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14 April 2014

How Can We Take Science Out of its Ivory Tower?

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Income inequality is one of the most dramatic and dangerous consequences of our persistent financial crisis. Although not so frequently mentioned, knowledge inequality is also climbing to unprecedented levels, and posing significant risks.

The gap between those that have a clue about important issues and those that don’t – from clean energy to personalized medicine – is rapidly widening. Today’s science is more beautiful, more subtle, but also more difficult to explain. This poses challenges for how today’s scientists collaborate, how tomorrow’s scientists are educated, and how we ensure that the public understands the issues at stake in an increasingly high-tech world.

Fields of expertise are narrowing as rapidly as they are deepening, increasingly putting disciplines into silos and making it harder for the general public to grasp the big picture. For example, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection fascinated many because of its simplicity and elegance, despite initial scepticism. Now, as we learn more about genetics and molecular biology, our understanding of evolution gets more accurate, profound – and complex. The average person on the street would need a deeper scientific background to keep up with the latest findings in this field.

Although the unstoppable trend towards open source publishing has opened up certain areas of science, there is still much dispute on how it should be implemented and who should pay. Access to high-quality scientific literature, and the data it rests upon, is far from assured. Equally, the massive amount of research published every day in journals, at conferences and on an increasing number of online platforms makes it difficult to keep up and filter what matters, even to those following only a particular specialization.

Granted, science is widely explained to the public through clever visualizations, outreach programmes and specialist journalists. The paradox is that although we live in a media savvy and technological world, pseudosciences, unproven remedies and decision-making that ignore the facts are all prevalent. From fat-burning pills without any proven effects to homeopathic solutions diluted so many times that hardly a molecule of the active ingredient remains, remedies that are not only pseudo, but in fact anti-scientific, are easily accessible on the Internet and eagerly consumed.

As well as addressing scientific illiteracy, there is also a challenge in inspiring tomorrow’s scientists and equipping them with the tools they will need to thrive in the future. Educational institutions from around the world claim that they are preparing students for today’s market needs, when most likely many of today’s industries will be totally transformed or will vanish during the working lives of those students. Instead, education should focus on providing students will the tools that will allow them to adapt to a rapidly changing reality. Millennials should not be educated to find a good job, but to invent it.

The scientific breakthroughs of the future have the potential to reshape the world for the better, providing they are properly harnessed.

The Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies, a group of scientists and industry experts convened by the World Economic Forum, released this week its annual list of the top 10 emerging technologies, highlighting disruptive innovations. Emerging technologies are providing real solutions to long-standing challenges, such as providing cleaner energy and transport. Grid-scale storage, for example, saves surplus energy from fluctuating renewable sources like sun and wind within the electrical power grid, while new materials made from carbon-fibre reinforced composites could make cars lighter and just as strong.

On a different note, the new frontiers of brain sciences will become increasingly important, especially as populations are getting older. Brain-computer interfaces already let you type just by monitoring the electrical activity of your brain. As the technology advances, it could allow people with disabilities to operate wheelchairs using only their thought. Meanwhile, predictive analytics mean we can harness vast swathes of data to build detailed and predictive models about people and their behaviours, which can help in everything from urban planning to medical diagnosis. Technology keeps bringing new issues that need deep debate, broad consensus and rigorous control.

Establishing a common language between policy-makers, industry and academia is a major challenge. Governments and business demand certainty when they are planning investments, whereas scientists talk about probability. More collaboration and mutual understanding is sorely needed.

Innovation must be reinvented to co-create solutions to cope with global challenges, not just to gain competitive advantage for one country or one institution. Knowledge inequality is a major obstacle in our quest to create new solutions for old problems and should not be acceptable. Ivory towers should be demolished, silos destroyed and the collective brain of the planet tapped for the solutions we all need so desperately.

Original text published in the blog of  The World Economic Forum.

Javier Garcia-Martinez

Founder and Director of Rive Technology.


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