On Science Transfer

Global Reset Series / by Seed /

Emerging global challenges demand rapid responses from the scientific community. This can only be achieved through a reformation of the culture and practice of science—and its relation to the wider world.

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“Faster.” Could any other word better capture the reigning paradox of our age? The world today—whether measured in technological or ecological terms—appears to be changing more rapidly than ever before.

Our modern system for generating novelty and prosperity has stretched to encompass the entire planet, growing more complex and expansive, so that now it seems to groan and shudder beneath its own weight. In its service, some things are falling apart: Non-renewable resources are profligately consumed, ecosystems disrupted, and social traditions steadily relinquished. There seems no way to stop or slow these processes without causing immense, cascading catastrophe. The only alternative then is to quicken our pace, to innovate past these growing pains. But where is the center of this innovation, and can it hold?

Science is the center, and academia, industry, and government all must work together to strengthen and stabilize it. It was science that brought us here, through careful and systematic investigation—and exploitation—of phenomena in the natural world. And it is the endeavor of science that holds the greatest promise for ensuring the continued and widespread positive growth of our civilization.

Yet remarkably, though it is so crucial in maintaining the accelerating pace of progress, the dissemination of scientific information and scientific thought from labs and universities into the wider world is a languid, halting process. This is particularly true of scientific knowledge that does not clearly lend itself to technology development. If reliable ways are found to increase the speed and efficiency of such “science transfer,” the results could not only be increased prosperity and knowledge but also increased stability and wisdom.

Of course, such things are easier said than done. Science as an edifice is quite conservative, and rightly so, as its remarkable stability has allowed it to endure over millennia. The measured pace of the spread of knowledge that science produces is in part a function of this stability. Ideas must first be deemed worthy before they are communicated—this former step has always been more valued than the latter. Consider that the emergence of consensus on some semblance of scientific “truth” has been a part of the process of peer review at least since Plato founded the original Academy outside the city-state of Athens. There, members hoping to persuade their peers of the validity of any claim engaged in dialogues in which hypotheses were subjected to witheringly skeptical attacks.

Unlike in ancient Greece, today’s peer review takes place not within a single close-knit group, but across the world, conveyed via a milieu of scholarly publications and supported by networks of institutions for higher education with ties in industry and government. And while the communication and defense of ideas remains paramount, this communication is directed inward. One isolated group has become an isolated collective, still largely walled off from the non-academic world.

In academia, jobs, status, and funding are closely tied to the frequency of new research, hence the phrase “publish or perish.” Once a scientist is published, the measures for valuing his or her work—such as the citation-based Impact Factor—feed back on themselves, artificially limiting the places where the highest-quality work can be judged as such. And after a decade or two of quality work, formerly innovative researchers may, under the tenure system, rest on their laurels, potentially crowding out aspiring scientists and new ideas.

Science in industry is scarcely better: The drive to patent is just as dominant as the push to publish in academia. The prime tools of science transfer to non-scientists, education and popularization, are largely invisible to existing metrics for measuring success in academic and industrial scientific careers.

Admittedly, these built-in systems do excel at the application of science to the creation of technologies—so-called technology transfer—and this is how broader society is comfortable in relating to them. We see rapid progress and development in applying scientific breakthroughs to technologies like weapons, medicines, and computers. But science transfer lags behind.

The stakes are high. It took only six years for the United States to apply new knowledge from nuclear physics (communicated to President Roosevelt in 1939) to develop a fearsome technology: the atomic bomb. Compare this to the 2004 Abu Ghraib scandal, where US military personnel tortured and abused prisoners at an Iraqi prison. Psychological experiments on authoritarian oversight and prisoner/guard interactions have been done for decades, with the most famous performed by researchers Stanley Milgram in the 1960s and Philip Zimbardo in the 1970s. These experiments presaged the abuses that occurred at Abu Ghraib, providing a clear picture of the dynamics at play there. But absent a clear technological endpoint, such canonical research from 40 years ago apparently did not transfer far and fast enough out of academia to reach the planners who could have avoided such atrocities.

The challenges in enabling better and faster science transfer are considerable, but we do have tools for the task. Computational methods of measuring and modeling the evolving impact of new ideas and theories are emerging, largely based on tracking the usage patterns of their associated data sets, publications, and references. Novel software-based avenues for collaboration and feedback between scientists, policymakers, and members of the public are being created and implemented. These developments even offer the possibility of bringing science transfer not only to temporal parity with technology transfer, but also beyond, into the realm of real time.

Ultimately, for science transfer to safely progress so that our society can collectively make more informed decisions about its future, science itself must adapt to embrace the new capabilities it has made possible. This requires a new form of scientific inquiry, a turning of science’s lens of systematic inquiry back upon itself to achieve self-awareness, to chart its dynamic intricacies, and to anticipate its future.

A new interdisciplinary vocation must emerge within the sciences to unify the disparate paths of inquiry, innovation, and communication, as they relate to bringing scientific thinking into the public sphere. All of this cannot guarantee resilient and sustainable outcomes for our society and for science, but it can increase the probability of achieving them.

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