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BOX 2-1

Another Point of View: Science, Technology, and Society

For all the practical devices and wonders that science and technology have brought to society, it has also created its share of problems. Researchers have had to reapply their skills to create solutions to unintended consequences of many innovations, including finding a replacement for chlorofluorocarbon-based refrigerants, eliminating lead emissions from gasoline-powered automobiles, reducing topsoil erosion caused by large-scale farming, researching safer insecticides to replace DDT, and engineering new waste-treatment schemes to reduce hazardous chemical effluents from coal power plants and chemical refineries.

services defines modern life, freeing most of us from the harsh manual labor, infectious diseases, and threats to life and property that our forebears routinely faced. Now, few families know the suffering caused by smallpox, tuberculosis (TB), polio, diphtheria, cholera, typhoid, or whooping cough. All those diseases have been greatly suppressed or eliminated by vaccines (Figure 2-1).

We enjoy and rely on world travel, inexpensive and nutritious food, easy digital access to the arts and entertainment, laptop computers, graphite tennis rackets, hip replacements, and quartz watches. Box 2-2 lists a few examples of how completely we depend on scientific research and its application—from the mighty to the mundane.

Science and engineering have changed the very nature of work. At the beginning of the 20th century, 38% of the labor force was needed for farm work, which was hard and often dangerous. By 2000, research in plant and animal genetics, nutrition, and husbandry together with innovation in machinery had transformed farm life. Over the last half-century, yields per acre have increased about 2.5 times,4 and overall output per person-hour has increased fully 10-fold for common crops, such as wheat and corn (Figure 2-2). Those advances have reduced the farm labor force to less than 3% of the population.

Similarly, the maintenance of a house a century ago without today’s labor-saving devices left little time for outside enjoyment or work to produce additional income.

The visible products of research, however, are made possible by a large


National Research Council. Frontiers in Agricultural Research: Food, Health, Environment, and Communities. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2003.

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