I have spent my career training future engineers, scientists and mathematics teachers. I have also researched and published widely, in both basic science and applied areas. As such, I have a keen sense of how dependent our society is on technology. From my reading, debates and conversations, I am also aware of the fact that the vast majority of people have no idea of even the basic principles of the devices that they use every day.
The wealth, leisure and safety that we all enjoy are not due to good government. They are due to the hard work of talented people in laboratories, factories and farms, who have developed the science and technology that feeds us and keeps us warm.
We have at least three groups whose actions threaten our progress, and perhaps our survival.
1. The money manipulators (bankers, investment managers and insurance operatives) fulfill a necessary function in our economy, to make capital available to industry. However, it seems to escape the notice of most people that they produce nothing, and so are necessarily parasitic. That would have been fine, until this segment became 40% of the annual product of our economies. Imagine a modest-sized dog with a 30-pound flea!
2. Our political and business leaders, over 90% of whom know nothing about science, and yet are the ones who make policy on these matters. Think of Sir Humphrey in “Yes, Minister”, to whom the only ‘real’ education was studying the classics at Oxford. Most of these leaders assume that advances are simply a matter of throwing money at problems, rather than examining infrastructure, or even checking whether such solutions are even physically realistic. One wonderful example was the “No Child Left Behind” law, passed by Congress to improve the dismal performance by US students in mathematics and science. This law requires that 100% of students be above average by 2014.
3. Last but not least, we have a thoroughly useless collection of middle managers, who all too often have no actual talents of any kind, except ‘people skills’. Think of the pointy-haired boss in the ‘Dilbert’ comics. One of their favourite pursuits is to turn everything into a ‘process’ so that people become interchangeable. Never mind that such things as skill exist, they will pretend that they don’t. Their approach started in the factories of Victorian England, in jobs that required minimal training. It was then taken into school systems, with dismal success, and later into universities. These same pencil-pushers are trying now to take this approach into scientific research. This killed the old Bell Labs (home of the first transistor), and more recently the research labs at Hewlett-Packard. Not that these failures will slow them down. They ‘know’ that their approach will work, and people can be replaced by tasks, into which we can plug a warm body. ‘Real’ work consists of meetings and memoranda.
Some days, I almost want to give up hope.