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Science must be more plugged into real-world solutions, ASU professor says.
More money won't cure science's challenges, ASU's Sarewitz argues.
August 26, 2016

ASU professor argues that scientists shouldn't simply create more knowledge, but address important, real-world problems

“Science, pride of modernity, our one source of objective knowledge, is in deep trouble.”

So begins “Saving Science,” an essay for The New Atlantis by Daniel Sarewitz, professor at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society and co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes.

Scientists are more productive than ever, turning out millions of articles covering an ever-expanding array of fields. But much of it, Sarewitz says, is turning out to be unreliable or flat-out wrong.

“Curiosity-driven” basic research that has long characterized science is fundamentally misguided, Sarewitz argues, and it has led to a crisis that we are only beginning to acknowledge.

Science must better engage with real-world problems, he says: Only by addressing important challenges — safe drinking water, disease treatments, better nutrition and more equitable economic prosperity, for example — can science fulfill its tremendous potential for social benefit.

Here, Sarewitz discusses the current state of the scientific enterprise, the influence ASU has had on his thinking, and how to begin resolving the problems he highlights.

ASU professor Daniel Sarewitz speaks at a lectern.
ASU professor Daniel Sarewitz, who is co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes, says we must be willing to talk about what works and what doesn’t in order for science to fulfill its potential for social benefit. Photo courtesy of Rathenau Institute, Netherlands

 

Question: Can you summarize the central argument of the essay?

Answer: I think there’s a broad awareness that the American science system, and science in general, is suffering from a range of challenges and stresses. The quality of science is being questioned; politics and science are increasingly hard to separate; many are dissatisfied with the rate of progress on big problems like cancer and climate change.

I wanted to show that the difficulties afflicting the science system are interrelated — and that they can’t be cured just by pouring more money into science! (But they could be made worse.)

Q: Can you describe the steps that have led to this moment of crisis in science?

A: Well I wouldn’t call them “steps,” so much as denial. As I write in the article, some of the important conditions that underlie the crisis were recognized 40 or 50 years ago, as with Derek Price’s recognition in the 1960s that the research enterprise was growing at an unsustainable rate, and Alvin Weinberg’s insight in the ’70s that science and politics were getting mixed together. So really what’s happening is at least in part a culmination of processes and stresses that have been building for decades.

Q: You call the idea that scientific progress is the result of “the free play of free intellects” a “bald-faced but beautiful lie.” This implies deception on the part of the postwar architects of American science. Why “lie,” rather than, for instance, “myth”?

A: Yeah, I thought long and hard about whether to use that word and decided, in the end, that it was justified. “The free play of free intellects” is a line from Vannevar Bush’s 1945 report “Science, The Endless Frontier,” which he wrote in order to secure federal support for the postwar scientific enterprise.

To keep funding flowing to all the scientists who’d been engaged in the war effort, he argued that technological progress begins with basic research (or so-called “pure” science) and proceeds linearly through development, application, and finally innovation. He knew, as an inventor and engineer, that this linear model of innovation was mostly wrong: innovations emerge through complex and continual interaction between science and technology.

But scientific leaders since Bush, not surprisingly, have typically been happy to pay attention only to the linear model, despite that fact that for many decades, studies of science and innovation have shown that directions of scientific advance — even for very basic science — are typically strongly influenced by and linked to technological advance.

Q: What kinds of science are we talking about? “Science” comprises a tremendous range of disciplines and institutions and activities. Does your argument apply to all of them?

A: This is a great question, and in fact the whole idea that there is one thing called “science” probably does more harm than good, since inevitably it makes people think that all sciences should aspire to being like classical physics — reductionist, quantitatively precise, and predictive. But many fields make their most important contributions without being any of those things (or at least not dominantly).

My essay mostly pertains to sciences that are trying to unravel complex phenomena, often with a social component (though not necessarily). This may include fields ranging from physical sciences like climate science, to life sciences trying to make progress on cancer, to social sciences trying to find a way to improve public education. But I’m not really talking much about sciences like cosmology, say, or subatomic particle physics, which no one expects to have a practical application — and where it really doesn’t matter if the results are true or not.

Q: What’s a current example of science working as it should? Are there fields that, in your view, are effectively solving important problems?

A: It’s less about fields than about how science is being organized. To me the most important part of the essay are the examples of how really smart and committed people are organizing science in different ways, to make it more accountable for achieving the goals that people are expecting and hoping for.

I very intentionally offered three really different examples — breast cancer research, environmental protection, and brain research — to show how the quality of scientific research, and its social value, are actually strongly connected through the way that science is organized, and the way accountability is understood and imposed.

Q: How do we figure out which social goals science should be working toward? Reorienting science to solve problems rather than produce more knowledge sounds effective, but debate over which problems science ought to be directed toward can be extremely contentious.

A: I don’t think this is a problem at all; the social goals for science are widely shared across society — and many of them were articulated in “Science, The Endless Frontier.” We want science to help improve our health, to help keep our environment clean, to provide jobs and economic growth and national security.

The problem is not the goals; it’s the organization of science to contribute to those goals that we need to be concerned about. As I write in the essay, the United States did a fantastic job organizing science to fight the Cold War, and this led to many other benefits for society that had little to do with defense, at least not directly. But we haven’t learned those lessons; in fact, we’ve decided to forget them.

Q: Has your work at Arizona State University influenced your thinking on this issue?

A: Of course. I came to ASU because of its amazing culture of collaboration and connectedness to the real world. And the mission of combining inclusion and service with cutting-edge, top-level research is exactly the way we need to think about organizing science — this is where science’s value to society is going to come from.

I think one thing we’re finding out with the current crisis is that the elite, ivory-tower model for science has created an inward-looking enterprise whose social value is increasingly questionable. ASU is inspiring to me because it has understood that being part of society and doing great work are synergistic.

Q: How does this play out in the future? There are trends in many fields, such as “precision medicine” or “big data,” that have led people to proclaim that we’re very close to transformational breakthroughs in our understanding and treatment of, for example, certain diseases. Is this just hype?

A: There is certainly hype, and lots of it. But there is also promise in equal measure. I’ve gone on for too long, but I’ll take the liberty of lifting a couple sentences from the essay: “In the future, the most valuable science institutions will be closely linked to the communities and contexts whose urgent problems need to be solved; they will cultivate strong lines of accountability to those for whom solutions are important; they will incentivize scientists to search for solutions, often technological ones, rather than to simply produce more knowledge. If we can organize more of science with these basic principles in mind, then I think we can see a new flourishing of scientific and social progress in this century.”

Q: What impact do you hope this essay has on the reader? How do you hope his or her thinking is changed after reading it?

A: It’s a bit of a cliché, but I want to start an open and inclusive conversation about what’s gone wrong in science, why it’s happened, and what can be done. Right now the conversation is way too balkanized, and no one seems to really want to acknowledge the larger, foundational challenges. So some people are focused on how you improve laboratory practice, and others on how you link science to better policy making, and others on how you deal with the terrible incentives that are driving a lot of science these days.

But these are just small parts of the elephant. We need to think about the whole institution and its place in our culture and society, and we need to be willing to talk about what works and what doesn’t, and to realize that the interests and power that dominate the terms of debate may not, despite their intentions, reflect the best interests of society.

If my essay empowers people to learn more and to ask questions and to join the discussion, then I’ll feel like I have done my job.

 

Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Jason Lloyd

Program manager , School for the Future of Innovation in Society

202-684-2405

 
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Testing includes liquid nitrogen, forceful vibrations that device must endure.
Space mission will explore asteroid in unprecedented detail.
August 26, 2016

To calibrate, researchers put space instrument in vacuum chamber and subject it to extremes

In movies like “Apollo 13” and “The Martian,” there are scenes where there’s a mechanical problem in space and engineers turn to a copy on the ground to fix it.

That copy is called an engineering model, and one has been calibrated for an Arizona State University-built instrument launching to an asteroid next month. “The reason we’re doing it is to improve the flight instrument,” said Dan Pelham, opto/mechanical engineer. “It gives us the opportunity to improve the one that’s in space.”

Called OTES, for OSIRIS-REx thermal emission spectrometer, the device is the first space instrument built entirely on campus at ASU. It will sniff out what types of minerals are on the asteroid, how big particle sizes are and what the temperature is. The information will be vital to mapping and studying the space object called Bennu, before decisions are made on where to pick up samples.

The OSIRIS-REx mission will travel to Bennu, study it for a year, reach out and grab 4 pounds of material from the surface, return to Earth, and drop the sample capsule in the Utah desert.

Scientists think asteroids may contain clues to the origins of life. The small, rocky bodies have never been explored in this level of detail before. No one knows how they form, how they behave or what’s on them.

“No one has ever seen an asteroid like this up close,” said Phil Christensen, project leader, OTES instrument scientist, director of the Mars Space Flight Facility in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and Regents' Professor of geological sciences. “That’s fun. That’s exploration. That’s exciting.”

“These samples will be studied by scientists for decades,” project engineer Greg Mehall said. “People think (asteroids) are the building blocks of life.”

Bennu is about the size of one of Giza’s smaller pyramids, large enough to be “a region-killer,” said John Hill, a doctoral student working on the calibration. And one of the reasons it was selected for exploration is its relatively high likelihood of hitting Earth late next century — though reported NASA estimates put that chance at less than a tenth of 1 percent. Still, knowing the physical and chemical makeup of the asteroid will be critical to know in the event of what NASA calls an “impact mitigation mission.”

Osiris-REx is a long mission: seven years. It launches Sept. 8 and spends a year orbiting the sun, building up speed to pick up some of Earth’s orbital energy, then slingshots into deep space.

“It’s a two-year cruise,” Mehall said. “Once we get there, we don’t orbit, because there’s no gravity. We sort of maneuver around it ... The mission starts for us at the end of 2019. Then we study the asteroid for a year.”

Once the samples have been collected, Bennu and Earth might not be aligned. The spacecraft may have to wait to leave. NASA hopes it will be able to leave in 2021. It’s another two-year cruise to return to Earth orbit in 2023.

The mission “isn’t a first, but it’ll be the first one to bring something back,” Christensen said. “We’re going to bring back about 4 pounds of material.”

“Absolute calibration is required for the geology at the asteroid,” Mehall said. “When that instrument says it’s 105 Kelvin, it has to be 105 Kelvin.”

That is what the team worked to ensure last week on the Tempe campus. In one of the clean rooms, on the first floor of Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV, they cranked up a large vacuum chamber.

 

The chamber is little bit smaller than a Volkswagen bus. It repetitively squeaks like a hamster wheel. Liquid nitrogen boils off the top like Hollywood vampire mist.

They put the spectrometer in the vacuum chamber, heat it up, cook off the gunk (the kind of residue that comes off the dashboard of a new car on a hot day and coats the windows), and then switch on the instrument. Aerospace engineers call this process "shake and bake" because it reproduces the vibrations of a rocket launch as well as the extremes of heat and cold that OTES must survive to do its job.

It uses long-wavelength infrared light to map the asteroid's minerals, which will help mission scientists select where to collect samples. ASU is one of only a handful of universities in the U.S. capable of building NASA-certified space instruments.

It was -190 Celsius in the chamber. Outer space is absolute zero, about -271 Celsius.

“That’s space,” Mehall said. “That’s the coldest we can get with liquid nitrogen.”

“When you open that door, you do not want to go in there,” he said. Nitrogen itself is not harmful — Earth’s atmosphere is 80 percent nitrogen — but nitrogen can displace all the oxygen in the room. “People have died at aerospace companies.”

When they calibrate instruments for weeks on end, there are always two people in the room for safety’s sake, around the clock. To dispose of the nitrogen, they simply let it dissipate slowly.

The goal is to engineer something that can’t fail. There’s no way to repair it remotely, and as Christensen said once watching one of his instruments being launched into space, “Man, that sucker’s gone. It’s out of here, and it’s not coming back.”

“In the early stage, you look at the requirements, which is what it needs to do, what sort of science performance it needs to have, and the environment,” Pelham explained. “You select components that have a high likelihood of working in those conditions. Then what we do is what we call screening and qualification testing of all these sub-components: detectors, motors, things like that. We test them rigorously in the environment they have to work in.

"Generally, we look at the lifetime of the instrument on its mission, and we test those elements to twice that. The idea is you can’t eliminate the risk entirely, that you’re going to have a failure on orbit or in space, but you minimize the risk at hand. It’s only one instrument, so if one of those critical components fails, if it stops working, that’s the best we can do. It costs money, it takes time, but that’s what you do for building a space flight instrument.”

OTES cost in the $12 million to $15 million range. It’s considered low cost for this type of mission. “We’re using technology that was designed and built on previous missions,” Pelham said. TES and Mini-TES both went to Mars, and the optical elements thrived in the extremely dusty environment. OTES isn’t a copy of those instruments, but it is a similar design, which means the team didn’t have to spend as much time designing and building from scratch.

“In NASA-speak they call it TRL: technology readiness level,” Pelham said. “When you have a component that’s a TRL-9, that’s considered the best you can do. It’s got time on orbit.”

It’s an exciting mission, because no one knows what they’ll find on Bennu. There’s only one first time.

“I have been to Mars a lot of times, at least with instruments, and it’s actually fun to do something different,” Christensen said. “Part of the excitement of going to Mars the first time was that we had no idea what we were going to find. After you’ve been there a bunch of times you kind of know what you’re looking for and can expect. The beauty of going to this asteroid is we have no idea what we’re going to find. So it’s fun. It’s discovery versus detailed science — just pure discovery.”

Being able to build a NASA flight instrument on campus is great from a convenience standpoint and from an educational standpoint. While the team works away at the calibration, dozens of students gather at the windows and snap photos.

“The first five times we built (instruments) in Santa Barbara, and I spent, on average, 100 days a year sleeping in a hotel room in Santa Barbara, California, away from my family, away from my house, away from my kids, pets, job,” Christensen said. “To not have to travel is goal No. 1. It’s really nice to just stay home. Secondly, being at a university, we always felt if we could do it on campus, it was an incredible opportunity to get students involved. ... I’ll teach the first lecture of my freshmen class with about 150 students, and I’ll probably leave here, take this off, and go in there and say, ‘Hey, you know, I just spent the last hour building an instrument that’s going to go to an asteroid and now I’m going to tell you about it.’”

The OTES team is led by Christensen, deputy instrument scientist Victoria Hamilton of Southwest Research Institute, and Mehall.

How do you choose an asteroid to study? 

There are more than half a million known asteroids in the solar system. Why this one? Here’s how NASA explained it:

The closest asteroids to Earth are those that orbit with a certain distance, about 124 million miles. The most accessible asteroids to reach are within that range and have orbits that don’t veer wildly all over space. When the mission selected an asteroid in 2008, there were about 7,000 in orbit near Earth, but only 192 met the criteria. 

Small asteroids rotate more quickly than large asteroids. On a small one, they spin so fast all the loose material on the surface is flung off into space. A big one (diameter larger than 200 yards) spins slowly enough that a spacecraft can come safely near it and collect a decent sample. This criteria winnowed 192 candidates down to 26.

Asteroids are organized according to their chemical makeup. Primitive asteroids are carbon-rich and haven’t changed very much since they formed about 4 billion years ago. They hold the chemicals that may have led to life on Earth. Of the 26 candidates left, only 12 had a known chemical makeup. Only five of those were primitive and carbon-rich.

Bennu wins the beauty pageant because it comes close to Earth, it’s big, it’s primitive, and it might hit Earth — even if NASA estimates have been reported at a 1 in 2,700 chance.

 

Top photo: Optical/mechanical engineers Bill O'Donnell (left) and Dan Pelham prepare the platform in the thermal vacuum test chamber for calibrating the engineering model of the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES) on Aug. 12. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now

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