Future Worlds
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Scientists’ Responsibility for Global Futures

COVID-19 networks

COVID-19 has been a stress test for our globalized society. The results, thus far, have not been encouraging. While responses and outcomes have varied across regions and countries, the pandemic has also revealed severe weaknesses in coordination at all scales, from local and regional to national and global.1 There are many reasons for this lack of coordination. Some have deep evolutionary roots in human behavior in the form of ingroup/outgroup dynamics (e.g., our/their nation)2 and in the limitations of our cognitive and educational systems, which were not selected to handle the complexity of our present world and its challenges.3 Others are a consequence of social, cultural, technological, and economic trends that have led to extreme levels of self-centeredness, inequality, and polarization, and contributed to an overall decline in trust, especially in institutions of governance and science.4 COVID-19 thus hit a world already in a precarious state, which contributed to the dramatic course of the pandemic, now a global challenge.5

The urgent task is to (re)build a framework for coordination and to regain the trust needed for it to work effectively. Science is an essential part of this system, not only because of what it does, but also how it does it.6 Despite all its inadequacies, such as the biases and structural inequalities which pervade academia, science operates as a globally coordinated system and has thus developed a highly distributed governance structure. Science is also an adaptive system in that it is constantly evolving in light of new challenges, such as government interference, and opportunities or technologies, such as big data, artificial intelligence, open access and open source software, and preprint archives.7 Science is by its very nature, a collaborative and international system of knowledge exchange and generation, to the extent that even during periods of conflict, such as the Cold War, scientific communication channels worked and supported larger diplomatic goals. And science manages to negotiate its own ethical standards facing new technologies, such as CRISPR.8 All of this makes science and science diplomacy a central pillar and excellent example of the required coordination structure for global futures.  

Our particular view of the role of science and science diplomacy is rooted in our understanding of the evolution of complex systems.9 These systems, including social systems, are the product of co-evolutionary dynamics that include both adaptive processes and larger transformations or evolutionary transitions.10 As we are currently in the midst of a radical transition—the Anthropocene with its planetary impacts including various sustainability crises,11 we must rely on our understanding of these processes. Such an understanding is essential for designing adequate regulatory and governance structures that can contribute to rebuilding trust and create more collaborative processes across differences and inequalities within and between our societies.  

A common feature of all evolutionary transitions is the emergence of new regulatory structures that assure coordination between subsystems. These regulatory structures are based on information flow and information-processing capacities. Take for instance the transition from unicellular to multicellular organization in organisms.12 It required coordination between cells, temporarily during the development of organisms through cellular differentiation and at any given time as part of the division of labor afforded by a complex multicellular organization. This was made possible by new regulatory structures and corresponding signaling and information-processing structures. We see equivalent mechanisms in the evolution of societies, which also depended on the emergence of norms and legal systems as regulatory structures and communication networks that enabled the ever-growing aggregation from small hunter-gatherer bands to modern nation-states.13

The main functions of these regulation and communication structures are to enable coordination and manage conflict, which are in essence the challenges faced in both the pandemic and the sustainability challenges of our global futures. The evolution of complex systems teaches us that regulatory structures and coordination networks are distributed across multiple scales and among many different elements of these systems with both central and distributed regulation and communication. To meet the current challenges, we need multi-scalar and multi-dimensional structures with traditional actors (states and international organizations) and specific advocacy groups, such as NGOs and civil society representatives, but also more well-established organizations, such as economic actors, professional associations, and networks of scientists. 14

Co-evolutionary dynamics have built existing structures over long time spans. Our task is more urgent. We call for a new convention for science diplomacy that will support the development of a distributed regulatory regime starting from a new understanding of the role of scientists in society and from new approaches to train the next generation of scientist diplomats to fulfill this role more effectively. Future science diplomats will have to:  

  • go beyond disciplinary research that separates and causes misunderstanding among different knowledge fields,15
  • be able to cope with complex real-world problems with incomplete knowledge
  • work with the aforementioned system structures locally and globally,16 and
  • integrate knowledge from various scientific disciplines and societal sectors in order to act as honest brokers in decision-making processes.17

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the importance of scientific expertise and the challenges scientists face in contributing to complex decisions. For science to contribute to these challenges, scientific institutions will have to rethink their mode of operation and accept diplomacy as an essential aspect of their societal role. It will be especially important to increase awareness of existing inequalities and empower underrepresented groups in academia, such as people of color or ethnic and gender minorities, to raise their voices and lead the way.18 This will require changing the professional ethos and practices as well as educational strategies to include inter- and transdisciplinary approaches; a deeper awareness of equity, diversity, and justice issues; and a willingness to engage with the challenges of global futures.


  1. Michael Anderson, Martin Mckee, and Elias Mossialos, “Covid-19 exposes weaknesses in European response to outbreaks,” British Medical Journal vol. 368 (2020): m1075.
  2. Marilynn B. Brewer, “Ingroup identification and intergroup conflict: When does ingroup love become outgroup hate?” in Social Identity, Intergroup Conflict, and Conflict Reduction, vol. 3 ed. Richard D. Ashmore et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 17–41.
  3. Ronald Barnett, “Supercomplexity and the curriculum,” Studies in Higher Education vol. 25 (2000): 255–265.
  4. Nejc Plohl and Bojan Musil, “Modeling compliance with COVID-19 prevention guidelines: The critical role of trust in science,” Psychology, Health, and Medicine (2020): 1–12.
  5. Helen Lambert et al., “COVID-19 as a global challenge: towards an inclusive and sustainable future,” The Lancet Planetary Health vol. 4 (2020): e312–e314.
  6. Naomi Oreskes, Why Trust Science? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019). 
  7. Jürgen Renn, The Evolution of Knowledge: Rethinking Science for the Anthropocene (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020).
  8. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2017).
  9. Stephen J. Lansing, “Complex Adaptive Systems,” Annual Review of Anthropology vol. 32 (2003): 183–204. 
  10. Manfred D. Laubichler and Jürgen Renn, “Extended evolution: A conceptual framework for integrating regulatory networks and niche construction,” Journal of Experimental Zoology, Part B: Molecular and Developmental Evolution vol. 324 (2015): 565–577.
  11. Will Steffen et al., “Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet,” Science vol. 347 (2015): 1259855. 
  12. Eric H. Davidson, The Regulatory Genome: Gene Regulatory Networks in Development and Evolution (Burlington, MA: Academic Press, Elsevier, 2006). 
  13. Lansing, “Complex Adaptive Systems”
  14. Daniel R. Brooks, Eric P. Hoberg, and Walter A. Boeger, The Stockholm Paradigm: Climate Change and Emerging Disease (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019).
  15. Roland W. Scholz and Gerald Steiner, “Transdisciplinarity at the crossroads,” Sustainability Science vol. 10 (2015): 521–526.
  16. Guido Caniglia et al., “The glocal curriculum: Internationalization, digitalization and curriculum reform in higher education for sustainable development, “Journal of Cleaner Production vol. 171 (2018): 368–376. 
  17. Guido Caniglia et al., “A pluralistic and integrated approach to action-oriented knowledge for sustainability,” Nature Sustainability (2020), doi:10.1038/s41893-020-00616-z.
  18. Kevin N. Laland, “Racism in academia, and why the ‘little things’ matter,” Nature vol. 584 (2020): 653–654.
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