How is science doing?

How is science doing? AN ESSENTIAL source of facts, figures and discussion@ information on present day science and its modus operandi, the World Science Report, 1996, presents a global perspective on the state of science today.

"Although there is almost universal support for this idea of science as an engine of economic and social improvement, there is still a lack of political commitment to science in many parts of the world,'@ said Federico Mayor, director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization, who is the architect of the report.

The report describes and quantifies recent trends in scientific education and research and development, and addresses many specific problems faced by each region or group of countries.

"The richest nations need to radically rethink their scientific and technological priorities in the face of economic constraints, saturated markets and new political and ethical challenges. Those in the process of economic and social transition grapple with the delicate business of building new scientific infrastructures while retaining the desirable features of the old. And developing countries are confronting the problems of providing the neccessary critical mass in teaching and research essential for capacity-building and sustainable development," said Mayor.

The report also discusses some very important issues in science and technology that emerged over the last few years, of interest both to the scientific community and to society. These include biodiversity, environmental degradation, the ethics of science and international cooperation in megascience.

Inevitably, the gender dimension of science and technology on the existing disparity in this field are also discussed; and the report analyses the main social and educational barriers faced by women in gaining access to scientific careers and decisionmaking bodies.

While India boasted of having the largest concentration of scientific and technical personnel in the developing world (two million persons with under- graduate, masters and doctoral degrees in science and technology), Indian women comprised only a fourth of this number.

"The numbers of women enrolling in engineering courses have declined, and the trend has even reversed. Of the qualified women, only three per cent are in research and development. While women have made progress in the field of science, they still have a long way to go before their career expectations can equal that of their male collegues," states Radhika Ramasubban of the Centre for Social and Technological Studies in Mumbai.

"Even the scientific community uses the term 'biodiversiti much too often with too little rigour, sometimes only to given taxa (bird biodiversity or microbial diversity) or to a single level of integration (molecular biodiversity or species biodiversity)," notes Francesco Di Castri, member, International Council of Scientific Unions.

Castri observed that it was necessary to address four fundamental issues involved: debunking biodiversity's current myths to reach a high level of credibility; eliminating contention among countries during political negotiations leading to treaties and conventions; biodiversity managemeni based on sound scientific foundations and not intuitions and approximations, and finally, biodiversity should help to provide a leitmotif to project a unitary view of the biological world.

Identifying soil erosion, desertification and lifestyles of high-tech societies as the three major sources of land degradation, Herman Verstappen, president of the International Geographical Union, comments in the report that unsustainable land use had resulted in decline or even extinction of civilisations.

"It (land degradation) has become a global problem in recent decades because of the exploding world population, the rapid increase of economic per capita demands, mechanised farming and logging techniques, largescale mining and engineering activities, urbanisation and so on," suggests Verstappen in the report.

Anthony R Berger, who is the founding secretary general of the Association of Geoscientists for International Development, observes in the report, "In north America and Europe, where industrial and urban clean-ups employ a growing number of geologists, a major focus is on detailed investigations, applying such techniques as those of hydrogeology and geophysics to the identification of sub-surface conditions."

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