“Distinguishing science from technology”
March 7, 2016
I worked very closely with several national research institutes in Daedeok Valley back in 2008-10, and I participated in many heated conversations with the researchers working there about the future of Korea’s science and technology. At the time the researchers lamented the fact that Korea had lost the Ministry of Science and Technology that they associated with Korea’s rapid industrialization and long-term support of research.
But I must admit that I had a very different idea concerning this issue which I did not dare tell anyone. I felt that rather than reestablishing the Ministry of Science and Technology, Korea rather should split the “science” and “technology” apart and create a Ministry of Education and Science and a Ministry of Industry and Technology.
I think that combining science with education is appropriate in that both education and science should be based on the systematic pursuit of truth using both logic and imagination. Also, combining science with education could do much to improve the quality of education. Many government officials, and school administrators, have come to regard education as a service, or perhaps as a utility, rather than seeing it as the pursuit of truth and of ethical understanding. The tragic result of that misunderstanding has been the reduction of education to the transmission of facts, with little concern for their significance. Bringing science and its pursuit of truth into the ministry of education could create a new awareness of the pursuit of truth in learning, rather than the memorization of discrete facts.
Similarly, because technology involves the creative application of scientific principles to real-life challenges, it is a good match for industry. Unfortunately, many Koreans have fallen into the lazy and dangerous habit of viewing industry as an extension of finance, just a means of creating profit for investors. That narrow view of industry has led us away from the essential point of industry: the application of technologies for the solution of problems in human society.
We assume that industry creates wealth by making products that people want to consume and then we use those profits to buy products to solve the problems that we face. But there may be problems for which the best solution is simply give the product away for free so that we are sure everyone has it.
Moreover, confusing science with technology in this age when technology is advancing at exponential rate is dangerous because technology produces a virtual reality that is misleading. People may see images of trees and clean water on television or in video games and feel that somehow the environment is healthy even as deserts spread and the air becomes more polluted around them. If we confuse science with technology in our minds, we will not be able to properly assess the negative impact that technology has on our lives, or to come up with strategies for controlling the use of technology.
Technologies like video games can mislead people as to the nature of reality and distract them so much from the real issues in our society that they are no longer able to systematically think about serious challenges. The profits to be made from video games are not important compared to the negative impact on society and on the competitiveness of Korea of the misuse of such technologies. Sadly, many Koreans increasingly waste their lives on computer games rather than engage in their families to solve problems or in their communities to create greater harmony.
The result of such a technology-driven society is a tremendous passivity on the part of the individual and the assumption that he or she is a consumer to which everything provided is a service. The result of this obsession with technology is a breakdown of governance. People within institutions go about their daily tasks using computers but no longer have any larger concept of where their company is heading, what the direction should be for the country and the long-term development of new technologies and services that not only have a market value, but also address the problems in our society.
We must actively manage and regulate the use of technology in society so that it is used in a positive manner. For example, we need to use science in order to establish rules about when students should use computers in learning and when they should not be allowed to use computers. But this result can only be achieved through the use of science, a science of technology not through the use of technology.
Korea has tremendous potential to develop in the future, but if we are seduced by the excitement or the distractions produced by the potential and cannot assess the potential of the technology in a scientific manner, we will know what uses of the technology are appropriate, and which not. To assume that simple demand, or worse impulse, is a driving principle for the development of technology is irresponsible and a betrayal of our children and their children who will live in the world we are creating.
We have an ethical responsibility to think scientifically about how technology impacts society and to select uses for technology based on their positive impact on our society. A nation run by consumers will have a very grim future indeed.
Concerns may be different in Korea, but the problem I see in the US is that funding for science is driven by an expectation of immediate returns, immediate uses for the science and immediate patents. This to me is a far bigger problem than video games, as it results in major reductions in funding for ‘pure’ science. In my own field, epidemiology, National Institutes of Health grant funding has faded to the point that the average proposal has less than a 10% chance of being funded, compared to the 80’s when about 2/3 were funded. The result is that epidemiologists are becoming contracted workers for industry, especially pharmacy, and etiologic investigations of diseases are going by the wayside. Having pure science and technology close by each other, and conversing so that the engineers and such can find applications for the pure science, as I hope Korea is doing in the various ISTs, is a good idea, but pure science needs to be encouraged for its own sake.