Science Under Threat

PARIS: A century ago, pondering what the future might bring, Anatole France said that “my dream is to read the books of schoolboys as they shall be in the year 2000.” As the millennium passes into history, perhaps we should ask if our schoolchildren are being inspired in the way Anatole France once hoped.

The 20th century saw great technical revolutions, such as television, air transport, and rocketry. At a deeper level, two conceptual revolutions also occurred. From atoms to stars, we now have a precise, operative picture of nearly all physical phenomena. The only major gap in our knowledge involves the origins of the universe. The second conceptual revolution was started by molecular biology. Here too we now have a precise, operative picture of all life processes, from bacteria to humanity. Again, the only major gap concerns origins: the notion of a "primordial soup" in the oceans in which nucleotides and peptides somehow organized themselves into living organisms is not fully convincing.

Today’s schoolbooks recount these achievements with pride. But something important for scientific advance is missing in our children’s lives. A sense of wonder about future scientific progress is lacking; a growing cultural disinterest in science is taking hold. Moreover, increasing legal roadblocks to scientific progress are stifling inventiveness everywhere.

Anatole France lived in an age of great inventors like Gustave Eiffel and Thomas Edison. He could discern the looming industrial explosion of the 20th century, when a few major companies drove technical innovation and made electricity, chemistry, transport, communications, and computers key parts of everyday life. But these same companies, which shaped much of the 20th century, are now under myopic pressure from their shareholders to abandon long-term research in favor of short-term profits. Look at the oil companies: although the world faces growing uncertainty about new sources of energy, these companies, which have both the intellectual and material means to prepare for the next century, have more or less abandoned their role as providers of a new vision.