Some months ago, the folks at AGU were kind enough to invite me to write an opinion for Eos.org, reflecting on the social contract connecting scientists with the society we serve. The piece was posted Tuesday, having finally cleared a thorough vetting process that included peer review, followed by extensive editing and reformatting. Thanks to all concerned for that extra care and attention; the revisions made for a better product.
One idea expressed was that we would do well to move beyond the post-World-War-II policy of “curiosity-driven research.” We might do better to channel the 17th-century natural philosopher Francis Bacon, and “seek knowledge for the benefit of life,” in a spirit of selfless love (or, in his vernacular, “charity”).
Something like this is expected of adolescents as they make they way into adulthood. Case in point: a close colleague has a brilliant son who is now finishing college. The son has made a splash over the past few years putting together a computer-controlled sound-and-light show for his major university to mark the Christmas holidays. The event has been something to behold, been featured on YouTube, etc.. But few expect that son to make a career of this. Instead he’s more likely to work at the interface of biotechnology and engineering, building on his summer internships along these latter lines… and making the world not just a more entertaining place but a truly better one, for all of us, for decades to come (no pressure, young man!).
Science itself is making a similar shift as it matures. Looking back over the past four million years, we’d say that for virtually all that time, S&T has amounted to little more than a sideshow in human affairs. However, over the last two thousand years, and especially over the past century or so, S&T has begun to matter. It is today the proximate determinant of humanity’s prospects and fortunes. We look to scientists to make all manner of incremental additions to the store of knowledge and to apply such new understanding to improve our lives.
But we’re also earnestly hoping (or perhaps praying? or perhaps all-too-complacently trusting?) for far more, in two respects. First, we expect scientists to deliver a cornucopia of substantial – more properly, transcendent – global economic opportunities. Second, we count on them to identify existential threats to the planet and life on it from a long way off (whether in space or time, and defined as “in time to avert disaster”), and offer any needed coping strategies.
So far so good, so long as we don’t look too closely. Thanks to science, we’ve harnessed a range of energy sources; tamed electricity; extended life, and the quality of that life; replaced human physical limits and frailty with the power of machines; morphed our mobility, and through IT have generated a new virtual universe of information and started to mine its vast potential (as in the discovery of DNA and the mapping of the human genome). Turning to risk management: scientists toil away identifying new means for feeding and slaking the thirst of nine billion people while keeping them meaningfully occupied, and at the same time protecting the Earth’s habitats and ecosystems, and building resilience to hazards. We keep an eye peeled for asteroids. We monitor disease outbreaks.
This comprehension and a corresponding sense of urgency need to underpin every aspect of human endeavor. When it comes to risk management we can’t tolerate blind spots or laggard response. When it comes to opportunities we must seize the day. Everything hinges on the pace of innovation and its application.
But we don’t normally see this played out at the broadest level. Instead we see particular conversations on pieces of the puzzle. Here’s a recent example: what’s been identified as the battle brewing over NASA priorities. Julian Hattem reports it this way in the Hill.com:
“A battle of interplanetary proportions is brewing on Capitol Hill.
It’s not “Star Wars,” but partisan lines are quickly being drawn in a budget battle over the future of NASA, which could have a long-term impact on the space agency’s ability to explore the deepest corners of space as well as the ground beneath our feet.
On one side are Republicans who accuse the Obama administration of taking its eye off the ball by funneling too much money into research about the planet Earth, rather than focusing on distant worlds and stars.
On the other, Democrats argue that the administration’s plan is critical to harness the best of NASA’s talents, protect our planet and consistent with the agency’s wide-ranging mission…”
The disputants here seem to see space research as a zero-sum game, and “study of the Earth” as somehow distinct and in opposition to the “study of distant worlds and stars.” The reality is something different. Neither Earth science nor planetary science can progress in isolation. Earth is the only planet presenting us opportunity to “ground-truth” observations we make from space. Our work of our remote probes must be strongly rooted in constant, diligent experiment and study closer to home. In the same way, study of other planets provides our only chance to assess the robustness of geoscience. How else can we reduce the risk that our conceptual and computer models of our world only seem to work – that in reality they’re merely empirically tuned to mimic conditions here?
We urgently need to make progress across the whole of space science and technology.
To repeat: how successful will we be at “feeding and slaking the thirst of nine billion people while keeping them meaningfully occupied, and at the same time protecting the Earth’s habitats and ecosystems, and building resilience to hazards?” The answer lies in the pace of innovation and its application.
“Application” is the key bottleneck here.
For example, remember: global change is not a slow-onset problem. Global change is rapid-onset, compared with the time required for seven billion people to agree upon what to do about it.
With respect to all these matters, including our policies for support of observations from space, building weather-readiness at a community level worldwide, and much more, the question to be answered (trumping budget considerations and all else) is
“What must we do to learn what we need to know in time?”
Imbedded there is a question from social science, (although social science provides us so much more):
“How much time do we need?”