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The future is not what it used to be

12 April 2011
by Patrick Love

They all laughed when Katie tried to explain her broadband idea

1961, what a year, eh? The OECD, George Clooney and Barack Obama were born. And of course, Yuri Gagarin proved Joseph de Lalande wrong, yet again.

In 1782, a year before the first manned balloon flight took off from the site that would become OECD headquarters [insert your own hot air joke here], the eminent expert from the Académie française declared that: “It is entirely impossible for man to rise into the air and float there. For this you would need wings of tremendous dimensions and they would have to be moved at a speed of three feet per second. Only a fool would expect such a thing to be realised.”

Of course, it’s easy to get it wrong, but it takes a rare form of genius to fail to predict what has actually happened. So a special mention goes to the Engineering Editor of The Times, who, three years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, informed the cream of British society that:  “All attempts at artificial aviation are not only dangerous to human life, but foredoomed to failure from the engineering standpoint.”

Britain’s outstanding record in technology forecasting was maintained by Astronomer Royal Richard Van Der Riet Woolley, who in 1956 declared that “space travel is utter bilge”. The following year, his predecessor, Sir Harold Spencer Jones, showed that timing is everything when he upgraded the rating to “Space travel is bunk” two weeks before the first Sputnik.

Four years later, Gagarin orbited the Earth, and only eight years after that Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon. Astronautics was the most spectacular proof that the pace of change in science and technology had accelerated dramatically, but major breakthroughs were occurring in every domain in the 1960s.

One Brit who got it right was Harold Wilson, the future prime minister, who said that that the type of country being “forged in the white heat” of the scientific and technical revolution would need different ways of dealing with the potentials and problems of the new discoveries.

However, policymaking often lags behind the pace of change in science and technology, and we’re no exception: the OECD’s Committee for Scientific and Technological Policy wouldn’t be created until 1972, long after Committees overseeing other areas such as agriculture or tourism.

Then as now, scientific discoveries that would prove crucial often appeared unimportant to all but a few specialists. For instance, putting E. coli cells in a cold calcium chloride solution doesn’t sound exciting, but they then become permeable to nucleic acid fragments, allowing scientists to carry out numerous genetic engineering operations.

This illustrates a dilemma for science and technology policy makers. They are faced with demands to finance “useful” research, but it’s practically impossible to predict where science will lead, and which technologies will ultimately make the most money.

A funding strategy that relies on spotting winners ignores the role that unforeseen connections and insights play in science and technology.

The OECD has been a major influence in changing how governments approach science, technology and innovation, and how economics as a discipline tries to understand these phenomena. In 1963 already, Science, economic growth and government policy convinced governments of something that seems obvious now: that science policy should be linked to economic policy. In 1971, Science, growth and society anticipated many of today’s concerns by emphasising the need to involve citizens in assessing the consequences of developing and using new technologies.

For many experts though, the OECD’s major contribution was the concept of national innovation systems, presented in 1992 in a landmark publication, Technology and the Economy: The Key Relationships. Economists working at the OECD pioneered a new approach that saw innovation not as something linear, but as a kind of ecosystem involving interactions among existing knowledge, research, invention; potential markets; and the production process.

Since then, the way science is done has been changed radically by the connectivity offered by the Internet and other communication tools. This allows scientists and technologists to interact better with each other, and it also allows scientists and technologists to take advantage of other types of expertise to develop the tools and foster the innovation  required to meet emerging economic, sustainability and even social challenges.

This means that what has been called the science of science policy will have to change too. The OECD will have a role to play in this. As in the past, the OECD will be expected to spot emerging issues; provide the data, analyses, and policy recommendations needed to make the most of them; and to provide a forum where problems, contradictions and differing aspirations can be debated in an objective, productive fashion.

Useful links

OECD work on science and technology

The OECD Innovation Strategy

Looking back at looking forward – great forecasting mistakes

9 Responses
  1. April 13, 2011

    As a child of the Cold War, and part of the tribe wherein the fathers worked in aerospace, I’m terribly nostalgic for the time when science was state-supported and seemed to move in revolutionary leaps and bounds. Granted, we live better now for all the lateral integration that has gone on (I should write “seems to have gone on” as I’m really not competent to comment on the history of science) but a part of my childhood died when the last Space Shuttle landed. OECD has its work cut out for it in that research in that countries like France is the domain of state finance. Hope something can spur the private sector here before every young French researcher sets up shop elsewhere.

  2. Andy Ternay permalink
    April 13, 2011

    It is impossible to predict which research will be ‘useful’ because as our needs change the definition of useful changes. Probably the best that can be done is to define broad areas of science that have potential and then fund a great deal of pure research in those areas.

    Sadly, very few governments and even fewer companies do this.

  3. Kaye LaPointe permalink
    April 13, 2011

    The year of my birth, 1955, was a much better year, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were both born!! Who can argue their influence on technology?? All kidding aside, can we continue to improve/sustain education to produce innovative thinkers? China produces more engineers than anyone, yet according to technological employers, those engineers lack the innovative thinking of individuals schooled in the U.S. So is it the education system or the environment for creative thinking that has succeeded? Or perhaps just the right mixture of both?
    Not far behind that are the policy makers, governments and OECD. Let’s hope they have been given the same creative abilities to help put in place science and technology policies that will encourage research in all domains!
    And I agree with Neal……what now since the last Shuttle has landed?

  4. April 13, 2011

    There has been no greater impediment to science than organized religion, a common trope of mine, to be sure, but no less true for that. It’s my hope that the increasing secularization in Europe will help spur less fettered (but still ethical) scientific inquiry, and in my lifetime, please? It’s a shame that America’s historical passion for scientific discovery is shackled by the regulations of a government more interested in pandering to evangelical Christians than in eradicating disease (stem-cell research being just one of a panoply of examples). Just like it’s a shame that our planet’s richest fossil fuel deposits just happen to be located in a land of homicidal/suicidal/maniacal theocracy.

    I was always under the impression that, by now, we would all be living like the Jetsons, with little to worry about beyond getting caught on a broken space-treadmill while trying to walk the family’s space-dog. Imagine my surprise this morning when I woke up and it still hasn’t happened.

  5. June Ebert permalink
    April 14, 2011

    One can only hope that our governments, with their budget restraints and all-to-prevalent near-sightedness, will not abandon their support of scientific research in the name of conservatism.

  6. April 14, 2011

    I think a certain indispensible part of scientific inquiry remains wholly driven by existential questions above and beyond any economic considerations. Who are we? How did we get here? What is the nature of the universe? Etc. I find myself hard pressed to connect our current search for planets around other nearby stars having any immediately practical economic impact, and yet I don’t feel any need to justify funding such a search no matter our current budgetary squabbles. It’s just something which needs to be done for some existential reason I feel no need to articulate or advocate. Is not the insatiable thirst of humanity to expand our vision and knowledge on every level of our universal existence not enough to drive our search for knowledge? Must we really wait for a thousand economists to articulate their relevance and theories within our expanding consciousness before we proceed? Or can we let them catch up with the dream as they always have in the past. Yes, the future is not what it used to be, but it’s still driven by existential aspirations as it always has been before – just a little bit freer than before . . . as usual.

  7. April 14, 2011

    Innovation stems from entrepreneurship and risk. Unfortunately government policy starts from the position of reducing risk. (Examples: What was the justification for Dodd Frank’s regulation over financial instruments? Or regulatory schemes for the environment? Or what’s the point of the OECD for that matter, a body imagined during the Marshall Plan in a world far far different from today’s?)

    I’m skeptical of what future there is in significant government directed research.

    The fact is that major innovation – recent example Twitter – would never have been hatched in a government-directed technology lab, even if it were peopled with individuals as smart and wise as the author of this article and every single commenter on this thread. What risk did Apple take ten years ago when it decided to invent Ipod music players? What did that have to do with being a successful computer company?

    I maintain that the Internet is effectively mints millions and millions of entrepreneurs, which function more efficiently than a directed bureaucracy. This chaos is what was able to successfully overthrow the tyrannical governments in Egypt and Tunisia – despite decades and billions spent otherwise by a genuinely well intentioned United Nations for human rights in the Middle East.

    In short, change and knowledge is advancing because it’s a market. It’s a competition. The Internet is accelerating this lively environment, while graying 19th and 20th century institutions are increasingly being left in the dust.


  8. April 14, 2011

    I’d like to address my dear friend Brian Bouffard’s concerns about religion and science in a strictly demand driven way. Historically religion has sought to diminish the demands for existential explanations which unfettered scientific inquiry would otherwise stimulate. Why? Because historically our ideological dogmas have had a tendency to memetically shut down the demand for further existential inquiry. Yes, sometimes religious and ideological interests my seek out the practical efficiencies which science may afford in a mundane sense, but at the end of the day these all encompassing dogmas wish to maintain the illusion that they have already solved the ultimate existential questions. Allegedly we shouldn’t be asking these questions, because our dogmas claim to already have the answers. From Galileo to Darwin and beyond, religious and economimc authorities would rather not compete with existential questions which are ultimately beyond their control. Sure, it’s nice enough to individually pursue your economic interests and whatever mundane scientific questions those may involve within their limited universe, but these selfish dogmas would rather you leave the biggest existential demands safely within their comfortable systems. A truly secular system, on the other hand remains fundamentally open to the ever greater demands for knowledge of the human spirit. This is the kind of competition which no monopolistic ideology would care to compete with which is exactly why a secular society must continue to find independent ways to fund such research. It’s a bigger issue than anyone’s religious or economic ideologies, and should always remain so. We need to discover other life in the universe precisely because most of our older dogmas have failed to sufficiently consider them in the first place. The human spirit of inquiry has to ultimately remain bigger than our dogmas or face the ultimate likelihood of extinction.

  9. Stevi Alexander permalink
    April 15, 2011

    My life experience certainly lends itself much more towards industry than policy. The politics of business does not seem to fall far from the tree when it comes to red tape and skepticism for funding science and engineering. Innovation seems to be one of those buzz words that we associate with successful business and technology today no matter the medium. An important distinction is the difference between innovation and creativity. Innovation is creativity with profit in mind. That sometimes subtle distinction can make a very large impact when it is focused and collaborative.

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