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ASU professors explore future of science at national meeting

portrait of ASU professor Lawrence Krauss
February 19, 2014

Several Arizona State University faculty played a big role in exploring the future of science and research at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held in Chicago this year. AAAS is the world’s largest science and technology society, and its annual meeting draws thousands of scientists, engineers, educators, policymakers and journalists from around the world.

Topics discussed by ASU professors included: responsible innovation; the role of ethics in research; how to bring stakeholders together on large-scale environmental problems; long-term food security in a world primed for climate shocks; how nanoelectronics can improve renewable energy technologies; and the future of physics and whether or not it can it be projected through the science fiction of today.

What is responsible innovation?

An engineer works in the lab on a promising research project. He follows all the rules, works with the materials available to him and his research results in a new technological innovation. Five or 10 years down the road, a byproduct of that new technology proves to be harmful to the environment. What if this unintended consequence could have been avoided had the engineer made a simple change in his research process?

While it may be difficult to foresee, the work of scientists and engineers often has a societal impact. ASU’s Erik Fisher is interested in helping them think about these impacts before it’s too late. Fisher, an assistant professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies, leads a project called Socio-Technical Integration Research (STIR), which includes studies of 30 labs in three different countries to see how responsible innovation can best be achieved.

While “socio-technical integration” is a new way of doing science that may take some getting used to, it could make a big difference for the impact of future research on society.

“We can’t move forward laying the foundations for a new technological infrastructure that’s going to change social, ethical, cultural relations, without checking with the people and providing an input for them so that they realize there are values at stake here, and you need to weigh in,” Fisher said.

Fisher’s talk was part of the AAAS symposium “Responsible Innovation in a Global Context,” which was organized by David Guston, director of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society and a professor of politics and global studies at ASU.

The ethics of scientific research and why they matter

Discovery and innovation are important to science, but how are they connected to each other, and how can they be fostered to benefit the wider public? Jason Robert, ASU’s Lincoln Chair in Ethics and Dean’s Distinguished Professor of Life Sciences, helped organize and participated in the AAAS panel, “Discovery and Innovation: What’s the Connection and Why Does It Matter?” ASU Regents’ Professor Jane Maienschein moderated the session.

“While most of the people at the AAAS meeting are presenting their research results, we’re asking scientists to think harder about what they’re doing in their laboratories,” Robert said. “Especially when some National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health programs are undergoing scrutiny from lawmakers and their constituents, it’s important that scientists think critically about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and how they justify it.”

Robert believes it is important for ethicists and philosophers to work directly with scientists to improve the pursuit of discovery and innovation, since their research could potentially change the world for better, or possibly, for worse.

“If we have our own symposium at a philosophy of science meeting, then we’re only talking to other philosophers,” Robert said. “If we do it at the AAAS meeting, we’re connecting with scientists in valuable ways.”

Bringing stakeholders together on big issues

Solving crucial environmental issues such as global warming and clean water supply involves managing competing interests, uncertainty and risk, and this is best done through meaningful collaboration in a neutral environment. ASU Barrett Honors College Lecturer John Parker discussed the ways in which scientists, stakeholders and policymakers can communicate effectively through boundary organizations, which are designed to facilitate collaboration and information flow between research and public policy communities.

In his talk, “On Being All Things to All People: Boundary Organizations and Scientists,” Parker discussed how addressing pressing problems such as water availability, emerging energy technologies, and species decline and extinction requires integrating knowledge and perspectives from varied communities who come together and work for a positive solution through ad hoc working groups and boundary organizations.

“The scale of the issues are critical at this time in history since the future of humans depends on the ability to manage complex problems that cross scales and involve many different groups who at times cooperate and at other times are in conflict with one another,” Parker said.

An archeologist’s perspective on food security and climate shock

What role does pre-existing vulnerabilities play for people who experience a climate shock? Four ASU archaeologists are looking into this as part of an international team examining how people can be most resilient to climate change when it comes to food security. Margaret Nelson, an ASU President’s Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, reported on the team’s project.

The group questioned whether vulnerability to food shortages prior to a climate shock – not the actual experience of the food shortage – is related to the scale of impact of that shock. They found a strong relationship.

Nelson said the team used long-term archaeological and historical data from the North Atlantic Islands and the U.S. Southwest to form the basis of their understanding of changing dynamics in these areas. Each case in their study included information on evolving social, political and economic conditions over centuries, as well as climate data.

“The pattern is so consistent across different regions of the world experiencing substantially different climate shocks that the role of vulnerability cannot be ignored,” Nelson said. Their findings support the argument for focusing on reducing vulnerabilities to climate shocks to boost resilience, which will ultimately lead to fewer required recovery efforts when crises occur.

Nanotech could reshape renewable energy

Nanoscale technology looks promising as a major contributor to advancements needed to fulfill the potential of emerging sources of clean, renewable energy. Progress in the comparatively new area of nanoelectronics in particular could be the basis for new manufacturing processes and devices to make renewable energy systems and technologies more efficient and cost-effective.

Stephen Goodnick, a professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering at ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, focused on what nanoelectronics could do to help push solar energy systems to the next level.

Titled “Pathways to Next-Generation Photovoltaics,” Goodnick’s presentation showed how innovations driven by nanoelectronics research can enable photovoltaic technology to significantly improve our ability to convert sunlight and heat into electric power. He talked about how new types of nanostructure-based devices make it possible to produce photovoltaic solar cells that achieve better energy-conversion efficiency.

“With the use of nanoparticles, made into nanostructures, we could, for instance, improve optical collection, enabling systems to trap more light for conversion into electrical power,” he said. “Using nanomaterials, we could make solar cells even thinner but still more efficient, and we could increase the capacity of energy-storage devices.”

Is truth stranger than fiction? Yes, especially for science fiction

From warp drives to hyperspace, science fiction has continuously borrowed from, and sometimes anticipated, the state of the art in scientific progress. This has resulted in the perception that science and science fiction have a causal relationship, one finding direction from and fulfilling the science fantasy laid out before it.

But that is rarely the case, according to Lawrence Krauss, a Foundation Professor in the School of Space and Earth Exploration and the Department of Physics. No doubt, science fiction has taken inspiration from the cutting edge science of its day. But Krauss believes science fiction is not a match for reality.

“Truth is stranger than fiction,” Krauss said. “The imagination of nature far exceeds the human imagination, which is why we constantly need to probe the universe via experimentation to make progress,” he said. “In fact, I tend to think that what makes science fiction most interesting is what they missed, not what they got right.”

Krauss, a renowned theoretical physicist and science popularizer, was giving his talk, “Physics of the future.” In it, he described several science fiction themes that just didn’t translate well to the real world. Examples included H.G. Wells' belief that atomic weapons would unite the world into one society, and risk-free, nearly carefree, space travel for humans.

“Nevertheless it is instructive, and fun, to compare the ‘science’ of science fiction with that of the real world,” said Krauss, who also is the director of the Origins Project at ASU. “Rather than dwelling on things that don’t work, it is fun to explore closely related things in the real world that might work.”

Written by Allie Nicodemo, Jennifer Banks, Jason Krell, Julie Newberg, Rebecca Howe, Joe Kullman and Skip Derra