Man’s power to achieve good or to inflict evil surpasses the brightest hopes and the sharpest fears of all ages. We can turn rivers in their courses, level mountains to the plains. Oceans and land and sky are avenues for our colossal commerce. Disease diminishes and life lengthens. Yet the promise of this life is imperiled by the very genius that has made it possible. Nations amass wealth. Labor sweats to create, and turns out devices to level not only mountains but also cities. Science seems ready to confer upon us, as its final gift, the power to erase human life from this planet. – President Dwight D. Eisenhower (First inaugural address, 1953)
Science and technology (S&T) have become the most powerful transforming forces in society, allowing people to escape fundamental need; fostering innovation and economic growth; fighting scourges like smallpox, polio, and AIDS; and joining billions of people together in information and communication networks that serve democracy as well as commerce. But the profound changes brought about by S&T have led as well to negative impacts–often unanticipated. From the industrial revolution to the information revolution, the march of scientific and technological progress has left in its wake unemployment, cultural dislocation, economic inequity, environmental destruction, even war and disease.
Just as science and technology affect our world, they are affected by public policy decisions about how research funds are allocated, priorities established, the research enterprise organized, knowledge communicated and applied, and accountability maintained. Policy decisions influence the societal consequences–the outcomes–of scientific research in realms as diverse as the economy, the environment, health, governance, national security, and social structure.
While it is clear that S&T contribute to large scale societal transformations, our current understanding of how they do so is inadequate, and this leaves us unprepared for the task of planning for the future. Today, decision makers lack the tools necessary to plan for, respond to, and integrate into public policy the dynamo of S&T progress that continually reshapes our world.
Our incomplete understanding of the impacts and effects of S&T leads to such paradoxical outcomes as AIDS drugs that work in post-industrial cultures but are thus far largely irrelevant to the developing world due to challenges of cost and distribution, and genetically modified crops that have the potential to boost nutrition and agricultural productivity but are fiercely opposed on cultural and environmental grounds.
Our lack of understanding also results in disparities between science goals and achievements. In the U.S. and abroad, much publicly funded science is explicitly promoted and justified in terms of the quest for specified societal outcomes, such as those listed in the table below. The enormous challenge of using science to contribute to such desired outcomes rests upon the ability to implement appropriate science policies.
Desired Societal Outcomes Promoted by National Science Agencies
Increase quality and years of healthy life. Eliminate health disparities. (US Health and Human Services Department)
Ensure a safe and affordable food supply. (US Agriculture Department)
Foster a reliable energy system that is environmentally and economically sustainable. (US Energy Department)
Reduce the impacts of hazards caused by natural processes and human actions. (US Interior Department)
Conserve and manage wisely the Nation’s coastal and marine resources to ensure sustainable economic opportunities. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
Improve the health of the European population. (European Union BIOMED 2 Program)
While the existing science enterprise includes highly effective mechanisms for judging the quality of science itself, there are few mechanisms aimed at understanding and assessing the linkages between scientific activities and desired outcomes. Such assessment processes are necessary to ensure progress toward goals. Growing demand for accountability can be recognized in Congressional action (e.g., the Government Performance and Results Act) and in public advocacy and activism (e.g., controversies over stem cell technologies, genetically modified organisms, and environmental regulations).
CSPO is the only intellectual consortium dedicated to understanding the linkages between S&T and its effects on society, and to developing knowledge and tools that can more effectively connect progress in S&T to progress toward desired societal outcomes. The Consortium draws on the intellectual resources of Arizona State University and other institutions for the scholarly foundation to assess and foster outcome-based policies across a broad portfolio of publicly funded scientific research. The Consortium’s core commitment is to generating useable knowledge for real-world decision making.
George E. Brown Jr. (1920-1999) devoted his life in politics to the idea that science should be the servant of justice, freedom, equality, and enlightenment. CSPO seeks to honor his memory by advancing his mission.