Part 8 of a series on rethinking science and technology for the 21st century

Much to my embarrassment, I’ve just realized that it was over four months ago that I wrote the previous blog in this series – a series that was supposed to evolve over just a few weeks!  Most inconveniently, other priorities ended up interfering with my well-laid plans and I found myself distracted from completing the series, just three posts before its conclusion.

The good news though is that this gives me an excuse to provide a lightning summary of the story so far, which goes something like this:

  • We stand at a nexus of unimaginable technological potential, and unprecedented global challenges.  How we develop and use science and technology over the coming decades will determine the quality (and possibly even the quantity) of life for coming generations.
  • Three factors in particular are influencing the challenges we face, and the tools we have at our disposal to meet them.  These are the rate at which knowledge and ideas are propagating and influencing people, the increasingly strong links between human actions and environmental re-actions, and the ability of scientists, technologists and engineers to bend the material world to their every whim; from atoms and molecules to global weather systems.  These are my three “C’s” – communication, coupling and control.
  • The coupling between human actions and environmental re-actions is cumulative, non-linear, and rapidly increasing in importance.  Which means that we are now facing global challenges that are more complex and further reaching than any previous generation has had to deal with.
  • Rapid changes in how we communicate with each other are rewriting the rules on how society operates, from the global scale to the local level.
  • High-impact advanced in science and technology are being driven increasingly by advances in control over materials at the scale of atoms and molecules.  Atom-level control over everything from DNA to advanced materials to smart drugs is poised to vastly extend our technological reach as a species.
  • Separately, these three factors confront us with new challenges and new opportunities.  Together, they demand a new way of thinking about science and technology if we’re going to ride the wave of the future, rather than being engulfed by it.

The obvious question at this point – and the subject of this blog – is “how effective are current approaches to developing and using science and technology, and what (if anything) needs to change if we are to adapt and thrive as a species?”  In other words, how as a society can we make decisions that will ensure we have the necessary scientific understanding and technological know-how to overcome emerging challenges and realize the opportunities facing us, without creating more problems than we solve?

And that means we need to talk about science and technology policy.

Effective science and technology policy depends on a robust a framework for decision-making that helps ensure an appropriate level of investment in science and technology, and a good return on that investment.  Every developed country/economy has well-established approaches to science and technology policy—whether formally expressed, or simply in the form of a prevalent set of assumptions or beliefs amongst policy makers.  And these approaches have worked okay in the main over the past fifty years or so.

But are they flexible enough to weather the looming challenges of the 21st century?

In the United States, approaches to science and technology policy still reflect largely the thinking of Vannevar Bush.  In 1945, Bush presented President Truman with a vision of science in Science, The Endless Frontier that started with basic research, and ended with social and economic growth.  While thinking has evolved since then, many policy makers are still strongly influenced by his ideas.

In crude terms, Bush’s concept was that pure research (directed predominantly by scientists) leads to applied research, which in turn leads to technological innovation.  This in turn stimulates economic growth, which leads to more jobs, more money, and a better quality of life for citizens.

This top-down, linear model has worked well over the years in the U.S. – scientists have been funded reasonably well by the Federal Government, and have been given considerable latitude in what they do.  And in the U.S. at least, this investment seems to have resulted in considerable technology innovation and wealth generation.

But I’m not sure the same approach has got what it takes to address the very different challenges of the 21st century.

Although current approaches to science and technology policy tend to be more sophisticated than Bush’s model, there is still a tendency to take a top-down linear approach.  Typically under this model, goals for science and technology investment are crafted, funding levels decided, and mechanisms and routes by which those funds will be allocated are identified within government.  It is then assumed that this up-front decision-making will lead to innovation, which will lead to jobs, wealth and, at the end of the day, a better quality of life for citizens.

Old S&T Policy

The degree to which policy makers adhere to or diverge from this (admittedly simplistic) overview depends on where you are in the world.  But this general approach still plays a large role in determining the direction of and funding for science and technology policy in many countries.

Yet this very hierarchical approach to decision-making may not have what it takes to ensure scientific and technological success over the coming years.

First up, it assumes that heavy investment in basic research will naturally lead to technology innovation.  This over-simplistic assumption has been questioned repeatedly over the past decades, perhaps most notably by Donald E. Stokes in his book Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic Science and Technological Innovation – it’s an assumption that is likely to be further challenged as the interplay between science, technology and society becomes increasingly complex and dynamic.

Then it assumes that up-front investment in science and technology will naturally lead to an improved quality of life through wealth creation.  Yet the values on which the model is based are beginning to look a little simplistic—dated even—in today’s diverse and interconnected world.

And finally, it supports a top-down approach to science and technology policy that encourages policy lock-in.  This occurs when there are few mechanisms to rethink policy decisions that don’t work—a very precarious position to be in where the policy process potentially lags a long way behind technological progress.

In other words, the widely used linear model of science policy could well fall flat in a world where communication, coupling and control demand responsive and adaptive approaches to guiding and utilizing science and technology.

So what’s the alternative?

A complete rethink of science and technology policy frameworks is way beyond the scope of this blog.  But two issues stand out as being at the top of the rethink-list: the need for a less hierarchical policy framework, and the need for more effective feedback mechanisms.

Starting from the bottom, most people would agree that the end goal of investing in science and technology is improved quality of life.  But what this means and the route to achieving it will vary, depending on a number of factors.  The concept that technology innovation and wealth generation will automatically lead to an improved quality of life is one perspective—but it isn’t the only one.  As social and political boundaries are redrawn through new ways of communicating and technology-driven possibilities advance at an increasing rate, I suspect this perspective will begin to look a little naïve.  An alternative approach is to have multiple goals for the science and technology endeavor—recognizing that wealth, jobs, quality of life etc. are important and intertwined, but not necessarily linearly connected.  In other words, recognizing that quality of life may depend on more than making money!

Similarly, I suspect there will need to be a rethink of the relationship between setting top-level goals for science and technology policy and the means of achieving those goals.  Rather than a top-level steer on science and technology policy, it is going to become increasingly important to flatten the process of crafting policies that determine the direction research and development is pointed in, how much is invested in it, and how the money is spent.

But perhaps most importantly, there will need to be increased feedback between what comes out of science and technology policy, and what goes in.

In any complex and dynamic system, feedback is the key to ensuring stability and adaptability.  The Bush-type hierarchical model of science and technology policy has relatively little in the way of feedback.  But this will need to change if policies are to lead to scientific research and technological innovation that achieve what they set out to.  Rapid advances in communication, coupling and control are pushing us a long way out of equilibrium—without effective feedback loops, the consequences could be catastrophic.

A robust science and technology policy framework will depend on many and varied feedback mechanisms.  But amongst these, the ability to review inputs against outputs, and the participation of people and organizations affected by policy decisions, will be essential.

From this perspective, a revised science and technology policy framework that will help us rise to the challenges of the 21st century might look something like this:

New S&T Policy

This is still rather simplistic.  It also reflects to a degree changes in science and technology policy that are already occurring in some countries.  But it does provide some insight into how approaches to science and technology might be crafted that will help us not just cope with life in the 21st century, but to thrive—to ride the wave of the future rather than being engulfed by it.

I’ll look at some of these approaches to science and technology in the next blog in the series – Completing the circle: Coupling science & technology outputs to inputs.


Rethinking science and technology for the 21st century is a series of blogs drawing on a recent lecture given at the James Martin School in Oxford.  This is a bit of an experiment—the serialization of a lecture, and a prelude to a more formal academic paper.  But hopefully it will be both interesting and useful.  I’ll be posting a “rethinking science and technology” blog every week or so, interspersed with the usual eclectic mix of stuff you’ve come to expect from 2020science.

Previously: Confluence: Where communication, coupling and control collide

Next: Completing the circle: Coupling science & technology outputs to inputs [Coming soon]