President Obama Chooses Scientists Over Technologists

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.

 

Tags: appointment, gravity, prime minister, Psion, regard, scientists

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7 Comments

  1. May 05, 2009 12:01

    It is a deep seated cultural thing. Historically scientists were always upper class amateurs whereas the technologist who drove the industrial revolution were mainly lower class. And, of course there was, among the intelegentsia, always an ingrained distrust of new money made in trade rather than old inherited money.
    It, after all, is only within the life time of this old engineer that any major English technical institution has been awarded University Status.
    The USA, of course, has always had a very high regard for the self-made man.

  2. David Manners
    May 02, 2009 13:07

    Unimportant, I agree with everything you say. With the big semi companies unwilling to invest in fundamental R&D, and VCs very unlikely to back unproven, futuristic technologies, where are the next advances to come from? So you are right, it has to be government-backed R&D.

  3. unimportant
    May 02, 2009 08:10

    Hi David,
    Of course a council on Science and Technology should have both type of members. But as President Obama has indicated the issue is the creation of wealth in the longer term, my point is that the application of what is here today to get product out is generally funded and overseen by purely commercial interests that have little long term perspective on how and why companies have made it this far, and how companies (i.e. employers) will move ahead in the future, coping with disruptive technologies, which they themselves may not own or control.
    There have been attempts in the past to use regulation to encourage a move to investing and inventing new technologies, but companies, have resisted as they are driven by the needs of the bottom line. Often giving up expertise and a leading edge in the future as too expensive to maintain and not commercially viable.
    It takes a longer term view than investors and technologists have available to them to discover, apply and potentially to see commercial applications for a new scientific approach, and then for technologists to present products to the market.
    There was a time when more of this was done in-house by technologists in large companies, at that time representation of technologists on panels making decisions about future scientific and technology needs would have been vital to ensure a balanced view of strategic needs.
    Today things are different (not including the debilitating effects of the credit crunch and its aftermath). With the immediate and short term bottom line driving all activity, generally it falls to the public sector and hence government to fill the gap, in order that we may thrive in the future.

  4. David Manners
    May 01, 2009 11:13

    You are right, Unimportant, but until the time when the US and UK have separate Copuncils for Science and for Technology it seems that ‘Councils for Science and Technology’ should be reasonably fairly balanced between scientists and technologists – if they are to achieve anything. Mind you the chances of them achieving anything are pretty problematic if history is any judge.

  5. Unimportant
    May 01, 2009 03:55

    Hello David,
    I think that the view that science and technology are distinct is only a matter of time scales.
    Pure science, becomes applied science and with that fundamental understanding comes breakthrough technologies that can sweep the world.
    If anything the UK is too short of pure science research now and even applied research is at a low level, hence the future of our technology base must be in question. Just look at the number of university departments closing or changing focus in the last 20, 10, or even 5 years.
    As an example lets just take the development of the LCD. It didn’t happen until fundamental breakthroughs in pure and applied science took place and now there is a successful technology base that is sweeping all before it.
    Of course as usual during the commercialisation phase we sort of forgot about adequate investing so all the main panel manufacturers are abroad, but we still benefit as long as the patents hold out.
    I can not stress enough that in my opinion technologists, in terms of creating future wealth, have least to offer, other than funding start-ups and to some extent commercialising applied science to put their companies ahead. Even this commercialisation of applied science is being undertaken by publicly funded organisations as many technologists are unwilling to fund this aspect these days (in the last 10 years or so).
    Their great merit is in understanding and applying the now. The future is a real hard sell.

  6. David Manners
    April 30, 2009 14:40

    Thanks Chris, I think you’re right. Technologists seem to me to be more keen on producing the next great product than sitting on a committee, whereas scientists seem drawn to committees like ducks to water.

  7. April 30, 2009 14:21

    Hi David,
    I think an important difference is the upper echelons of each profession. I feel that technologists aspire to continue on to make that next great product and help push it into the world (either as a top designer, entrepreneur, CEO, etc). Scientists have the capability to continue researching certain topics, but to drive their community in new directions, one of the best ways to push new agendas is not necessarily to present a new finding but instead to work on changing policy matters and be in the position to make decisions on funding. So while I don’t think it is an excuse for not having techno-centric people on the council, I think it helps to explain why there might be more candidates available.
    Another important consideration is that prestige and visibility can often drive such decisions. Given the choice between in-the-trenches engineers/technologists vs. dual-PhD head of a national laboratory (with hundreds of publications), I would think the latter would get the nod first.
    Perhaps I am wrong on these things, I am young and inexperienced in the world of politics and technology. However, I am glad there is ANY focus on the science/technology sector in America, so I will remain hopeful for whomever the President appoints.
    ~Chris Gammell

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