Over the last five years, in particular, populist forces have swept across the world. The reasons are multi-faceted. But one indisputable factor is the growing frustration and fear of globalisation – and, in turn, the intensifying pace of technological change and innovation.
These anxieties manifest themselves in various ways; from hostility to open trade to a clamour for imposing barriers on migration and free movement for highly skilled workers.
The coronavirus pandemic has only fanned the flames further. Populists have already crudely exploited the crisis. When the outbreak hit Italy, for example, the impulse of one leader in a neighbouring country was to call for a closure of the border, which at that point ran contrary to the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Elsewhere, references to the “Chinese virus” help fuel a narrative of fear.
Genuine worries of what the future holds – especially in these particularly unsettling times – threatens to allow such forces to continue to thrive. These populists are not a homogenous entity and exhibit differences across a range of policies. However, what unites them is their worldview – one that is closed, and that invariably disregards scientific and expert opinion.
Through seductive platitudes and simplistic sloganeering, growing numbers of people have been lured into supporting their cause. But do they offer real answers to the great challenges facing the world today, such as the urgent need to find a prevention for COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, or solutions to other critical issues such as the climate emergency? The answer is no, as these issues cannot be addressed without technological advance and scientific development.
They also depend on collaboration too. The worry right now, however, is that while many pharmaceutical firms that are usually fierce rivals are working together to try and produce a vaccine, nationalistic approaches threaten to overshadow any progress for the greater good.
By working as part of a global research network, German medical firm CureVac is leading efforts to develop a vaccine. This would benefit all of humanity. Yet, some nationalist leaders fail to understand this cooperative spirit that spurs scientific breakthroughs and are shamelessly seeking to purchase rights to its vaccine exclusively for their own citizens (Donald Trump, for instance).
As Severin Schwan, the chief executive of Roche, said last week, this would be devastating for the broader goal of stamping out the coronavirus pandemic. “I would encourage everyone not to get into this trap of saying we have to get everything into our countries now and close the borders,” said Schwan. “It would be completely wrong to fall into nationalist behaviour that would actually disrupt supply chains and be detrimental to people around the world.”
When the challenge is global, partnerships must span borders to be truly effective. Just look at previous cases of where collaboration has been allowed to thrive. Take penicillin, for example. Sir Alexander Fleming made the initial discovery, then other scientists continued his work and advanced it. Teams from the United States got involved later, making penicillin an international effort. Another case in point is the development of a vaccine for Ebola, which took collaboration between scientists across three continents to realise their shared goal.
And it’s not just in the medical arena where collaboration delivers benefits for all of us. Climate change is another. Last October, new satellite data showed the ozone hole was the smallest on record since its discovery. The gradual mending of the hole is attributable to the series of international regulations on chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were adopted from 1987 onwards, regulating the consumption and production of ozone-depleting compounds.
The imperative to always be innovating is clear. Populism may have helped unearth society’s simmering discontent, but solutions to these ills will require technology and humanity’s continual intellectual progress. As Albert Einstein once said, “You can’t solve a problem on the same level that it was created. You have to rise above it to the next level.”
Global problems, like the current COVID-19 crisis and the climate emergency, do not respect borders. Solutions to these pressing issues are most likely to come when people coordinate their efforts across sectors, cultures and national boundaries, and not succumb to the short-sightedness views of populism. Today, as we experience a public health crisis on a global scale hitherto unimaginable, that has never been more important.
Ari Ahonen is the CEO at Technology Academy Finland (TAF), a body that oversees the biennial €1 million Millennium Technology Prize and ground-breaking innovations that support sustainable development.
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