Can current approaches to doing science sustain us over the next one hundred years? An increasing reliance on technological fixes to global challenges — including nanotechnology — demands a radical rethink of how we use science in the service of society.
Over the next century we will perhaps be facing 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 only come through integrating relevant science with socially-responsible decision making. Yet the science policy dogmas of the 20th century may be stretched to breaking point in the face of 21st century challenges.
And these challenges are immense. The U.S. National Academy of Engineering recently 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 is 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. The challenges are a stark reminder of the limitations of our current capabilities, and what needs to 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. But 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 in January of this year.
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. 20th century 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 to 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. As we approach the 2008 U.S. presidential election, there is a ground-swell within the American scientific community in support of a presidential science debate. While the idea of politicians talking 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 look 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 got 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.
This post first appeared on the SAFENANO blog in March 2008