Exploring the Future of Science, Technology and Society

Jul 25, 2018

By Talitha Chin, Jared Poon and Chan Liang Wei

“I believe that the more you know about the past, the better you are prepared for the future.”

Theodore Roosevelt

“We do not know, we can only guess. And our guesses are guided by the unscientific, the metaphysical (though biologically explicable) faith in laws, in regularities which we can uncover— discover. Like Bacon, we might describe our own contemporary science— ‘the method of reasoning which men now ordinarily apply to nature’— as consisting of ‘anticipations, rash and premature’ and of ‘prejudices’.”

Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery

 

The relationship between science, technology and society in history

We cannot understand the future of science and technology without understanding its past. Likewise, we cannot talk meaningfully about their past without looking at how they have influenced – and been influenced by – human societies of those times.

The relationship between science and technology vis-à-vis society goes all the way back to humanity’s beginnings. However, the sheer scale of scientific discovery and technological advancement in the last few centuries has been unprecedented. This acceleration began around the 16th and 17th centuries with the Scientific Revolution and was turbo-charged in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Industrial Revolution.[1] Science and technology at this point was still the province of individual thinkers and tinkerers such as Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Nikola Tesla.

The world wars of the 20th century, however, were turning points in the practice of science and technology. Where science and technological inventions were once the province of natural philosophers and inventors, the exigencies of war gave rise to large-scale mobilisation of scientific research manpower for the purposes of war-making. World War II saw the emergence of the “R&D laboratory” in its modern form — the Manhattan Project clustered thousands of physicists in the production of nuclear bombs. Wartime requirements also prompted then US President Roosevelt to establish the Office of Scientific Research and Development.[2] In 1945, an influential paper by Vannevar Bush argued that science should be pursued with as much fervency in peacetime as in wartime. This gave rise to a “national science policy” and the institutionalisation of support for upstream research. In the throes of battle and the lull of subsequent peace, science found growth but lost its innocence.

Since the 1980s, the National Innovation Systems (NIS) approach focused policymakers’ attention on promoting flows of tech and information among people, enterprises and institutions. Closely intertwined with the NIS were the occurrence of three major shifts.

First, the NIS approach stressed that technological growth occurred as a result of the distribution of knowledge amongst various actors involved in innovation. The complex interactions and relationships amongst actors were therefore perceived as core to innovation. By making knowledge the foundation of technical change, the NIS approach has buttressed the concept of a “knowledge-based economy” where knowledge and information flows are conceived to be central to economic development.[3]

Second, the emergence of Endogenous Growth Theory put technological change at the heart of economic growth.[4] This theory posits that technological progress arises from intentional actions of agents shaped by market incentives – for instance, an enterprise investing in and developing a new production process. Technology is therefore identified as an endogenous rather than exogenous factor in its contribution to growth.  

Third, with this reformed view of innovation, policymakers realised the need for a systemic approach, involving multiple actors in the innovation process (including enterprises, universities, government departments, financial institutions, end-users and research centres). Science policy was now refashioned as “innovation policy”.


Present conundrums: The value of research and investing in basic vs. applied research

Mirroring the thinking of Endogenous Growth Theory, Singapore announced its strategy for transitioning towards a knowledge-based economy in 2002. This strategy was reminiscent of NIS in that it adopted a Schumpeterian view of innovation. For instance, it advocated the need for supporting the entire lifecycle of innovation: establishing multilateral and bilateral bridges with global partners through free trade agreements, developing new growth clusters and creating a vibrant enterprise ecosystem by creating financial incentives for new ideas.

Against this past, research today is valued in terms of its contribution towards economic growth and addressing national challenges. In adopting this definition of the value of research, some challenges remain. First, measuring the commercialisation value of research is challenging as publications, the traditional marker of good research, may not be neatly traceable to the market adoption of technologies. Once again the endogenous nature of innovation and growth rears its head, diluting the distinction that was once clear to us. Second, prioritising national goals requires normative judgement. Unlike wartime where the foremost mission of science was clear, we now have competing national objectives. Should research aimed at fixing societal issues such as ageing take precedence over military objectives?


Managing future uncertainties in science and technology

While science and technology helps us to understand the world and ourselves by reducing the realm of the unknown and its accompanying uncertainties, it simultaneously opens up new possibilities filled with new uncertainties. One crucial uncertainty is whether science and technology will lead us to a new golden age, or result in a nuclear catastrophe or an Earth too warm for human life. Great thinkers have disagreed on the balance of hopes and perils. For example, JBS Haldane’s Daedalus speaks of  endless opportunities of science, while Bertrand Russell’s counter piece Icarus, or The Future of Science cautions against casual optimism in an unthinking pursuit of progress.

A second set of uncertainties is in research and development processes. It is difficult to predict which avenues of scientific research and investments into technological development will bear fruit and which will prove otherwise. There have been attempts to manage these uncertainties – for example, technology forecasting identifies technologies with future applications. Foresight methodologies are also deployed to gain a fuller understanding of the forces that shape the long-term future of technologies in order to inform policymaking.[5] Alongside these developments, however, assessment metrics continue to bind research to publication counts and citations in an attempt to mimic econometric cost-benefit analyses. These methods are not without downsides and gaps. Results-oriented approaches can often reduce passionate and ground-breaking scientific research into a contractual numbers game. This in turn can mean that governments and enterprises miss out on possible opportunities in science and technology development.   


Towards a better knowledge of the future of science, technology and society

Given the very human failings that impede our attempts to grapple with the complexities and uncertainties in scientific research and technological development, one approach is to take a deep breath, a step back, and start with finding the right questions to ask. At the same time, this cannot be where we end – we must also move to develop bold visions to chart the future course of science and technology development such that it would serve the flourishing of society at large.  

 

[1] These technological breakthroughs include the steam engine, the spinning jenny and the telegraph.

[2] The US Office of Scientific Research and Development gathered armed forces, civilians, government agencies and industry to dedicate efforts towards defence science. 

[3] From Langlois, Richard. Knowledge, consumption, and endogenous growth. Journal of Evolutionary Economics, 2001, http://web.uconn.edu/ciom/Structure.pdf, p. 77

[4] From Romer, Paul. “Endogenous technological change.” Journal of Political Economy, vol. 98, no. 5, ser. 2, 1990. 2, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2937632?origin=JSTOR-pdf.

[5] In Singapore, notably, IPOS International has supported the National Research Foundation and other government agencies in technology foresight through patent analytics.

 

Talitha Chin is a Strategist with the Centre for Strategic Futures.

Jared Poon was formerly a Lead Strategist with the Centre for Strategic Futures and is now an Assistant Director with the Office for Citizen Engagement Programmes and Partnerships, MCCY.

Chan Liang Wei was formerly a Research Assistant with the Centre for Strategic Futures.

 



Share Via


Last updated: 26 Jul 2018

Top