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Smart Science for the 21st Century
Andrew Maynard   Aug 9, 2010   2020 Science  

Can current approaches to doing science sustain us over the next one hundred years? An increasing reliance on technological fixes to global challenges demands a radical rethink of how we use science in the service of society.

Over the next century we will face perhaps the greatest challenge in the history of humanity: sustaining six billion plus people on a planet where natural resources are running scarce and our every action results in a palpable environmental reaction.

Progress towards sustainability will come only by integrating relevant science with socially-responsible decision making. Yet the science policy dogmas of the 20th century may be stretched to the breaking point in the face of 21st century challenges.

And these challenges are immense.

In 2008, the U.S. National Academy of Engineering published 14 “grand challenges for engineering” - the culmination of a year-long project exploring and reviewing the greatest technological challenges facing us in the 21st century.

At the top of the list was development of economical solar energy and fusion-energy, followed by crafting carbon sequestration methods, improving access to clean water, creating improved medicines, preventing nuclear terror, and eight other pressing needs. These challenges are a stark reminder of the limitations of our current capabilities, and what must change if we are to continue growing as a society in harmony with our surroundings.

The solutions to many of these challenges will come from emerging areas of science and technology that include nanotechnology, as well as areas such as synthetic biology and cognitive science - the science of how we use our mind to think and learn. These are not the physics, chemistry and biology of 20th century science. Rather, they represent a blurring of the boundaries between conventional disciplines - a mixing-up of ideas and concepts that has the potential to stimulate tremendous innovation.

For example, nanotechnology combines elements of physics and chemistry to find new solutions to old problems. Cheap, efficient solar cells and access to clean water are just two areas that this emerging technology is showing promise in. 

dna imageBut combine the ideas of nanotechnology with molecular biology and you open the door to playing with the building blocks of life itself - DNA. Imagine what we could achieve by inventing new organisms that harvest energy, clean up pollution, and build new materials atom by atom. Sounds like science fiction, but simple nanotechnologies are already being used in daily life; and synthetic biology is rapidly becoming a reality, with the first artificially constructed bacterium genome reported recently.

In addressing the major challenges of the 21st century, it is the convergence of these new technologies that will deliver the solutions. But policymakers, scientists, and engineers will only be able to transform the new knowledge from research to practice if strong policies and frameworks are in place to support and nurture these emerging technologies.

Last century’s science and technology thrived on the twin dogmas of partitioned disciplines and knowledge diffusion. Vast investment in basic research was thought to lead - eventually - to technological solutions; a Darwinian natural selection of the best ideas generated by self-absorbed researchers. And while “interdisciplinary collaboration” was the mantra of many a grant proposal, few ventured far from the comfort of their particular disciplinary caste.

But if 21st century solutions are to be found for 21st century challenges, we need a new way of doing science. This “smart science” must train future practitioners to work across conventional boundaries and remove the barriers to interdisciplinary research that continue to persist. It must be socially relevant. And it must engage citizens at every level - with the recognition that scientists need to be socially literate, as much as citizens need to be scientifically literate.

It is no exaggeration to say the state of the world our children’s children inherit will depend on the choices we make now, and one of the critical choices will be how we will develop and use science in the service of society. During the 2008 U.S. presidential election, there was a movement within the American scientific community in support of a presidential science debate. While the idea of politicians talking about science might have minority appeal, the consequences of bad science policy will have a major impact - and one that will be felt much sooner than the end of the century or even the end of the next term of office.

The end of the 21st century might seem a long way off. But it is the choices we make now that will determine the consequences our grandchildren and their children are faced with. 20th century approaches to science took us a long way, but they lack what it takes to address the challenges now facing us. Nanotechnology and other emerging technologies that hold the seeds of future will not and cannot be sustained by 20th century thinking. Instead, we need a 21st century approach to science to get us through the next one hundred years - and we need it sooner rather than later.

An earlier version of this article was originally published on March 6, 2008.

Andrew Maynard is Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.



COMMENTS

“The solutions to many of these challenges will come from emerging areas of science and technology that include nanotechnology, as well as areas such as synthetic biology and cognitive science — the science of how we use our mind to think and learn. These are not the physics, chemistry and biology of 20th century science. Rather, they represent a blurring of the boundaries between conventional disciplines — a mixing-up of ideas and concepts that has the potential to stimulate tremendous innovation.”

“The solutions to many of these challenges will come from emerging areas of science and technology that include nanotechnology, as well as areas such as synthetic biology and cognitive science — the science of how we use our mind to think and learn. These are not the physics, chemistry and biology of 20th century science. Rather, they represent a blurring of the boundaries between conventional disciplines — a mixing-up of ideas and concepts that has the potential to stimulate tremendous innovation.”

It seems you approached a great solution to this problems but then backed off. I believe boundary-blurring as the most essential praxis of any progessive science cannot be overstated. The problematic concerns those boundaries that science itself may inhere to it’s present practice, such as including solely policymakers and scientists. The type of thinking required for the future of emergent technologies and rendered terribly necessary by these diverse and growing challenges must not be bounded by previous ways of problem-solving, as interdiscplinary approaches become more status-quo so too the need to continue to broaden disciplines and expand scientific thinking to be able to field and accept ideas from even the most disparate elements. Obviously teachers and policy-makers will begin to play an even larger role in the equipping of our youth and the scientists of tomorrow but now more than ever does science require more than Just scientists. Science needs a freshness they may come from both polymath and savant alike, it requires insight and creativity from more artistic backgrounds and more direction and experience from ethicists and philosophers.


“The end of the 21st century might seem a long way off. But it is the choices we make now that will determine the consequences our grandchildren and their children are faced with. 20th century approaches to science took us a long way, but they lack what it takes to address the challenges now facing us. Nanotechnology and other emerging technologies that hold the seeds of future will not and cannot be sustained by 20th century thinking. Instead, we need a 21st century approach to science to get us through the next one hundred years.”

“Thinking” is precisely what remains the issue, we need more thinkers, brilliant, expository, thoughtful, progressive, open, communicative, creative, unhindered, and unfiltered thinking is what is going to get us out of this box, and frankly science, science education and scientists cannot provide what is needed for this 21-st century approach we need so sorely. Science itself needs to change, the boundaries need to be expanded, techniques re-questioned and purified, methods gone over, thrown away, and replaced by smarter, better and different approaches. This isn’t an impossible task, in fact this is part of what being transhumanist cybernetic 21-st century citizens is all about, breaking down barriers between man and technology, between man and man, and between the various disciplines in order to achieve these far-reaching goals. But in order to get there, it is precisely our thinking and our science that most needs unfettering.

The challenge is not that “science needs to change”. It is changing us. We lack “socially responsible decision making”. Looking at our nations leaders; they have absolutely lost the sense of accountability. They have become a self-dealing cabal and have divided the nation and the world.

In a school or educational environment it is the students who do the work and are tested for success or failure. It is among them you’ll find the trouble makers.

I look forward to the development of the sciences, because I see it as an educational environment for our nations leaders. They are now behaving like the trouble makers in the class room. They have yet to learn to participate and become educated what it means to live ethically.

The US Constitution has given US a rich endowment for democracy and ethical standards to raise the well being of the “small people” with over 350 millions Americans and over 6 billions in the world. Have these not the right to living now that they are on earth? I grant you I don’t know where the answers to our dilemma lies. However, they have put them themselves at the head of this nation by making false promises and rigging the electoral process to their own advantage.

They can use their “public relations” or “optics” all they want to give us the impression that all is well. Or blame someone else. They act like the graduate student, who purchased his degree or plagiarize his doctoral thesis. “PR” and “optics” points at he appearance of a situation and not what the actual situation is.

What I fear, that their PR and optics will bring is a repeat of the Hitlerian ovens.  In the history of man’s cruelty to his fellow men and women the 3rd Reich would be a insignificant.

My hope and wish is that science advances, so that the “small people” become better educated and science provide the tools to see through their ponzi schemes.

I myself was attempting to avoid a conversation too polemicized or politically slanted.  I agree that smart science must shrug off stifling bureaucracy and educate the ignorant but neither at the ethical risk inherent to such ventures.
Convergence of disciplines and technologies must first and foremost respect and recognize borders before dissolving them. Transhumanist and cybernetic policies isn’t about mindless assimilation, that would make us technocrats just as ignorant as those “small people.”

I want to advocate think tanks, where no idea is wrong, where we can explore the boundaries of all these problems in a useful and constructive manner without having to worry about things like morality and money right away, the same way an artist paints what he feels and transmits the soul of humanity onto the canvass. Such open ended think tanks would stand outside of politics, and encourage creative thinking, hone methods, purify science, hone technicality and promote ethical being-in-the-world. One such example I can give is the International Space station, which stands almost completely outside of polemical structures (being outside the atmosphere may help too)  and collects several backgrounds and seemingly disparate people working together towards both individual and group goals.

If such groupthink cooperation is accomplished then we might just be able to render obsolete such designations as us-and-them. Science isn’t about mindless assimilation but it can be about becoming a singular multiplicity.

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