Below, Nick Matzke responds to the question:
The boundaries of science are continually expanding as scientists become increasingly integral to finding solutions for larger social issues, such as poverty, conflict, financial crises, etc. On what specific issue/problem do you feel we need to bring the scientific lens to bear?
Obviously there are hundreds of important problems that scientists need to work on. But if we are talking about prioritizing, the number 1 problem that the world needs to solve can be summarized in one word: nukes. It’s the same problem we’ve had for 60 years.
The case for this proposition is clear and convincing. Consider all of the dangers our global civilization faces–and by this, I mean events which could hypothetically rub out the human species, or at least really horrendously damage civilization for a long period of time. It’s a pretty short list: (1) war, (2) infectious disease, (3) climate change, (4) environmental destruction, (5) resource crisis (catastrophic collapse of energy, food, or water availability), (6) astronomical events (e.g. a major bolide impact), oh, and (7) nukes. Of these, some have been a permanent feature of human existence, and appear to be self-limiting and burn themselves out if they get really bad (1 and 2). Others have a very slow timeline (decades at least), giving society ample time to diagnose and adapt to the situation (3 through 5). Astronomical disasters (6) are either easily avoidable with present resources (asteroid monitoring), or so improbable and unavoidable as to be not worth worrying about (black hole wandering by, direct hit from in-galaxy gamma ray burst, yadda yadda).
So that leaves nukes. The risk of global nuclear war is substantially lower now than it was in the Cold War, but it is still nonzero. More importantly, the risk of nuclear war can change dramatically over short timescales–the last 60 years are evidence of that. The reason the risk can change so easily is that it depends on human political structures and even personalities. It’s astounding and ridiculous if you think about it. All it would take is a turn for the worse in China or Russia, or a continued nuclear arms race in the Middle East and Asia for a few decades, and we will be right back where we were in the Cold War, where the only thing standing between us and nuclear holocaust is a few very nervous humans–and in the future, the humans in question might not even be more-or-less rational communists and capitalists with a strong interest in self-preservation.
I have used my space here on prioritizing the problem, not on solutions, but scientists should at least publicize the problem and keep pushing for the only ultimate solution, which is a global ban on nuclear weapons.