Leading Article: The real challenges of the next century are scientific

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READERS OF The Independent are, we suspect, not greatly taken by millenarianism. They are rational enough to be unimpressed by what is, after all, just a number, and one based on a doubtfully-dated event. And they are probably pedantic enough to know that the millennium does not begin until the end of the 2000th year.

All the same, who does not feel a slight frisson of excitement at that row of nines in the date, expectantly ticking towards the big change? Which child has not watched a digital station clock with fascination as it reaches 59 minutes and 59 seconds past the hour? There is something about the sense of mathematical closure, of imposing human order on time, which should inspire us to turn our faces optimistically to the future.

At the very least, this New Year - and next - offer the chance for a grander-than-usual making of resolutions and a deeper-than-usual thought about the future. This is a task for which our political leaders are peculiarly ill-equipped. For all its rhetoric of modernity, New Labour has virtually nothing to say about the real challenges which face this country over the next century.

Nor do church leaders show much sign of guiding us through the moral maze. Although we should pause here to praise the Pope, who tends not to get much house-room in the establishments of liberalism. He came out in his New Year message against the death penalty. (Le Monde responded memorably with a cartoon of Christ on the cross muttering, "Il n'est jamais trop tard...") That should make Jean Paul II's trip to the United States at the end of this month interesting. But that is part of the unfinished business of the century now passing.

The real priests of the future are scientists, as they have been since the Industrial Revolution. It is essential that we do not accord them too much reverence, and that we continue to break down the barriers around specialist knowledge. One of the hopeful trends of recent years has been the success of writers popularising science, and one of the promises held out by the Internet is that of a huge democratic marketplace of ideas and information which will open up science for all.

And the real challenges for the future are scientific, in that the great dilemmas of morality and politics are set by the expansion of human knowledge. Above all, we face the choices posed by genetics. In the next century it will be possible to clone human beings and for rich people to select many of the characteristics of their offspring, including intelligence. Humans will be able to control not just their future, but their evolution as a species.

These are not developments to be afraid of, although many of their consequences may be disturbing, not least because such knowledge also offers the possibility of solving the overriding problem left by the 20th century, of humanity's unsustainable use of the earth's resources. Too often, the lay person's instinct is defensive and Luddite - ban cloning, impose a moratorium on testing, stop finding out about how to do difficult things - instead of embracing the possibilities that the search for knowledge brings, a search which cannot in any case be blocked or diverted.

What matters, though, is that scientists constantly strive to demystify what they do and bring it into the range of understanding of moral choices made by the societies in which they live.