9th December 2013
Gothenburg

Exploring the Future of Energy

From NWD12: Will the genomic revolution produce a second Renaissance?

Given the number of famous scientists around, it’s easy to forget that the full title of the Nobel Week Dialog includes the phrase “impact on society.” But Helga Nowotny, the President of the European Research Council, was on hand to provide a remedy. Nowotny is a social scientist, and she spends a lot of time thinking about how science and society influence each other.

Nowotny started out by noting that genomics is often mentioned a promising things (like the “promise of genetic medicine” and so forth). But the term promise, she noted, implies a contract, and she did her best to make the details of that contract explicit. And the payoff of getting this contract right in the case of genetics, she suggested, might be a second Renaissance.

Although attempts to understand the natural world have existed in almost every culture, institutionalized science of the sort we practice today only dates back a few hundred years. As it has grown, it’s become increasingly reliant on society for support. In return, Nowotny said, science makes a number of promises. One is the promise of information that’s above the vagaries of political and religious figures.

But, more frequently, science has been viewed as offering something a bit more nebulous: progress. In this sense, Nowotny noted, genomics is just the latest in a long line of scientific developments that has been promoted as having the potential to usher in a sort of golden age.

But we’re now far past the point, Nowotny said, where we believe in a simple, linear slope of progress, and we tend to focus on the fact that the challenges we face are complex and often overlapping. But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that, in some cases, science really has delivered on its end of the promise. Nowotny showed two graphs, one that showed a rapidly increasing life expectancy, and another showing that the number of hours worked by people in industrial societies has plunged in concert. And her point was inadvertently driven home by Steven Chu’s later talk, which showed how crop yields per acre farmed have also shot up as a result of the application of science to agriculture.

(It’s easy to forget both of these as you work in a high-stress work environment and get bombarded by disease-of-the-week coverage in the news media.)

So, the promise of genomics comes at a time where we’re a bit cynical about the nature of progress and haven’t fully appreciated the promises science have delivered on. But Nowotny mentioned a few additional features that could make the reception to genomics different from past cases of scientific promise. For one, it’s being received by a world that’s now globalized. The knowledge generated by it will be able to rapidly spread to just about every culture. But, at the same time, the risk is that the benefits won’t be, which could exacerbate existing tensions.

Nowotny also referred to the work of Edmund Husserl who, in 1936, proposed the concept of the “life world.” This concept, inspired by quantum mechanics, focused on the growing gap between the world that scientists were describing and the world that’s intuitive and commonly experienced by most people. Genomics and the insights it provides clearly run the risk of creating the same sort of gap between what we learn and our intuitive experiences.

But Nowotny clearly felt that the payoffs of keeping that divide from widening were tremendous. She suggested we had the potential for a “Second Renaissance,” one that also hard a focus on the individual, but now placed that in the context of the similarities we share with all other humans, as well as our similarity with other species. She clearly felt there was a key role for her field (the humanities) to play in keeping the gap between science and the public from widening. But the exact means for doing so appeared to be a subject for a separate talk.

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