Previous Fora / 2003

Knowledge and quality of life

World Science Forum - Budapest

Knowledge and Society

8-10 November 2003



Some of the present versions of the session summaries are working material. The finalised versions will be posted at the Forum’s homepage on the web.


Knowledge and Quality of Life

Scientists, politicians and decision makers have an often forgotten common task: to narrow the gap between knowledge and society. Quality of life is an area where we all feel directly the urgent need for this. The coded information in a couple of billion brain cells – which we call knowledge - becomes functional when it is transferred to the society and when members of society learn to use it in a proper way. Knowledge cannot be the privilege of the chosen, it must become a common treasure to increase the quality of life. Access to useful and well-structured information is the prerequisite of a self-governed lifestyle. Governments often argue that healthcare is costly, but if we compare it with what disease costs, it turns out that preventive lifestyle is the best investment any government can make, and preventive lifestyle is based on common knowledge. However, does knowledge always increase the quality of life? To do so, knowledge must be based on logic, has to be checked and structured. Unstructured or false knowledge results in chaos, and scientists have a primer responsibility in this respect to be able to advise other members of society. Society and knowledge should be balanced. Little common knowledge among well-to-do people results in a decadent society, and history tells these societies to disappear after a short-term glamour. Excellent knowledge combined with poverty ends up in despair, and we cannot allow this either. Scientists, politicians and the public must interact so as to avoid all these and to balance knowledge results in a better quality of life.

We cannot discuss knowledge and quality of life without touching recent advances in sciences. The 21st century challenges us with an aging society. Quality of life within this frame becomes even more important. We cannot allow old people to slide down within society. We must deal with diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, without the solution of which we cannot provide acceptable quality of life. In other areas research already offers solutions although society and politicians often do not accept these, or oppose them, and the reason for this is lack of knowledge. Stem cell research and cloning are just two areas where talks between social players are common, and where we as scientists see the urgent need of knowledge transfer so that these areas can be used for the benefit of humankind.

The human genome is described and genomic medicine is knocking on the door; plants and animals with manipulated genome already provide us with a better quality of life. We are not far from being able to generate synthetic genomes and produce organisms which can convert sunlight into harvestable energy. People must understand these interventions to be able to accept the benefits. Knowledge transfer is equally important here as knowledge itself.

Information society and advanced biomedical research are not far away from each other, biology and computing merge in front of our eyes, to produce better quality of life. A common Nintendo-game today has better computing system than computers which controlled Apollo11 on its way to the moon in 1969. Intelligent machines will soon connect people to computers.

In all these issues assessment of safety is a major question. Use and misuse are both present in handling information, and societies suffer from the latter as much as they benefit from the former. Science offers solutions to shortages of food and emerging diseases like BSE, aids and malaria. However, misuse of information or slow, inappropriate information transfer can delay these solutions.

Scientists warned that the mad cow disease might affect humans, years before the first human case was recorded. Ignoring this information resulted in the destruction of tens of thousands of animals, creating a complex crisis in certain societies.

Elimination of DDT resulted in a certainly better quality of life in the western world, but also caused the massive spread of malaria in Africa. The need for society-matched knowledge-use was disregarded in this case, resulting in the death of millions of people in each year ever since.

The debate over organic versus synthetic food is well known to all of us: however, only a few people can give the right, logic-based answers to these issues. If information safety is not regarded, we will lose again an important battle against poverty, and malnutrition will lead to decreased quality of life. Credibility of public authorities, politicians and scientists can provide safe solutions in these fields.

We can conclude that knowledge is good: If knowledge is good, more knowledge is better. The best thing however, is if all structured knowledge becomes functional and increases the quality of life. The quality of life of not just selected people but the quality of life of all of us. And it is here where scientists, politicians and decision makers share a common responsibility. If we can transfer this knowledge to the society we are one step further and the World Science Forum Budapest reaches one of its goals.