Society has come a long way from the Enlightenment. All around us, we see the fruits borne by the tree of science: Trucks and cars and planes that complete journeys that once took months in a matter of hours, vaccines that have nearly eradicated diseases that once threatened to decimate us, X-Ray machines that enable us to peer within ourselves and identify injuries and abnormalities, and countless other inventions that would not exist today without science.
But like any other tool, science is only as benevolent or malevolent as those who wield it. We must not forget that nuclear and chemical weapons are also a result of science.
Although we do not strictly consider Darwinian natural selection as applicable to ourselves, humans are ultimately subject to the laws of nature, and although many may live in denial, the truth is that humanity is threatened by climate change, the spread of antibiotic resistance in bacteria and viruses, and countless other dangers. The only way to combat these dangers, however, is through the application of science.
While many of the scientific discoveries that benefit society are made in controlled experiments where every variable is accounted for, the world outside of a lab does not lend itself as neatly to controls. Once a discovery has been made, the key to its application lies in accounting for the variables that it will encounter in real life. The discovery of the polio vaccine, for example, will not be sufficient to eradicate the virus by itself. In more developed European and North American countries the eradication of polio has been easier to coordinate, but in a place like rural Pakistan, where centuries old superstitions still weigh heavily on decision-making processes, distributors of vaccines have been turned away and even attacked, and the polio virus continues to threaten to make a global comeback because of the persistence of a few individuals.
Knowledge that is not applied is wasted, and in an age where billions of people lack adequate access to healthcare services, nutrition, and sanitation, it is more important than ever for society to support scientific efforts to remedy our biggest problems. Existing techniques in genetic engineering, environmental sciences, and the medical sciences have many of the answers we need, and future developments will likely only improve our efforts, but we must remember the point made earlier: Science is only as benevolent or malevolent as those who wield it.
Science should not be allowed to run rampant. As the number of new discoveries being made grow day by day and week by week, it becomes more important than ever to expand already-existing governmental agencies and create new ones to monitor the research being conducted and as well as its applications. Ethics boards within individual institutions should be allowed to exist and share power with governmental organizations. It is important to protect scientific progress, the need for which has become greater than ever, from politics that might seek to influence its path, but it is also important to hold institutions accountable to the public and ensure their actions do more good to society than harm.