CORVALLIS, Ore. - It's time for scientists to create a new "social contract" with America that addresses challenges of the future instead of being wedded to problems of the past, a nationally prominent researcher says.
The fears of the Cold War, exhilaration of the space race and pioneering advances in medicine were keys to the growth of science following World War II, and successful accomplishments in all of those areas earned public respect, appreciation and generous funding.
But the most prominent concerns of the next century could be quite different and may revolve around the environment, said Jane Lubchenco, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Lubchenco addressed these and other concerns in a presentation Saturday at the annual meeting of the AAAS in Seattle, Wash.
"Times have changed, our economy has changed and the world has changed," said Lubchenco, the Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology at Oregon State University. "It's time for a national dialogue on the needs of the future and what role, as a society, we want science to play."
Lubchenco also said it may be time for Americans to reexamine what constitutes economic, health, and national defense policies.
Global overpopulation, unsustainable use of resources, environmental degradation and pollution are already creating political strife and global instability that form a direct threat to our national security, economic progress and personal health, Lubchenco said.
Those problems will be more effectively addressed by enlightened policies and attitudes than by guns, tanks or bombs, she said.
It is imperative that national and international policies be better informed by our current scientific understanding of ecological systems. Moreover, scientific priorities should reflect the knowledge base we will need to make tough choices, Lubchenco said.
"I don't presume to have all the answers," Lubchenco said, "but I know this is a critical time in the history of humanity.
"Most Americans are concerned about environmental issues but far too many of our policies and practices are not scientifically sound," she said.
"These range from natural resource to economic and health practices. Moreover, the rates, kind, and scale of environmental changes are different now than ever before, so the challenges facing us are different from problems of the past. We need to wake up and reexamine where the world is headed, what quality of life we want."
Her concerns in this area, Lubchenco said, have been prompted by increasing environmental changes that compromise the health and prosperity of people, and by inadequate understanding of the process and value of science in helping to inform societal decisions.
"Too often these days, I see issues being cast in a false light, such as jobs versus the environment," Lubchenco said. "That's myopic. It's more a question of short-term profits versus long-term sustainability."
But to make those value judgments, Lubchenco said, the public and decision-makers need a solid scientific understanding of ecology, the range of benefits derived from ecosystems, and the interplay of the environment with economic progress, ecological functioning and human health.
Lubchenco said she remains convinced that people will be surprisingly thoughtful about long-term policies if they better understand the issues involved - as in the success of social programs such as recycling.
A sneak preview of a future in which education, environmental protection and ecology were ignored might be seen in today's Haiti, Lubchenco said - a nation mired in poverty, ignorance, disease and collapsed ecosystems.
To avoid that type of future for the rest of the world, she said, people should reconsider what problems they are worried about, how serious of a concern they think those problems are, what types of science could be used to better address those problems, and what level of funding is needed.
A thoughtful approach such as that on the part of the public and political leaders, Lubchenco said, is possible but does not now exist.
Scientists, she said, could also do a far better job of explaining what they do, how it can help and how it has helped.
"The scientific role played with chlorofluorocarbons and the depletion of our stratospheric ozone layer, for instance, is a tremendous success story," Lubchenco said. "That issue evolved out of basic research, but scientists helped explain the problem and led efforts to address it. And great progress has been made."
The value of basic research, Lubchenco said, should also be reconsidered in any societal debate.
These studies "for the sake of curiosity" often produce the most valuable new findings and, more quickly than they used to be, are translated into practical applications.
"The last 25 years have been a time of economic growth, political tensions and superpower conflicts," Lubchenco said. "Partly because of those reasons scientific support flourished. But now it's time to consider a new social contract based on what the future will bring."
Before science falls victim to the budget axe, she said, the American public should reconsider what the new challenges will be.
And if people determine that they are quite different than those of the past, she said, it may well be that science could help bridge the gap.