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Gibbons, panelists debate science policy

Global population growth and the transition to a sustainable world that includes a carbon-free energy system are among five "imperatives" that will govern science policy in the 21st century, according to President Clinton's former science advisor.

Dr. Jack Gibbons, who left the White House only about a month ago, was on campus last Friday for a day-long symposium on "US and International Science and Technology Policy" in honor of Professor Eugene B. Skolnikoff of the Department of Political Science.

Professor Skolnikoff, who will retire at the end of this semester, was lauded several times over the course of the day as a scholar who helped build the field of science policy. He was also praised as a teacher, friend and mentor. Several of the nine panelists were former students of his.

Dr. Gibbons began his remarks by noting that "although I wasn't formally taught by Gene, I've been tutored, schooled and considerably prodded by this guy for many years now."

In his comments on the importance of grappling with global population growth, Dr. Gibbons noted that China has 1.2 billion people now and is headed to 1.6 billion, "even with efforts to slow down the growth rate." The country's long-term sustainable population is only about 1 billion.


With respect to creating a sustainable world, "we must begin to move substantially toward a carbon-free energy system within the next 100 years." Dr. Gibbons emphasized that point by noting that "it's clear we're going to be going right through a doubling of pre-industrial carbon dioxide [levels]." Another issue is global biodiversity. "The importance of biodiversity has not yet dawned on the politicians or the general public," he said.

Dr. Gibbons noted that many of these issues are very complex. To that end, "we must understand them in a systems way, then divide them into manageable pieces for public-policy action. I don't think we're as smart about that as we could be."

Other imperatives that will influence 21st century science policy: research to realize the "more complete development of human potential," the need for continued support of science "as the ubiquitous way to create truly new options for society to meet its needs," and continued attention to the containment of global conflict, he said.


The day included some controversy and debate. With respect to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, one speaker suggested that universities should monitor whom they admit. "Do universities such as this one have some moral responsibility for the advanced training they are providing to students from proliferating states?" said Mitch Wallerstein (SM '78, PhD), vice president for global security and sustainability at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

An audience member retorted that it is the government's role to decide who can and cannot enter the country. Dr. Wallerstein disagreed. "Keeping [students] out via visa control is a cop-out. There is some culpability here," he said.

Professor Skolnikoff agreed with the audience member. "Universities can't and shouldn't be monitors of who they teach. If the government doesn't want us to train students from [countries like] Iraq and Iran, then it shouldn't admit them," he said.

Swinging over to the environment, another panelist said that the 1997 Kyoto protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is "dead on arrival" and "stands no chance of being ratified."

Why? For one, "Kyoto offers no wiggle room" with respect to emissions targets, said David Victor (PhD '98), a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He also cited the lack of plans for implementing the Kyoto goals. As a result, he said the protocol should be abandoned.

Professor Skolnikoff asked, however, about the momentum that's been established. "There may be missteps along the way, but that momentum is important," he said. Dr. Victor agreed that this momentum is "very productive" but "has not yet overcome the critical hurdle" of implementation.

Another topic of debate: what is science? Panelist Larry McCray (PhD '74), director of the Policy Division at the National Academy of Sciences, commented that science is what appears in college textbooks. Other potential definitions are flawed, he said. For example, one view is that "science is whatever is in a published paper." But "much of what is in the literature is tentative and inconclusive. And some of it is wrong," Dr. McCray said.

However, as Harvey Brooks, a panel chair and the Benjamin Pierce Professor of Technology and Public Policy, emeritus, at Harvard, pointed out: "By the time science is ready to be put in textbooks, it's too late to be used for science policy."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 20, 1998.

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