Post Scientific Society and R&D 2.0

I've spent the best part of a year on a Foresight Working Group exploring the role of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) in the culture, economy and well-being of Ireland. As the year has progressed, and the Celtic Tiger has turned into the Celtic Kitten, the words innovation and job creation have been heard with ever increasing frequency, and not a little desparation. At the same time, there has been an increasingly bright light shone on scienctific research in ireland, with the question of job creation looming large over such conversations. Depressingly, that debate has often been cast in a two cultures type way as a science v AHSS but perhaps those in the latter camp might be relieved to hear that many see their contribution – in combination with the focus on science and technbology – as a way out of the mess. 

At the last meeting of this Working Group someone was touting a copy of a paper call, rather grandly, The Post-Scientific Society. Simply put the paper argues the existence of a post scientific that...

…will have several key characteristics, the most important of which is that innovation leading to wealth generation and productivity growth will be based principally not on world leadership in fundamental research in the natural sciences and engineering, but on world-leading mastery of the creative powers of, and the basic sciences of, individual human beings, their societies, and their cultures".

The author, Christopher Hill (no not the Marxist historian), is not claiming that science, and fundamental scientific research won't have a role to play, but rather that the squeezing of the valuable juice out of such work will be dependent on other disciplines and location

...the leading edge of innovation in the post-scientific society, whether for business, industrial, consumer, or public purposes, will move from the workshop, the laboratory, and the office to the studio, the think tank, the atelier, and cyberspace.

Hill is suggesting that this is so because ina post-scientific society success depends on what I would call a form of brokerage or arbitrage between perspectives

…[it is] a society in which cutting-edge success depends not on specialization, but on integration— on synthesis, design, creativity, and imagination.

An obvious criticism of this sort of 'ages of man' narrative is that the transitions between such ages – from stone to iron to steam etc are never total. Hill is at pains to make clear that he's not suggesting that social science and the world of the innovators post-it note will take over the job of scientists. More he's suggesting that science will be at the background. 

Whatever the merits of his argument, and there is certainly a rhetorical grandstanding in it which seems designed to raise the heckles of many, Hill is keen to press home what this means for how we think about education and training which is where I started from in this post. His point is that America may lose it's status as powerhouse of science-based R&D – arguably it already has, in part by willing off-shoring to lower cost centres in the emerging economies of the world -(and is heavily reliant on patents and PhD created and written by foreigh students and researchers) – but that is not as big a problem as it might appear. The future of innovation will be be making sense and creating value from the stock pile of IP and research, not just amassing it in a large industrial economy. 

What this means for employers, according to Cambridge academic and HBR blogger Navi Radjou in a post about R&D 2.0 is, amongst things, hire more anthropologists and ethnographers. And or educators this means training and turning them out. Being one myself I wouldn't disagree but I'd say the broader point is about ensure education systems turn out people that can think, that can synthesis and analyse and who are curious and hungry to learn. And that is an innovation challenge in its own right. 

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The Insititute for the Future blog comment on Hill's piece here.