Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Science: Ten Lost Years

by Rob - July 5th, 2010.
Filed under: Nonfiction, op-ed.

An op-ed piece by Robert J. Sawyer first published in The Ottawa Citizen, the largest-circulation newspaper in Canada’s capital city (first published under the headline “The Future Disappoints”).

Science: Ten Lost Years

by Robert J. Sawyer

Ten years ago, in 1999, I published a novel called FlashForward; ten years later, it’s a (cough, cough) hit TV series for ABC.

Ten years ago, I set that novel’s opening at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN with my characters undertaking an experiment to find the Higgs boson — the particle believed to endow other particles with mass. Ten years later, after a comic series of delays, that experiment is finally running in reality.

If only all my other sunny predictions about science and technology from a decade ago had come true! Back at the end of the 1990s, all of us who trade in futures were being interviewed about what we thought the next decade would hold. My colleagues and I blithely spoke about the promise of nanotechnology, the miracles of stem-cell research, the revitalization of the manned-space program.

And now the decade we described is coming to an end, and, well, the same pundits are making the same predictions for the next decade. What went wrong?

An easy, and not untrue, answer is to say: George W. Bush. After all, it was his administration that put the skids on embryonic stem-cell research; it was he who called for humanity to go to Mars but earmarked no money for the venture; and it was he who embarked on a pointless war that beggared the federal coffers, leaving little for fundamental research.

(I’m hardly the first to make such observations, and I commend to your attention the book The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney.)

But it would be facile to just blame governments — including our own, which has certainly not been as friendly as it should have been to pure science.

Thank goodness that BlackBerry co-inventor Mike Lazaridis stepped up to the plate and provided the initial private financing — not to mention a couple of major booster shots along the way — to fund the world-class Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, which just celebrated its tenth anniversary. It’s the kind of project our tax dollars should have paid for on their own.

Also, to put it all down to politicians would be to ignore a harsh reality of the past decade: the promise of science has, too often, been derailed by the scientists themselves.

Why is stem-cell research faltering? In part because greedy scientists falsified data and used unethical techniques in gaining embryonic tissue. Most famously, in 2006, South Korean stem-cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk was indicted for fraud, embezzlement, and violations of his country’s bioethics laws, after announcing bogus breakthroughs.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, the single most important scientific issue of the decade — whether climate change is human-caused — was dealt a huge blow in November. E-mails leaked from Britain’s Climate Research Unit showed that scientists there apparently cooked the books to prove that humans are at fault for climate change.

Sadly, the two cases are crucially similar: stem-cell research really does hold the key to curing diseases, regenerating organs, and prolonging life. And, I’m convinced, human activity has contributed hugely to changes in our weather. But in a world in which it’s mainstream to claim that the moon landings were a hoax, that 9/11 was an inside job, and that evolution is “only a theory,” this sort of irresponsible activity undermines public faith in science, and lets the politicians tighten the purse strings with impunity.

Lazaridis’s largess is, in fact, more typical than not of the nature of science and technology advancement in the last decade. It’s those in the private sector who gave us the BlackBerry and the iPhone, Google (and Google Earth and Google Maps and Google Books), Facebook and Twitter, electronic-ink devices like the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader, tiny and cheap netbook computers, and more.

Of course, there’s fundamental science behind all those things. But for a decade now, most of the best US grads in math and computer science either went to work for the National Security Agency, where they labour on classified projects, or to private-sector firms such as Google, Microsoft, or Electronic Arts, where everything they do is covered by nondisclosure agreements. God knows what they came up with in the last decade; it’ll never be published in journals.

We’ve ended up with a broken system in which the best science is hidden away, and even the top journals are suspect (Hwang Woo-suk’s fabrications appeared in Science, the world’s leading scientific journal).

Still, as in everything, the most powerful force is the economy. Ten years ago, the economy was bright, and those of us who dream for a living could suggest that enormous strides would be made. Ten years later, the economy is in tatters, and hundred-billion-dollar space voyages and new supercolliders are off the agenda.

Did the aughts, the zeros, or whatever term we end up using for this now-completed decade, live up to my hopes for scientific advancement? No. Will the next decade? Perhaps — but if we want it to, we should take two lessons from the ten years that just ended.

First, we have to let our governments know that science is important to us. Second, we have to let our scientists know that absolute honesty is the only acceptable course.

Whether either faction will get these messages, only time will tell. Let’s compare notes again at the end of 2019.

Robert J. Sawyer‘s Nebula Award-winning science-fiction novel The Terminal Experiment has just been reissued by Penguin Canada.

Robert J. Sawyer online:

5 Responses to Science: Ten Lost Years

  1. I was happy to hear a little while back (on CBC Radio 1) that most of the uproar about emails regarding climate change was overblown. The scientists and their overlords did eventually look back at everything and said that their testing was indeed rigorous and not falsified.

    An interesting post. Thanks!

  2. Zafri M, there is a good video on YouTube that looks at the controversy surrounding some of the stolen emails and the following claims that they proof climate change is a hoax. It is part 6 of an interesting series that examines climate change science in general.

  3. Don’t knock industry-driven research! It brought us transistors, lasers, UNIX, and so much more. While some research at Google and Microsoft is secret, quite a bit is still published in the leading conferences and journals.

    In the last decade, we saw the humane genome project completed ahead of schedule, robotic vehicles race in the DARPA Grand Challenge, huge advances in automated information processing technologies (e.g., Google), and so much more. In the next decade, we’ll continue to see computer science transform daily life and lead to huge advances in other fields, such as biology and sociology.

  4. I didn’t knock industry-driven research, Daniel. I said that much research in industry is done under non-disclosure agreements and not published in journals — and that’s true. Oh, and let’s not forget the downside of patent wars and frivolous claims stifling innovation, the folly of patenting genes, and so on.

  5. Zafri, au contraire. Have a look at this editorial from the July 17, 2010, NEW SCIENTIST: Without candour, we can’t trust climate science.

Leave a Reply