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Science: Ten Lost Years
by Robert J. Sawyer
First published under the title "The Future Disappoints"
as an op-ed piece in The Ottawa Citizen, the largest-circulation
newspaper in Canada's capital city, Wednesday, December 9, 2009; this is
the definitive version of the text.
Copyright © 2009 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
Ten years ago, in 1999, I published a novel called FlashForward;
ten years later, it's a TV series for ABC.
Ten years ago, I set that novel's opening at the Large Hadron
Collider at CERN with my characters undertaking an experiment to
find the Higgs boson the particle believed to endow other
particles with mass. Ten years later, after a comic series of
delays, that experiment is finally running in reality.
If only all my other sunny predictions about science and
technology from a decade ago had come true! Back at the end of
the 1990s, all of us who trade in futures were being interviewed
about what we thought the next decade would hold. My colleagues
and I blithely spoke about the promise of nanotechnology, the
miracles of stem-cell research, the revitalization of the
And now the decade we described is coming to an end, and, well,
the same pundits are making the same predictions for the
next decade. What went wrong?
An easy, and not untrue, answer is to say: George W. Bush.
After all, it was his administration that put the skids on
embryonic stem-cell research; it was he who called for humanity
to go to Mars but earmarked no money for the venture; and it was
he who embarked on a pointless war that beggared the federal
coffers, leaving little for fundamental research.
(I'm hardly the first to make such observations, and I commend to
your attention the book The Republican War on Science by
But it would be facile to just blame governments including
our own, which has certainly not been as friendly as it should
have been to pure science.
Thank goodness that BlackBerry co-inventor Mike Lazaridis stepped
up to the plate and provided the initial private financing
not to mention a couple of major booster shots along the way
to fund the world-class Perimeter Institute for
Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, which just celebrated its tenth
anniversary. It's the kind of project our tax dollars
should have paid for on their own.
Also, to put it all down to politicians would be to ignore a
harsh reality of the past decade: the promise of science has,
too often, been derailed by the scientists themselves.
Why is stem-cell research faltering? In part because greedy
scientists falsified data and used unethical techniques in
gaining embryonic tissue. Most famously, in 2006, South Korean
stem-cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk was indicted for fraud,
embezzlement, and violations of his country's bioethics laws,
after announcing bogus breakthroughs.
And if that wasn't bad enough, the single most important
scientific issue of the decade whether climate change is
human-caused was dealt a huge blow in November. E-mails
leaked from Britain's Climate Research Unit showed that
scientists there apparently cooked the books to prove that humans
are at fault for climate change.
Sadly, the two cases are crucially similar: stem-cell research
really does hold the key to curing diseases, regenerating organs,
and prolonging life. And, I'm convinced, human activity has
contributed hugely to changes in our weather. But in a world in
which it's mainstream to claim that the moon landings were a
hoax, that 9/11 was an inside job, and that evolution is "only a
theory," this sort of irresponsible activity undermines public
faith in science, and lets the politicians tighten the purse
strings with impunity.
Lazaridis's largess is, in fact, more typical than not of the
nature of science and technology advancement in the last decade.
It's those in the private sector who gave us the BlackBerry and
the iPhone, Google (and Google Earth and Google Maps and Google
Books), Facebook and Twitter, electronic-ink devices like the
Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader, tiny and cheap netbook
computers, and more.
Of course, there's fundamental science behind all those things.
But for a decade now, most of the best US grads in math and
computer science either went to work for the National Security
Agency, where they labour on classified projects, or to
private-sector firms such as Google, Microsoft, or Electronic
Arts, where everything they do is covered by nondisclosure
agreements. God knows what they came up with in the last decade;
it'll never be published in journals.
We've ended up with a broken system in which the best science is
hidden away, and even the top journals are suspect (Hwang
Woo-suk's fabrications appeared in Science, the world's
leading scientific journal).
Still, as in everything, the most powerful force is the economy.
Ten years ago, the economy was bright, and those of us who dream
for a living could suggest that enormous strides would be made.
Ten years later, the economy is in tatters, and
hundred-billion-dollar space voyages and new supercolliders are
off the agenda.
Did the aughts, the zeros, or whatever term we end up using for
this now-completed decade, live up to my hopes for scientific
advancement? No. Will the next decade? Perhaps but if
we want it to, we should take two lessons from the ten years that
First, we have to let our governments know that science is
important to us. Second, we have to let our scientists know that
absolute honesty is the only acceptable course.
Whether either faction will get these messages, only time will
tell. Let's compare notes again at the end of 2019.
Robert J. Sawyer's Nebula Award-winning science-fiction
Terminal Experiment has
just been reissued by Penguin Canada.
More Good Reading
Rob's op-ed piece on The Canada Council and science fiction
Rob's op-ed piece on multitasking and attention deficit
Rob's op-ed piece on a bright idea for atheists
Rob's op-ed piece on Stephen Hawking's call to colonize space
Rob's op-ed piece on Michael Crichton blending fact and fiction
Rob's op-ed piece on the private sector in space
Rob's op-ed piece on privacy who needs it?
Rob's op-ed piece on technology and the end of culture
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