Towards a New Renaissance Period in Science

by Barry J. Hardy

Barry Hardy is a Hitchings-Elion Fellow at Oxford University. (bhardy

We currently stand at a crossroads on the evolutionary trajectory that our Science and Engineering (S&E) system is following. The incoming roads are paved with a diverse history and background of change: the end of the Cold War and accompanying peace dividend, the start of the information and biotechnology ages, an employment crisis, reconstruction and downsizing, changing management practices and more. Receding in the distance is a great century for S&E: an expansive era of science research in a journey of exploration through the Golden Age, a period of great discovery from quantum mechanics to DNA to the laser. The present seems turbulent and troubled in comparison: shrinking budgets, unemployment, uncertainty, restructuring. Clearly these problems produce significant stress for individuals and institutions. Viewing current changes as revolutionary, our system has possibly reached a phase transition; if we prefer an evolutionary viewpoint perhaps we have reached a punctuated change in equilibrium period.

In order to maintain a dynamic S&E system for the next century, established S&E institutions need to embrace change through nimble adaptation, to consider flexibility over command structures and to reevaluate their approaches to education and research. Most importantly, in an era of increasing technical sophistication, a system which reaches out to educate and communicate effectively with all of society will be one which is most economically and socially viable and strong.

Scientist Freeman Dyson notes: "The difficulty in imagining the future comes from the fact that the important changes are not quantitative. The important changes are qualitative, not bigger and better rockets but new styles of architecture, new rules by which the game of exploration is played." As we approach the beginning of the 21st century the development of new technologies, particularly information and computer- related, and the end of the expansionary period of academic science, are ensuring the emergence of new rules.

No one can predict the future. Nevertheless, I propose in this article that the postmodern era of science we are entering will be a New Renaissance (NR) period of science. My discussion of this near future, covering the next 25-100 years, is intended to be suggestive and contemplative rather than predictive. Situations of current change will also be considered along with appropriate actions by individuals and institutions. These issues will be framed within the context of the increasingly important environment of global communities and marketplaces. My focus will be on common sense approaches rather than sophisticated technical plans. I particularly take a bottom-up viewpoint from the perspective of our new generation of scientists and engineers facing future challenges. This new generation will work in a S&E period considerably different to the one their previous generation faced; understanding and adaptation by all to that situation must continuously be sought. Meaningful distributed communication between each sector of our S&E system will be paramount.

It is unclear if interference by strong forces (e.g., government action) is necessary or desirable in all or any of these difficult and changing situations. What I believe is crucial is a willingness for established institutions to be open-minded and to avoid the inclination to raise the ramparts against the seemingly barbaric forces of new ways and different methods.

The New Renaissance Period

In the original Renaissance there was an explosion of knowledge in the arts and sciences; more importantly there was significant transfer of ideas and skills between different emerging areas. The technical ability was developed to record and reproduce the knowledge in printed form and it was disseminated through Pilgrim-like travel to societies across Continental Europe. And so the seeds for the Enlightenment and the modern era of science were sown.

In the approaching NR period S&E workers will be expected to have an increased range of talents in diverse areas of knowledge. An NR scientist may require knowledge in several traditional disciplines to follow a particular path: e.g, a theoretical chemical biophysicist may require skills in chemistry, biology and physics as well as computational science. The scientist will be expected to be both a generalist and a specialist. There will be increasing demands to communicate S&E knowledge to a general audience, to provide an unprecedented understanding of sophisticated technology to the public, to work with scientists from a multitude of disciplines and cultures. There will be new convergences of art and science in the understanding and portrayal of our universe, and more emphasis on the synthesis of information in novel combinations that allow new applications and discoveries. The engineer of the period will enjoy decreased waiting times between the discovery of new concepts in basic science laboratories and their incorporation into design and manufacturing systems in industry; there will be increased on-the-fly innovation in flexible environments that allow rapid application of the best brainstorming ideas. Good ideas will count more than ever as their application becomes more routine.

The information tools of this New Renaissance period already ensure an almost inevitable transmission of knowledge between all areas of the world at unprecedented rates. We are currently being bombarded with hype about the Internet (the Net) yet few understand it well. Nevertheless it is very probable that in the near future we will have many-to-many distributed communications in most sectors of our society. The front wave of this revolution will continue to occur in S&E systems before hitting the general public. Our research groups will increasingly involve collaborations that transcend boundaries traditionally raised between individuals: scientists will work together on a routine or daily basis whether they are in a university, industry or government lab, regardless of their continent, culture, race or politics.

There are unattractive but believable scenarios of our future: a world trapped by technology and plagued with increasing underemployment, dehumanized relations, a system with profits retained for a select super-rich who inhibit further innovation and entrepreneurship, a succession of nightmare Neuromancer virtual experiences, a Player Piano world where Ghost Dance Society shirts will be burned in feeble protest. Decisions affecting the choices of our future landscapes are the critical ones to be made by our future generation of leaders.

Optimistically, our NR period instead will lead to the formation of thriving virtual communities, academies, networks and businesses. An ensuing globally-inclusive New Enlightenment will reach unprecedented numbers of the world population through economical globally-distributed information and education resources. The benefits of technology will be shared, living conditions improved, a more complex but fit world built. There will be many challenging roles for our new generation to assume in achieving these goals.

Global Communities and Marketplaces

We live in a time when boundaries are being broken in all parts of our lives. We travel more, we communicate on the Net, we have friends and work partners of diverse background, race and place. We increasingly work in and with international institutions from universities to multinational companies. Now, with the Net, international connections and affiliations are being brought into the world of the small group: the project team, the lab group, the small business, the schoolroom, and even the family home. We live in a world of increasing connectionism. From this sea of distributed networks an infrastructure for global communities and marketplaces is arising that transcends previous limitations of time and place. It is within this infrastructure that our S&E research, business, technology development and application will be carried out.

Government departments, institutions and companies will have to adjust and adapt to this future. They will have to be more connected to other parts of society, more permeable at their boundaries, more lateral in their communications, less regulated and more flexible in their procedures, less command-oriented and more receptive to emergent bottom-up ideas, projects and innovation.

Foreign students make up a large proportion of U.S. graduate students (in part one could argue because graduate school has looked like an increasingly irrational economic choice for indigenous Americans in recent years). It will become increasingly important that American students themselves study and travel to many other parts of the world to connect with their global peers. It is becoming easier to bring together a group of international scientists as a working team for a particular project, after which each continues on respective endeavors.

As we exchange opinions on current topics on the Net our cultures merge, clash and intertwine; due to the power of the communication possibilities of the Net it is very feasible for individuals to develop and market their own services and products or to publish their own writings or research. It is possible to bring together global communities to work at achieving common goals, to create resources that improve the quality of the environment for all members, to cooperate and work towards common ends. We have unprecedented opportunity to overcome fear and ignorance if this technology-based opportunity is shared as broadly as possible in all corners of society.

There will be new opportunities but there also will be difficult adjustments to the new, global competition. There will be increased advantage to being small, specialized and skillful. S&E consultants will flourish and there will be an increase in small business startups. We need to support these enterprises through maintenance of a strong small business investment program. Independent scientists who previously would have entered academia will turn instead to entrepreneurship. Because of the Net they will have a vast customer base to draw from; marketing, communication and information technology capabilities will be critical for success. Those skills must be nourished in our S&E educational system.


Our educational system has to recognize that it operates in these enhanced global connections. Our undergraduate students are entering an international world. Many of our S&E graduate students will assume roles in non-academic positions requiring diverse skills in communications, business, social or psychological areas that their predecessors were never expected to have. The quiet academic scientist working away on their specialized esoteric problem in a quiet corner of the world will still exist. The large academic groups will still form at the top institutions and carry influence in S&E. But they will not dominate the system as much as they did in the recent era of academic research expansion. Relatively fewer students will be preparing for a career-long academic research career.

One might think that if there is an overpopulation of scientists, then the answer is simply to reduce the number of science graduates. Although the latter idea has merit, it is not necessarily the only answer. Our S&E educational system also needs to be adapted into preparing people for a much broader range of roles in our society with increased respect given to those roles.

A good example is a child at play, using intricate games, exploration and a vibrant imagination. The magic of discovery becomes lost in an educational system that relies on programs, assignments and procedures accompanied by too many regulations and restrictions. Our students should be taught the basics of S&E much earlier in their schooling rather than requiring attendance at excessive lectures, courses and quizzes. When a child wants to learn a sport do you sit down with chalkboard diagrams or do you accompany them to the park with a ball? The latter method is not only more enjoyable but presumably more effective. Throughout the system we need to balance our activities so that students can be free to explore and learn in a variety of ways that escape the tedium of the chalkboard or its modern equivalent.

We should increasingly support student-centered learning environments in which educators guide rather than instruct. The value of independence in graduate research should be cherished and the best researchers should be supported with strong fellowship and training grant programs. Adapting to the increasing number of S&E graduate students not entering academia will require an increase in the strength of continuing education and professional masters programs.

Improved public communication on S&E issues and advanced education of all on S&E issues will become increasingly important in a world of increasing technical sophistication. In a world of many-to-many communications, a society that cannot understand or respond to S&E issues will be at a severe disadvantage. A culture that has difficulty understanding gravity on the moon is one in which S&E will only penetrate with lowest-common-dominator products and services.

Science Research

NR Science will move away from the command science model. Increasingly there will be less of an emphasis of large groups following the directions of a single senior scientist. Groups will be more flexible, more amoebic, more dynamic. Students will have multiple mentors. They will concurrently be members of numerous ongoing project groups. They might have an art project that visually communicates the aesthetics of their science research or a philosophy project which explores its foundations and limitations with fuzzy thinking. They will be more directly funded, more responsible for their own decision-making and more tightly connected to Net-based information resources. They will collaborate globally, form rapid-action dovetailing work groups, improvise and test ideas on-the-fly, publish and discuss their results almost instantaneously using electronic conferencing and publishing procedures. Increasingly simulations will be performed to test experimental and theoretical ideas, to replace or augment real experiments. Laboratory robots, equipment consoles and satellites may be controlled by students in remote experiments from their workstations.

In the NR period of research we will step away from the management of basic science research. Basic science is the world of the unexpected, the unplanned, the serendipitous. Basic science projects are not engineering projects and cannot be tightly managed. Creative basic research requires the ability to relax control and guide with a minimum of effort. We must reduce the recent increase of paperwork and procedures that is stifling innovation in research today. Command procedures should be deregulated and command control distributed. We should spend less time justifying research and more time studying and applying the results.

Computer Simulation and Information Technology

A traditional scientist, groomed in the exacting art of experiment and transported to the present, might be surprised to observe the well-respected, diverse activities of some scientists and technologists. There are physicists who talk about The Mind of God (Paul Davies), Eastern Philosophy (The Tao of Physics, Fuzzy Thinking), the hopelessness of predicting the future of systems containing a large number of independent variables (chaos, complexity), the limits of science, the merging of the machine and biological (Kevin Kelly). There are the futurists in artificial intelligence (Marvin Minsky), those who talk of nanotechnology (Eric Drexler), terraforming planets, of global intelligent organisms (Gaia). Fiction of the past (William Gibson, Kurt Vonnegaut, Isaac Asimov) seems to intermingle with new realities. Perhaps the biggest current change in S&E has been the magnitude in the growth of computer and information technologies. Investment in areas such as high-performance computing and bioinformatics will be crucial to maintain technological leadership in the early period of the next century.

Computer simulations, in recent years, have grown exponentially to form a cornerstone of a triangular foundation in S&E which they share with theory and experiment. The growth in the capabilities of supercomputing resources in the last decade has allowed a tremendous number of complex physical, biological and chemical phenomena to be simulated with increasing reality. We have moved from small problems to simulations that track global climate changes and follow astrophysical events. We are using computational techniques to design drugs with rational design or

evolutionary biological methods. I expect new biophysical principles will be discovered with molecular simulations that will use millions and billions of atoms. The atomic detail of the cell will be scrutinized with the electronic magnifying glass of the super- computer. Parallel computing techniques are now maintaining the breakneck increase in computing power as well as providing new hardware architectures for computational studies of the brain itself. The great biologist Francis Crick is currently pointing our way towards the study of the frontier of consciousness and the human mind.

The hype of the information age is transforming itself into the reality for the computer user. It is becoming increasingly common for a researcher to have the ability to convert a structure from a remote database into manipulatable graphical images on a screen. Computer simulation, information technology and electronic publishing technology will converge into an era of interactive communication of a type never before possible. Authors will become publishers, readers will readily be able to swop roles with authors by interactively viewing data from a research paper and starting their own simulated experiment, to ask "what if?" questions about changes in experimental conditions or model parameters, to add their contribution to the growing "live" paper, to forward their own interpretation.

Virtual Enterprises and Innovation

Amidst the technology, never underestimate the usefulness of play. In 1980 two students, Robert Trubshaw and Richard Bartle, at the University of Essex, U.K., developed a type of software environment known as a MUD (multi user dungeon) for fantasy games of exploration. Although not originally intended for other purposes, MUDs are now being used for virtual conferencing, for the development of a business environment for the future (Xerox's PARC Jupiter Project) and for Cyberion City, an educational environment being built primarily by school children. Is it not possible that children themselves could create a richer educational environment than any group of adults has previously designed for them?

It is currently possible and relatively straightforward to maintain a virtual office, to hold virtual meetings and lectures exchanging electronic discussions and pictures, to meet and work with collaborators in all parts of the world and to exchange daily information, graphics, and analysis with them - all in cyberspace. This is not fantasy; it is happening daily. The boundaries between reality and virtuality are being blurred. The addition and acceptance of encrypted digital cash (i.e., anonymous electronic money exchanged on the Net) will bring a new virtual business world into birth in full raging cry. The Net is exploding into a massively complicated web of interactions far beyond anyone's control. It is in this environment that the S&E of the future will be conducted. Institutions will have to decide where they stand; I believe that those who adapt well to change are the ones that will survive in years to come.

The Young Scientists' Network

The Young Scientists' Network (YSN) is a manifestation of a mixture of characteristics of the current situation of new and young scientists. The YSN is an electronic network that connects scientists (primarily in the U.S. but also other parts of the world) to discuss current issues in science policy and employment. Electronic daily discussions explore in an open forum the methods by which we conduct S&E. The YSN has fought against propaganda and falsities; I believe at this stage it has proven wrong the NSF's portrayal of a shortage of S&E personnel in the U.S., commonly called "the Myth". The YSN lobbies Congress, has members running successfully for Society offices (such as the American Physical Society), and runs job list and grant information aid services. New innovative ideas floated on the YSN are being adopted by scientific societies and government offices. It is prompting an institutional examination of conscience by all.

I see YSN emerging as a global network that will connect, in the tens and hundreds of thousands, new scientists on a worldwide basis that transcends discipline, culture and geography. Such a YSN will be a tremendous mobilizing force in protecting and advancing the rights, interests and future of the new generation of NR Scientists. This is a fundamentally positive interaction for maintaining a dynamic and healthy S&E system. I would like to see other parts of our S&E system build effective interfaces with YSN at this early stage when the foundations of the network are being laid.

Many young scientists currently face an employment crisis and difficult career decisions; they have amassed tremendous skills and records at enormous sacrifice only to find themselves discarded or unwanted. Young S&E workers should become increasingly politically active, lobby for representation in scientific bodies and academies, actively seek fair treatment and adequate working conditions. Young scientists need to form their own destiny by taking control of their own destiny. They can initiate personal virtual enterprises, universities and corporations and establish

networks that provide information on employment, grants and services. Where old systems seem indifferent to their concerns they must build new ones. They must forge their own frontiers in business, in engineering and in society. The future is in their dreams and it is their future that the S&E system must prepare them for.

Civic Interaction

It is hard for any politician to justify S&E research spending to voters who are losing both jobs and earning power, who are inheriting a future of reduced opportunity, increased crime and decreasing wealth. Technology does not necessarily guarantee the pursuit and happiness of all, and if it is used primarily to line the pockets of a small elite it may very well suffer a public backlash of huge proportions. Discontent with government-funded science has already surfaced and may deepen. An S&E system that aims at maintaining a priesthood rather than reaching out to this public may find itself increasingly threatened.

We face a major crisis in a possible future, a world envisioned in Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut where computers and automated machinery carry out many tasks and unemployment is the dominant occupation. To that possible vision, let us add the current developments in computer technology, brain research and artificial intelligence, biotechnology and nanotechnology that promise engineered smart products and even life in a completely new era.

Technology without humanity can limit as much as liberate. As the physical and conceptual barriers to new technology are lowered, we will increasingly need to concentrate on social and psychological matters of human interaction; we cannot ignore the human spirit and dignity. Some paths may be best left unfollowed. In this kind of a broad civic interaction of an informed public interfacing with a sympathetic and communications- oriented professional body will create a society that is stronger in its use of S&E to advance its overall quality of life and to ensure informed decision- making of S&E issues that adequately address human dimensions.

Final Words

How should institutions react or change their approaches in adapting to the above scenarios? I think that we should hesitate to intervene with strong forces (e.g., government action) to change a course here or there at will. Rather we should attempt to be aware and flexible, continuously making small adaptive changes so as to co-evolve effectively into this new era. Our current young scientists will have to take on new roles in society that may differ significantly to their forbearers. Our university education system, particularly at the graduate level, needs to undergo reconstructive changes to react to the reality of training fewer numbers to a traditional academic career. An S&E career will have to be more financially rewarding to attract and keep smart people - young researchers currently go through many years of financial hardship that is increasingly becoming more unattractive.

We cannot separate S&E activities from the rest of society or lose sight of our humanity. It is not in general correct to assume that we can separate S&E activities from the rest of society, to enter an order of quiet scientific practice in a world apart. We must increasingly connect with the public, our neighbors, other institutions in society. Scientists must leave labs to talk to politicians in committee, visit children in schools, connect with other cultures abroad, forge collaborations and cooperative ventures of diverse shape and form. The best technology of the future will increasingly involve an understanding of the human condition. Its explanation and presentation may intertwine with the arts for poetic interpretation and communication like never before. We will be pilgrims of knowledge freed from the chains of rigid discipline, we must leave the command science approach behind to pursue more flexible and dynamic structures, to explore avenues that transcend old boundaries. We will solve new problems in new ways and do so with passion and conviction. In a New Renaissance period we will view a rich colorful world through our kaleidoscopes. Our journey of exploration through that glorious future will work towards the benefit of all.

K. Eric Drexler, C. Peterson and G. Pergamit, Unbounding the Future, New York: William Morrow, (1991).

David Goodstein, Scientific Elites and Scientific Illiterates, Sigma Xi Forum, Feb 25-26 (1993). Available on World Wide Web at William J. Kaufmann III and Larry L. Smarr, Supercomputing and the Transformation of Science, Scientific American Library, (1993).

Kevin Kelly, Out of Control, Fourth Estate, (1994).

Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community, Secker & Warburg, (1994).

Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano, Flamingo, (1952).

M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity, Penguin Books, (1992).

Young Scientists' Network Archives, available on World Wide Web at Robin Burke <> Last modified: Tue Mar 7 12:50:12 1995