We do not properly understand the effects of technology on the evolution of the systems on which we all depend. To take on global challenges such as climate change, growing urbanization and loss of biodiversity, we need to build a new science community that will explore common themes in natural, artificial and social systems.
The Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, founded 25 years ago by scientists to create new sciences from combinations of the old, has changed science and technology by investigating how simple building blocks interact, from molecules to single cells to ecological systems to human communities. Singapore is developing a similar institute and so is Japan. They have caught on to the idea that today's world needs sciences recast for the future. They are investing in it. Europe is not — at least, not enough.
The Institute Para Limes, in doesburg, the Netherlands, follows the Santa Fe model and symbolizes the quintessence of the European Union (EU): a community without boundaries, national or disciplinary. It is endorsed by scientists, by leaders of the national science academies, by some companies and by high-ranking EU officials. They recognize that such a community cannot be built from within universities organized along disciplinary lines, or from institutes that serve national interests.
But this community is caught between two systems for funding research. In one, the EU pursues its goals through huge, bureaucratic Framework programmes — the seventh programme's budget is euro53.2 billion (US$72.4 billion) over seven years. Common interest is all, with no support for initiatives in individual member states. In the other system, member states use public money to pursue their own goals — justified, in their view, by their payment of the EU's annual fee.
The yearly budget for the Institute Para Limes will be between euro6 million and euro10 million — too small on the EU scale to stimulate bureaucratic interest, but large enough on a national scale to be in competition with established institutes. Independent funding is urgently needed. We call on entrepreneurs, company executives, private foundations and visionary individuals for support.
Only then can we build on the institute's early promise and deliver a better understanding of systems that humanity needs for adequate food, energy, water and health without causing damage to the environment.