The Challenges of Sustainable Development
Paper to an international conference co-sponsored by IUBS-CBE, UNESCO, LDES university of Genève et Sapience etc. to be held in November 2006.
At the start of the 21st Century, humankind reached an unprecedented, impressive deep understanding of Life on Earth. Our knowledge of the structure and function of biological systems from the molecules, organisms, populations and communities, to the ecosystems, landscapes and the biosphere, has increased exponentially. Emerging key issues such as sustainable development, global climate change, biological and cultural diversities, are increasingly becoming public issues debated by the politicians, economic actors and the general public. Also, the sequencing of the human genome, a great first step into reading the book of life, and the development of powerful genomic technologies raised new hopes, and new therapies for cancer, diabetes, immune-deficiency, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases are being projected or developed, and further major innovations are anticipated.
Nevertheless, facing such emerging problems as AIDS, mad-cow disease and the associated Creutzfeld-Jacob diseases, avian-flu and its potential mutation transmission to humans, and the problems related to asbestos and its carcinogenic potential, or contamination of blood available for transfusion, antibiotic loads and processed food problems, society is discovering that scientific knowledge alone is not enough, and for many people sciences are not always equated with the idea of progress. A prerequisite in dealing with these problems will be to address their underlying human dimensions. Humans through their activities can be found at the origins of these problems, they are first to be impacted and to suffer, and no hope for solutions if they cannot modify their perceptions, attitudes and behavior.
There is an urgent need to seriously address the human dimensions of these problems. To understand the underlying human dimensions of the loss of biodiversity, climate change and to secure the foundations for sustainable development, more research will be needed, but more important is the need to deal with their education and ethics dimensions.
Several recent developments are being subjected to strong debate and controversies (GMOs, therapeutic cloning, conservation of biodiversity, eco-technologies,..). Exclusively technological solutions are neither possible, nor desirable. Socio-technological issues and problems related to :
1. health and wellbeing,
2. agriculture; nutrition and food security;
4. environment and sustainability, and
5. bioethics and citizenship should be dealt with through public debate, including consensus conferences, citizens’ platforms and public meetings with the scientists. Discussions in public help to open the « black boxes » and illuminate the political, sociological and ethical
nature of many so-called scientific arguments.
Biologists, as a community, have the moral obligation to contribute towards the solutions of the problems that their work brought about for society. They should not remain confined to their research laboratories and teaching institutions. They need to broaden their sense of social
responsibility to include serious and top quality epistemological and ethical thinking, to work towards reforming education and training, and to help develop biological literacy programmes for all people. Many biologists are responding to this challenge; many more must become engaged. Without biological literacy, citizens are as ill-prepared today as illiterate people were at the beginning of the 20th century. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that in a certain sense, modern democracy is at stake.
Biologists have an essential role to play, but it is necessary to analyze the nature of their role carefully. Biological education is important, but increasingly, improving knowledge about the issues is not the only way in which ideas, problems and questions should be addressed.
If we do not begin large scale revision of the theory and practice of education in biology, we will imply that education is about the acquisition of knowledge, when in fact it involves the development of a much wider range of abilities, understandings and skills.
1. The target audience or audiences for relevant biological education must be clearly identified. While we assume that currently the strongest emphasis is on people in formal education settings, with special emphasis on the later stages of education in colleges and universities, a strong case can be made to extend this focus to include the earlier stages of formal education as well as public education in informal contexts. In each case, the methodologies applied will be very different, and the medium will be as important as the message.
2. The question « what is the purpose of biological education? » must be asked. Is it to raise awareness of certain issues, or to encourage people to change their attitudes and behaviors in cases relating to these issues? Raising awareness and encouraging attitudinal and behavioral change are often very different educational activities (consider, for example, modern anti-smoking and anti-drugs education methodologies).
3. It is an equally important that education conveys an understanding of the methods and processes of biological scientific enquiry. This gives insight into the limitations of science, as well as its strengths, especially when dealing with questions and problems that may have ethical and other non-scientific dimensions. This should also help a better understanding and clarification of emerging issues such as « sustainability » and « precautionary principle ».
4. An appreciation of the provisional nature of biological knowledge is also important. Biological science embodies a vast array of facts (data and observations), hypotheses developed to test ideas about processes, and theories derived from such tests. By their very nature, theories are subject to change as new knowledge (facts;
data) is acquired. Such an historical perspective would help people to understand why scientists appear to keep changing their minds with respect to many issues, for example when considering health-related matters.
5. Biological knowledge is becoming more extensive and also more widely available. It is important that the educational process provide skills in accessing information from readily available sources in the public domain. Because many « popular » issues are controversial, people must be able to make reasoned judgments about the information that is given to them.
6. The development of biological literacy among citizens should aim to promote the following:
* the ability to read about and understand important issues of the day that are related to biology in any way;
* the ability to take an informed interest in media reports about these issues;
* the ability to express an opinion about these issues;
* an appreciation of the multidisciplinary nature of many of the issues, which may have a biological component as well as ethical, economic, political and other dimensions;
* an appreciation of how biological knowledge can be helpful to them in the process of democratic decision-making.