they should be preceded by wide public discussion. But for this to rise above the level of tabloid slogans, we all need a ‘feel’ for the key concepts underlying modern technology, and an understanding of the natural world (including humans). Equally important, we need to be mindful of how incomplete and provisional our knowledge is. This said, science’s findings are not only the basis of everyday technology but are also of sufficient intrinsic interest that they should be part of our common culture.

Acting for the long term

The challenges posed by the pandemic were unprecedented (at least in peacetime) in their urgency, impact and global scope, but that does not mean that we will not face further shocks. At the same time, the threat of anthropogenic climate change looms over the world; it is predictable, but gradual and insidious. This is a ‘global fever’, in some ways resembling a slow-motion version of Covid-19. Both crises aggravate the level of inequality within and between nations. Those in the megacities of the developing world cannot readily isolate from rogue viruses, their medical care is minimal and they are less likely to have access to vaccines. Likewise, it is those countries, and the poorest people in them, that will suffer most from global warming and its effects. Climate change and environmental degradation may well, later this century, have global consequences that are both graver than those of pandemics and potentially irreversible.

But potential slow-motion catastrophes do not engage the public and politicians – our predicament resembles that of the proverbial boiling frog – content in its slowly warming tank until it is too late to save itself. Well aware of the threats, we fail to prioritise countermeasures because their worst impact stretches beyond the time-horizon of political and investment decisions. Politicians have minimal incentive to address longer-term threats that are not likely to occur while they are still in office, and which are most devastating in faraway parts of the world.

For change to happen, we need a scientifically aware, energised and inspired public, pushing their governments to prioritise measures crucial for future generations. Except in emergencies, scientists have meagre direct influence on policy; they must enhance their leverage by involvement with NGOs, via blogging and journalism, and by enlisting charismatic individuals and the media to amplify their voice and change the public mindset. The rise in activists, especially among the young, gives us grounds for hope. We have also seen the potential power that people such as David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg have in shifting public perspectives and the rhetoric of the business sector. We need more people who can influence us and our political leaders, who resonate with science but can inspire the ethical guidance and motivation that science alone cannot offer.

The role of scientists

Scientists have a responsibility to ensure that, when their findings can lead to practical innovations, these are beneficial; they should speak out (and, when appropriate, inform their governments) against potentially unethical or dangerous applications. They should help governments to decide wisely which scary scenarios can be dismissed as science fiction and how best to avoid the serious ones. We also need social scientists to help us envisage how human society can flourish. But, when both stray beyond their specific field of expertise (as individuals or via other professional bodies), it is equally as important to recognise that they speak ‘only’ as ‘concerned citizens’.

As H. G. Wells wrote a century ago, we are in “a race between education and catastrophe”. It is crucial that enough talented people should opt for scientific careers and that, when they do, there are sufficient incentives and appropriate opportunities for tertiary education. More broadly, a basic science education is important not just as a first step for would-be professionals, but also to ensure that all of us understand enough to feel at home in our high-tech world, participate in debates on how science is applied and avoid being bamboozled by statistics or ‘fake news’. Yet, formal education is one of the most sclerotic aspects of UK society; the US offers greater flexibility, but at school level the whole Anglo-Saxon world can learn lessons from Scandinavia and the far east. The world is changing so fast that learning must be a lifelong process that needs to be inclusive and flexible, not restricted to a privileged minority.

It is deeply imprudent for nations to ignore potentially catastrophic scenarios and not prioritise precautions to minimise the risk they pose.

A safer world?

These challenges are global in nature and consequence. The threats of potential shortages of food, water and natural resources, and transitioning to low-carbon energy, cannot be solved by each nation separately, nor can the regulation of potentially threatening innovations, especially those spearheaded by globe-spanning conglomerates.

It is deeply imprudent for nations to ignore potentially catastrophic scenarios and not prioritise precautions to minimise the risks they pose. The global cost of Covid-19 has been estimated at $10tn (£8.9tn) in addition to the millions of deaths and the infection of hundreds of millions. Given this, a world investment of hundreds of billions of dollars in early planning and preparedness would not have been disproportionate, as it would have significantly mitigated the pandemic’s spread and impact. Other grand challenges need resources on at least this scale.

Science is also truly global in culture. We need to deepen international contacts among professionals, in universities and colleges, and to strengthen international organisations and academies. In a ‘new world order’, nations will need to yield more sovereignty to new organisations along the lines of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organization and so on.

As science’s potential becomes more powerful and pervasive, it is ever more crucial to ensure that it is deployed optimally, and that the brakes are applied to applications that are dangerous or unethical. But we must expect technology-driven changes in lifestyles even though we cannot predict the innovations that will drive them. These will happen on a timescale of decades, playing out against a shifting backdrop of political tensions between the ‘west’, China and the global south. While faster than the overall societal changes that occurred in earlier centuries, it is still slow enough to give nations time to plan a response: to mitigate or adapt to a changing climate, to modify lifestyles and to achieve sustainable modes for food and energy production.

Such transformations are possible in principle, as most of the relevant science is already known, though there is a depressing gap between what is ethically and humanly desirable and what actually occurs. Let us hope that the pandemic will change mindsets towards a greater awareness that ‘we are all in this together’. There are a few rare times when there seems special motivation to focus on the prospects for all of humanity. This is one of those times.

But even if there is no scientific impediment to achieving a sustainable world beyond 2050, the politics and sociology can engender pessimism. Will richer countries recognise that it is in their self-interest for the developing world to prosper, sharing fully in the benefits that science offers? Can the focus of our sympathies become more broadly international? Can nations sustain effective but non-repressive governance in the face of threats from small groups with high-tech expertise? And, above all: can our institutions prioritise projects that are long-term in political perspective even if a mere instant in the history of our planet?

Martin Rees is Astronomer Royal, former President of the Royal Society and a crossbencher in the House of Lords. He is co-founder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risks in Cambridge. His most recent book, If Science is to Save Us, was published in September.

Follow Lord Martin Rees on Twitter here: @LordMartinRees

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 4 2022.

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