Do we still aspire to the big challenges?

By Grant Jacobs 01/07/2013 4

Readers should try find time to read Neal Stephenson’s article, Innovation Starvation.

Stephenson notes the past role of science fiction in stimulating new grand challenges, then opines that both science fiction and real-world innovation now seem to be more tinkering on existing things than creating entirely new technologies.

Still, I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done.

It’s an excellent and thoughtful read, whatever your opinions.

Here’s one of several passages I particularly like, or can identify with, –

Researchers and engineers have found themselves concentrating on more and more narrowly focused topics as science and technology have become more complex. A large technology company or lab might employ hundreds or thousands of persons, each of whom can address only a thin slice of the overall problem. Communication among them can become a mare’s nest of email threads and Powerpoints. The fondness that many such people have for SF reflects, in part, the usefulness of an over-arching narrative that supplies them and their colleagues with a shared vision. Coordinating their efforts through a command-and-control management system is a little like trying to run a modern economy out of a Politburo. Letting them work toward an agreed-on goal is something more like a free and largely self-coordinated market of ideas.

Stephenson talks about technology, but we could think the much same of research science in general.

I can’t help but also think of the New Zealand Science Challenges using the same thinking he draws out. Potentially the Science Challenges can serve in a conceptually similar role to science fiction in offering a wider-scale landscape of things that might be targeted, although focused more short-term and limited by this small nation’s resources (and, some would say, ambitions).

Science teams, for the most part, focus on very narrowly-focused goals and developments from any one team need to be hooked to further development through other groups with different expertise. In the case of academic science, there often is little overall coordination to focus on a larger more all-encompassing goal – results and presented as research papers and it’s over to other groups to learn of them and pick up from where the earlier research team stopped. This is a mixed blessing; there are benefits and problems with both. There’s also that assessment tends to focus on short-term goals—how the current grant application is faring against it’s preset aims—rather than wider or longer-term goals. (I’m not saying this is right or wrong, just summarising how it is.)

Stephenson concludes, –

Today’s belief in ineluctable certainty is the true innovation-killer of our age. In this environment, the best an audacious manager can do is to develop small improvements to existing systems—climbing the hill, as it were, toward a local maximum, trimming fat, eking out the occasional tiny innovation—like city planners painting bicycle lanes on the streets as a gesture toward solving our energy problems. Any strategy that involves crossing a valley—accepting short-term losses to reach a higher hill in the distance—will soon be brought to a halt by the demands of a system that celebrates short-term gains and tolerates stagnation, but condemns anything else as failure. In short, a world where big stuff can never get done.

Stephenson’s writing, of course, includes geeky references. Climbing to a local maximum is a description of optimisation to fit of a model, of trying to find the highest peak by exploring from a starting point using incremental movements. These tend to get stuck, finding only local optima (nearby hills) unless some ability either start from different places is included or some ability to ‘throw’ the scheme some distance from it’s current point is available – hence his reference to crossing a valley. To do this, though, you have to accept that some of the tentative explorations from new locations won’t find a higher peak that those previously found.

Feel free to share your opinions on Stephenson’s ideas or the local Science Challenges below.

Other articles in Code for life:

Where will science be in 30 years?

Bioinformatics — computing with biotechnology and molecular biology data (A retrospective.)

Suggestion to mitigate in-fighting over new scientific ventures–?

I remember because my DNA was methylated

4 Responses to “Do we still aspire to the big challenges?”

  • I think the commercialisation of science/technology is (at least partly) to blame. Everything must make a profit, so there is very little science done for its own sake. Some of the best discoveries had absolutely no foreseeable purpose at their beginning; my favourite example is the laser. At the time it was, “Hmm, makes a nice red dot…?”. How could those guys have foreseen eye surgury, fusion experiments, holograms, measuring the distance to the moon, optical data storage, metal cutting…

    Spaceflight is a case in point: why would a commercial operator risk a manned mission to Mars for exploration? No money there…

  • I wonder more if it’s related to the demise of the ‘open-agenda’ institutions. Almost all academic funding is now tied to short-term funding. Perhaps there’s a similar issue in engineering within companies, so teams aren’t given as much scope to explore as they once did. I wouldn’t know. Was the early laser work done in an academic or commercial setting?

    Personally I’m not sure about your last example. Leaving aside that there is already a commercial Mars venture (whatever you make of it), I suspect an historian might say that we’ve been exploring places for wealth for quite a while. I recall reading not long ago of Dr. Dee’s role in some pretty ‘curious’ hunts for gold in the NW passage area – backed by the wealthy of the day, what we’d probably consider a commercial venture today perhaps. I can imagine the equivalent happening for space. Not sure if you’re read sci-fi—I’m only a modest reader of it myself—but quite a few sci-fi novels have been based around that premise (mining the planets and asteroids has a track record…)

    • Bob,

      Sorry I’ve taken so long to get back to you.

      I thought at the time that he could have mentioned biotechnology (and biology). There’s plenty of sci-fi lead-ins to these too. (Ditto for physics.)

      Looking back, my description of science is incomplete in that while the science ‘industry’ as a whole looks to more narrowly-focused things with shorter-term and limited goals, there are larger projects aimed at bigger things. My thoughts at the time — feeling pessimistic, probably! — were that too many smaller projects don’t really link through to wider goals they might have well.