The Changing World and What It Means

William Ascher

Sanford Institute of Public Policy

Duke University

This paper surveys probable national and global trends that may affect the conduct of science, particularly in the United States. Obviously, the number of possible trends is infinite; the following have been lightly screened for significance—but without any unassailable knowledge as to what their specific impacts will be. Nonetheless, many of these trends point to the strong possibility of an erosion of public tolerance for expensive science that many see as self-indulgent in so far as it appears to be “curiosity driven” rather than motivated to serve societal needs. This erosion of tolerance threatens the long-standing justifying myths of science in America.

A Few Caveats

While some of the trends may seem nonobvious (and consequently arguable), others will elicit the reaction, “We knew that.” Yet it is not so much the individual trends that matter, but rather how they combine. We are projecting a manifold of trends and events; their configuration is what matters.

It is important to recognize that the bulk of forecasting is projection: analysis of current and past conditions for their future implications. Finally, any forecast of trends that depends on the actions of the audience ought to be conditional. There is an implicit or explicit premise that actions can avert negative outcomes and promote positive ones. Therefore none of the trends mentioned below ought to be considered as inevitable. These are “developmental constructs,” not absolute predictions.

The Broad Manifold

Anyone could tell you that the world since World War II has been evolving toward a postindustrial, globalizing economy in which the two or three dozen industrial countries have experienced an equalization of incomes and technological capability.1 However, the gap between the rich and poor countries has increased, particularly during the disastrous decade of the 1980s, with huge debt burdens, painful “structural adjustments,” and austerity.

1  

The nations of North America, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the Far East (Japan and the Young Tigers).



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Beginning a Dialogue on the Changing Environment for the Physical and Mathematical Sciences: Report of a Conference The Changing World and What It Means William Ascher Sanford Institute of Public Policy Duke University This paper surveys probable national and global trends that may affect the conduct of science, particularly in the United States. Obviously, the number of possible trends is infinite; the following have been lightly screened for significance—but without any unassailable knowledge as to what their specific impacts will be. Nonetheless, many of these trends point to the strong possibility of an erosion of public tolerance for expensive science that many see as self-indulgent in so far as it appears to be “curiosity driven” rather than motivated to serve societal needs. This erosion of tolerance threatens the long-standing justifying myths of science in America. A Few Caveats While some of the trends may seem nonobvious (and consequently arguable), others will elicit the reaction, “We knew that.” Yet it is not so much the individual trends that matter, but rather how they combine. We are projecting a manifold of trends and events; their configuration is what matters. It is important to recognize that the bulk of forecasting is projection: analysis of current and past conditions for their future implications. Finally, any forecast of trends that depends on the actions of the audience ought to be conditional. There is an implicit or explicit premise that actions can avert negative outcomes and promote positive ones. Therefore none of the trends mentioned below ought to be considered as inevitable. These are “developmental constructs,” not absolute predictions. The Broad Manifold Anyone could tell you that the world since World War II has been evolving toward a postindustrial, globalizing economy in which the two or three dozen industrial countries have experienced an equalization of incomes and technological capability.1 However, the gap between the rich and poor countries has increased, particularly during the disastrous decade of the 1980s, with huge debt burdens, painful “structural adjustments,” and austerity. 1   The nations of North America, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the Far East (Japan and the Young Tigers).

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Beginning a Dialogue on the Changing Environment for the Physical and Mathematical Sciences: Report of a Conference In the 1980s, additional trends emerged, including the breakdown of bipolarism, serious regional integration (Europe and perhaps North America), and the growing recognition of resource and environmental constraints (although the importance of these constraints remains controversial). Postindustrial Society Postindustrialism, though often used as a buzzword, actually has profound significance because of three trends that occur in advanced economies. First, postindustrial societies have enough wealth to address most of the material aspirations of their populations, but the palpable improvements experienced in rapidly developing industrializing economies are lacking.2 While there is often a correlation between income growth and satisfaction or optimism, there is no clear correlation between the level of the income base and satisfaction. Since expectations rise with what one gets,3 slow improvements often seem like disappointments rather than modest successes. Recent and future scientific breakthroughs are less likely to be appreciated. Gadgets are no longer regarded as improving the quality of life or productivity, even if they do. People marvel at the ingenuity of computers but rarely acknowledge the improvements in quality of life that they bring. Second, where basic material needs have been met for the bulk of the population, further progress becomes increasingly difficult because of the diminishing returns on efforts to address the residual cases. Thus educating the total population adequately is dramatically more difficult than educating 90 percent of the population; employing everyone capable of holding a job, including those who have been unemployed so long that they are no longer job seekers, is vastly more difficult than creating job opportunities for the rest of the population; the diseases and health conditions that remain are, almost by definition, less tractable than those that have been eliminated. Third, when basic material needs are being met, needs for security become relatively more prominent. Avoiding “negatives” dominates over the accumulation of positive benefits such as wealth, education, and culture. The fascinating aspect of the “negative” needs—health, occupational and environmental safety, public safety, national security—is that they also present severely diminishing returns on effort, and yet there is little notion of satiation. At least thus far, increasing health expenditures and breakthroughs in health technology simply expose people to the next disease or decrepitude to strike them. Public safety and national security are limited by nasty escalation feedback loops. As Aaron Wildavsky4 points out, going from moderate safety to maximum safety is extraordinarily costly and often backfires, because the complexity required to approach maximum safety can create other risks. In general, then, reducing the chances of being mugged, murdered, exposed to carcinogens, or “nuked” from 1:5,000 to 1:10,000 may require huge expenditures and impressive technological breakthroughs but would be unlikely to reduce the demand for more improvements, and apparently would have little impact on feelings of security. 2   The wealthiest countries these days grow at an annual rate of 2 to 4 percent when things are going well; industrializing economies like Korea, China, or Indonesia may grow at over 10 percent annually. 3   The so-called revolution of rising expectations. 4   Aaron Wildavsky, Searching for Safety, Transaction Books, New Brunswick, N.J., 1988.

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Beginning a Dialogue on the Changing Environment for the Physical and Mathematical Sciences: Report of a Conference It is equally fascinating that just within the past three years the United States has experienced two fundamental changes within this category: the fall of the Soviet Union obviously had dramatic effects on geopolitical risk, and the tolerance of continued increases in health care costs hit some sort of ceiling. Even if we acknowledge that the Soviet Union was extraordinarily inefficient in many respects, its demise also demonstrates that national security can bankrupt a country. Were it not for the Soviet Union's disintegration, would our defense expenditures still be rising? As for health care reform in the United States, we may be seeing for the first time the ceilings of tolerance for protection against harm. Quite similar rethinking is going on with respect to protection from occupational and environmental hazards. In general, there is an emerging, if still undefined, change in the orientations toward risk. We do not know whether these recent events represent small blips in the inexorable rise of negative preoccupations, or a new-found tolerance for living with degrees of insecurity. If the latter, then the demand for this whole set of “defensive” technologies may collapse, as has the demand for defense technologies per se. All of these diminishing returns on efforts at improving postindustrial society explain why it is that amidst the incredible affluence of the rich countries there is an astounding perception of scarce financial resources. Consider that the U.S. gross national product per capita has increased by a factor of nearly 2.5 since the end of World War II. Diminishing returns also mean that those held responsible for meeting our expectations are viewedcritically. Clearly this holds for government. Presidential approval ratings are remarkably low for U.S. presidents of the current era compared to the ratings of presidents of earlier eras. But it also holds for science. Along with the disappointment occasioned by the perception that progress has somehow stumbled has come lower tolerance for scientific spending that seems to indulge scientists. Federal funding for basic and applied research, excluding development, increased from $8 billion in 1960 to $21 billion in 1990 (in constant 1990 dollars)—an increase of more than 160 percent during a period in which per capita incomes increased by 80 percent. And yet, since “putting a man on the moon, ” there have been no successful charismatic5 developments in science that have captured the public's awe. Conceivably this could change with the discovery of a cure for AIDS or the peaceful harnessing of fusion power, but 30 years has been a very long time to wait for inspiring breakthroughs. Globalization Economic and political integration around the world is another obvious trend with not-so-obvious implications. In facilitating the transfer of capital and product technology among countries, globalization implies less advantage for countries like the United States that have concentrated on product development, and more for other countries that have lower labor costs or advanced production technologies. Production technologies, we have learned, entail not just robots but also work-force organization. It is sobering to consider these developments in light of the explicit economic rationale for U.S. science policy, as expressed by Vannevar Bush: “A nation which depends upon 5   In the same sense as “charismatic species,” the endangered species that capture the public's attention.

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Beginning a Dialogue on the Changing Environment for the Physical and Mathematical Sciences: Report of a Conference others for its new basic scientific knowledge will be slow in its industrial progress and weak in its competitive position in world trade, regardless of its mechanical skill.”6 Another aspect of globalization is the remarkable convergence of economic thinking. This trend is a necessary precursor of regional and global economic integration, which requires that economic policies be “harmonized.” It will put an end to a little-recognized competitive advantage of countries like the United States and Japan, namely, the fact that many other countries were noncompetitive, despite their labor or natural-resource advantages, because of terrible economic policies. The fuller integration of less developed countries into the world economy may well lead to reduced margins for the countries that thus far have had relatively good economic policies. The competitive challenges from India, China, Mexico, and other countries could make the Japanese challenge pale in comparison. Finding the right combinations of product technologies, process technologies, and appropriate U.S. economic policies to develop our appropriate economic niches has never been more important. It gives pause that current U.S. economic policies may soon put us at a competitive disadvantage against countries that have undergone dramatic policy reforms. In terms of markets, an incredible increase in the demand for consumer durables is around the corner, but such demand is more likely to be for affordable conventional products such as washing machines than for “high-tech” products. Again, production technology and efficient work-force organization may well be more important than product technology. International trade and competition, if conducted fairly, have benefits for all countries, as they specialize in the goods and services that they produce with greatest productivity. However, a natural consequence of the increased specialization that this entails is that certain industries will die even in healthy economies. There is a significant risk that various groups will interpret this outcome as a serious sign of economic malaise rather than as the constructive process of specialization. The expansion of competition from national to global dimensions will probably result in an abandonment or at least severe weakening of antitrust principles. This implies increased opportunities for massive, multicompany research and development efforts. It may be harder for smaller-scale R&D efforts to compete. Regional and global economic integration itself may reduce the nationalist motivations for heroic science. 7 On the political and policy side, the rise of technical policy elites (e.g., the “Eurocrats”) can bureaucratize (and, to a certain degree, depoliticize) policy issues. This can lead to better policies in many areas but can also contribute to a declining public faith in government responsiveness. Political integration is a more volatile, less predictable matter. Ironically, regional integration makes smaller states more viable because they can avail themselves of economies of scale and large markets without having to incorporate greater territories and populations 6   Vannevar Bush, Science, the Endless Frontier, National Science Foundation, Washington, D.C., 1945, 1990, p. 19. Page reference as per the 1945 version. 7   Eugene Skolnikoff, in “New International Trends Affecting Science and Technology,” Science and Public Policy 22:2 (April 1993):115-25, at p. 115 notes: “There is an important shift in international science and technology toward international economic, rather than security, goals in the motivation for support, but little diminution of the strong national basis of decision-making. Resource constraints will increase the attractiveness of cost-sharing through international scientific cooperation. . . .”

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Beginning a Dialogue on the Changing Environment for the Physical and Mathematical Sciences: Report of a Conference within their own boundaries. Thus the risk of civil wars emerging out of separatist efforts unconstrained by considerations of economic viability of the new states may be increasing. Natural Resource Constraints Barring an unanticipated leap in the incidence of AIDS or other epidemics, world population will continue to increase rapidly along with even more rapid increases in per capita consumption. The combination of economic take-off for countries like China and India, and continued population growth, will lead to an unprecedented rate of growth in the demands for natural resources and environmental services.8 Living conditions deteriorate when the combination of technological innovation and investment do not keep pace with the infrastructural needs of an increasing population. Injections of capital and technology can maintain the carrying capacity of a system at a given level of material well-being; some cities in industrial countries (such as Tokyo) are probably more pleasant to live in today than 20 years ago, despite their increase in population. Yet the lag in applying better infrastructure technology—generally a very expensive proposition — has led to deterioration in most locales. How can increasing affluence and resource conservation be reconciled? Obviously, energy-conserving technologies, material substitutes, and downsizing must play a role. Also, at least in the industrial countries (where, it has been well established, most natural resources are consumed), we may be entering an era of less material consumption per individual, partly due to an emerging conservation aesthetic, and partly because of an accelerating shift to spending on services rather than goods. One need not be overly pessimistic. Nonetheless, without adequate attention, environmental degradation is a political and social time bomb. While in theory compatible with economic growth, environmental protection typically suffers because of the slippage mentioned above. Growth vs. environmental conflicts are often extremely bitter (local jobs vs. clean air for local people and the aesthetics of “outsiders”). The demands for technologies that can overcome the trade-offs will be enormous. However, if science, business, and government cannot respond adequately, there may be tremendous dissatisfaction toward these institutions. A broader issue is the long-term sustainability of “natural” ecosystems and the environmental services they provide. Natural forests and marshlands continue to disappear around the world, particularly in developing countries. The highly visible debt-for-nature swaps are making few inroads in the face of these changes on a global scale. What had been viewed as a challenge of conservation has come to be viewed as a challenge of restoration. The newest, hottest field in ecology is restoration ecology. Yet ecologists are finding that the restoration of anything close to the original ecosystems is typically economically impossible and beyond the ken of existing science. Thus the emerging challenge, although it will be strongly resisted by preservationist-minded ecologists and activists, is “reconstitution ecology,” in which the reconstitution may involve terrain, hydrology, and flora and fauna that are very different from what existed previously, while still providing all or a large part of the original environmental services. 8   The latter include clean air and water, which to the economist are production inputs (they are “used up” in producing other goods).

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Beginning a Dialogue on the Changing Environment for the Physical and Mathematical Sciences: Report of a Conference For example, when forest is converted into agricultural land, how can the land maintain an acceptable level of watershed protection, local climate control, carbon sequestration, biological diversity, or other environmental services that society (local, national, or global) deems necessary? The challenges to science are four-fold. First, an enormous effort in scientific integration is necessary, involving agronomy, atmospheric science, biology, civil engineering, geology, hydrology, and many other fields. Second, the decision sciences have to cope with the uncertainties of dealing with man-made changes (such as global warming) that are overlaid with partially unknown natural cycles that may be of greater magnitude and may run counter to the man-made trends. Third, the “scientific inputs” easily blur into value judgments about what ought to be. Thus far, scientists have been somewhat professionally self-indulgent in opting for ecosystems that are more scientifically interesting. Fourth, scientists are finding that their disagreements on technical issues, even if rather narrow in terms of implications for policy, are often used by politicians to avoid taking action on issues for which scientific input is potentially of great importance. Conclusions and Implications This “quick-and-dirty” survey emphasizes the implications of various probable trends in economic factors and public attitudes. It is based on a conviction that science policy will be shaped by reactions to economic challenges (more than to national security concerns as in the past) and to increasingly nonindulgent public opinion. Subjective trends (i.e., opinions and attitudes) are notoriously difficult to project. But it is certainly fair to say that public opinion toward science and scientists is in flux. The breakdown of the justifying myth of science appears to be a very strong possibility. The argument for science for its own sake seems unnecessary (why would science that can be justified for its short- or long-term potential for serving societal needs be any less promising a priori than science undertaken out of curiosity or as a result of the momentum of PhD mills and peer-review cliques?), and the Bush economic argument for basic science is increasingly problematic. In short, scientists will be held accountable. The acceptance of basic science may no longer be taken for granted, as people recognize that the distinction between basic and applied science frustrates accountability. A new fusion of scientific input and public participation may be necessary.