Category: Rethinking Science & Technology

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Five years ago, I joined the University of Michigan School of Public Health as Director of the U-M Risk Science Center. It’s been a good five years. However, last year, the good folks at Arizona State University made me an offer I couldn’t refuse – the opportunity to expand substantially my work on risk and innovation, at one of the most exciting and progressive universities in the U.S.

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The final part of a series on rethinking science and technology for the 21st century Nine months ago, I embarked on an ambitious project to flesh out the ideas presented in a seminar given at the James Martin 21st Century School at the University of Oxford.  The seminar was titled ““Rethinking science and technology innovation: A Personal Perspective.”  In it, I spoke about three factors that are coming together to change the landscape in which science and technology are developed and used for social good (coupling, communication and control), and how science and technology policy might respond to the new challenges that are arising as a consequence. Rather naively, I thought this would occupy me for a few weeks.  The fact that I gave the original seminar in March, and I’m typing this in December, is a rather damning testament to my own lack of foresight!

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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

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Part 7 of a series on rethinking science and technology for the 21st century Yesterday, I listened to respected economists discussing geoengineering; gave a Skype interview on nanotechnology from the comfort of my own home; and watched as reactions to Michael Jackson’s death spread through virtual web-based communities.  Twenty years ago, when Jackson was at the height of his artistic powers, such a day would have been the stuff of science fiction.  Now, it’s just business and usual. Looking back over the past two decades, it’s easy to see how Coupling, Communication and Control have changed the world we live in.  The impact of CFC’s on the ozone layer, the looming global warming crisis and the associated acidification of oceans are all testaments to how recent human actions are increasingly coupled to global environmental re-actions.  Technological advances built on the back of our increasing control over matter – whether living or non-living – have led to profound changes in what we can achieve as a species.  And the global communications revolution – from the rise of the internet to the emergence of social media – continues to bend previously rigid social, commercial and geographical boundaries. Yet important as the changes associated with each of these individual “C’s” are, it is at their intersection that their true transformative nature is revealed.  This is where ideas and influences spark off each other, leading to transformative leaps in innovation and impact…

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Part 6 of a series on rethinking science and technology for the 21st century The story so far: We are facing an unprecedented confluence of three factors that are forcing us to rethink how we develop and use science and technology to the benefit of society.  Coupling between our action’s and the Earth’s re-actions is more significant now than at any previous point in human history. Global Communications are dissolving previously rigid boundaries throughout society at a seemingly ever-increasing rate.  And then there’s the third “C” – Control…

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Part 5 of a series on rethinking science and technology for the 21st century Last time in this series of occasional blogs, I made the rather bold statement that while science and technology are going to have a highly visible impact on our lives over the next few decades, progress is going to be underpinned in most cases by our increasing control over materials at the invisible nanoscale. It isn’t exactly intuitive why this should be the case though—how on earth can engineering matter on a scale a billion time smaller than the average person be so important?

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Part 4 of a series on rethinking science and technology for the 21st century So far in this series of occasional blogs, I’ve covered coupling and communication—two of three “C’s” which together are challenging how science and technology are best used to serve society.  Now it’s the time to delve into the third “C”—control. Because this is a tough subject to cover in one bite, I’m going to split it between three posts.  Here, I’ll get the background stuff out of the way.  Then, in the following posts in the series, I’ll take a look at why this “C” is so transformative, and some of the more advanced directions control is taking us in.

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Part 3 of a series on rethinking science and technology for the 21st century I’m fascinated by the power of communication.  The idea that someone’s perceptions and actions can be changed by information received through sight, sound or touch, is rather profound.  Even more so is the idea that, through exchanging information and ideas, people can influence and change the course of whole societies. Communication—my third “C” in this series on rethinking science and technology for the 21st century—is powerful.  It always has been.  But rapid changes in how we communicate with each other are rewriting the rules on how that power is manifest.  And no-where are these changes as significant as in the development and use of new science and technology. I’m not going to write extensively about how modern communications are changing the world here—there are a thousand and one commentators discussing the emergence of the Flat Earth, globalization, Web X.0 and other ramifications of living in an increasingly connected world.  But I do want to establish how communication is a critical factor influencing the future development and use of science and technology. Because when combined with the other two “C’s”—Coupling and Control—new challenges arise that are going to be tough to handle from a 20th century perspective. In broad terms, the changing face of global communications is affecting science and technology in three ways:

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Part 2 of a series on rethinking science and technology for the 21st century In the previous post in this series I introduced the idea of the three “C’s:” Coupling Communication and Control—three factors that together challenge conventional ideas on how science and technology are best developed and used within society.  Following on from that introduction, I want to focus more closely on the first of these: Coupling. I haven’t actually got much to say here that is new or unfamiliar—most of the new stuff will probably come when I reach the third “C”—Control.  In fact, the concepts buried in the idea of coupling are somewhat obvious.  But that doesn’t make them any less significant. Very simply, coupling refers to the interconnectedness between society’s actions and global environmental re-actions…

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Part 1 of a series on rethinking science and technology for the 21st century We live in a crowded, science and technology-dependent word.  And things aren’t getting any better!  The global population is currently around 6.8 billion.  Over the next four years it’s projected to grow to over 7 billion.  And by 2050, the US Census Bureau estimates there will be over 9.5 billion men women and children on the planet; all of them expecting food, water, shelter, and a first world standard of living.  The only way such demands can be met—if indeed they can be (and it’s a big “if”)—is through the increasingly sophisticated and strategic use of science and technology. The level of scientific knowledge and technological ability that exists now underpins modern society.  Remove it, and things collapse.  But what is less obvious is that science and technology need to continually develop in a changing world.  As new challenges, needs and wants arise, we need a steady stream of new knowledge and new technology innovation.  Without science progress and technology innovation, our ability to sustain a healthy global society will not keep pace with the challenges to achieving this. Of course, this is nothing new. 

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Like it or not, society is dependent on science and technology.  The only way we can cram 6 billion people plus onto the earth and use resources at the rate we do, is through the support of scientific discovery and technology innovation.  Take our technology-based infrastructure away and civilization as we know it would collapse. Perhaps more worrying, our dependency on science and technology is accelerating.  The world’s population continues to grow, lifestyle expectations are going up, and supporting technologies are becomes increasingly sophisticated.  But this “progress” can only be sustained through increasing the rate with which new discoveries are made and new technology innovations are implemented. At some point this cycle of technology addiction probably needs to be broken if society is to avoid a rather nasty crash.  But I suspect that such a crash is some way off yet.  And it is entirely plausible that the solution for avoiding such a crash will itself arise from technology-based innovation. Which means that if global society is to continue to mature and prosper, we have to get the whole science and technology enterprise right. The only alternative is to face a radical “recalibration” of society, leading to a population level and demands on resources that are more in keeping with the Earth’s load-carrying capacity. Assuming that we want to avoid a rapid and potentially catastrophic reduction in the world’s population, we need to ask whether the way we currently “do” science and technology is good enough.  And if it isn’t what needs to change?

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2020 Science is the personal blog of Andrew Maynard - Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan. More ... 

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