WASHINGTON - The plight of the hundreds of millions of people whose individual survival hinges on less than $1 a day has again caught the eye of world leaders, who are in Johannesburg for the long-awaited 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development that begins today.
Once again, the international community of scientists and engineers will be asked to do something about the problems of poor nations - soil erosion, pollution, and the lack of clean water - to help feed the hungry without damaging the environment. But recent history shows that good science and good intentions aren't enough: The ambitious blueprint for scientific solutions that came out of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro remains to a great extent a paper dream. Few of its provisions were ever funded, many were not implemented. But it remains an influential document, and its demand for help from the world's scientists and engineers is difficult to ignore.
The solutions exist and many scientists are ready to help. Their participation will be meaningless, however, unless industrialized and developing nations around the world commit themselves to cooperation in building a scientific infrastructure everywhere. And society - both North and South - must offer broad support.
There is a powerful humanitarian argument for such assistance, but it is not the only one. The gap between rich and poor countries is growing. It fuels anger among people who are increasingly aware of the disparities between their way of life and the way we live in the developed world.
Moreover, environmental hazards and reports of illnesses that don't respect national boundaries have made clear that no nation is immune from the impact of what happens elsewhere in the world. Conversely, a recent report in the journal Science suggests that the destruction of biodiversity causes irreversible loss to our common future and that protecting natural habitats in developing nations generates enormous economic benefits for all of humanity.
The misery that sets the stage for the Johannesburg meeting can seem overwhelming.
In cities throughout the developing world, millions of people are breathing air that the World Health Organization (WHO) calls below acceptable standards. Poor sanitation is the norm for 2 billion people; more than 1 billion people lack clean water. Half of the world's people are malnourished, and hundreds of millions of women and children are simply denied the opportunity for education.
Science has gone far in finding answers to such problems, but most developing nations lack an infrastructure that would allow them to apply scientific advances locally and in the long term. We must help them to develop for our common benefit.
The recently published rice genome, for example, promises to lead eventually to improvements that could raise the yield of this primary food source for hundreds of millions of people. Unless explicit efforts are undertaken to ensure that such advances are translated and transferred to the developing world, and made workable in local contexts, knowledge of the rice genome will not be applied properly.
Having in essence decoded the genetic blueprint for rice, scientists hope that they will someday make dramatic improvements in the nutritional quality of rice, while increasing its yield.
But what are the specific contributions that science and engineering can make to the development of a sustainable society?
The National Research Council reported in 1999 that existing technologies could bring about such a transformation within two generations - without any dramatic advances in new technologies or changes in human society. Women can be provided with access to education and assistance to reduce the size of their families; and improvements can be made in the quality of air and water, in the development and use of energy and in the methods used to produce agricultural products. Conservation programs can be implemented to reduce the amount of land converted to commercial use.
The report notes that mobilizing science and technology requires collaboration of scientific and political communities worldwide. But this can only happen if the world's citizenry gains significant basic knowledge and the technical and social ability to put it to use.
And this in turn will come about only if the political will exists - not only in the developing world but in the United States and other industrialized countries, where 90 percent of the world's scientists reside. The United States has a robust scientific enterprise that is the envy of the world and fuels our economic and social health.
Development assistance is a necessary part of the solution to the plight of developing nations. But experience shows that our truest and most lasting gift is to guide other nations in creating an enterprise of their own. We scientists know what to do, but we need the public's help, and the political will that public interest will inspire.
Peter H. Raven is director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and chairman of the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Alan I. Leshner is chief executive officer of AAAS.