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The Role of Science and Technology in Future Design

by Jerome Karle
1985 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry

Introduction

The role of science and technology in future design will be discussed from the perspective of someone who has lived all his life in the United States and whose scientific experience has spanned the years since the late 1930s. It is likely that the reader will find in my discussion characteristics that apply to many developed countries and developing ones. Inasmuch as scientific progress is highly dependent on financial support and, in modern times, on general societal support, it is appropriate to discuss the interaction of science and society. Using the United States as an example, some of the topics to be discussed are the views of public officials who influence the distribution of research funds, the response of funding agencies and the views of scientists. Finally, we shall look at the co-evolution of science and society and attempt to draw some conclusions concerning their related future and the implications for the future of technology.

Views of Public Officials

Public officials who are involved in setting or influencing science policy have expressed opinions that indicate that they intend to change the basis for supporting research and development. They speak in terms of a "paradigm shift" based on some new perception of the role of science in society. The word paradigm has several meanings, but in the way it is used here the words "pattern" or "model" may be good substitutes. In other words, the public officials wish to alter somewhat the pattern of funding for science. Their motivation is to orient research more toward programs that, for example, ensure a stronger economy and improvements in the environment. It is becoming increasingly apparent that those public officials who control public funds, will be reluctant to fund research programs that they consider unrelated to national needs.

An example of priority-setting by public officials was the vote in the House of Representatives against further construction of the high energy accelerator known as the superconducting super collider. This shift in spending priorities implies that nuclear physics may receive less support in the future if it continues to be viewed as less related to the new national priorities than other scientific disciplines.

Views of Funding Agencies

The effect of the intention of federal officials to shift public research funds toward research programs that serve the national priorities has already affected the nature of the funding available at the funding agencies. For example, at the National Science Foundation, a small increase in funding for the chemistry division is directed toward so-called strategic research initiatives that involve, for example, advanced materials and processing, biotechnology, environmental chemistry and high-performance computing. It is likely that this trend will continue. The Federal Coordinating Council on Science, Engineering and Technology identified the current national priority areas as high-performance computing, advanced materials, manufacturing research and education, biotechnology and global change. The expressed intention is to get more effort into those areas, but not to have them be entirely exclusive.

Views of Scientists

Many questions arose in the scientific community as a consequence of the use of words such as "new paradigm," "strategic areas", "priorities," and "national competitiveness" in statements concerning the future funding of science. The questions concerned many aspects of the support of science, such as, is the paradigm really new, who decides which areas are strategic and who sets the priorities, and are the important contributions of curiosity-driven basic research to be largely sacrificed.

The indications so far are quite clear that the government expects to shift publicly funded research activity into the areas that are deemed strategic. Is this a new paradigm or merely a shift in emphasis? Quite apparently there has been over the years heavy funding and much research in the strategic (priority) areas. There also has been in the United States, a major Industry-University cooperative research program conducted by the National Science Foundation. It celebrated its 20th year of operation in January, 1994. An account of this very successful and extensive program has been presented in the January 24, 1994 issue of Chemical and Engineering News published by the American Chemical Society. The motivation of this cooperative program is to develop and transfer industrially relevant technologies from the university into practice. There are currently more than 50 active centers involving about 1,000 faculty members, about 1,000 graduate students and 78 universities. More than 700 organizations sponsor the centers, including government agencies, national laboratories and about 500 industrial firms. A table in the article lists 55 research topics covering a broad array of technologies. It is pointed out that the success rate is very high, namely only 6% of the centers have failed. Major investments have been made by sponsor organizations, based on center technologies. There are also many other industry-university collaborations that are not part of the National Science Foundation program.

Do we really have a "new paradigm" and, if so, what is it? Performing research in the interest of national needs is not new. Cooperating with industry is not new. Setting priorities is not new. What could be new? It is indicated that what is new is that by control of public funds curiosity driven research is to be curtailed to some unspecified degree in favor of research perceived to be in the national interest. This, I believe is the source of the apprehension among scientists. The major developments in science and technology generally derive from curiosity driven research and these developments have had over time great impact on the national interest, enriching the country with whole new industries and making contributions to the health, welfare, comfort and security of society. Is curtailing curiosity driven research in the national interest?

The Impact of Curiosity Driven Basic Research

Many scientific groups have produced literature that describes, in terms of many examples, how curiosity driven research has led to important developments in the interest of society. The October, 1993 issue of Physics Today celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of the journal, Physical Review. A major part of this issue was devoted to the matter of basic research. An article by Robert K. Adair and Ernest M. Henley pointed out that "a century of fundamental physics research has appeared in the Physical Review. Such research is the seed corn of the technological harvest that sustains modern society." In an article on the laser, Nicolaas Bloembergen points out that "the first paper reporting an operating laser was rejected by Physical Review Letters in 1960. Now lasers are a huge and growing industry, but the pioneers' chief motivation was the physics." In an article on fiber optics, Alister M. Glass notes that "fundamental research in glass science, optics and quantum mechanics has matured into a technology that is now driving a communications revolution." In an article on superconductivity, Theodore H. Geballe states that "it took half a century to understand Kamerlingh Onnes' discovery, and another quarter-century to make it useful. Presumably we won't have to wait that long to make practical use of the new high-temperature superconductors." Other articles concerned nuclear magnetic resonance, semiconductors, nanostructures and medical cyclotrons, all subjects of great technological and medical importance that originated in basic physical research.

In a preface for a publication of the American Chemical Society, Science and Serendipity, the President of the ACS in 1992, Ernest L. Eliel, writes about "The Importance of Basic Research." He writes that "many people believe - having read about the life of Thomas Edison - that useful products are the result of targeted research, that is, of research specifically designed to produce a desired product. But the examples given in this booklet show that progress is often made in a different way. Like the princes of Serendip, researchers often find different, sometimes greater, riches than the ones they are seeking. For example, the tetrafluoroethylene cylinder that gave rise to Teflon was meant to be used in the preparation of new refrigerants. And the anti-AIDS drug AZT was designed as a remedy for cancer." He goes on to say that "most research stories are of a different kind, however. The investigators were interested in some natural phenomenon, sometimes evident, sometimes conjectured, sometimes predicted by theory. Thus, Rosenberg's research on the potential effects of electric fields on cell division led to the discovery of an important cancer drug; Kendall's work on the hormones of the adrenal gland led to an anti-inflammatory substance; Carothers' work on giant molecules led to the invention of Nylon; Bloch and Purcell's fundamental work in the absorption of radio frequency by atomic nuclei in a magnetic field led to MRI. Development of gene splicing by Cohen and Boyer produced, among other products, better insulin. Haagen-Smit's work on air pollutants spawned the catalytic converter. Reinitzer's discovery of liquid crystals is about to revolutionize computer and flat-panel television screens, and the discovery of the laser - initially a laboratory curiosity - is used in such diverse applications as the reattachment of a detached retina and the reading of barcodes in supermarkets. All of these discoveries are detailed in this booklet (Science and Serendipity). Ernest Eliel goes on to point, out that "the road from fundamental discovery to practical application is often quite long, ranging from about 10 years in the example of Nylon to some 80 years in the case of liquid crystals." He concludes that "if we stop doing fundamental research now, the 'well' that supplies the applications will eventually run dry. In other words, without continuing fundamental research, the opportunities for new technology are eventually going to shrink."

Some of the other topics in the brochure on Science and Serendipity, that were included to document further the importance of basic research, concerned several examples of the impact of chemistry on medicine. There are, in fact, countless such examples. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in their Newsletter of May, 1993 considered basic biomedical research and its benefits to society. I quote from the FASEB Public Affairs Bulletin of May, 1993. "There have been recent suggestions that tighter linkage between basic research and national goals should become a criterion for research support. Concerns also have been raised that science is being practiced for its own sake, and that it would be better for the nation if research were oriented more toward specific industrial applications." They go on to point out that "the available evidence, however, clearly indicates that the desired linkage already exists. Indeed, a majority of scientists are intimately involved in the study and treatment of common human diseases and collaborate closely with clinical scientists. Industries involved in biomedical development have been remarkably efficient in commercial application of treatment modalities based on discoveries resulting from fundamental research funded primarily by the federal government.

"A critical factor in sustaining the competitive position of biomedical-based industries is for basic research to continue to provide a stream of ideas and discoveries that can be translated into new products. It is essential to provide adequate federal support for a broad base of fundamental research, rather than shifting to a major emphasis on directed research, because the paths to success are unpredictable and subject to rapid change.

"History has repeatedly demonstrated that it is not possible to predict which efforts in fundamental research will lead to critical insights about how to prevent and treat disease; it is therefore essential to support a sufficient number of meritorious projects in basic research so that opportunities do not go unrealized. Although its primary aim is to fill the gaps in our understanding of how life processes work, basic research has borne enormous fruit in terms of its practical applications. We recognize that during a time when resources are constrained, it may be tempting to direct funding to projects that appear likely to provide early practical returns, but we emphasize that support for a wide-ranging portfolio of untargeted research has proven to be the better investment. This provides the broader base of knowledge from which all new medical applications arise. Decisions regarding what research to fund must be based on informed judgments about which projects represent the most meritorious ideas."

FASEB continues with a discussion of economic benefits and a number of examples of basic research-driven medical breakthroughs. "Society reaps substantial benefit from basic research. Technologies derived from basic research have saved millions of lives and billions of dollars in health care costs. According to an estimate by the National Institutes of Health on the economic benefits of 26 recent advances in the diagnosis and treatment of disease, some $6 billion in medical costs are saved annually by those innovations alone. The significance of these basic research-derived developments, however, transcends the lowering of medical costs: the lives of children as well as adults are saved, and our citizens are spared prolonged illness or permanent disability. Fuller, more productive lives impact positively on the nation's economic and social progress."

FASEB continues with thirteen examples of contributions by basic research to the diagnosis and treatment of numerous diseases, most of them very serious. Also noted in this Public Affairs Bulletin is that "our ability to know in advance all that is relevant is very poor" (Robert Frosch) and that, in suggesting new ideas for the management of funding for science, never considered were "the serious consequences of harming the system."

Technology

Up to this point, we have been concerned with basic science and its support by government funds in a modern society. Although there is also some support by private institutions established for that purpose and also some industrial investment in generally product-oriented basic research, the greatest amount of support by far comes from public funds. One of the ways that the public is repaid for their support is through the technology that fundamental research generates. I suspect that the economic return from technology alone more than compensates for the monies expended for the entire basic research effort. I have no estimate, however, of whether my suspicion is true or not. It should be noted that the public gains much more than the economic value of technology. It gains culture, comfort, convenience, security, recreation, health and the extension of life. What monetary value can be put on the triumphs of health over debilitating or fatal disease? The monetary value has to be higher than the purely economic savings that were noted above in the 26 examples referred to in the FASEB Bulletin.

The word "technology" means industrial science and is usually associated with major activities such as manufacturing, transportation and communication. Technology has been, in fact, closely associated with the evolution of man starting with tools, clothing, fire, shelter and various other basic survival items. The co-evolution persists and, since basic science is now very much a part of developing technologies, the term co-evolution of science and society which is used at times very much implies the co-evolution of both basic science and industrial science with society. Advances in technology are generally accompanied by social changes as a consequence of changing economies and ways of carrying out life's various activities. An important question arises concerning how basic scientific discoveries eventually lead to new technologies and what that may mean to the rational support of basic research and the future of science and technology in the developed and developing world.

There are great uncertainties in the process that starts with basic research and ends with an economically successful technology. The successful discovery of a new development in research that appears to have technological significance does not ensure the economic success of technologies that may be based on it.

Nathan Rosenberg of Stanford University, in a speech, "Uncertainty and Technological Change", before the National Academy of Sciences (April, 1994), pointed out that there are great uncertainties regarding economic success even in research that is generally directed toward a specific technological goal. He notes that uncertainties derive from many sources, for example, failure to appreciate the extent to which a market may expand from future improvement of the technology, the fact that technologies arise with characteristics that are not immediately appreciated, and failure to comprehend the significance of improvements in complementary inventions, that is inventions that enhance the potential of the original technology. Rosenberg also points out that many new technological regimes take many years before they replace an established technology and that technological revolutions are never completed overnight. They require a long gestation period. Initially it is very difficult to conceptualize the nature of entirely new systems that develop by evolving over time. Rosenberg goes on to note that major or "breakthrough" innovations induce other innovations and their "ultimate impact depends on identifying certain specific categories of human needs and catering to them in novel or more cost effective ways. New technologies need to pass an economic test, not just a technological one."

What does this mean with regard to government managed research? I quote from Rosenberg's speech.

"I become distinctly nervous when I hear it urged upon the research community that it should unfurl the flag of 'relevance' to social and economic needs. The burden of much of what I said is that we frequently simply do not know what new findings may turn out to be relevant, or to what particular realm of human activity that relevance may eventually apply. Indeed, I have been staking the broad claim that a pervasive uncertainty characterizes, not just basic research, where it is generally acknowledged, but the realm of product design and new product development as well - i.e., the D of R&D. Consequently, early precommitment to any specific, large-scale technology project, as opposed to a more limited, sequential decision-making approach, is likely to be hazardous - i.e., unnecessarily costly. Evidence for this assertion abounds in such fields as weapons procurement, the space program, research on the development of an artificial heart, and synthetic fuels.

"The pervasiveness of uncertainty suggests that the government should ordinarily resist the temptation to play the role of a champion of any one technological alternative, such as nuclear power, or any narrowly concentrated focus of research support, such as the War on Cancer. Rather, it would seem to make a great deal of sense to manage a deliberately diversified research portfolio, a portfolio that will illuminate a range of alternatives in the event of a reordering of social or economic priorities. My criticism of the federal government's postwar energy policy is not that it made a major commitment to nuclear power that subsequently turned out to be problem-ridden. Rather, the criticism is aimed at the single-mindedness of the focus on nuclear power that led to a comparative neglect of many other alternatives, including not only alternative energy sources but improvements in the efficiency of energy utilization."

To these words, I add those (noted by FASEB) of Bruce Ferguson, Executive Vice President of Orbital Sciences Corporation, a space technology firm. Ferguson said, "The federal government should focus its research and development spending on those areas for which the benefits are diffuse and likely to be realized over many years, rather than areas for which benefits are concentrated on particular products or firms over a few years. These areas are not well covered by corporate investment, yet are vital to the long-term economic strength of the country."

Some reactions to "strategic" research are recounted in an article in Nature of February 10, 1994 (Vol. 367, pp. 495-496) from which I quote some passages. The concept of strategic research "is not an unfamiliar cry, witness last year's debate in Britain about harnessing of research to 'wealth creation.' Nor, of course, is the objective in any way disreputable; what scientist would not be cheered to know that his or her research won practical benefits for the wider world as well as a modicum of understanding? The difficulties are those of telling in advance which particular pieces of research will lead to 'new technologies' and then to 'jobs'.

"The recent past is littered with examples of adventurous goal-directed programmes of research and development which have failed for intrinsic reasons or which, alternatively, have been technically successful, but unusable for economic or other reasons."

The article goes on to say that the affection for strategic research in the United States may prove short-lived. "In Britain, much the same seems to be happening. Having pinned its reorganization of research on the doctrine of science for wealth-creation, the government appears now to be more conscious of the problems it has undertaken to solve. Indeed, the prime minister, John Major, seemed to be suggesting in a speech last week that the British part of the research enterprise deserves respect of the kind accorded to other social institutions at the heart of his 'back to basics' rhetoric. After more than a decade of needless damage-doing, that would be only prudent."

As a final remark, the article ends with the statement: "On the grander questions, on both sides of the Atlantic, it seems likely that the first flush of enthusiasm for turning research into prosperity will be abated by the reality of the difficulties of doing so. When governments discover in the course of seeking radical reorganization that the best they can do with their parts of the research enterprise is to cherish them, the lessons are likely to be remembered. If the outcome in the research community is a more vivid awareness of how much the world at large looks to research for its improvement, so much the better."

The Future of Science, Technology and Society

In discussing the future of science (including industrial science) and society, it is valuable to recount some of the important points that emerged from the previous discussion.

1. As a consequence of recognizing the economic benefits that derive from the development of novel, successful technologies, governments have been attempting to direct research, supported with public funds, toward subjects that are perceived as national priorities. This contrasts with broad-based "curiosity" oriented basic research.

2. The views of scientists, a distinguished economist, some industrial leaders and an editorial comment in a distinguished science journal provide very strong indications that governmental management of goal-oriented research is replete with uncertainties and pitfalls and, although well-motivated, may cause serious damage to the scientific culture. This, of course, would defeat the original purpose, since the co-evolution of science and society is a very-well documented and irrefutable phenomenon.

3. Strong arguments are presented in this article by individuals and groups that support the current system of governmental funding of a very broad range of scientific efforts as probably being as close to optimal with regard to national priorities as is possible. No one can predict with any certainty what the most successful inventions and technologies will be in the future. The economic return on federally supported funding was the subject of a report by the Council of Economic Advisors to President Clinton. This report was released in November 1995. It documents high returns to the economy and the importance of governmental involvement. 1

4. By any measure, basic scientific research has made monumental contributions to technology and national priorities. The bond between basic research and the development of both novel and current technologies has been and is well in place.

There is no question that science and society will continue to co-evolve. The nature of this evolution will certainly be affected by the extent to which governments set funding priorities. Societies whose governments recognize the dependence of the development of successful novel technologies on broadly supported basic research are more likely to be healthier and economically prosperous in the future than those that do not. Because of the unpredictability of the details of the new science and technology that will evolve, the details of social evolution are also unpredictable.




1. The CEA Report on Economic Returns from R&D is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.whitehouse.gov.

 

First published 29 June 2000

 

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