The Real Threat Set: Humanity's Race Against Time

05/26/2011 04:17 EDT | Updated 07/23/2011 05:12 EDT

Last week in Oslo, Norway, along with participants from some 40

countries and organizations around the world, I attended an "experts

workshop" on Science, Technology and Innovation to Address Global

Challenges. The meeting was organized jointly under OECD auspices by

the Norwegian and German Ministries of Education and Research

The agenda included presentations and discussions on issues such as

priority setting, funding, capacity building, and... asleep yet?

Well, this is your wake up call.

The rubber really hit the road during the final substantive session,

which was innocuously entitled "Delivering Benefits." At that point in

the proceedings a consensus began to develop around a single, somewhat

terrifying realization: If  international policy and decision-makers

can not be convinced that a radical course correction is needed, then

in the not too distant future the world may reach a tipping point

beyond which recovery will be difficult, if not impossible.

The consequences could well be catastrophic.

To understand how a group assembled by such a respectable institution

as the OECD could reach such a disturbing conclusion, some sense of

the over-arching analytical narrative is required. My  interpretation

of the fundamental lines s goes something like this.

In the globalization era, the most profound challenges to human

survival -- climate change, public health, food security, and resource

scarcity, to name a few -- are rooted in science and driven by

technology. Moreover, underdevelopment and insecurity, far more than

religious extremism or political violence, represent fundamental

threats to world order. In this context, the capacity to generate,

absorb and use science and technology (S&T) could play a crucial role

in improving security and development prospects. Addressing the needs

of the poor, and bridging the digital divide could similarly become a

pre-occupation of diplomacy.

Although poverty reduction contributes to development, and development

is the flip side of security, S&T issues are largely alien to, and

almost invisible within most international policy institutions.

National governments, foreign ministries, development agencies, and

indeed most multilateral organizations are without the scientific

expertise, technological savvy, cultural pre-disposition or research

and development (R&D) network access required to manage effectively.

If this is to change, and in order to examine the remedial

possibilities, politicians, opinion leaders and senior officials must

be critically aware of both the dynamic inter-relationships among

principal actors and the key questions and issues at play.

Unfortunately, their preoccupations lie almost entirely elsewhere.

The lion's share of international policy resources are at present

devoted to the military, which according to the argument outlined

above represents a colossal, and extremely costly misallocation. With

a dominant international policy focus in many industrialized countries

on counter-terrorism and the struggle against religious extremism and

political violence, the threats and challenges which most imperil the

planet remain largely unaddressed.

All told, this tale amounts to one terribly disturbing disconnect.

Because not only are the dots not joined-up.

In  most cases, there are no dots.

Whatever comes out of the Oslo meeting, it clearly will not, in

itself, be enough to save the world. But if the project contributes to

a more acute more widely-shared awareness of the real threat set, then

we may all emerge at least with something in rather short supply under

the present circumstances.