Lord Rees of Ludlow is Astronomer Royal at the University of Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy, and founder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. This blog post, the third in a three-part series, is based on a lecture he gave at the IPR on 9 February. Read the first part here, and the second part here.
Even in the 'concertina-ed' timeline that astronomers envisage – extending billions of years into the future, as well as into the past – this century may be a defining era. The century when humans jump-start the transition to electronic (and potentially immortal) entities that eventually spread their influence far beyond the Earth, and far transcend our limitations. Or – to take a darker view – the century where our follies could foreclose this immense future potential.
One lesson I’d draw from these existential threats is this. We fret unduly about small risks – air crashes, carcinogens in food, low radiation doses, etc. But we’re in denial about some newly emergent threats, which may seem improbable but whose consequences could be globally devastating. Some of these are environmental, others are the potential downsides of novel technologies.
So how can scientists concerned about these issues – or indeed about the social impact of any scientific advances – gain traction with policy-makers?
Some scientists, of course, have a formal advisory role to government. Back in World War II, Winston Churchill valued scientists' advice, but famously kept them "on tap, not on top". It is indeed the elected politicians who should make decisions. But scientific advisers should be prepared to challenge decision-makers, and help them navigate the uncertainties.
President Obama recognised this. He opined that scientists' advice should be heeded "even when it is inconvenient – indeed, especially when it is inconvenient". He appointed John Holdren, from Harvard, as his science adviser, and a ‘dream team’ of others were given top posts, including the Nobel physicist Steve Chu. They had a predictably frustrating time, but John Holdren 'hung in there' for Obama’s full eight years. And of course we’re anxious about what will happen under the new regime!
Their British counterparts, from Solly Zuckerman to Mark Walport, have it slightly easier. The interface with government is smoother, the respect for evidence is stronger, and the rapport between scientists and legislators is certainly better.
For instance, dialogue with parliamentarians led, despite divergent ethical stances, to a generally-admired legal framework on embryos and stem cells – a contrast to what happened in the US. And the HFEA offers another fine precedent.
But we've had failures too: the GM crop debate was left too late – to a time when opinion was already polarised between eco-campaigners on the one side and commercial interests on the other.
There are habitual grumbles that it’s hard for advisors to gain sufficient traction. This isn’t surprising. For politicians, the focus is on the urgent and parochial – and getting re-elected. The issues that attract their attention are those that get headlined in the media, and fill their in-box.
So scientists might have more leverage on politicians indirectly – by campaigning, so that the public and the media amplify their voice, for example – rather than via more official and direct channels. They can engage by involvement with NGOs, via blogging and journalism, or through political activity. There’s scope for campaigners on all the issues I’ve mentioned, and indeed many others. For instance, the ‘genetic code’ pioneer John Sulston campaigns for affordable drugs for Africa.
And I think religious leaders have a role. I’m on the council of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (which is itself an ecumenical body: its members represent all faiths or none). Max Perutz, for instance, was in a group of four who acted as emissaries of the Pope to promote arms control. And recently, my economist colleague Partha Dasgupta, along with Ram Ramanathan, a climate scientist – two lapsed Hindus! – achieved great leverage by laying the groundwork for the Papal encyclical on climate and environment.
There’s no gainsaying the Catholic Church’s global reach – nor its long-term perspective, nor its concern for the world’s poor. The Encyclical emphasised our responsibility to the developing world, and to future generations. In the lead-up to the Paris conference it had a substantial and timely influence on voters and leaders in Latin America, Africa and East Asia (even perhaps in the US Republican Party).
Science is a universal culture, spanning all nations and faiths. So scientists confront fewer impediments to straddling political divides. The Pugwash Conferences did this in the Cold War – and the governing board of Sesame, a physics project in Jordan, gets Israelis and Iranians around the same table today.
Of course, most of these challenges are global. Coping with potential shortages of food, water, resources – and the transition to low carbon energy – can’t be affected by each nation separately. Nor can threat reduction. For instance, whether or not a pandemic gets global grip may hinge on how quickly a Vietnamese poultry farmer can report any strange sickness. Indeed, a key issue is whether nations need to give up more sovereignty to new organisations along the lines of the IAEA, WHO, etc., And whether national academies, The World Academy of Sciences, and similar bodies should get more involved.
Universities are among the most international of our institutions, and they have a special role. Academics are privileged to have influence over successive generations of students. Indeed, younger people, who expect to survive most of the century, are more anxious about long-term issues, and more prepared to support ‘effective altruism’ and other causes.
Universities are highly international institutions. We should use their convening power to gather experts together to address the world's problems. That’s why some of us in Cambridge (with an international advisory group) have set up the Centre for the Study of Existential Risks, with a focus on the more extreme ‘low probability/high consequence’ threats that might confront us. They surely deserve expert analysis in order to assess which can be dismissed firmly as science fiction, and which should be on the ‘risk register’; to consider how to enhance resilience against the more credible ones; and to warn against technological developments that could run out of control. Even if we reduced these risks by only a tiny percentage, the stakes are so high that we’ll have earned our keep. A wise mantra is that ‘the unfamiliar is not the same as the improbable’.
I think scientists should all be prepared to divert some of their efforts towards public policy, and engage with individuals from government, business, and NGOs. There is in the US, incidentally, one distinctive format for such engagement that has no real parallel here. This is the JASON group. It was founded in the 1960s with support from the Pentagon. It involves top-rank academic scientists – in the early days they were mainly physicists, but the group now embraces other fields. They’re bankrolled by the Defense Department, but it’s a matter of principle that they choose their own new members. Some – Dick Garwin and Freeman Dyson, for instance – have been members since the 1960s. The JASONs spend about 6 weeks together in the summer, with other meetings during the year. It’s a serious commitment. The sociology and ‘chemistry’ of such a group hasn’t been fully replicated anywhere else. Perhaps we should try to do so in the UK, not for the military but in civilian areas – the remit of DEFRA, for instance, or the Department of Transport. The challenge is to assemble a group of really top-rank scientists who enjoy cross-disciplinary discourse and tossing ideas around. It won’t ‘take off’ unless they dedicate substantial time to it – and unless the group addresses the kind of problems that play to their strengths.
So to sum up, I think we can truly be techno-optimists. The innovations that will drive economic advance, information technology, biotech and nanotech, can boost the developing as well as the developed world – but there’s a depressing gap between what we could do and what actually happens. Will richer countries recognise that it's in their own interest for the developing world fully to share the benefits of globalisation? Can nations sustain effective but non-repressive governance in the face of threats from small groups with high-tech expertise? And – above all – can our institutions prioritise projects that are long-term in political perspectives, even if a mere instant in the history of our planet?
We’re all on this crowded world together. Our responsibility – to our children, to the poorest, and to our stewardship of life’s diversity – surely demands that we don’t leave a depleted and hazardous world. I give the last word to the eloquent biologist Peter Medawar:
“The bells that toll for mankind are [...] like the bells of Alpine cattle. They are attached to our own necks, and it must be our fault if they do not make a tuneful and melodious sound.”
For more information on Lord Rees' IPR lecture, please see our writeup here.