Sunday, December 30, 2007

Calling All (Future) Scientists...Can You Please Solve These?

As we are fast approaching the year 2008, I cannot help but think about where we are headed and the role science will play in not so distant future. This takes on a new weight when considering it is about to become a presidential election year. When one thinks about the variety of problems we face as both a national and global society, it becomes clear that science will be looked to to develop answers and solutions to many of these problems. It is also clear that we need to think of this as science in the broadest sense, as all areas and disciplines will need to contribute. This goes to the heart of the definition of consilience, as numerous areas of knowledge and expertise will need to mix together if we are to make solid progress in finding effective solutions.

To get the ball rolling, consider the following broad issues/problems. All of these will require contributions from a variety of scientific and technical areas of study...multidisciplinary tasks galore:
  • Quality of air and water
  • Fresh water supplies for much of the west and southwest
  • Disposal of solid wastes (everyday garbage)
  • Modernization and maintenance of national power grid
  • New energy sources, better energy efficiency and conservation
  • Climate change (both at an understanding level as well as preparing for consequences)
  • Improved electronic encryption algorithms as we digitize everything (medical, financial records, etc)
  • Transportation infrastructure
  • Telecommunications networks, both development and maintenance
  • Continued improvement and progress in computing technologies
  • Mass electronic data storage
  • Medical treatments for the disease of your choice. This includes stem cell issues, genetic engineering, drug R&D, and so on.
  • Military related technologies
  • Improved search technologies for earth-crossing asteroids (something I have yet to hear policymakers talk about publicly, but there are literally many thousands of sizeable objects that cross earth's orbit we should try to identify and monitor)
  • Food supplies and quality control
  • Disposal of nuclear wastes, nuclear proliferation issues
  • Nanotechnology in general
  • Security technology of all types
  • Robotics
  • Implementation of educational strategies and structures based on brain research and learning theory to best prepare the next generation of workers
  • Continued development of network theory, game theory, etc., and progress in our understanding of complex systems for physical and social applications
  • Materials science and development

I encourage comments with additional major issues that are technical in nature and subject to progress via scientific avenues; this is not at all a complete list. What we cannot forget is that further inclusion of other areas of study are intimately connected with just about everything on the above list, such as ethics, state/national/international law, economics, political science, sociology, public policy, military concerns, all areas of engineering, business/industry, job creation, international relations, anthropology, and countless subfields that fall under these larger areas of specialization.

The quicker we as a society recognize and realize the complexity, multidisciplinarity, and difficulty level of finding both short-term and long-term solutions to problems found in any of these areas, the better off we will be. The next president will need to address all of these during the course of an administration, as will every other prominent political figure in every nation across the globe. We will not be able to ignore any of them, and these loom as multi-generational issues that need to be solved. This will require leaders who are able to connect with the masses and communicate the seriousness of the issues, as well as move his or her nation toward a mindset of long-term planning and policy, something we seem to not be very good at.

We need to find and create massive numbers of people who are trained in the all of the sciences, mathematics, engineering and technology, and all the other fields mentioned above to remain competitive in a global marketplace, as well as the maintain and improve the quality of life for future generations. It is challenging work, but do we have any other choice but to address the challenges? Does our consumption-based and entertainment-driven society have the backbone and means to deal with these issues? Will we leave the world in better condition for our kids and grandkids than what we inherited?

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