As a former postgraduate research scientist, science is one subject I’m qualified to reflect upon. I completed my Doctorate in 2005. The way I look at it, current research science is a system of reliable information harnessing, data processing, followed by speculative interpretation based on well-founded principles & intense scrutiny by fellow peers. It is a method of education for an entire community of very eager-to-learnÂ people.
Scientists research anything and everything imaginable, from the arcane to the utterly esoteric. That’s why most of it remains inaccesible to the general public. Meanwhile, other companies and individuals belatedly try and exploit the discoveries & conclusions.
On the whole, science doesn’t guide itself. It, like all other fields, is mainly driven by the ability of research data to generate usefulÂ knowledge which ultimately benefit humans by creating some sort of profit. Without science there would be no technology, so we owe it a lot. There are relative few topics which have harnessed media attention (stems stell research or human cloning to name the most obvious ones).
But in today’s “information age”,Â is the current aim of science somewhat misguided? Much of science tries to benefit us in the short term, by improving our standard of living in some way. I think there are many talented young minds that are being wasted today; they dwellÂ on themes which are effectively useless toÂ the ecology of this planet. The long-term future of our environment, and thus our civilisation on which it depends is not looking too bright.
Scientists are a relentless lot, because in each and every ultra-specific field of scienceÂ there is alwaysÂ some aspect that has not been effectively or sufficiently studied. You’ll never hear any scientist proclaim: “we can stop now, we’ve discovered enough”. There’s always room for further study.
The smaller each individual niche becomes, the more difficult it is to generate new results, new conclusions -new information. You could say that we already know so much, that learning any more at the cutting edge of science requires serious effort.Â Usually it requires furtherÂ advancements in the development of scientific instrument techonology; enhanced signal to noise ratios or finer spatial resolution, for example. In today’s age, it takes a big effort to gather even the simplest, entirely newÂ facts about materials. Used in this manner, traditional scientific research will never provide all the answers to the most important questions that we relentlessly seek to ask.
The trouble with most classical scientists is that they would have you believe that everything can be isolated andÂ studied independently. That singleÂ assumption is just plain wrong, merely because everything interacts with everything else to a certain degree. Things don’t behave in an isolated manner, in fact things often behave synergistically (the sum is more than its parts).
I know that the physical Scientists (Physicists, Chemists and Materials Scientists) will also have you believe that everything happensÂ at the atomic or molecular scale & therefore that’s also where all the answers can be found.Â I suspect that biologists profess similar principles.Â Except that real life doesn’t always work that way. I like to think of it like this- the microscopic world is influenced from the outside macroscopic world; the resulting perterbations may indeed infiltrate and manipulate the atmoic world, but they soon manifest themselves later as correspondingÂ macro-sized problems. Time and time again, scientists have realised that the world is more complicated than they thought. You would have thought they would have learned by their mistakes. Other times, they go off on a wild goose chase looking for micro-scale solutions to macro-scale problems (or vice versa).
I think it is time for a different era in Science. A direction which which doesn’t try and invent “cures” for the countless problems thatÂ industrialisationÂ or technologyÂ has already created, but instead, one that sources the reasons behind their after-effects. Yes I’m talking about industries, inventions or incidentsÂ which always seem to generate previously “unknown” problems.Â If we always claim ignorance after some type of revenge effect occurs, no matter how smart we claim to be, we are not. In all likelihood, it means that there were considerations which could have been followed but were chosen to be ignored.Â How do we predict them? Perhaps a new type of study could be employed, similar to a feasibility studyÂ – lets call it a “consequentiality study”. This would attempt to documentÂ the emergence of future possible unintended consequences, especially negative ones. In this manner, the after effects could be anticipated and hence the proposal could be modified.
If a high growth economy is needed to fight the battle against pollution, which itself appears to be the result of high growth, what hope is there of ever breaking out of this extraordinary cycle? – Author of “Small is Beautiful”, E.F. Schumacher.
Instead of relentlessly pursuing the current line of investigation, let’s take a step back and link previously unrelated findings together. Let’s join the dots to createÂ the bigger picture, so to speak, especiallyÂ concerning the direction we’re all headed.Â Let’s be smart and study the consequences of our actions for a change, and try to prevent them from everÂ occurring. Let’s harness the vast expanse of our exisiting knowledge, and look at ways to develop and encourage a sustainable future. Maybe we should also ask our society what it wants us to pursue?