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Archive for the ‘science’ Category

From Archimedes to Edison, attempts to improve quality of life have dictated a need for advances in science and technology. These advances are now widely understood as the key enablers of increasingly prosperous societies.

Despite this long history, the process of managing the expanding frontiers of new knowledge in a way that will benefit society is a work in progress. This is largely due to the unpredictable nature of scientific discovery most famously illustrated by Archimedes, when, upon stepping into the bath, he suddenly realised that the volume of water displaced was equal to the volume of the submerged portion of his body.

His discovery provided the solution to the previously intractable problem of measuring the volume of irregular objects and led to further advances in assessing the density and purity of precious metals among other things. In the modern world little has changed in how new knowledge is acquired. However, in an attempt to get the best value for their limited investments, governments have devised processes to manage its discovery.

Interestingly there has been a propensity to divide scientific research into a one-dimensional continuum starting with pure (sometimes known as blue-skies) research progressing through to applied research and on to technology transfer; the defining characteristic of pure research being that it seeks new knowledge with no view as to its application, while applied research seeks solutions to industrial problems.

Such a continuum has been the basis of R&D funding prioritisation in advanced economies around the world since it was promulgated by Vannevar Bush following World War II. In the past few years this mindset has been challenged as it does not accurately reflect the process of science and technology development.

The dynamic nature of the discovery of new knowledge and its commercial application can be observed in the remarkable career of French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur, whose breakthroughs ranged from the first rabies and anthrax vaccines to paving the way for germ theory and pasteurisation. Pasteur was not driven by a quest for new knowledge for its own sake but was motivated by a desire to better understand and solve the problems of industry.

In his early career, he concentrated largely on uncovering new knowledge, but as he did so, came across other, previously unforeseen questions. While working as a chemist at the age of 22 he sought a theoretical understanding of why tartaric acid crystals derived from bio-mass rotated the plane of polarised light while the chemically synthesised form did not.

His experiments revealed that the naturally occurring compound is chiral, meaning its molecules exist in one of two possible crystal structures, each the mirror image of the other. In the process of uncovering this new knowledge, he laid the building blocks for the modern experimental science of crystallography, which is today used in one form or another in everything from gemstone cutting to DNA analysis.

Pasteur’s remarkable career uncovered whole new branches of science – such as microbiology – and, as he developed as a scientist, he began to seek to satisfy both theoretical and practical goals.

Of particular note is the fact that as the problems Pasteur chose to solve became increasingly applied in nature, the nature of his research became more fundamental. Pasteur’s research agenda was use-inspired. Understanding and exploiting the dichotomy between applied and theoretical goals is perhaps the reason behind the breadth of his contribution.

This philosophy is instructive for modern policymakers seeking to get the most from limited investment funds and move away from the outmoded, linear model. The effective management of applied research operations is much more complicated than simplistic models suggest.

Modified from a contribution in Solutions. Discovery

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 Has science reached its limits of growth?  

I recently re-read ” Prometheus Bound: Science in a dynamic steady state” written in 1994 by John Ziman, and was intrigued how much the context has changed in 30 years, yet the substance hasn’t.

John Ziman had a distinguished career in the natural sciences. In Prometheus Bound (ISBN 0 521 43430 0), he wrote about the problems scientists have with governments, administrators etc.  His preface starts:

 “Science is reaching its ‘limits to growth’. It is expected to contribute increasingly to national prosperity, yet national budgets can no longer support further expansion to explore tempting new re-search opportunities, by larger research teams, equipped with increasingly sophisticated apparatus. As a result, science is going through a radical structural transition to a much more tightly organized, rationalized and managed social institution. Knowledge-creation, the acme of individual enterprise, is being collectivized.

This transition is pervasive, interlocking, ubiquitous and permanent. It affects the whole research system from the every day details of laboratory life to the politics of national budgets. Changes in one part of the system, such as the abolition of academic tenure, have repercussions elsewhere, for example in the commercial exploitation of scientific discoveries. A new policy language of ‘accountability’, ‘evaluation’, ‘input and output indicators’, ‘priority-set-ting’, ‘selectivity’, ‘critical mass’, etc. has become commonplace throughout the world, from Finland to Brazil, from Poland to New Zealand, from the United States to Papua New Guinea. Indeed, science is becoming a truly international enterprise, organized systematically on a global scale.”

I am sure there are many people who could write this in 2013 – and lament that we may not have made much real progress in understanding and practice of public policy around science and technology.  But we have made enormous inroads into our understanding of the world and our ability to put science to work over the last 30 years.

 In a real sense we have risen to the challenge set by Ziman when he elegantly posed:

“Many scientists and scholars look back regret-fully to a more relaxed and spacious environment for academic research. But nostalgia is a fruitless sentiment. What all scientists know is that science cannot thrive without social space for personal initiative and creativity, time for ideas to grow to maturity, open-ness to debate and criticism, hospitality towards innovation, and respect for specialized expertise. The real question is not whether the structural transition is desirable, or could have been avoided: it is how to reshape the research system to fit a new environment without losing the features that have made it so productive in the past.”

The challenge is still relevant in 2013 and will remain for some time.

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The previous free offer has lapsed, but available on Kindle for 99 cents.

Today I received a notice from the Council of Agricultural Science and Technology that the Noel Vietmeyer, book Our Daily Bread: the Essential Norman Borlaug, is available free in digital form until midnight October 5th.  I can wholeheartedly endorse the book which tells the story of how a young farmer grew to change the world and save millions from starvation. He is known as a key contributor to the Green Revolution.

If you are interested in history, this is a great starting point.  If you are interested in a food secure world, it is also a good place to start thinking about solutions.  

And if you have children interested in farming or agriculture, or know of young people contemplating as career in agriculture, this is a story of an inspirational personal journey that they will find fascinating.
 Our Daily Bread; The Essential Norman Borlaug

You can access the book, for free download from this link to Amazon
This is a great offer and we should thank Noel Vietmeyer for his generousity.


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