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Rails and Snails and the Debate over Goals for Science

Rails and Snails and the Debate over Goals for Science
Lecture presented to the Israel academy of Sciences and Humanities, 16

Jesse H. Asubel

1993


The successful evolution of both the biosphere and science suggests that the setting of goals, even if a posteriori correct, may forbid the system the exploration of potentially fruitful routes. It thus constitutes an inferior form of strategy. Yet human society, its technology and science do move along discernible evolutionary tracks. These can be mapped, and goals set within the envelopes of possibility suggested by the trajectories. In this time of conjunctural change, participants in the scientific enterprise should reaffirm the need to balance action and permission.
 
The debate is over long-term goals - decades and generations - for society and for science. In the United States, a chorus has called for closer links between science and social goals and for institutional and procedural changes to fasten them. The author seeks to clarify the positions in the debate, explain its present urgency, and achieve reconciliation.
 
The paper follows the plan:

1. To approach the question of goals at an abstract level in terms of evolutionary strategy.

2. To turn to the question of whether science has failed to deliver for society, by examining changes in technical performance in several sectors of the economy.

3. To discuss the implications of the existence of stable, discernible technological trajectories.

4. To evaluate what is peculiar to the present historical moment in which many developments culminate simultaneously, and the risks in such times of conjunctural change.

5. To turn to the question of goal-oriented strategies and institutions for the scientific and technical enterprise.
Here, academies of sciences and engineering may have a special role to play, in balancing action and permission - the rail and the snail.

 
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