Science for Good: Governance is the Key

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This piece first appeared as a guest blog on the Huffington Post website.

There was a time when science was carried out by inspired individuals, developing theories or designing experiments that could be done on a tabletop and carried out in a matter of days or weeks. Those days are long gone. Much of today's science involves huge international teams working to timescales of years or even decades. Yet the time from science to application is shortening such that science and technology can change the world beyond recognition in the short space of a single generation. In a world such as this, the ethical dimension of scientific progress comes to the fore, and scientific governance becomes key.

Today's world is much improved by science compared even to the world I grew up in. Humankind has, on the whole, applied the knowledge that science brings for the good. Imagine a world without modern medicine, electricity, transport and telecommunications. Or one without the World Wide Web, invented at CERN in 1989. It's hard to do. Yet scientific advances frequently come with ethical quandaries attached. Look at Genetically Modified Organisms, for example. Could this technology be of benefit, by producing crops with better tolerance to drought, for example? Maybe. But who should own the technology, and how should it be tested before it's widely deployed? Or consider the linked questions of climate and energy: today we generate a vast majority of our energy through burning things, which is neither good for the climate nor sustainable. But what mechanisms do we have for developing and assessing alternatives that include cleaner nuclear and renewables? Even in an esoteric field such as mine, particle physics, such questions can arise. Who decides whether understanding the origin of mass should merit the construction of a Large Hadron Collider?

Luckily for particle physics in Europe, CERN's founding fathers had an answer. They drew up a governance structure based on consensus between Member States represented in a governing Council. Independent expert committees provide impartial advice to Council to ensure both the long-term stability needed for science, and the checks and balances essential in addressing any ethical issues. Furthermore, by headquartering the Organization in Geneva, the founding fathers ensured that CERN would be well placed to contribute to a vibrant international community and exploit synergies with many other international organizations sharing similar aims and concerns. I'll cite just one example, UNOSAT. The UN's remote sensing programme delivering satellite-derived analysis data to international humanitarian and development agencies has been hosted at CERN since 2002, and is a well-established model of what can be achieved when the two organizations pool their talents to work together.

More recently, CERN has been granted Observer status at the United Nations, and the UN Secretary General has established a scientific advisory board that includes a CERN scientist. Mr Ban is not alone. Many national governments incorporate sound scientific advice into their governance structures. Initiatives such as these are of vital importance, equipping society with the tools it needs to ensure that the advances of science continue to be deployed to the benefit of humankind.

Next week on Tuesday, January 27, I'll be discussing the question of governance in science at the Geneva Press Club with Jan Lacki, a Professor at the University of Geneva.