By Vladimir Keilis-Borok and Michael D. Intriligator
Imagine another major earthquake of the magnitude of the 1994 Northridge quake in Southern California, but this time centered in downtown Los Angeles or San Francisco or Tokyo. Or imagine a series of major terrorist attacks on New York or London, but this time using nuclear or biological weapons. Or imagine a repeat of the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 that killed more people than both world wars combined. Or imagine an international financial crisis, such as the 1997-98 one that spread from Thailand to many other nations, including the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea and eventually even to Russia, but this time starting in the U.S. and spreading worldwide, repeating the experience of the Great Depression, which started in October 1929. Or imagine the accidental launching of a nuclear weapon or a massive release of radioactivity from the enormous nuclear wastes in both the U.S. and Russia.
These threats and others pose dangers as great as any we have ever faced, yet the truth is that we are not prepared to cope with any of them. Indeed, these acute or chronic dangers keep escalating despite the billions of dollars devoted to contain them using existing technologies.
Both history and common sense teach us that to overcome these threats requires innovative research at the frontier of basic science. Such research has again and again rescued humankind from immediate dangers through decisively better new technologies. We would like to propose a new approach to setting up such research that would address the major threats humanity faces.
The Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb during World War II provides a useful model of how we might now mobilize science to address these major global dangers. The military threats of a world war led to international cooperation of distinguished scientists to work in large-scale efforts to achieve scientific breakthroughs. Such international scientific cooperation has tremendous potential to develop creative ways of dealing with many of the challenges that we now face. There are also other instances of such international scientific cooperation, not only the building of the atomic bomb, which was a major technological accomplishment, regardless of whether one supports or deplores the atomic bomb itself. These include the development of hybrid strains of rice, wheat and corn in the agricultural experimental stations of the Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico and the Philippines as part of the Green Revolution. Another example is the genetic/genomic revolution that led to new vaccines and other approaches to medical research as developed by private pharmaceutical houses using scientists worldwide. All three of these examples show the potential for such a massive and focused scientific approach that could be initiated and funded by a government, as in the case of the Manhattan Project; or by a foundation, as in the case of the Green Revolution; or by the private sector, as in the case of the genetic/genomic revolution.
With appropriate policies and actions, the scientific establishment can be organized to focus its resources on current global threats. To conduct such research, however, it would be necessary to mobilize our relevant intellectual resources and research facilities with the same determination that drove the wartime projects. A program of global scientific cooperation has tremendous potential to address many of the threats and challenges we face.
Now may be the right time to establish some 50 new “Manhattan Projects.” Each would focus on a specific problem of immense global significance and urgency, like those above and many others, relying on international and interdisciplinary teams of outstanding scientists. Such global scientific cooperation could lead to significant breakthroughs that no nation would be able to accomplish alone.
These new projects could target a wide range of issues using recent developments in science and technology. Some might focus on the dangers identified earlier, while others might focus on other global challenges. These may include:
Developing alternatives to the global reliance on fossil fuels of oil, gas and coal as our major energy source, particularly renewable nonpolluting energy sources, including the development of new technologies for the incineration of industrial and municipal wastes that can, in effect, turn garbage into fuel, both eliminating solid wastes and generating electric power and thermal energy with no environmental damage.
Addressing the issues of global warming and climate change.
Creating new materials and recovering mineral and other resources of the continental shelf.
Developing novel forms of transportation, such as using dirigibles to replace trucks.
Addressing internal conflicts (civil wars), especially those in Africa, and global trade in both large and small arms. The latter might include a further development of the proposal of Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias that there be an embargo on arms shipments to sub-Saharan Africa to help reduce the conflicts in that region, including some of the largest wars being fought on the planet today .
Treating global water resource supply and how to avoid possible future water wars.
Addressing global hunger and malnutrition, including global food supplies and food security, implying the possibility or necessity of a second Green Revolution to develop new agricultural technologies and also providing micro nutrients to prevent disease and malnutrition.
Dealing with the problem of failing or failed states, such as Somalia, Zimbabwe and Myanmar.
Innovative approaches in any of these areas would have enormous value for the entire global population.
But are the crises we face of sufficient enormousness to justify such large-scale efforts? Absolutely! Just consider the possibilities of future natural disasters, such as those mentioned earlier, that could have global repercussions. Natural disasters are, however, only one of many threats of similar if not larger scale. Never before has the world lived with such huge risks. The focus of cooperation in these various new projects should be on areas of transcendent importance for our very survival.
To establish these projects would require a bold new initiative. We suggest a simple, straightforward mechanism to help scientists develop such proposals and begin the process of initiating them. First, we would suggest inviting the submission of brief pre-proposals that are adequately based on previous studies. Second, we would recommend having them reviewed by a panel of outstanding scientists that would award grants to work out detailed proposals. Some deviation from the usual review process would probably be necessary. For example, recent achievements of the authors of proposals should be given a larger than usual relative weight; and the authors should be invited to discuss objections. This would help to ensure that the most outstanding ideas were not rejected because they were too unusual and had been rejected by the usual peer review process but still had great potential.
These proposals would be the final product of this venture. The history of basic research gives us assurance that some of them would be sufficiently compelling to be funded by an appropriate source. Depending on the nature of a proposal, this source could be a government agency, an international organization, a nongovernment organization, a consortium of private foundations, etc. This new approach would be a major success if even a few of the proposals generated their own support; that is, if the decision-makers concluded that they could not afford to reject them.
We have to realize that we are already in the midst of a new type of world war when considering the combined threats of natural and man-made disasters. What will be decisive in this war, however, are intellectual resources, with frontier research providing a springboard for new technologies. Through establishing new and cooperative global projects, we can tackle these threats. Overall, we are suggesting a way of mobilizing science in a new type of cooperative effort to deal with some of the gravest challenges facing humanity as a whole.
Vladimir Keilis-Borok is Distinguished Professor at the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics and the Department of Earth and Space Science, University of California, Los Angeles. Michael D. Intriligator is Professor of Economics, Political Science, and Public Policy, University of California, Los Angeles, and Senior Fellow at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, Calif. They presented this paper at the New School of Athens/Global Governance Group conference in Athens on April 4, 2008. It is based on their article (in Russian) with colleagues from Russia, France and the U.S.: “Basic Science for the Survival of Humanity in the Third World War,” by Mikhail V. Alfimov, Robert Corell, Vincent Courtillot, Vladimir E. Fortov, Michael D. Intriligator and Vladimir Keilis-Borok, in Kommersant Daily, Nov. 29, 1997. The article above has been edited by Truthdig.
Greenpeace / Pedro Armestre and Mario Gómez
On the left, the resort area La Manga de Mar Menor in Spain as it looks now, and on the right, artists Pedro Armestre and Mario Gómez’s image of what the same spot might look like in the future, because of climate change.