Nigel M. de S. Cameron
Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, Washington, DC
I am just back from Paris, where I joined in part of ameeting of a high-level body convened to address one of the most pressingissues on the planet: how best to engage emerging developments in science andtechnology for the benefit of developing nations and poor people.
Since the rich/poor divide keeps getting wider, it is not clearthat S and T will somehow automatically bring the planet into greater harmony.There has been handwringing over the “nano divide,” and recognition thatdespite global access to the internet the compounding effects of emergingtechnologies in the most developed parts of the world will inevitably leavebehind the rest. Alongside that, the emergence of terror as a global threat anddeepening awareness of the power of asymmetry has brought about deeperawareness across the political spectrum that development is a security issue aswell as one of humanity; that “ungovernable areas” are substantially theproduct of sustained poverty and development failure; that the wealthier partsof the planet will be yet better off if the poorer cease to be so poor. That is,economic development, long a nonpartisan goal, is emerging as one of evengreater importance to the global community.
This clutch of questions is complex. Economic initiative ispassing eastward to China and other rapidly-growing Asian economies. The openingkeynote at the Technology Policy Institute’s excellent Aspen Conference lastmonth opined that by 2020 China would surpass the GDP of the United States, andhighly significant re-rankings would be established in relation the present G7and emerging powers like Brazil. Meanwhile, the current crisis in the publicfinances of the west, the crisis in banking, and associated economic woes, havecome at a particularly bad time. The world order established at Bretton Woods –which sounds like a chateau in France but is actually a large house on theoutskirts of Washington – is in free-fall. The push to replace the U.S. dollar as the reserve currency gained quitea fillip with the internal arm-wrestling (and to outsiders heedlessbrinkmanship) over the U.S. debt ceiling; and the dyspeptic state of theEurozone and other European economies in the wake of the Icelandic collapse.Add Ireland’s astonishing demise, the deep and still developing crisis in thesouthern European economies, and the role of the banks. The Economist, thatbulwark of sweet reasonableness that remains the bellwether of the economicorder that the New Yorker is to the cultural, reads as close to apocalyptic asit has perhaps ever has.
In parallel, we have a deep and deepening crisis in the capacityof the United States to maintain its innovative edge – and this despitesplendid conferences hosted by such eminent institutions as TPI and Brookings,the efforts in Washington of the Task Force on American Innovation, speeches bythe president, and even the efforts of C-PET in our roundtable series. Aconstant theme of our roundtables has been the bleakness of the current pictureand the deep inadequacy of the bromides being offered to assuage it. “Thequestion for America,” a leading investor stated at C-PET, “is whether we wantto become a second-rate nation, or a third-rate.” Or as Peter Thiel, leadingfunder of PayPal and Facebook (and also, note, of the Ray Kurzweil-associatedSingularity Institute), proposed at the TPI event, U.S. science and technologyhas not been especially innovative for a long time. We went to the moon, andsince then what he charmingly called “the computer industry” has done well.There’s not been much else. Quite the bucket of cold water for the nation thatdeeply prides itself as the taproot of global innovation.
One of the planet’s most undervalued stocks is UNESCO, theUnited Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Based inParis, it was boycotted by the United States for many years because of bias and(remember when?) Soviet influence; but George W. Bush rejoined, and since theearly 2000s we have been reconnected with this remarkable global network. Itsmission and identity are perhaps best expressed in its iconic foundingstatement: “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of menthat the defenses of peace must be constructed.” That statement, from the1940s, has peculiar application to the work of the High Panel on Science andTechnology for Development that I attended a few days ago.
It has been a privilege to serve as Chair of the Social andHuman Sciences (SHS) Committee of the United States National Commission forUNESCO, the advisory committee on UNESCO affairs at the Department of State. Akey feature of the panel is that it spans two UNESCO sectors – NaturalSciences, and Social and Human Sciences (SHS). Since SHS includes not onlysocial science and the humanities, but the ethics of science and technology,and human rights, this cross-sectoral identity is both apt and powerful. As Ihave argued more than once, leadership in the 21st century will comefrom those who span sectors and silos; who without loss of the deep expertisethat we find within them can build knowledge networks across them and between;who can engage thinkers and ideas that may initially seem to have little incommon to achieve great common ends. As Moore’s Law, globalization, and otherforces drive us forward faster every year, that truth becomes more relevant andmore vital. This collaboration across the sectors, and between their respectiveAssistant Directors-General, Pilar Alvarez and Gretchen Kalonji, is much to becommended and should be a model for future efforts.
We have all sat through pro forma speeches by ImportantPeople opening events and welcoming participants. UNESCO Director-General IrinaBokova, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting in Washington, opened theSeptember 16 event of the High Panel with eloquence and content. Science, sheargued, should drive development for all. A new humanism is on the horizon.“Innovation should not outstrip human dignity.” The task of the Panel is toaddress inter-disciplinary challenges and to work for capacity-building – whichwould in turn lead to innovation.
The Panel itself consists of global science leaders – suchas Susan Avery, of Woods Hole near Boston, the world’s largest privateoceanographic institute (and also a member of the U.S. National Commission) –together with some from the Social and Human Sciences. Many are distinguishedespecially by their experience in networking and organizing others, such asAhmadou Ndiaye, a Senegalese who heads the developing Pan-African University,and Olive Shisana, chief of the South African Human Science Research Council(which once awarded me a fellowship, as I was pleased to share with her afterthe meeting) and a leading figure at the interface of global health (ex-WHO)and the social sciences. Vijay Chandru, with MIT and Stanford affiliations,leads the Indian biotech industry network. He interested me not least byaddressing the impact of Moore’s Law on the human genome project, another areawhere C-PET is active.
UNESCO faces a remarkable opportunity – to rebuild its 1940sbrand through a series of panels of this kind, taking interdisciplinaryinitiatives with global strategic impact that not only address plain challenges(such as that of global poverty which we all acknowledge) but also to helpshape the global agenda. We are shifting from the old-line United Nationsinstitutions to a new world of BRICS and G-7, 8, whatever, in which traditionalinstitutions have less grip every day and emerging networks have more. Thecombination of its nonpartisan and apolitical stance, and its embrace of“educational, scientific and cultural” questions, positions UNESCO uniquely –for fresh branding and extraordinary influence for good in the years to come.
But the opportunity needs to be grasped. Key members such asthe United States must continue and grow their efforts in support, not least inchanneling extra-budgetary funding to visionary initiatives and encouragingparticipation from leading private sector players including leaders in thetechnology industry. As a bridge between nations at that point which isbecoming more and more central – the interface of science, technology, andsociety – it is uniquely well-placed.
So we shall watch the work of the High Panel with growinginterest.
Nigel Cameron isPresident and CEO of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies (C-PET) inWashington, DC, and a commissioner of the United States National Commission forUNESCO. He writes in his personal capacity
Permission granted toreproduce in full and with acknowledgement.