Societal Impact of Science: Getting the Foundations Right


Dr. B. Mario Pinto

University of Manitoba

Vice-President (Research and International)

Disclaimer: The French version of this editorial has been auto-translated and has not been approved by the author.

In a world brimming with rapid technological advancements, the role of education has never been more critical. As we encounter the pressing global challenges of the 21st century, preparing the next generation to take on the mantle of leadership is imperative. Education has long been hailed as the catalyst for progress, fostering not only intellectual growth but also shaping the moral compass of our future leaders. However, we need to get those foundations right and never assume that the fundamentals of science alone can be the solution.

We are faced with a multitude of societal challenges that demand a call to action for science to respond. First, the challenges of the city. According to statistics from UNESCO, cities occupy only 2% of total habitable land, but are responsible for 70% of global economic output, over 60% of global energy consumption, 70% of greenhouse gas emissions, and 70% of global waste. Designing, engineering, and building future smart cities, therefore, will be paramount to our economic and environmental future. Cities are also being formed by refugees and migration, raising questions about security and governance for persons who are stateless, food security, violence against women and under-represented groups, and a safe and sustainable quality of life for all. We are also faced with the challenges of climate change, in which extreme weather events and drought threaten our existence. The opening of the Hudson Bay and the North-West passage will cause the rapid development of strategic shipping, military, and trade routes in a rapidly changing economic, environmental, and geopolitical context—dramatic new events that have led to a chess game over control and territorial gain. This threatens and disrupts the lives of the Inuit and has been summarized very eloquently by Inuit leader, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who questions “the right to be cold” [1]. Alongside climate change are the challenges of food and clean water for all, abundant crops, healthy mothers and their children, and a clean planet. We also face the challenges of living in a world increasingly subject to artificial intelligence and disinformation. And of course, the challenges presented by global pandemics.

Scientific innovations can provide solutions to these societal challenges, but it is critical that we get the foundational principles right.

1. Education

Let me begin with the most pressing need: education of the next generation to help them deal with these issues. I maintain that we must educate ethically literate global citizens, with an appreciation of culture, ethnicity, and religion in a pluralistic society. We should prepare international ambassadors for the future who can mediate and broker complex relations when science diplomacy will transcend fluxional geopolitical events. Students should receive interdisciplinary training and possess team skills, communication skills, (time) management skills, leadership skills, and entrepreneurial skills, as well as digital and ethical literacy. Most importantly, we must return, at least notionally, to the concept of a Ph.D. as Doctor of Philosophy, inspiring critical, creative, and analytical thought, adaptable to new situations and able to respond to cultural, economic, and societal challenges—the unanticipated.  

2. Social Justice

Students of today are concerned with social justice, inclusion, and those that are left behind. We must help them develop the critical thinking skills needed to make a difference in society and the world. Global citizenship is currently challenged. We live in a world where a country’s sovereignty, research security, and countering foreign interference are fast becoming a dominant part of our lexicon. Yet as we guard turf, we should not forget the value of international partnerships in solving societal challenges.

3. Creative Collaboration

Creative interdisciplinary thought and action are critical to translate science into solutions, and it will be the confluence of the arts and sciences that will yield productive ways forward. The holistic approach in which STEM is combined with humanities and social sciences (HASS) is essential for developing technologies that result in behavioural change and societal impact. Solutions must be developed in concert with receptor communities. Contextual knowledge of new technologies, together with awareness of their misuse—for example, artificial intelligence and gene editing—should become a mainstream way of working. Furthermore, making progress in a reasonable time frame requires pairing these diverse, interdisciplinary skills with bold, high-risk, international, and rapid-response research.

4. Dialogue

Dialogue is the key to transformative ideas. I am always encouraged to see researchers across disciplines and borders come together to focus on the positive disruption of established ideas. For example, we are experiencing a quantum revolution that began a century ago. At that time, great minds like Schrodinger, Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac, and Einstein would meet in summer houses and select conferences to discuss major new paradigms that deviated from classical physics and included discussions of philosophy and religion. We have lost the art of discovery through dialogue and debate, and we must return to that art form, especially with our students.

5. Diversity

Creative collaboration and dialogue are just the beginning, and now, more than ever, we also need

diversity. If we want positive disruption of the status quo, science can be the great equalizer with

respect to gender diversity and inclusion of the 2SLGBTQI+ community. Collaboration increases diversity, resulting in major advances and significant economic gain. In Canada’s Indigenous community, the concept of seeing from multiple perspectives is referred to as two-eyed seeing, an insight popularized by Mi’kmaq elder Albert Marshall. [2] In this concept, each eye brings an Indigenous or Western perspective, and it is the ability to use them in parallel, valuing what each has to offer, that gives us the necessary holistic strength to make true breakthroughs. [3] Marshall goes further in pointing out that when the two views differ markedly, that is when innovation occurs. It is the frustrated interface that leads to innovative paths forward.

6. Data

Data is a core asset for all of us and data stewardship and management are key. Secure data storage, deep analysis, and sharing in real time are the challenges we face. From food and water management to crisis and health-care management, data tracking is a fundamental tenet.  The responsibility to educate society about disinformation is also ours. And we must remember that “Data is not the plural of anecdote.” [4]


  1. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet, Penguin Canada Books: Toronto, 2015.
  2.  Cheryl Bartlett, Murdena Marshall, and Albert Marshall, “Two-Eyed Seeing and other lessons learned within a co-learning journey of bringing together Indigenous and mainstream knowledges and ways of knowing,” Journal of Environmental Studies 2 (2012), 331-340. DOI 10.1007/s13412-012-0086-8.
  3.  See Roher et al., “How is Etuaptmumk/ Two-Eyed Seeing characterized in Indigenous health research? A scoping review,” PLoS ONE 16(7): e0254612., 1-22, esp. 8; and Wright et al., “Using Two-Eyed Seeing in Research With Indigenous People: An Integrative Review,” International Journal of Qualitative Methods, Vol. 18 (2019), 1-19.
  4. For Raymond Wolfinger’s original quote, see Nelson Polsby, “The Contributions of President Richard F. Fenno, Jr,” PS 17:4 (1984), 778-781, esp. 781; for its interpretation since, see