2008 : WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT? WHY?

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Gerontologist; Chief Science Officer. SENS Foundation; Author, Ending Aging
Curiosity is addictive, and this is not an entirely good thing

The words "science" and "technology," or equivalently the words "research" and "development," are used in the same breath so readily that one might easily presume that they are joined at the hip: that their goals are indistinguishable, and that those who are good at one are, if not necessarily equally good at the other, at least quite good at evaluating the quality of work in the other. I grew up with this assumption, but the longer I work at the interface between science and technology the more I find myself having to accept that it is false — that most, scientists are rather poor at the type of thinking that identifies efficient new ways to get things done, and that, likewise, technologists are mostly not terribly good at identifying efficient ways to find things out.

I've come to feel that there are several reasons underlying this divide.

A major one is the divergent approaches of scientists and technologists to the use of evidence. In basic research, it is exceptionally easy to be seduced by one's data — to see a natural interpretation of it and to overlook the existence of other, comparably economical interpretations of it that lead to dramatically different conclusions. It therefore makes sense for scientists to give the greatest weight, when evaluating the evidence for and against a given hypothesis, to the most direct observational or experimental evidence at hand.

Technologists, on the other hand, succeed best when they stand back from the task before them, thinking laterally about ways in which ostensibly irrelevant techniques might be applied to solve one or another component of the problem. The technologist's approach, when applied to science, is likely to result all too often in wasted time, as experiments are performed that contain too many departures from previous work to allow the drawing of firm conclusions either way concerning the hypothesis of interest.

Conversely, applying the scientist's methodology to technological endeavours can also result in wasted time, resulting from overly small steps away from techniques already known to be futile, like trying to fly by flapping mechanical wings.

But there's another difference between the characteristic mindsets of scientists and technologists, and I've come to view it as the most problematic. Scientists are avowedly "curiosity-driven" rather than "goal-directed" — they are spurred by the knowledge that, throughout the history of civilisation, innumerable useful technologies have become possible not through the stepwise execution of a predefined plan, but rather through the purposely undirected quest for knowledge, letting a dynamically-determined sequence of experiments lead where it may.

That logic is as true as it ever was, and any technologist who doubts it need only examine the recent history of science to change his mind. However, it can be — and, in my view, all too often is — taken too far. A curiosity-driven sequence of experiments is useful not because of the sequence, but because of the technological opportunities that emerge at the end of the sequence. The sequence is not an end in itself. And this is rather important to keep in mind. Any scientist, on completing an experiment, is spoilt for choice concerning what experiment to do next — or, more prosaically, concerning what experiment to apply for funding to do next.

The natural criterion for making this choice is the likelihood that the experiment will generate a wide range of answers to technologically important questions, thereby providing new technological opportunities. But an altogether more frequently adopted criterion, in practice, is that the experiment will generate a wide range of new questions — new reasons to do more experiments. This is only indirectly useful, and I believe that in practice it is indeed less frequently useful than programs of research designed with one eye on the potential for eventual technological utility.

Why, then, is it the norm? Simply because it is the more attractive to those who are making these decisions — the curiosity-driven scientists (whether the grant applicants or the grant reviewers) themselves. Curiosity is addictive: both emotionally and in their own enlightened self-interest, scientists want reasons to do more science, not more technology. But as a society we need science to be as useful as possible, as quickly as possible, and this addiction slows us down.