SCIENCE provides an invaluable source of guidance, in part because scientists can often predict the consequences of current actions.
For example, we know that someone who smokes two packs of cigarettes a day is likely to have a serious problem with cancer 40 years later. And science predicts that unless we severely constrain consumption of oil and coal around the world, the climate will continue to warm, increasing ocean volume and melting huge amounts of ice in the Arctic and Antarctic – thereby causing disastrous rises in sea level.
These are but two examples of thousands of instances in which it makes good sense for decision-makers to take into account what science can predict about the future. And yet what science knows is far too often overlooked when high-stakes decisions are made.
This is not to say that scientists should dominate the government decision-making process – it is the business of politicians, not scientists, to consider the relative costs and benefits of the options before them, weighing them as they see fit before reaching their conclusions. But many such judgments will be poor ones without effective scientific input.
The United States government is well-served by an organisation called the National Academies, based on three honorary organisations which include the nation’s most distinguished scientists, engineers, and health professionals. This independent organisation produces more than 200 reports a year, most in response to specific requests from the US government.
Past requests have included questions about the health hazards of trace amounts of arsenic in drinking water to questions about how best to support various forms of scientific research. Through a rigorous review process, the Academies insists each report be limited to what science can say about the subject based on evidence and logic, without pre-empting the decisions that need to be made by others.
Thus the report on drinking water predicted the frequency of bladder cancers that would occur in a population exposed to levels of five, ten, or 20 parts per billion of arsenic. But it did not say what maximum arsenic concentration the government should legislate.
The full text of 3,000 reports by the Academies are available online (at www.nap.edu), and each can be downloaded for free. The dangers of arsenic are the same across the globe, and in this case a US-based report can help all nations.
However, there are other issues that require study by internationally-based organisations in order to be widely accepted. To meet this need, the InterAcademy Council (IAC) in Amsterdam was founded in 2000 by a worldwide organisation of science academies called the InterAcademy Panel (IAP). The IAC is governed by a board that includes a rotating group of 15 Academy presidents from around the world, representing nations at a range of economic development levels, and its reports present a truly international perspective.
The IAC provides advice on subjects requested by the United Nations and other international organisations, all of which is freely available at www.interacademycouncil.net. The first IAC report was Inventing a Better Future: A Strategy for Building Worldwide Capacities in Science and Technology. It argued convincingly for the importance of supporting in every nation the science and technology institutions that focus on harnessing the increasing store of international scientific and technical knowledge to meet that nation’s needs.
It also had guidance for governments and international organisations on how to build institutional capacities for science and technology in both developing and industrialised countries. The IAC’s most recent effort, entitled Lighting the Way: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future, presents an ambitious science-based agenda for meeting the world’s enormously challenging energy requirements.
An important audience for each IAC report are the 100 academies of science that belong to the IAP. Each has a special responsibility for disseminating a report’s recommendations throughout its own country, which can considerably enhance the academy’s effectiveness in influencing national policies. The combination of IAP and IAC is an important experiment for providing international scientific advice – an experiment that has only just begun to demonstrate its effectiveness for spreading the benefits of science and technology to all.
&149 Bruce Alberts is a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California in San Francisco; co-chair of the IAC, Amsterdam, and editor-in-chief of Science magazine.