To what extent do scientists and engineers have a responsibility to try to solve the world’s great problems at large? Let me state right at the beginning of the post that I do not have an answer to this question, but I just wanted to raise a few points to start a discussion.
During the WWII period in the United States, many of the nation’s top physicists were corralled to Los Alamos, New Mexico to work at the Manhattan Project in effort to build a nuclear weapon. Moreover, the scientists at Bell Labs, a private laboratory under the auspices of AT&T, aided in the war effort most notably by working on radar technology and also by enabling secure communication among the Allies by developing SIGSALY.
During the Cold War Space Race, US scientists and engineers were again called upon, this time at NASA, to make sure the the United States was able to land an astronaut on the moon before the Soviets. With a lot of money and effort, scientists were able to deliver on the promise by John F. Kennedy to do so before 1970.
While these were under different circumstances, i.e. wartime, scientists responded when called upon by the government. There are other numerous examples outside the US, where scientists have worked in close quarters with the government, such as in the former USSR.
Today, however, the issues are a little different. The looming potential problems caused by greenhouse gas emissions due to rapid industrial development are a “peacetime” concern. This time, also, it isn’t a single government that has to corral the scientists, it is all of them.
The question now is, even in the absence of large-scale government action on these matters, to what extent are physicists and other scientists responsible for addressing these problems? Many engineering departments and national labs are currently engaged in developing battery technologies, more efficient solar cells, transparent solar cells, etc. (funded by the government). Many physicists continue to work on superconductivity with the hope that it may solve the energy transportation and storage problem. But the urgency is clearly not the same as in wartime.
It is largely public money that educates most of us, funds most of our research, yet much of the research we undertake does not have foreseeable implications for the grander problems at large. The fact that scientists and engineers are some of the best placed in terms of education and technical ability to solve these problems does put some burden on us.
Left alone, I would love to spend all my time doing basic science without looking up to see that the world is facing some pretty grand challenges. Unfortunately, I don’t have that luxury, and I do think it would be fair for governments to require us to address these problems by requesting PIs to spend a certain percentage of their research time devoted to these kinds of pressing problems. Perhaps a wartime mindset is needed to solve this problem.
Lastly, I would like to stress that in the two cases mentioned above, WWII and the Space Race, the US economy came out faring better after the heavy investment in science and technology. Industrialized nations can do the same in the present time by investing more in the world’s greener energy technologies, which undoubtedly must be the future of humans.