Embracing Science

Long-term economic progress comes mainly from the invention and spread of improved technologies. The scientific revolution was made possible by the printing press, the industrial revolution by the steam engine, and India’s escape from famine by increased farm yields – the so-called “Green Revolution.” Today’s era of globalization emerged with the spread of computers and the Internet. Thus, when we seek solutions to some of the world’s toughest problems, they, too, are likely to be found, at least in part, in new technologies that can resolve old and seemingly intractable problems.

Consider poverty in Africa. Every conceivable explanation has been given, usually focusing on what Africans do wrong. But a visit to Africa’s villages makes clear that the problems have more to do with the struggle for survival under difficult physical conditions than with any special problems that are unique to African societies.

Africa’s farmers produce roughly one-third or less food per hectare of farmland than their counterparts around the world, resulting in massive hunger, which is exacerbated by a heavy disease burden. Malaria poses a unique challenge, owing in large part to Africa’s mosquito species, which are especially adept at transmitting the disease. Other tropical parasitic diseases imply similarly extraordinary burdens in Africa. Add the practical difficulties of broken-down roads and few cars and trucks, and economic isolation follows. So the challenges of survival are enormous.

Yet practical solutions are at hand, because simple and low-cost technologies can address specific problems. Low farm yields can be addressed through improved seed varieties specially adapted for African conditions, combined with technologies for replenishing soil and managing water.

Malaria can be controlled through newly designed long-lasting mosquito nets and a new generation of effective medicines. Other tropical diseases also can be controlled, and practical technologies for safe drinking water can dramatically reduce diarrheal diseases. Mobile phones, local wireless Internet, and more paved roads could do much to break the economic isolation of Africa’s villages.

Donor countries incessantly ask Africans to change their trade policies, government institutions, public administration, and more. Some of these changes are important, but the role of the rich countries has been lopsided, focusing on everything except how to finance and introduce practical technologies to solve practical problems. The rich countries’ mistakes wouldn’t matter if African countries had enough money to adopt the needed technologies on their own, but Africa is so poor that it must get financial help to escape poverty.

The development challenges in Africa are just one example of how tough societal problems can be addressed by the design and spread of improved technologies. The same will be true of how the world best addresses manmade climate change – another of those seemingly intractable global problems.

Right now, rich countries are changing the world’s climate by emitting billions of tons of carbon dioxide each year from the use of coal, oil, and natural gas. In future years, China and India also will make massive contributions to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Yet no country, rich or poor, is keen to cut its energy use, owing to concern that to do so would threaten jobs, incomes, and economic growth.

New technologies will provide a key part of the solution. Already, “hybrid” automobiles, which combine gasoline and battery power, can roughly double fuel efficiency, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by half. Similarly, engineers have developed ways to capture the carbon dioxide that results from burning coal in power plants and store it safely underground. This new technology, called “carbon capture and sequestration,” can cut by 80% the carbon dioxide emitted during the production of electricity. The costs appear relatively small.

Consider also the depletion of ocean fisheries through over-fishing. Global demand for fish consumption is growing, and so, too, is the global capacity to catch fish, driving some species to the point of extinction. Improved aquaculture, in which fish are grown at manmade fishponds and reservoirs is still far from being a perfect technology, mainly for environmental reasons, yet it is enormously promising.

On a recent visit to Africa, a senior agricultural scientist said that in today’s world, the scientist is closer than ever before to the farmer, but farther away than ever from the policymakers. Politicians don’t understand science, and rarely seek the advice of scientists and engineers in addressing major issues. Everything is viewed as politics and votes, not as technical problems requiring technological expertise, which is why Africa’s poverty is so often attributed to corruption rather than to ecological challenges.

It is easy to dismiss the suggestion that technology can save the day. After all, technological advance also requires good governance, market forces, effective universities, and more. Politics will still play its role.

Nevertheless, it’s time to recognize that governments are ill-equipped to understand the sophisticated technological challenges and opportunities facing the world, and that new ways are needed to ensure that science and technology are given the prominence needed to address a wide range of increasingly urgent global problems. Now is the time for every major international agency and national government to assume responsibility for gaining the scientific and technological expertise that they will need in the twenty-first century.