Big Questions, Big Doubts from Very Big People

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Big Questions, Big Doubts from Very Big People


English: George Whitesides (Harvard University...

English: George Whitesides (Harvard University) describing the nature of nanoscience at the United States Department of Energy Nanoscale Science Research Centers (NSRC) Workshop, February 26-28, 2003. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are a lot of outstanding questions and issues, both academic and practical, facing the world, and Harvard University’s George Whitesides tells Technology Review that one intellectual question he’d like to better understand is the origin of lifehow does something go random chemicals, in a sense, to a “Darwinian set of reactions that are getting more complicated spontaneously.”

Additionally, Whitesides says that another issue is translating university research to the real world. “The idea that publically funded science should have some measure of ‘I’m doing it because, and this is where it might end up being useful,’ strikes me as being perfectly reasonable,” he later adds. “I think it’ll actually make for better science, too, because it’s very easy in academic science to end up working on projects that are just little extensions of previously known stuff, and that’s sort of a waste of time.


What problems are being neglected?

There are problems like,

how can you make lots of clean water?

And how can you store energy?

And how do we get an energy balance for things? and

how do we deal with the development of an economic base for the developing world?

And how do you think about global health?

There are so many interesting problems that there’s no shortage of problems of every possible sort.

Often the problems that are least worked on are the problems that have the characteristic that they’re important, but they don’t seem to be something which is the biggest or fastest or most profitable. And if it’s really important but it’s none of the above, then who does it?

So water, for example. The number of people who really work creatively on new sources of water isn’t enormously large for the reason that I don’t think people have very many ideas on how to get fundamentally new sources of water. We sort of think we’ve thought that problem through. I hope that’s not true. But in every area where there’s something that looks like a major change, it’s usually because the field collectively had thought that it had thought about all the answers and had sort of given up, and then somebody came along with a new approach. And we certainly are going to need it for water.

Could there be an incentive structure, besides profitability, that would encourage researchers to address some of these problems?  

You could certainly imagine structures that might do that, but it’s always tricky to predict outcomes because any incentive that you have will be gamed in various ways. Universities are supposedly set up to incentivize, that is to reward, creativity, good teaching, daring—intellectual daring running counter to convention. Corporations are basically set up to, legally, to return. Stockholders put in money, and the corporation is supposed to give back more money.

Is there some way of putting together a structure that would put all of that together and for sure achieve a socially desirable objective—would you even know what a socially desirable objective was once you saw one?

I’m not smart enough to be able to answer that question, he says.


Three Questions with George Whitesides (

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