How can science and technology most effectively contribute to an improved quality of life for the greatest number of people?
This is the organizing question for the Consortium for Science, Policy, & Outcomes (CSPO). The Consortium is devoted to enhancing the capacity of public policy to link scientific research to beneficial societal outcomes.
The Consortium creates knowledge, cultivates public discourse, and fosters policies to help decision makers and institutions grapple with the immense power and importance of science and technology as society charts a course for the future.
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
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 center 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 Center 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 Center's core commitment is to generating useable knowledge for real-world decision making.
Science and technology are demonstrably objective and effective; but they're unquestionably bound up with power relations as social systems. – Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian.
Federal science policy since World War II has been dominated by the idea that more science automatically generates better societal outcomes. But connections between scientific advance and societal outcomes are complex and often surprising. Consider the following examples:
Desired outcomes can drive science: For 50 years, the goal of materials research in the U.S. has been to produce smaller and faster devices for advanced military use. Desired outcomes were visualized in military terms alone, and focused on durability, radiation protection, and other specialized attributes. The military definition of the problem drove the science toward sophisticated silicon-based, high temperature materials with tremendous capacity for miniaturization. We committed to this path and remain on it, without having considered if it is optimal for a broader set of outcomes, such as environmental sustainability or electrical efficiency. Similarly, in the 1960s the world set out to increase agricultural productivity, and scientific research gave us the Green Revolution. But research agendas did not consider environmental, cultural, or socioeconomic impacts, and so the same research breakthroughs that helped to feed the world also led to environment degradation and the destabilization of small farming communities world wide. CSPO will help decision makers craft research agendas that respond to the broadest possible range of desired societal outcomes.
The societal value of new knowledge is determined by how it is used, and by whom: Consider the consequences of advances in atmospheric science that now allow the effects of El Niño to be predicted up to a year in advance. In Peru, for example, industrial fisheries used El Niño forecasts to track the migration of fish. The result was economic gain combined with more serious depletion of fish populations. Moreover, while companies that owned large fishing vessels could take advantage of the forecasts, local fishing communities could not. The forecasts thus undermined sustainability and magnified inequity. Again, the difficulty comes from a narrow definition of the problem that did not include consideration of social context, and thus did not lead to desired societal outcomes. No one asked what type of climate research would best contribute to sustainability and social equity. CSPO asks such questions.
The definition of the problem helps determine the relevance of the research: Combating AIDS requires more than an understanding of the virus. Yet our research program on AIDS began with a narrow, biomedical definition of the problem. Because of that definition, society now is unable to help most of the tens of millions of AIDS patients throughout the world: the remarkable drugs created by biomedical research to slow the course of the disease are so costly that they are available only to a tiny fraction of AIDS sufferers. Fifteen years ago, if we had envisioned AIDS as a problem of socioeconomics, culture, and globalization, we could have developed a very different science policy agenda. Combating the virus would have been one part of a comprehensive approach that also would have addressed distribution systems, intellectual property, and human behavior. Our current science policy precluded such a broad perspective. CSPO will work to encourage policy makers and scientists to include societal context in the definition of scientific problems.
These examples have important implications for policy design. The materials science story indicates that choice of science objectives in the short term can constrain our options in the long term. The case of climate forecasting shows that knowledge about the potential users of information can help determine what types of information would be most broadly beneficial. The history of AIDS research suggests that integrating societal context into the definition of research problems can amplify the benefits of the research results.
A New Approach
We are being propelled into this new century with no plan, no control, no brakes. – Bill Joy, Co-founder and Chief Scientist, Sun Microsystems
Despite the formative influence of S&T on the character and quality of modern life, there has been no institution devoted to understanding and enhancing the connections between the advance of science and technology, and the achievement of desired societal outcomes. The Consortium for Science, Policy, & Outcomes represents a first step toward filling this vacuum. The Consortium aims to foster new knowledge, public discourse, and policy formulation to help decision makers grapple with the immense power and importance of S&T as democratic society seeks to chart a course for the future.
How is it that a force of such overwhelming power and significance–the transforming power of scientific and technological advance–could be so neglected in the realm of public policy? The most important reason lies in the pervasive assumption that more knowledge and innovation lead directly and automatically to desired societal outcomes. In reality, S&T makes its way into society through institutions, enterprises, and other social structures that are themselves changed by the course of scientific progress. This is an entirely dynamic system, complex and nonlinear in its essence.
There are uncommon opportunities now to harness the synergy between science and public policy to address contemporary development issues such as the growing divide between rich and poor, the feminization of poverty, overpopulation, [and] climate change. – M.S. Swaminathan, "Father of the Green Revolution," 1999 Volvo Environmental Prize Laureate
Until now, our policy regarding S&T was focused almost exclusively on increasing the supply of knowledge and innovation. This system has led to disconnects between scientific progress and societal progress: spectacular advances in biomedical research in the U.S. have been paralleled by skyrocketing health care costs, expanding inequity in access to health care, and mediocre levels of public health. Similarly, astonishing gains in information and communications technologies have been accompanied by declining educational achievement and stagnant levels of public awareness of issues of political, scientific, and cultural import. While science is not the cause of such problems, outcome-based science policies could make science a more effective contributor to their solution.
Historically, society has been content to react to the complexities created by advances in S&T as they arose. Yet the acceleration of scientific and technological progress increasingly renders such a laissez-faire approach untenable. The potential of such fields as information technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology to transform society in a very short time challenges our ability to understand and shape our common destiny. There is an urgent need for open discourse and creative thinking to avoid the reaction, backlash, and disruption that can compromise both technological promise and civil society. The Consortium for Science, Policy, & Outcomes was created to address this need.