Tag Archives: creative destruction

Creative destruction for Canada’s fundamental science

After receiving an ‘invitation’ from the Canadian Science Policy Centre, I wrote an opinion piece, drawing on my submission for the public consultation on Canada’s fundamental science research. It seems the invitation was more of a ‘call’ for submissions and my piece did not end up being selected for inclusion on the website. So rather than waste the piece, here it is,

Creative destruction for Canada’s fundamental science

At a time when we are dealing with the consequences of our sins and virtues, fundamental science, at heart, an exercise in imagination, can seem a waste of precious time. Pollution and climate change (sins: ill-considered uses of technology) and food security and water requirements (virtues: efforts to improve health and save more lives) would seem to demand solutions not the flights of fancy associated with basic science. After all, what does the ‘big bang’ have to do with potable water?

It’s not an unfair question despite the impatience some might feel when answering it by citing a number of practical applications which are the result of all that ‘fanciful’ or ‘blue sky’ science. The beauty and importance of the question is that it will always be asked and can never be definitively answered, rendering it a near constant goad or insurance against complacency.

In many ways Canada’s review of fundamental science (deadline for comments was Sept. 30, 2016) is not just an examination of the current funding schemes but an opportunity to introduce more ‘goads’ or ‘anti-complacency’ measures into Canada’s fundamental science efforts for a kind of ‘creative destruction’.

Introduced by economist Joseph Schumpeter, the concept is derived from Karl Marx’s work but these days is associated with disruptive, painful, and regenerative innovation of all kinds and Canadian fundamental science needs more ‘creative destruction’. There’s at least one movement in this direction (found both in Canada and internationally) which takes us beyond uncomfortable, confrontative questions and occasional funding reviews—the integration of arts and humanities as an attempt at ‘creative destruction’ of the science endeavour.

At one point in the early 2000s, Canada developed a programme where the National Research Council could get joint funding with the Canada Council for the Arts for artists to work with their scientists. It was abandoned a few years later, as a failure. But, since then, several informal attempts at combining arts, sciences, and humanities have sprung up.

For example, Curiosity Collider (founded in 2015) hosts artists and scientists presenting their art/science pieces at various events in Vancouver. Beakerhead has mashed up science, engineering, arts, and entertainment in a festival founded and held in Calgary since 2013. Toronto’s ArtSci Salon hosts events and installations for local, national, and international collaborations of artists and scientists. And, getting back to Vancouver, Anecdotal Evidence is a science storytelling series which has been appearing sporadically since 2015.

There is a tendency to dismiss these types of collaboration as a form of science outreach designed to amuse or entertain but they can be much more than that. Illustrators have taught botanists a thing or two about plants. Markus Buehler at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has used his understanding of music to explore material science (spider’s webs). Domenico Vicinanza has sonified data from space vehicle, Voyager 1, to produce a symphony, which is also a highly compressed means of communicating data.

C. P. Snow’s ‘The Two Cultures’ (lecture and book) covered much of the same territory in 1959 noting the idea that the arts and sciences (and humanities) can and should be linked in some fashion was not new. For centuries the sciences were referred to as Natural Philosophy (humanities), albeit only chemistry and physics were considered sciences, and many universities have or had faculties of arts and sciences or colleges of arts and science (e.g., the University of Saskatchewan still has such a college).

The current art/sci or sci-art movement can be seen as more than an attempt to resuscitate a ‘golden’ period from the past. It could be a means of embedding a continuous state of regeneration or ‘creative destruction’ for fundamental science in Canada.

Thinking about nanotechnology, synthetic biology, body hacking, corporate responsibility, and zombies

In the wake of Craig Venter’s announcement (last week) of the creation of a synthetic organism (or most of one), Barack Obama, US President, has requested a special study (click here to see the letter to Dr. Amy Gutmann of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues). From Andrew Maynard’s 2020 Science blog (May 26, 2010) posting,

It’s no surprise therefore that, hot on the heels of last week’s announcement, President Obama called for an urgent study to identify appropriate ethical boundaries and minimize possible risks associated with the breakthrough.

This was a bold and important move on the part of the White House. But its success will lie in ensuring the debate over risks in particular is based on sound science, and not sidetracked by groundless speculation.

The new “synthetic biology” epitomized by the Venter Institute’s work – in essence the ability to design new genetic code on computers and then “download” it into living organisms – heralds a new era of potentially transformative technology innovation. As if to underline this, the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce will be hearing testimony from Craig Venter and others on the technology’s potential on May 27th – just days after last week’s announcement.

Andrew goes on to suggest while the ethical issues are very important that safety issues should not be shortchanged,

The ethics in particular surrounding synthetic biology are far from clear; the ability to custom-design the genetic code that resides in and defines all living organisms challenges our very notions of what is right and what is acceptable. Which is no doubt why President Obama wasted no time in charging the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to look into the technology.

But in placing ethics so high up the agenda, my fear is that more immediate safety issues might end up being overlooked.

Hilary Sutcliffe in an opinion piece for ethicalcorp.com (writing to promote her organization’s [MATTER] Corporate responsibility and emerging technologies conference on June 4, 2010) suggests this,

Though currently most of the attention is focused on the scientists exploring synthetic biology in universities, this will also include the companies commercialising these technologies.

In addition, many organisations may soon have to consider if and how they use the applications developed using these new technologies in their own search for sustainability.

This is definitely an issue for the ‘Futures’ area of your CSR [corporate social responsibility] strategy, but there is a new ‘ology’ which is being used in products already on the market which may need to be moved up your priority list – ‘Nanotechnology’ or (‘nanotechnologies’ to be precise) – nano for short.

What I’m doing here is drawing together synthetic biology, nanotechnology, safety, and corporate social responsibility (CSR). What follows is an example of a company that apparently embraced CSR.

In the wake of BP’s (British Petroleum) disastrous handling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the notion of corporate social responsibility and  ethics and safety issues being considered and discussed seriously seems unlikely. Sure, there are some smaller companies that act on on those values but those are the values of an owner and are not often seen in action in a larger corporate entity and certainly not in a multinational enterprise such as BP.

Spinwatch offers an intriguing perspective on corporate social responsibility in an article by Tom Borelli,

To demonstrate “responsibility”, BP spent huge sums of money on an advertising campaign promoting the notion that fossil fuel emissions of carbon dioxide is to blame for global warming and its investment in renewable energy was proof the company was seeking a future that was “beyond petroleum”.

The message was clear: oil is bad for society and BP is leading the way in alternative energy.

The BP experience shows there are serious consequences when companies demagogue against its core business. …

… “If you drew up a list of companies that Americans are most disappointed in, BP would definitely feature,” said James Hoopes, professor of business ethics at Babson College, Massachusetts.

Ironically, BP’s experience delivered the exact opposite of CSR’s promise: the company’s reputation was ruined, the company is the target of government agency investigations and Congressional hearings and its stock price lags far behind its competitors and the S&P 500.

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of BP’s failures, many critics blamed corporate greed – not CSR – as the cause. They believed the profit motive forced the company to skimp on basic pipeline maintenance and worker safety.

This conclusion is far from the truth. If profit were its only goal, BP would define its role in society as a company that safely producing oil while providing jobs and energy for the economy.

This article was written in 2006 and presents a view that would never have occurred to me. I find Borelli’s approach puzzling as it seems weirdly naïve. He seems to be unaware that large companies can have competing interests and while one part of an enterprise may be pursuing genuine corporate social responsibility another part of the enterprise may be pursuing goals that are antithetical to that purpose. Another possibility is that the company was cynically pursing corporate social responsibility in the hope that it would mitigate any backlash in the event of a major accident.

Getting back to where this started, I think that nanotechnology, synthetic biology and other emerging technologies require all of the approaches to  ethics, safety rules, corporate social responsibility, regulatory frameworks, and more that we have and can dream up including this from Andrew (from May 26, 2010 posting),

Rather, scientists, policy makers and developers urgently need to consider how synthetic biology might legitimately lead to people and the environment being endangered, and how this is best avoided.

What we need is a science-based dialogue on potential emergent risks that present new challenges, the plausibility of these risks leading to adverse impacts, and the magnitude and nature of the possible harm that might result. Only then will we be able to develop a science-based foundation on which to build a safe technology.

Synthetic biology is still too young to second-guess whether artificial microbes will present new risks; whether bio-terror or bio-error will result in harmful new pathogens; or whether blinkered short-cuts will precipitate catastrophic failure. But the sheer momentum and audacity of the technology will inevitably lead to new and unusual risks emerging.

And this is precisely why the safety dialogue needs to be grounded in science now, before it becomes entrenched in speculation.

You can read more about the science behind Venter’s work in this May 22, 2010 posting by Andrew and Gregor Wolbring provides an excellent roundup of the commentary on Venter’s latest achievement.

I agree we need the discussion but grounding the safety dialogue in science won’t serve as a prophylactic treatment for public panic. I believe that there is always an underlying anxiety about science, technology, and our place in the grand scheme of things. This anxiety is played out in various horror scenarios. I don’t think it’s an accident that interest in vampires, werewolves, and zombies is so high these days.

I had a minor epiphany—a reminder of sorts—the other night watching Zombiemania ( you can read a review of this Canadian documentary here) when I heard the pioneers,  afficionados and experts comment on the political and social implications of zombie movies (full disclosure: I’m squeamish  so I had to miss parts of the documentary).This fear of losing control over nature and destroying the natural order (reversing death as zombies and vampires do) and the worry over the consequences of augmenting ourselves (werewolves, zombies and vampires are stronger than ordinary humans who become their prey) is profound.

Venter’s feat with the bacterium may or may not set off a public panic but there is no question in my mind that at least one will occur as synthetic biology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology take us closer to real life synthetic and transgenic organisms, androids and robots (artificial humans), and cyborgs (body hackers who integrate machines into their bodies).

Let’s proceed with the discussions about safety, ethics, etc. on the assumption that there will be a public panic. Let’s make another assumption, the public panic will be set off by something unexpected. For the final assumption, a public panic may be just what we need. That final comment has been occasioned by Schumpeter’s notion of ‘creative destruction’ (Wikipedia essay here). While the notion is grounded in economics, it has a remarkably useful application as a means of understanding social behaviour.