Fallible and imperfect, science is the manifestation of the human mind in its highest cognitive expression. And it’s no wonder that it evokes fear and resentment, as well as admiration. It imposes an intellectual discipline unwelcome to many of us, and threatens some of our most precious illusions about who we are. We remain disappointed when it fails to produce the fruits we desire, and we get scared when we realize that its results may have in some cases disastrous side-effects, especially if abused. We feel threatened both by the successes of science and by its failures. Not surprisingly, maybe, science like us, is just human. (Haack, 2007)
As a matter of fact, the society we live in nowadays is shaped by the technological revolutions that scientific discoveries have allowed. Unfortunately we have to remember, that science is a human product and that the consequences of scientific research can have huge side effects, as it happened in the past and unfortunately may happen in each and every instant.
Basic scientific research satisfies our curiosity about the nature of the world by letting scientists in a spirit of academic freedom discover (random or planned) some fundamental principles of nature. Many achievements of basic research are then useful to produce technological applications with enormous impact on the society. For instance, both penicillin that saves every day thousands of lives, and the internet (www) that makes information freely circulating all over the world, are discoveries which were not initially conceived for the use we make today. In this serendipity lies the dilemma with which each independent nation must face… invest or not in basic research without being sure that the results will be immediately transferable into technological applications? Looking at the most developed nations, funding basic research seems to be a risk that must always be covered because it gives a reservoir of transversal ideas may in the future come to play. After all, how could we guess that Osamu Shimomura (Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2008), studying how a jellyfish gets enlightened, could discover the green fluorescent protein (GFP) that has become an instrument used every day in thousands and thousands of biomedical laboratories around the world? It happened often that advancements in pure research give seeds to technology in fields very far from the one in which the research was originally born. All applied research would in fact stagnate without the continuous contribution of free basic research.
The power of science in deciding the fate of modern society has long been known and was underlined for example by an article published in 2013 in the journal Science (Press, 2013). In this opinion piece the emphasis was on the direct connection between investments in basic research and the economic development of a country or between the number of scientists / engineers in the population and the level of economic production. Under the lines a big problem lies: industrial giants and political powers have understood since decades the potential of science in deciding the fate of the planet and this mix of economic and political interests can sometimes drive entirely the research direction of a nation. Unfortunately, this aspect can damage the happiness and wellness of a society: patents on medicines, weapons production, goods accessible to a few people. The logic of profit without ethical rules is quite spread and can affect the freedom and curiosity-driven beauty of basic research as well as the ethical values of the scientists involved. They became scientists initially with global, positive ideals: creating a world with more health and less diseases, reduce the global warming, nourishing all of humanity without exception, promoting the well-being of the planet… dreams that can get lost in modern societies.
Thus the values of our society should be redirected towards a commitment to promote the well-being of the human being and a particular attention for the planet that hosts it (Capra, 2014). The limit to be overcome as a conscious human society is precisely integrating Homo sapiens into an ecological dimension. Education, health, social inclusion, environmental policies, happiness, are indicators that are slowly gaining importance in the development plans of every nation apart from the growth of GDP, the indicator that considers only the activities associated with a monetary value (even criminal, polluting, non-educational…). The American biochemist Van Potter conceptualized bioethics as a bridge between science and ethical values, between humanity and nature and between present and future (ten Have, 2012). For example, it would be fundamental for the world that a committee of disinterested scientists, philosophers would work together with legislators to keep the ethical pace of continuous scientific and technological revolutions. This would emphasize the binomial nature-culture favoring a future of our species on this planet.
The saddest aspect of modern life is that science obtains knowledge faster than society gains wisdom (Asimov I., 1988)
Post-doc at the European Molecolar Biology Laboratory, Heidelberg
Asimov I., Shulman J.A., 1988. Isaac Asimov’s Book of Science and Nature Questions, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Bush, V., 1945. Summary of the Report to the President for a Program for Postwar Scientific Research. Science.
Capra F. and Luisi P.L., 2014. The Systems views of life, a unifying vision. Cambridge University Press.
ten Have H.A., 2012. Potter’s notion of bioethics. Kennedy Inst Ethics J.
Haack S., 2007. Defending Science – Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism, Prometheus Books, p. 325.
Press W.H., 2013. What’s so special about science? Science.