Don't know which planet Stephen Hawking hails from but this Guardian Education piece by Tom Wakeford could hardly be more timely:
"Stephen Hawking, the acclaimed scientist and writer, reignited the debate over genetic engineering yesterday by recommending that humans change their DNA through genetic modification to keep ahead of advances in computer technology and stop intelligent machines from 'taking over the world'."
Bring science down to earth
Tom Wakeford argues it is time to re-capture the original meaning of industry and promote its liaison with university scientists to the benefit of society
Friday August 31, 2001
By popular lack of demand, the myth of pure science is dead. The last decade has seen steadily dwindling numbers of students opting for courses in physics or chemistry. Even, the 'pure' biology subjects, such as biochemistry and genetics, only maintain their recruitment numbers by taking on a combination of aspirant medics and pharmaceutical job-hunters. Pure science deserves to have been deserted because it was based on a lie - that there existed a fundamental form of objective enquiry built on unbending physical laws.
For years the white-coated high priests of the modern age told us their abstract intellectual pursuits were the standard by which we should judge our own knowledge. Even complex social and political issues could, according to Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, be sorted out via "a genetically accurate and hence completely fair code of ethics". In the UK, science guru Lewis Wolpert told us that all true science "aspires to be like physics", while Stephen Hawking announced that we had "mathematical laws that govern everything we normally experience".
The scientific disasters during the childhoods of today's students, from Bhopal to BSE, has shattered any notion that laboratory-bound boffins could ever make themselves "masters of the universe", as Hawking predicted. The reality of the Chernobyl disaster and the Foot and Mouth epidemic demonstrates not only the ubiquity of human error, but that the world is inherently messier than can ever be predicted in equations.
Students now know the physics that gives them instant connectivity via their mobile phones might also give them a tumour. The epidemic of largely pollution-related diseases, such as cancer, are largely beyond the reach of even the most advanced genetics.
It is not only the self-delusions of pure scientists that puts off its potential apprentices, but the values they seem to hold. University researchers appear increasingly interested in their own career advancement and financial gain rather than the open pursuit of knowledge for the public good. According to Gaia Hypothesis pioneer James Lovelock, "science has become like the fast food business", with researchers looking for the minimum unit of research that can constitute a journal article. During the 1970s, the tradition of science in the public service was rejected by a committee chaired by Lord Rothschild in favour of a customer and contractor relationship between researchers and their funders. This has produced a scientific establishment in the UK that is almost incapable of giving balanced advice.
The knee-jerk response to these trends in science and technology are often calls for a return to state-funded pure research that would be objective and reliable, and attract back the students. But this historical idyll is itself a myth. Publicly-funded scientists were the unaccountable elite who created the mega-schemes of nuclear power and industrialised agriculture during the 1950s that we now abhor.
My alternative prescription is not to run away from the world of globalised capital and trans-national corporations but to engage with it. It is, as leaders from Thatcher to Blair have wanted, to develop closer, cross-fertilisation between scientists and industry.
Yet unlike successive government's laissez-faire mentality, this vision would allow academic scientists to provide the kind of critical scrutiny that would benefit their fellow citizens, and which has been largely lacking in universities for a generation.
Industry did not always mean smoking chimneys and corporate finance. As Raymond Williams showed in his book Keywords, still read by most humanities undergraduates, industry used to mean "cleverness in doing". It was during the industrial revolution that it was re-cast to denote the whole manufacturing process.
After a century in which productivity and the bottom line have often failed to serve the public interest, it is time to re-capture the original meaning of industry and promote its liaison with university scientists in a way that will both enthuse students and serve society's needs. Driven by the need to maximise share-prices or voter-appeal respectively, corporations and governments spend few resources on looking at the possible drawbacks of a particular technological innovation. Instead they are caught out when technology bites back and are forced into fighting rear-guard actions.
From the early 1970s, academic scientists publicly called for an end to the 'predict and provide' model of road building, pointing out it causes a vicious circle of increased road use and hence demand for further expansion. How different our major cities would look today if there had been closer government-corporate-academic links that could have prevented the gridlock and pollution of today. The threat to workers in car factories could have been avoided if manufacturers had been industrious in its original sense. Guided by scientists knowledge about sustainable development, the factories could by now have been diversified into making something more useful than belching 15ft-long constituents to traffic jams. By now we might have even created a wind generation manufacturing industry to rival that of Denmark, but instead we have the universities in east London clamouring to help Ford build more cars and dig their workers own Dagenham graves.
The School of Independent Studies at Lancaster University has been linking students to intelligent businesses and NGOs for more than 15 years. Its list of satisfied collaborators include local health authorities, waste disposal companies and even the Guardian. Lancaster has discovered its students gain immense satisfaction and career enhancement by designing solutions to real-world problems.
The transformation of traditional subject-bound science courses into trans-disciplinary, problem-orientated projects would not only excite students once more, but could also bring at least as many fundamental theories and scientific controversies into courses as in the past. The dramatic jump in applications to Teeside University's course in environmental management when it changed its name from environmental sciences could be evidence of potential student demand. Instead of ranting that modern students are too lazy for their 'hard' sciences, it is time for pure scientists to remove their gaze from the cloudless horizons of "blue skies" research and return it back to earth.
Tom Wakeford's book, Science for the Earth, co-edited with Martin Walters, was published by John Wiley in 1995.