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Engineering for the better?

February 22, 2008 By Philip Ball This article courtesy of Nature News.

Many of the grand technological challenges of the century ahead are inseparable from their sociopolitical context, says Philip Ball.

At the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston last week, a team of people selected by the US National Academy of Engineering identified 14 ‘grand challenges for engineering’ that would help make the world “a more sustainable, safe, healthy, and joyous — in other words, better — place".

It’s heartening to see engineers, long dismissed as the lumpen, dirty-handed serfs labouring at the foot of science’s lofty citadel, asserting in this manner their subject’s centrality to our future course. Without repeating the debates about the murky boundaries between pure and applied science, or science and technology, it is easy to see that technologists have altered human culture in ways that scientists never have. Plato, Galileo, Darwin and Einstein have reshaped our minds, but there is hardly an action that we can take in the industrialized world that does not feel the influence of engineering.

This, indeed, is why one can argue that a moral, ethical and generally humanistic sensitivity is needed in engineering even more than it is in the abstract natural sciences. Engineering is a political as well as a technological activity: whether they are making dams or databases, engineers are both moving and being moved by the sociopolitical landscape.

This is abundantly clear in the Grand Challenges project. The vision it outlines is, by and large, a valuable and praiseworthy one. It recognizes explicitly that “the most difficult challenge of all will be to disperse the fruits of engineering widely around the globe, to rich and poor alike". Its objectives (see the list) are “goals for all the world’s people".

But it is hard for an exercise like this to move beyond the limited scope it sets itself. This is a self-described list of engineering challenges, but one can hardly read it without feeling that it is really a list of all the big challenges facing humankind that have some degree of technical content. The solutions, and perhaps even the choices, are then bound to disappoint, because just about any challenge of this sort does not depend on technology alone, or even primarily.

Take health, for example. Most of the diseases in the world (and AIDS is now only a partial exception) are ones we know already how to prevent, cure or keep at bay. Technology can play a part in making such treatments cheaper or more widely available (or, in cases of water-borne diseases, say, not necessary in the first place) — but in the immediate future, health informatics and personalized medicine (the medical priorities identified here) are hardly the key requirements. Economics, development and diet are likely to have a much bigger effect on global health than cutting-edge medical science.

Following the trend

Many of the problems identified arguably say more about the current obsessions of Western culture than about what engineering can do or what goals are most urgent. Two of the challenges are concerned with security — or what the committee calls vulnerability — and two focus on the personalization of services – health and education — that have traditionally been seen as generalized ‘one size fits all’ affairs. There are good arguments for why it is worthwhile to recognize individual differences – not all medicines have the same effect on everyone (for good or bad), and not everyone learns in the same way. But the current emphasis on tailoring of public services to our personal needs is largely a fashion; the list’s emphasis on this too shows that the engineers are stuck in the Zeitgeist, rather than truly drawing on a broader humanistic perspective to set their goals.

It is particularly striking how ‘vulnerability’ and security are here no longer discussed in terms of warfare (one of the principal engines of technological innovation since ancient times) but attacks on society from nefarious, faceless aggressors such as nuclear- and cyber-terrorists. These are real threats, but presented this way in terms of engineering challenges makes for a very odd perspective.

For example, let us say (for the sake of argument) that there exists a country where guns can be readily bought at the corner store. How can we make the law-abiding citizen safe from firearms falling into the hands of homicidal madmen? The answers suggested here are, in effect, to develop technologies for making the stores more secure, for keeping track of where the guns are, for cleaning up after a massacre, and for finding out who did it. To which one might be tempted to add another humble proposal: what if the shops did not sell guns?

To put it bluntly, discussing nuclear security without any mention of nuclear non-proliferation agreements and efforts towards disarmament is nonsensical. In one sense, perhaps it is understandably difficult for a committee on engineering to suggest that part of the solution to a problem might lie with not making things. Yet it would be a chance missed if engineers were to hold back from making recommendations about solutions other than strictly engineering ones, either because they fear professional or political censure, or because they might just be ignored.

Wider wisdom

None of this is to deny the value of the Grand Challenges project. But it highlights the fact that one the most important goals is to integrate science and technology with other social and cultural spheres. This is a point made by philosopher of science Nicholas Maxwell in his 1984 book From Knowledge to Wisdom.

To blame science for the ills of the world is to miss the point, says Maxwell. “What we urgently need to do — given the unprecedented powers bequeathed to us by science — is to learn how to tackle our immense, intractable problems of living in rather more intelligent, humane, cooperatively rational ways than we do at present … We need a new kind of academic inquiry that gives intellectual priority to our problems of living — to clarifying what our problems are, and to proposing and critically assessing the possible solutions.”

He proposes that, to this end, the natural sciences should include three domains of discussion: not just evidence and theory, but also aims: “this last category covering discussion of metaphysics, values and politics.”

There is certainly much to challenge in Maxwell’s position. Trofim Lysenko’s fatefully distorted genetics in the Stalinist Soviet Union, for example, had ‘values and politics’; and the hazards of excessively goal-driven research are well-known in this age of political and economic short-termism. Maxwell tackles such criticisms in his book, but his wider point — that science and technology should not just be cognisant of social and ethical factors but better integrated with them — is important.

The Grand Challenges committee is full of wise and humane engineers and scientists. Next time, it would be interesting to give a stronger voice to people who share those attributes without having the professional attachments to engineering and science.

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