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IEET > Security > Rights > Life > Vision > Contributors > Rachel Armstrong

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Twenty-First Century Science

Rachel Armstrong
By Rachel Armstrong

Posted: Nov 14, 2012

We are at an extremely exciting time where many changes have been accelerated through contemporary technological advances and worldwide communications systems. We are also faced with some very severe problems, many of which have been accelerated by our own success, which are likely to result in human disaster at an unimaginable scale that require urgent attention. These changes are influencing how we consider our collective responsibilities and even ourselves, as a species.

When faced with significant challenges the world community turns to science and technology to find ways of solving them. Science is of worldwide importance - not just for the way that we imagine solutions through technology and innovation but also because, in a secular society, science is at the very heart of our identity and is an integral aspect to our belief systems and values. 

But is the science of the twenty-first century exactly the same as it was in the twentieth century? What kind of science – methods, problem solving frameworks, discoveries – exists at the start of the twenty-first century. 

Even as a child I considered science to be a creative practice, which was conducted through household tools, garden experiments and storytelling. My earliest memories are of making homes for beetles ants, bees and wasps that I’d collected using a fishing net, and resettled them in jam jars with perforated lids so that they could all get along together. Of course, my experiments were very poorly designed and no amount of added water, sugar, soap or salt could persuade an ant to stay around and make friends with an angry wasp, which had just been slammed into the same jam jar.

In considering the nature and demands of a contemporary ‘engagement’ with twenty-first century science, I propose to test my childhood ‘arthropod soup’ hypothesis - where altering creatures’ environment might influence their relationships with each other – by comparing experimental designs that I might have applied twenty years ago with those that I might use today.

Twenty years ago I would have created controls for the jam jar systems, reduced the variables and taken measurements that related to arthropod interactions. I would have probably concluded that no combination of arthropod and household substance was a recipe for a happy creepy-crawly family.

Today, I would think in terms of systems of interaction between the arthropods – rather than considering them as discreet ‘units’ of activity. Perhaps I would have used vision tracking to produce complex graphs to reveal trends rather then events. I might even have designed a forward-looking genetic experiment to induce friendly behavior, consult with other scientific fields of expertise, create a BioArt experiment (something like Workhorse Zoo [The Workhorse Zoo Art and Bioethics Quiz (online) Emutagen, Available at:]) and use pheromones to see if I could get my arthropods to get along together. Of course, I might reach exactly the same conclusion but the possible technologies and my methods of working would be more expanded - and more exploratory - than they would have been twenty years ago.

At first glance, the differences between these approaches may seem trivial but they represent some profound shifts in science practice. The way experiments are imagined and conducted have implications for the kinds of methods, skills and conclusions that we draw from our observations – and of course, how we share our findings – which potentially could be far-reaching. A twenty-first century science demonstrates some fundamental, wide-ranging changes and transitions that are currently influencing the practice of science which distinguish it from twentieth-century science. I’ve tabulated some of these distinctions to distil out some of the key issues, but they are by no means exhaustive:



Twentieth Century Science


Twenty-First Century Science


Reality Framework


Cartesian – deals with hierarchies, objects and dualities.


Complexity – deals with connections, relationships and webs.




Deterministic – the future can be predicted by extrapolation.


Probabilistic – the future is contingent & always under construction.




Retrospective – backwards-looking. Evidence acquired from events that have happened.


Prospective – forwards-looking. Speculative propositions tested through models and experiment. 




Practically falsifiable.


Highly complex, contingent and probabilistic, so may be theoretically falsifiable but much more difficult to practically falsify e.g. Higgs Boson.




Institutional, specialist, one voice.


Culturally contextualized, collaborative, many voices.










Unified theory of everything.


Diversified theories of unity.


Relationship with the Environment








Protectionist , intellectual property and patents.


Open source.


Of course, a twentieth century scientific practice is not ‘wrong’ – it simply produces particular kinds of solutions that we would recognize as being typical of modern industry based in machines, measurements and data. In contrast, twenty-first century science might be described as ‘ecological’ being grounded in systems, comparisons and visualizations. The biggest challenge of a twenty-first century practice of science is that it is still emerging and its distinguishing characteristics are as much a challenge for scientific disciplines as they are for their non-scientific collaborators and the wider public. I believe that a twenty-first century engagement with science is an active journey of discovery, which can offer something new to scientific practice and culture by freeing it from twentieth century assumptions – particularly with respect to its relationships with industry, the arts and politics. 

Twenty-first century science may offer us completely different kinds of solutions to our global challenges than twentieth century science has been able to provide. This is not to deny the incredible body of knowledge that science has built over the last few centuries and the amazing discoveries it has brought – but to radically expand our scientific potential by discovering new ways of working, new methods and actively forging new partnerships. A twenty-first century scientific practice may not only help tackle some of the global challenges but also find new approaches to dealing with critical cultural issues that are entangled with a twentieth-century identity such as, the representation of women within STEM. A twenty-first century science applies its knowledge base in equal partnership with its non-scientific collaborators and accepts that it does not have all the answers. Rather it engages in partnerships of discovery with other practices to enrich our cultural understanding of how collaborative insights may provide new ways of addressing human development, which ultimately, could potentially overturn damaging paradigms.

Rachel Armstrong is a TEDGlobal Fellow, and a Teaching Fellow at at The Bartlett School of Architecture, in England.
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