President Barack Obama’s appointment this week of the members of the USA’s Science and Technology Council looks as if it has fallen into exactly the same trap as the UK does in these matters: it has too many scientists and not enough technologists.
I remember, some years ago, David Potter, founder and CEO of Psion and a member of the UK’s Council of Science and Technology, addressing exactly this issue.
“In Britain the science establishment is enormously powerful – the Royal Society is intertwined into government”, said Potter, “when the Prime Minister has a problem he asks the Royal Society, and he asks the Council for Science and Technology – I am one of the few technologists on the Council – it is dominated by scientists. I don’t know of any Royal Society of Technology.”
“Why are we so outstanding in science and so poor in turning that into something commercially successful?” asked Potter, “I’ve just finished a year’s investigation in the Council of Science and Technology on this very issue. The answer lies in the fact that in Britain we have high regard for science. Science asks questions about the secrets Nature guards. ‘What is matter made of?’ ‘What is gravity?’ ‘Why do apples fall?’ We have high regard, and high esteem, for the activities associated with finding out about the things which were not made by Man. But we don’t have high regard for understanding the things which are made by Man.”
“What motivates scientists is curiosity”, added Potter, “it’s nothing more or less than that. So why is it that we don’t have the same regard for asking questions about things which Man makes as for the things made by Nature? I think the questions that technologists ask are just as profound as those which scientists ask.”
“Scientific curiosity isn’t particularly noble”, said Potter, “scientists are not following some priestly goal to benefit mankind – they’re just motivated by curiosity. It’s selfish. There is no great nobility in curiosity, just as there’s no great nobility in making a bigger chip”.
“There are actually three processes involved in creating new products: first, understanding the science; second understanding technology; third finding an application for commercial benefit. In Britain we have the strange idea that the latter two activities – are somehow less than the first. In America it’s the other way round,” concluded Potter.
But maybe, with the heavily scientific make-up of President Obama’s new Council, that’s all going to change.