Today’s New York Times has an interesting pair of headline articles if you’re looking for extra reading. The first, “How Humanity Gave Itself Extra Life” (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/27/magazine/global-life-span.html?smid=em-share), describes some of the science-related advances that have helped double the human life span over the last century, such as vaccination, pasteurization, chlorination, transportation technology, the mass production of antibiotics, the invention of randomized controlled trials, and the establishment of health institutions like the CDC and WHO. The article’s thesis, though, is that while these breakthroughs might have been initiated by scientists, “it took the work of activists and public intellectuals and legal reformers to bring their benefits to everyday people. From this perspective, the doubling of human life span is an achievement that is closer to something like universal suffrage or the abolition of slavery: progress that required new social movements, new forms of persuasion and new kinds of public institutions to take root. And it required lifestyle changes that ran throughout all echelons of society: washing hands, quitting smoking, getting vaccinated, wearing masks during a pandemic.”
Segueing to the next article, the fact that people have lived longer has created a spike in global population. This spike has not been driven by a surge in fertility. Now, we’re seeing global declines in birth rates, which, if sustained, will lead to an upheaval of global social and economic models. “The change may take decades, but once it starts, decline (just like growth) spirals exponentially. With fewer births, fewer girls grow up to have children, and if they have smaller families than their parents did — which is happening in dozens of countries — the drop starts to look like a rock thrown off a cliff.” See “Long Slide Looms for World Population, With Sweeping Ramifications” at https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/22/world/global-population-shrinking.html?smid=em-share.
I thought these perspectives were worth sharing with you as we discuss, here and elsewhere, how to improve the value of science to society. As these articles remind us, there isn’t a straight line between science and benefit. Recognizing and developing this benefit means engaging policymakers, industry, activists, educators and beyond---which is not surprising, of course, but it’s also a process we’re still trying to get right in the scholarly communication space.
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