Knowledge Must Serve the Common Good

  • December 05, 2016
  • by Rebecca W. Rimel

Editor’s Recommendation

More Notes from the President

August 1, 2018

In 1931, Albert Einstein told students at the California Institute of Technology: “It is not enough that you should understand about applied science. … Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors.” Today Einstein might use more gender-neutral language. But the values he wished to impart to young scientists—that knowledge must serve the common good and discovery must lead to action—demand even more attention and greater devotion in 2016 than they did 85 years ago.

Today it is more apparent than ever that the pace of scientific discovery and change continues to accelerate. Biomedical researchers are rapidly uncovering the deepest secrets of the human genome. Marine scientists continue to track the effects of human activity on our oceans. And there is new evidence that modern pharmaceuticals designed to manage pain can unintentionally lead to substance use disorders. This issue of Trust takes a deeper look at these trends.

Our oceans provide sustenance for billions of people and myriad wildlife—and produce more than half the world’s oxygen and absorb much of its carbon dioxide. In our cover story, you will learn how The Pew Charitable Trusts and its partners launched Global Ocean Legacy a decade ago to establish the first generation of marine parks, similar to what is often called America’s “best idea”—the national parks system created 100 years ago. Setting aside large expanses of undisturbed ocean where no extractive activity is allowed provides the oceans, and the fisheries and coral they support, the opportunity to recover. The project’s work has resulted in the creation of nine very large parks in the sea, collectively covering an area two-thirds the size of the United States.

With only 3 percent of the world’s oceans set aside as marine parks—the International Union for Conservation of Nature says it should be 10 times that size—there is still much more to do. Nevertheless, Global Ocean Legacy’s success in protecting millions of square miles of ocean—including the recent expansion of the Northwestern Hawaiian Island Marine National Monument, also known as Papahānaumokuākea, to 582,578 square miles—is a remarkable achievement and one of many highlights in the long and distinguished career of Joshua S. Reichert. Joshua joined Pew 26 years ago and has led a growing portfolio of environmental initiatives around the world. The conservation legacy he built at Pew exemplifies what it means to perform consequential work for the benefit of others.

We need to make sure that discoveries and "technical endeavors" are always used to benefit humankind.

Advancements in science have also led to the development of opioids, which are often necessary to manage pain from illness or trauma. These drugs can be highly addictive. Since 1999, more than a quarter-million people have died from opioid drug overdoses. And too few of the millions more grappling with opioid dependence receive any treatment. This too requires a call to action. As we learn more about the addictive properties of these drugs, and why dependency is on the rise, we need new evidence-based strategies that will help address the crisis. In this issue of Trust, you will read about the impact of this growing problem—and Pew’s efforts to develop and support state and federal policies that improve the effectiveness of treatment for drug and alcohol use disorders.

Cutting-edge biomedical science is the first step toward finding new therapies to prevent and treat serious diseases. But now researchers also are turning their attention to enhancing human health using innovations that can—or someday might—make people’s minds sharper and their bodies stronger. A Pew Research Center survey finds that most Americans are wary of these applications of science and technology. For example, 68 percent of people were “very” or “somewhat” worried about using gene editing to reduce babies’ risk of developing a serious disease during their lifetimes. Furthermore, at least 7 in 10 respondents predicted that these technologies would become available before they were fully tested or understood.

This sort of “human enhancement” is now at the doorstep of the biomedical sciences. And like ocean parks and opioid addiction, discovery must lead to informed and well-reasoned action. And in this case, it’s especially clear that the public wants the path forward to include a careful examination of the ethical and moral implications of using technology to intervene with the course of nature.

In September, Manu Prakash, a 2013 Pew biomedical scholar, was named a MacArthur fellow in recognition of his outstanding scientific contributions as well as his creation of ultra-low-cost scientific tools, including a working microscope made of paper. Explaining his vision for science in The Washington Post, he said, “The goal is not to just demonstrate that something is possible, but also to demonstrate that with minimal resources it can be available to the broadest group of people.” This should be our vision too: to ensure that our “technical endeavors” and breakthrough discoveries—made through hard work and rigorous research—are used wisely for the benefit of the people and the planet, and our common good.