‘Science needs to interface with society through education, information’

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Scientists today are in the vanguard of progress, playing a determinant role in the future of humanity. The scientist, however, does not work in isolation and is, at the same time, also a citizen, not of any particular country, but a global one, and understands that the future of humanity depends on the conscious choices he or she makes. 

This was the consensus among participants at the International Science for Peace and Development Dialogue Forum held on World Science Day on November 10 in Nizhny Novgorod (Russia) at the Mayak Academy – renamed earlier in the day after the late Russian scientist and activist Andrei Sakharov. The forum was focused on the ethical dimension of scientific discoveries and how researchers perceive it. 

The physicist Sakharov played a major role in the development of thermonuclear weapons in the 1950s in the former Soviet Union. On the other hand, he was also a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1975 and a great advocate of disarmament and human rights. 

The dialogue forum, organised jointly by the Commission of the Russian Federation for UNESCO and Russia’s state atomic energy corporation, Rosatom, was structured around four topics of discussion: Scientific Discoveries – the ultimate good or a big risk; The Formula for Success in Science – competition or cooperation; Research Ethics and the Scientist’s Responsibility; Who Owns Discoveries – the scientist or humanity.   

Amidst the ongoing Industrial Revolution 4.0, the last five years have seen an exponential growth in technology, particularly in areas like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), which has sparked off fears in society about their impact in the form of job losses, said Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at Oxford University.  

“Industrial Revolution 4.0 is a fast revolution, and it frightens people when they don’t understand it”, Sautoy said, underlining the vital importance of educating the public about developments in science and technology – an effort that he is personally invested in as the holder of the prestigious Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University.   

According to Sautoy, it is crucial to differentiate between science and technology, which is the implementation in society of scientific knowledge. He believes that society at large, or the citizens, should be informed about science so that the aware public can decide about how to make use of specific scientific inventions. 

The UK’s Astronomer Royal, Lord Martin Rees, was of the view that science is advancing at an “alarming rate”, and it has become necessary to “go slow” in certain areas of research which have damaging implications. In this regard. he cited the example of research that was being carried out earlier in laboratories in the US to develop certain virulent and fast transmissible forms of the influenza virus.  

Noting that science should develop in a way that is beneficial for the human race, while limiting its damaging aspects, Lord Rees said: “There is good reason to worry about the downsides of development as evident through phenomena like climate change. So, we have to work in a way to leave this world a better place.” 

Emeritus Professor Rae Kwon Chung, who is the director of the Ban-Ki-Moon Foundation, noted how ideological differences witnessed during the Cold War period have now been replaced by challenges posed to humanity by “common enemies” such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“We are relying on market mechanisms to spread scientific discovery”, Professor Chung said, questioning whether the market is the appropriate means for the diffusion of science. “We are driven by short-term interest as it operates through the market, but have long-term goals like tackling climate change”, he said. “We cannot talk about the impact of science without taking into account the operation of the market which is driven by the short-term interest of supply and demand”, he added.  

According to Professor Chung, society, as well as governments, can help to introduce policy measures to control the level of profit that can be made “through the dogma of free-market ideology.” “We have to revisit the free-market principle to make it into a sustainable market principle. This is a real challenge to which we have not yet found a solution”, he said, adding that mass media has a critical role to play in maximising the positive outcome and impact of science.  

The head of Rosatom’s quantum technologies project, Ruslan Yanusov, elaborated on quantum computing which is not only much faster than current supercomputers but is also able to solve very complex problems.  

Quantum computing, based on the ability of sub-atomic particles to exist in more than one state at any time, allows operations to be done much quicker, using less energy than classical computers. A major function of quantum computing is the breaking of cryptographic codes, which makes it potentially a major weapon in the hands of hackers. Thus, at a pre-emptive level, research is also underway to develop quantum communications, or quantum cryptography, to secure systems against the threat posed by quantum computers. 

Yanusov pointed out that although quantum computing can solve complex problems very fast, the risks include the development of algorithms that would be “unbreakable” by quantum computers. “Only one or two countries should not have access to this technology, while others are left behind. Everyone should have equal access”, he said. “Questions of ethics are becoming increasingly important as these technologies develop. In the sciences like biotechnology, AI, etcetera, questions of ethics should be addressed”, he added.  

According to the astrophysicist Garik Israelian, the most important issue currently confronting an interconnected world is the problem of energy, which “is the basis of everything.” “We cannot progress without solving the problem of energy”, he said.  

Israelian, who is the founder of the Starmus Festival dedicated to science communication and art, cited the 35-nation International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project as the prime example of global cooperation to address the energy issue. The ITER machine, assembly of which began in July 2020 in France, is designed to replicate the fusion power of the sun to enable generation of clean unlimited energy. The world’s largest science project is intended to demonstrate that fusion power can be generated on a commercial scale. ITER is a partnership composed of the European Union, the UK, Switzerland, China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the US. Each partner contributes in-kind hardware to support their share of project construction while sharing all of the science and technology.    

On the subject of the need to disseminate reliable information to the public about science, the head of Rosatom’s Proryv (Breakthrough) project, Evgeny Adamov, said that although nuclear energy is one of the safest technologies, it still faces a lot of public mistrust mainly owing to the horrors associated with the use of atomic weapons at the end of World War II. 

Rosatom’s ‘Proryv’, or ‘Breakthrough’, project targets creation of a new technology platform for the industry with a closed nuclear fuel cycle, as well as tackling the issues of spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste. The nuclear industry’s resource base will practically become inexhaustible thanks to the infinite reprocessing of nuclear fuel. According to Adamov, the closed fuel technology should be made available to everybody, without patent restrictions. “Personally, I feel that this technology should be made available to all free of charge, given that 1-2 billion people worldwide still don’t have access to energy”, he said.  

Fellow of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, Ravina Kullar, said that the quest for scientific knowledge involves pushing the boundaries, while the ethical question is a grey area that the scientist is confronted with every day. “If there is a great harm to public health involved in what I am working on, then it is a boundary that I cannot cross”, she said.   

Theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser elaborated on ways to disseminate scientific ideas among the masses and said that reform of the educational system is a must in order to make science interesting for children and “humanise how science is brought to the people.” “There is a loss in translating science for the public, but is worth it to make people aware of the transformational quality of science”, he said.  

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has starkly highlighted the interconnectedness of the world. The overall consensus at the forum was that the essential challenge of today is whether our social and economic systems can keep pace with scientific progress. “We have to improve our social and economic systems, so these can be compatible with, and accommodate, scientific progress”, Rae Kwon Chung said. There is a need to create an interface between science and society, which will provide the assurance that scientific discovery does not stand in isolation, as it is often perceived, but is also in the social interest.

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