Rethinking Science & Technology for the 21st Century

by Andrew Maynard on May 19, 2009

earth-2On March 12 2009, I gave a seminar at the James Martin 21st Century School at the University of Oxford, 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 the social good, and how science policy might respond to the new challenges that are arising as a consequence.

In the hour and a half-long seminar I only had the chance to touch briefly on some of the issues that I believe require serious consideration if we are to ensure science and technology are developed and used appropriately in an increasingly technologically-dependent world.  So I thought it would be an interesting exercise to flesh my thoughts out in a series of blog posts.

Links to the posts in this series are included below.  As is the nature of blog posts, they still only scratch the surface of the subjects, issues and questions they raise – they are what they are, no more.  But hopefully they are useful nevertheless.  Certainly, the process of writing them has helped me further develop my ideas.

INTRODUCTIONRethinking Science & Technology for the 21st Century.

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… [more]

PART 1Science, technology and the three “C’s:” Communication, Coupling and Control.

Take the rate at which knowledge and ideas are now spreading, crossing boundaries, and influencing people. Or the increasingly strong links between human actions and environmental re-actions. And how about the ability of scientists to bend the material world to their every whim, even down to the scale of atoms and molecules?  In each of these cases, we are achieving more now than ever before in human history.  And the rate of progress is accelerating.  Separately, they challenge the effectiveness of conventional approaches to using science and technology in the service of society.  Together, they could well shake things up so much that established ways of doing things are no longer responsive to society’s needs… [more]

PART 2Coupling: Actions and consequences in a shrinking world.

Up until recently, it was assumed that the world was so large, and humanity so small, that whatever we did would simply be absorbed by the Earth.  Oceans, the atmosphere, the planet, were so massive that at worst our actions would cause minor blips in the system, which would dissipate over time. We now know that this is not the case… [more]

PART 3Communication: Science and technology in a connected world.

Communication 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… [more]

PART 4Control: Gaining mastery over the world at the finest level.

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… [more]

PART 5Control at the nanoscale: Smallness, strangeness and sophistication.

How on earth can engineering matter on a scale a billion time smaller than the average person be so important?  In trying to answer this question, I want to take a rather unconventional approach and explore three advantages of working at this scale: Smallness, strangeness and sophistication… [more]

PART 6Nanoscale control: Leveraging biology

What if we had the tools to splice atoms and molecules together in new and innovative ways?  What if we could go beyond text-book chemistry, and invent new molecules that behaved more like nanoscale machines?  What if we could create systems of molecules that could self-replicate – just like biological systems, only better?  All of these goals are coming within reach as scientists learn how to build new molecules atom by atom… [more]

PART 7Confluence: Where communication, coupling and control collide

In contrast to the rapid developments likely at this nexus of the three “C’s,” the inertia inherent in established institutions and ideas will resist change.  And so unlike some, I don’t think we will  adapt naturally to the challenges that are coming. Yet the result of ignoring them, assuming they are someone else’s problem, or trying to shoehorn them into outmoded ways of doing business, will most likely be social, economic and political collapse.  The alternative is to take a long hard look at what needs to be done in order to ride the coming wave rather than be engulfed by it… [more]

PART 8Riding the wave: Rethinking science & technology policy

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? [more]

PART 9Completing the circle: Coupling science & technology outputs to inputs

Whether it’s dealing with climate change or innumerable other issues, the way we develop and use science and technology needs to be responsive to the challenges we face as a society, and the social, political and economic environment within which we face them. [more]

SUMMARYScience & technology innovation – looking to the future

From where I’m standing, it’s hard to imagine how we can ride the coming wave without a radical rethink of how we develop and use science and technology within society.    Certainly, it seems hopelessly naive to assume that how we’ve done things in the past will serve us well in the future.  Rather, we’ve got to grow up as a global society – and grow up fast – if we are to ensure science and technology improve our lives and those of future generations, rather than causing more problems than they solve. [more]

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