The future is not what it used to be
1961, what a year, eh? The OECD, George Clooney and Barack Obama were born. And of course, Yuri Gagarin proved Joseph de Lalande wrong, yet again.
In 1782, a year before the first manned balloon flight took off from the site that would become OECD headquarters [insert your own hot air joke here], the eminent expert from the Académie française declared that: “It is entirely impossible for man to rise into the air and float there. For this you would need wings of tremendous dimensions and they would have to be moved at a speed of three feet per second. Only a fool would expect such a thing to be realised.”
Of course, it’s easy to get it wrong, but it takes a rare form of genius to fail to predict what has actually happened. So a special mention goes to the Engineering Editor of The Times, who, three years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, informed the cream of British society that: “All attempts at artificial aviation are not only dangerous to human life, but foredoomed to failure from the engineering standpoint.”
Britain’s outstanding record in technology forecasting was maintained by Astronomer Royal Richard Van Der Riet Woolley, who in 1956 declared that “space travel is utter bilge”. The following year, his predecessor, Sir Harold Spencer Jones, showed that timing is everything when he upgraded the rating to “Space travel is bunk” two weeks before the first Sputnik.
Four years later, Gagarin orbited the Earth, and only eight years after that Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon. Astronautics was the most spectacular proof that the pace of change in science and technology had accelerated dramatically, but major breakthroughs were occurring in every domain in the 1960s.
One Brit who got it right was Harold Wilson, the future prime minister, who said that that the type of country being “forged in the white heat” of the scientific and technical revolution would need different ways of dealing with the potentials and problems of the new discoveries.
However, policymaking often lags behind the pace of change in science and technology, and we’re no exception: the OECD’s Committee for Scientific and Technological Policy wouldn’t be created until 1972, long after Committees overseeing other areas such as agriculture or tourism.
Then as now, scientific discoveries that would prove crucial often appeared unimportant to all but a few specialists. For instance, putting E. coli cells in a cold calcium chloride solution doesn’t sound exciting, but they then become permeable to nucleic acid fragments, allowing scientists to carry out numerous genetic engineering operations.
This illustrates a dilemma for science and technology policy makers. They are faced with demands to finance “useful” research, but it’s practically impossible to predict where science will lead, and which technologies will ultimately make the most money.
A funding strategy that relies on spotting winners ignores the role that unforeseen connections and insights play in science and technology.
The OECD has been a major influence in changing how governments approach science, technology and innovation, and how economics as a discipline tries to understand these phenomena. In 1963 already, Science, economic growth and government policy convinced governments of something that seems obvious now: that science policy should be linked to economic policy. In 1971, Science, growth and society anticipated many of today’s concerns by emphasising the need to involve citizens in assessing the consequences of developing and using new technologies.
For many experts though, the OECD’s major contribution was the concept of national innovation systems, presented in 1992 in a landmark publication, Technology and the Economy: The Key Relationships. Economists working at the OECD pioneered a new approach that saw innovation not as something linear, but as a kind of ecosystem involving interactions among existing knowledge, research, invention; potential markets; and the production process.
Since then, the way science is done has been changed radically by the connectivity offered by the Internet and other communication tools. This allows scientists and technologists to interact better with each other, and it also allows scientists and technologists to take advantage of other types of expertise to develop the tools and foster the innovation required to meet emerging economic, sustainability and even social challenges.
This means that what has been called the science of science policy will have to change too. The OECD will have a role to play in this. As in the past, the OECD will be expected to spot emerging issues; provide the data, analyses, and policy recommendations needed to make the most of them; and to provide a forum where problems, contradictions and differing aspirations can be debated in an objective, productive fashion.
Looking back at looking forward – great forecasting mistakes