Three rules for technological fixes

The series of essays on innovation at Nature continues to provide interesting and thought provoking content. The most recent article, “Three rules for technological fixes” (subscription required), is by Daniel Sarewitz and Richard Nelson, and discusses how to distinguish between problems that are amenable to technological fixes, and those that aren’t. Sarewitz and Nelson develop their argument by contrasting childhood vaccination with teaching children to read. In both of these areas there are extensive bodies of research, but, they argue, research-based innovation has been much more productive in the vaccination area than in supporting the pedagogy of reading. I have to admit to not knowing too much about the latter area, but the points made seem sensible to me. Their major point is that vaccines work everywhere and the research has largely reached a consensus. In contrast the best approach to teaching reading will be highly context dependent and so there is no consensus within the research literature. On the basis of this comparison, the article identifies three rules for identifying research areas that are likely to achieve big impact:

  • The technology must largely embody the cause–effect relationship connecting problem to solution
  • The effects of the technological fix must be assessable using relatively unambiguous or uncontroversial criteria
  • Research and development is most likely to contribute decisively to solving a social problem when it focuses on improving a standardized technical core that already exists.

In the final part of the article Sarewitz and Nelson apply their rules to the area of climate change, and conclude that it would be productive to focus research efforts on air capture technology (approaches to removing CO2 from the atmosphere) rather than low or zero emission energy sources. I am sure this suggestion will trigger some debate, given the strong emphasis currently placed on low-carbon energy.

I think the article raises a really interesting question about how strategic research topics are selected. There is a strong tendency, in the UK at least, for Government to define policy or economic challenges and then leave it to the research community to define specific research areas to address those challenges. But if you buy into Sarewitz and Nelson’s argument, then there is also a role for Government (or research funding agencies) to be more directional based on an assessment of where greatest impact is likely to be achieved, using the sort of careful analysis and clear criteria that are presented in this article.

Of course, it is important to remember that researcher-led research that is not directed towards solving specific problems also has the potential for impact in unanticipated ways. Whether you agree with Sarewitz and Nelson or not, the decision about the balance between directed and researcher-led research is a central question in research policy. But given how difficult striking that balance is, I think ensuring that the resources applied to directed research are used as effectively as possible is key. And researchers aren’t always the best people to make that judgment.