We face a broad disequilibrium which has many aspects – disillusionment with liberal democracy, unstable geopolitics, growing inequality and anthropogenic climate crisis. There is a sense of rising frustration with power elites, both in their actions, but also inactions. In this context digitalisation has created a particularly disruptive transformation. On one hand it has democratised access to information and communication, yet it has eroded the mechanisms of reliability and trust in these functions. Aggregated data has both enhanced knowledge and created new challenges. It has both enhanced and undermined people’s sense of security. The digital transformation has impacted on the way we develop, our behaviour, live our lives and This has fundamentally changed the way we interact with one another and with the State, where the mediator role – whether institutions or experts – is increasingly by-passed. The internet has empowered many kinds of direct knowledge acquisition and community, but with it, the ability to manipulate that knowledge. This changed nature of our interactions has exposed a tendency to polemic and truncated discourse that limits the ability to address difficult matters in the reflective and deliberative manner they deserve.
Are liberal democracy, societal resilience and social cohesion now threatened by these new conditions for knowledge? Science (broadly defined) is the only institution that offers a set of processes to generate relatively reliable knowledge, but it is most valuable when it engages with societal values and other epistemologies – something that communication technology offers, yet can easily undermine. If we are to find new ways of having informed and constructive conversations on complex matters with diverse communities that have diverse perspectives and values, we need a bridge between complexity of knowledge and complexity and diversity of values. Technology is the characteristic of our age – we must find ways to take the best from it, yet manage it for local and global good.
Sir Peter Gluckman ONZ KNZM FRSNZ FMedSci FRS is chair of the International Network of Government Science Advice (INGSA) (www.ingsa.org) and President-elect of the International Science Council (ISC). He heads the Centre for Science for Policy, Diplomacy and Society (www.scipods.org) in the University of Auckland. From 2009-2018 he was Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Ministers of New Zealand. He has served on several IMF and OECD advisory groups related to science and technology and to the digital transition. Sir Peter has written and spoken extensively on science-policy, science-diplomacy and science-society interactions. In 2016 he received the AAAS award in Science Diplomacy.
Sir Peter originally trained as a paediatrician and biomedical scientist and holds a Distinguished University Professorship in the University of Auckland, New Zealand and honorary chairs at the University College London, University of Southampton and National University of Singapore. He was formerly Executive Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (and founding Director of the Liggins Institute of the University of Auckland. He has published over 700 papers and reviews in perinatal physiology, growth and metabolism, neuroscience, evolutionary biology and evolutionary medicine. He has authored both technical and popular science books including Ingenious: the unintended consequences of human innovation (with M Hanson, Harvard 2019).