Science, social science and problem solving

A guest post by John Green

A good friend, and a good scientist, has long bemoaned the paucity of scientifically qualified persons in upper echelons of power in the UK – and anywhere else for that matter. In his view (and mine, for what it’s worth) those who make plans for an unknowable future purely on ‘gut feeling’, ‘it worked before’, ‘it’s part of our tradition’, are rushing blindfold into the future. Any or all of those things might be true but our environment is constantly evolving, and the conditions that made for previous successful outcomes may no longer apply.

Science looks for evidence of how things happened in the past to try to predict what might occur in the future. We need people of vision who can speculate about what the future might hold for us but we also need those who can analyse and gain some understanding of what has gone before, who can experiment with the knowledge they have gained to highlight future scenarios and can monitor change and seek to correct for unanticipated deviations.

Another scientist, a friend of mine in later life, had gained distinction in his own field of aeronautical engineering and had then become a very effective civil servant; but he left the public service for industry because he judged that no scientist would ever reach the highest civil service rank, that of Permanent Secretary. That was in the 1950s. If anyone with a scientific education has climbed those dizzy heights in the intervening period it has never come to my notice. Scientific thought, evidence-based decision making, plays too little part in public affairs.

However, there is another side to this. Having been a member of a scientific society for over 70 years, and having used science in a half century working life, I retain a general interest in scientific issues in the media; and my impression is that the most senior figures, societies and organisations of ‘science’, which usually is taken to refer to the natural sciences,  are constantly asking for, pleading for, even demanding more and more funds. They promising tangible benefits but without much consideration of how the ‘benefits’ might impact on ‘society’. Scientists may regret that the educational background of lawyers, politicians, captains of industry, denies them the use of the rigour of scientific methodology or even a proper appreciation of advice from the scientific community. But the science bodies themselves appear to make little concerted effort to consider the potential impact of their explorations on the individuals and communities which comprise society as a whole. George Bernard Shaw’s Andrew Undershaft, in the play [amazon_link id=”1420930346″ target=”_blank” ]Major Barbara [/amazon_link]was a chemical manufacturer rather than a scientist but he said of the chemical which he offered for sale, ammonium nitrate, that what happened next was not for him to decide. Whether it was used as an explosive or as an agricultural fertiliser was neither his concern nor responsibility.

[amazon_image id=”158081381X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Major Barbara[/amazon_image]

Natural, ‘hard’, science, biology, chemistry physics and so on, scarcely recognise the existence of social, ‘soft’, science, sociology, economics and the like, the study of the interactions between individuals and groups of individuals. And when it comes to research funding for science in the UK it has been reported that social science is funded by much less than a tenth of the sums lavished on hard science. This cannot be right.

Some years ago I happened across a paper on how to arrange a work station so that all the levers, handles and switches were in the optimum position for the operator. I knew of research going on into novel machinery and took the paper to the overall chief, someone I had known for years. I found that he wasn’t interested; he told me his people were looking to robot operation, which would have the additional advantage that, at least at that time, robots were not being recruited to unions with membership of the TUC. I did try to suggest that machine operators are also consumers. It seemed unlikely that robots would develop an appetite for the food, drink, and other consumables enclosed in the packaging the machines were being designed to produce. Operatives displaced from employment would no longer have the wherewithal to purchase those products – would the robots be laid off in turn? But my friend made it clear that was not his but someone else’s problem.

More recently I read [amazon_link id=”0691156794″ target=”_blank” ]a book [/amazon_link]which discussed how it might be possible to move to a more comprehensive measure of well-being than the crude and simplistic Gross Domestic Product, and such a departure might offer some insight into how ‘well being’ could be enhanced for the less advantaged in societies. I was able to follow the argument but there was some mathematical underpinning which was out of my reach. I have long practice in judging others whose mathematical dexterity far outstrips my own and this author has gained my trust but I thought that it would be interesting for someone with real mathematical facility to have a look, just to confirm to me that the sums added up, and I knew of just such a person who also had a similar outlook on life to my own. That person is a Nobel laureate whose mastery of complex mathematical theory underlay the work for which the prize was given, so I commended the economics book. Sadly, the response I got was, ‘Don’t do economics’.

Our world is one of increasing specialisation, full of those who ‘know more and more about less and less’. As editor of a journal aimed at helping those engaged in trying to avoid or contain workplace health hazards, I found it extremely difficult to find a reviewer for a book offering a general oversight of the subject. Generalists were either superannuated or as rare as hen’s teeth, everyone ‘active’ had a speciality and anything outside that speciality was foreign territory. Managers of every style of enterprise, public or private, charitable or profit-focused are hypnotised by the Friedman ethic that everything can be reduced to a cash equivalent, they know in immense detail the price of everything are entirely ignorant of the value of anything. Every activity is split out to cost centres and success is in accumulating more of them than the opposition. There was a story, some years ago, just possibly apocryphal, of a university which had within its biology school a department of chemical biology, and within its chemistry school a department of biological chemistry.

During the second world war the military set up Combined Operations in which the knowledge, ability and resources of people from different branches of the forces and even from different nations were brought together to take on a specific task. Once the task was complete the team dissolved and another team was created with a suitable combination of skills appropriate to the new task. A similar approach was made post-war in major reconstruction processes. The over-arching aim was, for Combined Operations, to win the war, for the reconstruction teams, to rebuild the country. Individuals subsumed personal interests for the greater good.

There is nothing novel about team working but the usual historical pattern has been of a leader with a team using their varied skills to work to the leader’s plan. The idea of assembling individuals with the perceived required skills and leaving the team as a whole to devise its method of working to a desired goal was not entirely novel and various attributions have been made as to its authorship – one, according to a Wikipedia entry, being the South African commander and later Prime Minister, Jan Smuts.   Multidisciplinary teams are in use in some areas of the NHS but the increasing specialisation and cost centre approach to management and budget allocation in organisations generally provides obstacles.

On the other hand the exponential expansion of available information in the digital age, whilst it feeds the appetite for even more ‘specialisation’ must also make an even stronger case for multidisciplinary team working and for gaining an understanding of how such teams can be assembled and enabled to work most successfully. Recently (August 2014) the Headmaster of Eton has used the pages of that learned educational journal the Radio Times to question an educational pattern judged on examination results based on papers which students take entirely on their own. He suggested that in China doubts are being cast about the even more disciplined strategy in that country and there are moves to look at what others, including the UK, have done and are doing which could lead to a more joined-up approach to the unresolved problems which we know to exist in our world and those, as yet unknown, which, experience suggests will confront us or our successors in the future.

An older and wiser colleague during the war (WW2) had to turn his hand to finding ways of keeping factories operating in face of bombing, of labour and material shortages whilst also devising ways of meeting requests to manufacture entirely novel items for the armed forces. He told me that when faced with a problem the most important thing is not finding the right answer but asking the right question.

John Green has had a half a century career applying scientific methodology  to problem solving in industry and commerce.

He says he worked at the ‘ragged edge’ rather than the ‘cutting edge’ of science. I have been corresponding with him for some years about my books and other matters. I’m grateful for his permission to post here these reflections on different modes of knowledge and joining them up.

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