Keynote address at the Institute for Advanced Study, University of Amsterdam

by Sir Peter Gluckman
View of complex machinery like a particle accelerator at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research

Science for society: now and in the future

First let me congratulate the Institute for Advanced Study for initiating this symposia series on Future Generations. There are many reasons why this topic is so important and yet remains inadequately addressed, and I will look at the question though diverse lenses reflecting the different hats I wear. I hope it still has some coherency. I particularly thank Tessa Roseboom, an occasional collaborator, for inviting me to present the opening keynote for this series.

Like Tessa, I have spent much of my academic career in developmental sciences focused on the biology of the fetus and infant, but extending to the long-term consequences for the offspring and subsequent generations. This forces one to think much more about ecological and evolutionary perspectives on human development. And as we have come to understand, humans cannot look at their own future distinct from other biota on the planet and the biophysical environment, which we keep modifying often without conscious awareness of its implications.

The history of our species is really that of how we have used technology both in good ways and bad ways – and we have always done both. Indeed, it is the uniquely evolved capacities of our species in cognition, language, cumulative learning, and manual dexterity that generated the progressive technological developments that lead us to where we are now.

But over the past two hundred years the speed of technological development has increased. While the upsides may be the first to be observed, the paradoxical downsides have become more obvious. The invention of the internal combustion engine led to great mechanical advances, but it also led directly to planetary warming. Industrial food production assisted food security, but it also promoted the rise of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and non-communicable disease. The industrial revolution, Henry Ford’s production line, and the automation and computation revolutions brought productivity gains but at the same time led to significant sociological changes. Indeed, as the educational scientist Charles Fadel points out, every major transition in technologies leads to both pain and gain – while it brings economic and productivity gains, it leads to a period of social pain until social and educational systems catch up.

But now pervasive technological change is so continuous that it is probable that gain will always be associated with pain. The challenge for us is how will we adjust to this very different milieu.  And as the scholar of innovation, the late Calestous Juma pointed out in his last book, Innovation and its enemies, people have great difficulty dealing with rapid change; it leads to fear and anxiety and we see that has political and societal consequences.

And now we face the digital and post-digital transitions. Already we have seen that the internet and social media, while heralded with great enthusiasm as democratising communication, have now led to growing concerns about mental health, affective polarisation, accelerated spread of disinformation, cybersecurity issues and indeed threats to the concept of the Westphalian state. Mark Hanson and I wrote about this in the book Ingenious – the unintended consequences of human innovation, which discusses how the unintended consequences of our cultural evolution compromised our long-term future as a social species and our wellbeing.

And now we have AI – generative AI and soon quantum and synthetic biology, neuroenhancement and other technologies emerging at pace, largely out of the private sector. It is generally hard to conceive how in an increasingly fractured and multi-polar world they can be effectively regulated at a transnational and even at a national level. The EU, OECD and UNESCO have all released high level principles to try and address the challenges, but these are too high level to be effective. But the growing request to regulate these technologies, as in the UK summit last week, misses a key question: what considerations need to exist around any new technology? This ontological gap needs to be filled before we can make progress on managing them. Just last month, the ISC released a discussion paper on how we might address these gaps.

I mention these issues because I think we must be honest that we face a broad range of existential risks, and how we will confront this new generation of very different technologies will impact on our futures as social beings living in cohesive societies, as well as current and future generations growing up within these contexts.

When we think of large-scale societies, our cultural evolution has only provided two general forms of organisation. Autocracy of some form whether religious, inherited or ideological has been the dominant feature of large-scale organisation over the last 5000 years. Democracy, except for the transient Athenian experiment, is a mode of large-scale social organisation that only emerged in the last 250 years. Democracy requires two elements to function. The first is social trust – that is an agreement between people with diverse value sets and world views on how to reach resolution in ways such that the majority does not totally override the minority, nor the minority overrides the interests of the majority. The other is institutional trust – that is accountable relationships between citizens and the institutions and individuals that create the governance and management structures of society including parliaments, politicians, the media, justice systems, professional organisations, banks, and science itself. To various degrees trust in these has been undermined in recent years, made easier by disinformation and the pervasive impacts of social media, amongst other factors.  

Our reports from Koi Tū summarise recent analyses of the factors that are undermining social and institutional trust and suggest ways we might address them.[1] One issue not getting enough attention is the rising rates of mental health concerns especially in young people. We are exploring why rates of concern have risen in young people and it is now clear that there are intergenerational factors at work. Maternal stress in pregnancy and infancy affects executive function development in the critical first years of life, and that in turn affects socioemotional development in a way that makes young people more susceptible to the growing pressures of adolescence. I refer you to these reports on the social determinants of youth metal health.[2] Clearly the context in which young people live has changed immensely and our recent work on interviewing young people suggests a growing fear about their ability to face the future. Societal pressures are leading to premature closure of their identity formation in early adolescence and I suspect this is catastrophic.

But given Tessa is here, let me just highlight one point. Of the many factors we identify in driving the mental health pandemic among young people, many are operative during fetal and early life. I personally feel this is key to shifting the dialogue with policy makers on why early life is so important.  Our data point to two potential interventions: addressing maternal stress during and after pregnancy, and promoting ‘serve and return’ interactions between infant and caregiver in the first two years of life. But there may also be further compounding second-generation effects. Around 30% of pregnant women, at least in Singapore and Australia, experience mild/moderate depression that is still sufficient to impact the development of the child’s brain in ways that impair their executive functions; when these children then become pregnant later, they may be even more susceptible to mental distress and so over time the effect may magnify intergenerationally.

I am president of the International Science Council (ISC). The ISC is based in Paris and brings together the world’s scientific academies and the international disciplinary organisations in both the natural and social sciences and the humanities. Its primary role is being the voice of science (broadly defined and more equivalent to wissenschaft) especially to the multilateral system. It has many other roles and activities including being a think-tank for consideration of the future evolution of the science system,  and providing leadership on issues of freedom and responsibility in science. The ISC directly and indirectly supports a lot of international scientific coordination through a number of affiliate bodies. For example, it is the parent body of the International Network for Governmental Science Advice (INGSA), and with the World Meteorological Organization it sponsors the World Climate Research Program, and so forth.

The ISC has the mission of being the global voice for science. But a voice is silent unless there is an audience, and we have been busy building that audience. In particular, we have fostered the development of a group of friends for ‘science for action’ among member states at the UN, we have worked with the Secretary-General’s office to ensure that the new science advisory mechanism is well linked to the active scientific community, and we have multiple interactions and partnerships with individual UN agencies including with UNDP on human development and with UNEP on anticipatory foresight.

We have argued strongly for more effective science advisory systems in every country. Irrespective of the state of development every jurisdiction needs defined processes for knowledge generation, knowledge synthesis and knowledge brokerage. INGSA, the International Network for Governmental Science Advice, is a core part of the ISC family. Both ISC and INGSA are heavily involved in promoting the use of science to bridge diplomatic gulfs. INGSA offers many courses on promoting science to policy. Many of the ISC affiliate bodies, national and disciplinary members are similarly engaged.

Central to the ISC’s work are the many issues we face globally. Each of these challenges needs the application of natural and social sciences to be adequately addressed. The dominant formulation has been the Agenda 2030 with the Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs).  The 2023 Global Sustainability Development Report[3] highlights the reality that despite the pollical rhetoric, progress on the SDGs is dismal.

They are a complex formulation. The 17 goals do not align well with the way governments or society operates, they silo interconnected issues, and they were a mix of aspirational and very specific targets reflecting that they were a political compromise rather than scientifically informed in their development. A somewhat useful way to understand the challenge is to recognise that they encompass goals that focus on minimising resource extraction and on human realisation, and these two groups can create inherent conflicts.[4] Resolving these requires effective and meaningful form of evidence informed governance that operates both within and between jurisdictions. This is generally missing and suggests that we need new ways of looking at the future in which we consider the transformations needed to make progress in a more integrated way.

But let us stand back and examine one of the core issues underlying poor progress and one that directly links to why we are here today, why Koi Tū was created in New Zealand and why this lecture series has been started: the lack of long-term thinking that is inherent in modern societies. This might be contrasted with the intergenerational thinking of many indigenous cultures.

Short-term thinking is perhaps inherent to democratic systems where those in power want to be reelected and the political processes drive voters to thinking largely in selfish terms. But the short-term mindset has arguably grown enormously in the post-World War 2 period as consumerism grew. Sociological changes further contributed as more people entered the workforce. Hedonistic ambitions became more apparent, and most of us seek short-term gains for our own apparent wellbeing, influenced by the ability of the private sector to manipulate the attention economy. Short-term and narcissistic tendencies are fed by machine-learning driven digital marketing. The news cycle has shifted from slow and deliberative to instant and infotainment. The shift to quarterly reporting shifted mindsets more broadly in policy and business circles to short-termism and instant gain.

And two other factors matter enormously: trust and perceptions of and accountability for risk. Without high levels of trust, politicians will shift to a short-term focus. And trust in elite and powerful institutions has been undermined. In this context, risks that lie into the future will be discounted, and even more so if there is little accountability. As we have pointed out[5] there are strong cognitive and political biases for why politicians in democracies can delay responding to risk assessments. Ultimately because many risks are seen as lying in the future, politicians can delay, assuming that the risks will not occur on their watch. We see this around the world in underinvestment in public infrastructure, in inadequate investment in early childhood education, in preventing mental health issues, in avoiding the investments to prevent a global pandemic, even now the negotiations for a global pandemic treaty are stalled by intellectual property, political and commercial interests. Most obviously we see this in the inadequate and very political responses to climate change and all that will follow. It is now almost 40 years since the science community first pointed out the risks of global warming and we will soon face difficult choices, such as the use of geoengineering.

Why cannot we think long-term and intergenerationally; why do we not think ecologically? These are questions of the modern world, yet they would seem unnecessary to some indigenous peoples to be asked. At one level as an evolutionary biologist, I find it strange that we must ask this question. Evolution is focused on the survival of our descendants, but because humans have agency and cultural evolution, these evolutionary drivers have been overridden by social changes and social structures that have shifted our focus to the short term.

Let me now to turn to the question of where does science fit in? All of us likely recognise that natural and social sciences used well should assist society to make better decisions. But we must clearer about what is and what is not science and here I am going to quote from something I wrote recently:[6]

Science is an organized system of knowledge – one based on observation and experimentation. Explanations can only be based on causal reality, logic, and past observations. Explanations based on merely subjective and non-empirical considerations, be they from religion or belief are excluded. Claims without quality assessment by expert peers should not be considered part of science. The processes of science are defined, not methodologically, but by iterative review and progressive modification of knowledge as new observations are made and incorporated.”

Such a principles-based description encompasses the physical, natural, data, health, engineering, and social sciences and indeed the humanities. It is these principles that make science universal and crucially they apply everywhere and across all cultures. In this sense using the term ’western science’ is political.

But the essential distinction that needs to be made is between science and science systems. When we conflate these words, we risk undermining the place of science. We live in a world where trust in science appears less certain, where science denial has become an ideological badge, where science is undermined by disinformation. Its position relative to other knowledge systems can be questioned and debated. But much discussion occurs in the absence of an appreciation of what science is and is not. In short, there can be confusion between science as the knowledge-building system and those organisational systems by which science operates.

Science systems vary enormously and are influenced by context, culture, and motive. They include the institutions that fund, teach, publish science, and higher education and research institutions; they include the private sector and other components of civil society. Here we must be honest and acknowledge that institutionalised science has contributed both good and bad and has its own power dynamics. In keeping with other aspects of material and intellectual culture such as religion, science was both an excuse for and a tool of colonisation.  Therefore, when we talk about decolonising science systems, there can be little argument. Gender bias, minority exclusion, biased and flawed examples in experimental design are persistent relics of that history. But it is illogical to talk about decolonising science itself.

Critically, science is not the only knowledge system people use. In their daily lives people apply and combine a variety of knowledge systems, including those that define their identity, values, and worldviews; these may be local, indigenous, religious, cultural, or occupational in origin. Science will be of greatest value when scientists acknowledge its limits and understand that to be trusted and best used, they must accept that other knowledge systems often play a role in how we live and make decisions. Science itself is not values free but the principles of science attempt to constrain the place of values. And while science must live alongside other knowledge systems, its principles create boundaries that must not be compromised. 

Its explanatory and practical power allows science to provide the most reliable and inclusive way to understand the universe and the world around and within us. Science can do much to deal with the future but only if we acknowledge its limits and the paradoxes created by technology and cultural evolution which now place us at risk. We must show humility.

There are challenges both within and beyond science in addressing the issues of promoting trust in science, and these must be addressed. Again, the ISC is deeply involved in thinking about these issues.

So now we come to my final remarks. If we are to promote the use of science to produce actions that will address intergenerational and long-term thinking, we need to think differently about how science is conducted.  I will use the nomenclature mode 1 and mode 2 science as shorthand descriptors.[7] Mode 1 science refers to the dominant model of doing modern science, that is, hypothesis-driven linear research that builds knowledge largely within a single discipline and remains central to advancing disciplinary knowledge and its translation to application. Virtually all research funding in the modern world is designed around supporting mode 1 research.  Mode 2 research is very different; it is not bounded by discipline and focuses on producing actionable knowledge in the face of complexity. Increasingly this is encapsulated in the term ‘transdisciplinary research’.

I have already highlighted how poorly we have made progress on the SDGs. In this context the ISC undertook a large consultation and produced the report Unleashing Science: Delivering Missions for Sustainability[8]. Itargues that the priority need is for research that is solutions-focused, driven by the common good, transformative and interdisciplinary, with a step change in the role and support given to the social sciences and embracing transdisciplinarity (a term often poorly used). It must be systems focused, networked and flexible, critical, innovative, reflective, societally accountable and much more globally spread. The report lays down a challenge to all components of the science and academic communities.

Following that, the ISC commissioned a report on the future of transdisciplinary research.[9] That report covers what is science, how it relates to other knowledge systems, how transdisciplinarity is distinct from mode 1 research and how transdisciplinary research needs its own process of assessment. It details the many issues that need to be addressed and why major changes are needed in the science system, funders and universities to promote mode 2 research. I see the initiative that is opened at this event as one step along this pathway.

And most recently the ISC released at the UN the report Flipping the Science Model[10] arguing that a global fund is needed to effectively progress mode 2 research on sustainability, and for long-term protection of our planet national funders should follow that within their own jurisdictions as well.

This talkhas covered a lot of ground in looking at the role of science through the lens of long-term and intergenerational thinking. Whether we look to the future of this generation or the next generation or those that will follow, it is clear that we need to take a more holistic and ecological and evolutionary perspective. While mode 1 science advances disciplinary knowledge and is therefore critical, mode 2 science is also needed – it will be our best defence against further loss of trust in science, and it will be essential to address the critical transformations needed for society to survive the multiple threats of climate change, social breakdown, mental health pandemics, growing inequalities and much more. It offers the best chance of major progress for every future generation. It will support advocacy and decision making in ways beyond those that the current dominant model can provide.

[1] Bardsley, A., et al. (2021) Societal resilience and cohesion: identifying contributing factors and their interactions. Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures.

Gluckman, P. (2021) Transitions, transformations and tradeoffs. Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures.

Gluckman, P., et al. (2021) Sustaining Aotearoa New Zealand as a cohesive society. Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures.

Gluckman, P., et al. (2023) Addressing the challenges to social cohesion. Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures.

[2] Stubbing, J., et al. (2023). Exploring factors influencing youth mental health. Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures.

Low, F., et al. (2021). Intergenerational disadvantage: why maternal mental health matters. Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures.

[3] Independent Group of Scientists appointed by the Secretary-General. (2023). Global Sustainable

Development Report 2023: Times of crisis, times of change: Science for accelerating transformations to sustainable development. United Nations.

[4] Fu, B., et al. (2019). Unravelling the complexity in achieving the 17 sustainable-development goals. National Science Review, 6(3), 386-388.

[5] Gluckman, P., and Bardsley, A. (2021) Uncertain but inevitable: The expert-policy-political nexus and high-impact risks. Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures.

[6] Gluckman, P. (2023) Science and science systems: beyond semantics. Frontiers Policy Labs, 14 August 2023.

[7] Gibbons, M. (Ed.). (1994). The new production of knowledge: the dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies. SAGE Publications.

[8] International Science Council. (2021). Unleashing Science: Delivering Missions for Sustainability. International Science Council.

[9] Kaiser, M., and Gluckman, P. (2023). Looking at the Future of Transdisciplinary Research. Centre for Science Futures.

[10] International Science Council. (2023). Flipping the science model: a roadmap to science missions for sustainability. International Science Council.

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