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A step in the right direction

As the World Conference on Science draws to a close, appreciation of its modest achievements should outweigh disappointment that not more has been achieved

Some things in life can be predicted accurately; indeed, science is sometimes defined as the form of knowledge that allows us to do precisely that. One such certainty is that when delegates attending the World Conference on Science return home tomorrow, the world they arrive back in will be almost identical to that which they left last week. No fine words or declarations of intent can change that; and those that expect any major decisions or announcements to emerge from the final day of the conference will be disappointed.

Nor is it even realistic to talk, as some officials and others have done - often using the dawn of the new millennium as their license - of the dawn of a new era for science'society relations. Many of the issues under discussion over the past few days, such as the need to build up research infrastructures in developing countries, to increase the participation of women and minorities, or even to enhance two-way communication with the public, were already prominent at the last global science meeting, held 20 years ago in Vienna, even if only in the corridors. Talk of a new social contract is somewhat disingenuous when, firstly, many of the issues have been under debate for several decades, and secondly, neither side - whether scientists or the public -- is likely to see any guidelines emerging from Budapest, however well-meaning, as a binding commitment. Indeed, one of the dangers of talking about devices such as Hippocratic oaths is that, without considering how sanctions might be applied to those who transgress, moral commitments on their own, however high sounding, can be worth little more than the paper on which they are written.

But has Budapest, despite the limitations and disappointments, been worthwhile? The answer must be yes. The message that scientific research must be considered a key element in both development and aid strategies, and must be conducted ethically, has undoubtedly been strengthened. Sensitivities both within the research community and in the public at large over topics ranging from intellectual property regimes, to the need to focus resources on national centres of research excellence, have climbed a couple of notches up the political agenda. Projects such as plans for a centre for the communication of science in Britain have received implicit endorsement. And, in the preparatory process, regional research networks have been strengthened through the mere fact of addressing problems faced in common.

Those who expected a dramatic turning point in the relationship between science and society to take place in Budapest will return to their countries disappointed. Those who feared a pointless talkfest will, for the most part, have been pleasantly surprised at the amount of substance under debate. The real task now is to turn the guidelines endorsed in the final conference documents into effective policies. That is up to national governments and their regional organizations; in 20 years' time, history will judge how determinedly they have addressed it.

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