Monday, December 24, 2007

A Post-Scientific Society?

Our civilization is going through a period significant change that will have a transformative effect on every aspect of our society, at this point however we can only glimpse the general outlines of how these changes will play out. Will these changes result in the US becoming a Post-Scientific Society?

A post-scientific society will continue to use the latest in scientific discoveries, theories, and data as the foundation for innovation and change. However, producing new science at home will give way to using new science that is developed elsewhere. The new science that underlies innovation in a post-scientific society will often appear in U.S. organizations not as data and theory but as knowledge embodied in devices, components, systems, and routines obtained from anywhere else in the world. A post-scientific society will need fewer researchers than a scientific society, and fewer young people will be drawn into scientific fields by the promise of exciting opportunities and excellent salaries. Firms in a post-scientific society will hire fewer scientific professionals than in the past, and their role will be more to serve as translators and exploiters of new science than as original contributors to the body of scientific knowledge. Firms will reduce their commitments to long-term basic research and will depend more on third-party providers of new knowledge.

In the post-scientific society, the creation of wealth and jobs based on innovation and new ideas will tend to draw less on the natural sciences and engineering and more on the organizational and social sciences, on the arts, on new business processes, and on meeting consumer needs based on niche production of specialized products and services in which interesting design and appeal to individual tastes matter more than low cost or radical new technologies.

Businesses will not succeed in the post-scientific society by adopting a fast-follower strategy, seeking to emulate the products first brought to market by firms in other countries. Rather, success will arise in part from the disciplined search for useful new knowledge that, regardless of its origins, can be integrated with intimate knowledge of cultures and consumer preferences. Networks of highly creative individuals and collaborating firms will devise and produce complex new systems that meet human needs in unexpectedly new and responsive ways.

In the post-scientific society, producing new science at home will give way to using new science that is developed elsewhere.

The emergence of a post-scientific society in the United States is, in a sense, simply the latest working out of the logic of comparative advantage among nations. The United States remains a world leader at doing basic scientific research. However, when the costs of doing research in the United States are compared with doing it elsewhere, much of its advantage is lost. Some of the comparative advantage of other countries in conducting science arises from currency misalignments and from government actions, but even accounting for these market interventions, it is often less expensive to do science-world-class science-in other countries.

As more and more nations have achieved a medium-to high stage of political and economic development, they have been able to establish the necessary conditions in which scientific research can thrive. These include stable infrastructures for energy, telecommunications, water, and sanitation; a high-quality educational system for at least some of its people; a commitment to challenging the status quo; a source of funds; and a reasonably stable political culture. Bright people are a natural resource everywhere, and if the conditions listed above exist, science can thrive. Throughout the post-World War II period, the United States and other nations, as well as the major international development organizations, have worked to strengthen scientific infrastructures in many countries. It is now becoming apparent that those efforts, as well as the substantial efforts made by developing countries on their own, have been successful in many places.
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The positive side of the transition to a post-scientific society story is that the United States has increasingly turned its attention to matters that are more complex than fundamental science. It is moving up the scale of intellectual and societal complexity by specializing in activities that require the integration of all knowledge and capabilities to better serve the needs of individuals, families, companies, communities, and society as a whole. It still needs to be able to understand and use the fruits of scientific research, wherever it is done, and it will continue to need a significant number of active scientists and other researchers working at the frontiers of knowledge. In key areas where it maintains a solid lead, as in fields of biomedical science, its incredible investments and deep intellectual infrastructure may suffice to enable it to dominate the research activities of other countries. Yet, even in biomedicine, it is increasingly clear that improving the quality of life for the majority of people involves not just applying sophisticated science-based medicine but also the integration of multiple disciplines concerned with human health, from nutrition to exercise physiology to gerontology to social work.

Beyond the question of support for and conduct of science, however, the post-scientific society involves something much more. This is becoming a society in which cutting-edge success depends not on specialization, but on integration- on synthesis, design, creativity, and imagination.
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It would be overreaching to argue that the United States has completed the transition to a post-scientific society. Instead, as with all such transitions in the past, the characterization of cultural eras is a statement about the leading edge of social and economic development. Just to highlight the point, although we ordinarily think of the Stone Age as the time before our prehistoric ancestors discovered metals, we continue to build in stone to this day and are proud of it. Likewise, if we have left behind the agricultural age, the machine age, and the age of steam, we still grow food, use machines, and depend on steam for our well-being. We will continue to need and nurture science, but it will, like the dominant cultural developments that preceded it, recede into the background as a necessary but no longer defining characteristic of our age.
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Higher education is beginning to respond to the demands for new kinds of programs to meet the needs of students and employers interested in multidimensional, multidisciplinary educational experiences. For example, an increasing number of universities are offering degrees and concentrations in fields such as information technology, multimedia production, entrepreneurship, service science, innovation studies, creativity, and other cross-disciplinary fields. Whereas just a couple of decades ago universities tended to treat interdisciplinary work as an intrusion into the "real" work of the institution's disciplinary departments, today the ability to inspire and lead such work has become a standard expectation of university administrators. Companies are stepping up the hiring of social and behavioral scientists, artists, designers, and poets.

Via EconLog

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