Quality Magazine

Science Needs to Work Smarter

September 19, 2011
As leaders turn to science to spur U.S. economy and competitiveness, science needs to work smarter.

Tyson

The United States and other leading nations are looking to science and technology advancements to spur economic security and growth. Meanwhile, the political season has prompted fierce debates over the return on investment in research and the role of science in shaping public policy. Never before, it seems, has science held such contrasting, controversial and conflicting roles in the national conversation.

Can America regain its competitive edge and continue to lead the world into a brighter future through greater spending in science, technology, engineering and math? Billions of dollars invested in science and math education, drug development and bioengineering, new energy technologies and climate research have thus far not produced the answers the public expected to national issues and crises. And while those investments may have produced a few meaningful and practical benefits, they have done little in inspiring bold, new visions.

Is the nation wasting money on ineffective and misplaced research, which sustains bloated scientific institutions and parochial agendas over the greater needs of society and humanity?

As a scientist who has worked at national laboratories; in industrial research and development centers; academia, and who advised the Office of the Secretary of Defense for much of my 30-year career, I can tell you the answers we seek won’t likely come from simply how much money is spent on science. Instead, what is required is the establishment of meaningful visions for our nation and humanity and overcoming a rigid scientific culture that serves more to stifle disruptive advancements and discoveries rather than help move the United States and the world forward to the next scientific revolution.

This year, I touched on some of these issues in my new book, The Unobservable Universe It appears to me that unless scientific culture changes and opens its mind to new ways of looking at old and unresolved challenges, the nation might only continue to reap incremental rewards from scientific investment.

The conversation is one of critical timeliness. President Obama is calling for new investments in American innovation and has proposed increasing the nation’s research and development investments, as a share of gross domestic product (GDP), to its highest levels since President Kennedy. The president is also pledging to prepare an additional 100,000 science, technology, engineering and math teachers by the end of the decade.

Yet consider that a thorough scientific understanding of the universe and how it works has remained elusive since Einstein advanced his theories a century ago. For decades now, each time a physics experiment fails to achieve its stated goal, the scientific community says we need a bigger, more expensive experiment.

Such an approach may be the complete opposite of what we need to be doing; rather than spending money in a useful fashion, science has become institutionalized in support of narrow scientific doctrines and cosmological perspectives. We need to better understand our failures if our true goal is to achieve new, grand scientific successes.

My career involved research at IBM’s VLSI Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, Westinghouse’s Advanced Technology Laboratory and the Air Force Research Laboratory. I hold 15 patents on new space technologies. I wrote my book in the earnest hope of reinvigorating a national scientific dialog and movement to rethink what modern science has assumed it knows about the universe.

In the more than three decades spent researching and developing material for this book, I found scientific advancement is oftentimes stymied by empirically unfounded assumptions and beliefs combined with flawed and incomplete scientific interpretations, which scientists continue to inadvertently embrace as scientific truth. Meanwhile, the culture of institutionalized science and doctrinal thinking has prevented the sorts of corrections that occur in other fields, such as the investment industry or the medical industry.

With fresh questioning, open thinking and new technology applied to paradoxes and mysteries new and old, the roadblocks to solutions upon which humanity increasingly and vitally depend might soon be eliminated and pressing problems might be solved in a more timely fashion.

Our world is at a crucial crossroads and in a deeply precarious situation in which the prospect for preserving or improving the quality of life on Earth is now questionable. The path to a better, more secure future might literally be right under our noses, but science may not be looking in such places during its headlong and competitive rush to pursue shrinking sources of traditional funding. It has never been more important to begin revisiting flawed and incomplete scientific theories and interpretations, which have closed off entire thought pathways with the potential to achieve key national agenda items such as clean, inexpensive, sustainable energy development.

The scientists who could lead us away from fossil-fuel and nuclear-based energy production schemes to new, clean, cheap, bountiful and benign energy production schemes are hamstrung within rigid institutional agendas and doctrines that prevent, or at least discourage, such goals from being meaningfully pursued.

Continuing to invest billions won’t move us forward unless we also rethink a scientific culture that has lost its ability, interest and motivation to produce world-changing results.