Category Archives: Science

The Two Critical Concepts of the 21st Century: Generative Capacity and Collaboration

Cambridge University mathematician Tim Gowers’s Polymath Project has inspired calls for a more open, collaborative scientific model.

Okay, pardon this passionate outburst but I want to reaffirm something — something I’ve banged on about ad nauseam for the past couple of years: the absolutely indispensable influences generative capacity and collaboration will play in our future.

An article I devoured earlier this morning confirms why these two concepts will likely provide the standard on which public and private entities alike will rise and fall within the 21st century knowledge economy.

Oh, and pardon the unwieldy term “generative capacity.” I simply can’t come up with anything that better describes what will likely be one of the two principal preoccupations for the foreseeable future. I owe Steven Johnson for this term.

Simply put, the massive sharing and social collaboration that has accompanied networking has enabled all forms of thinking, formal and informal alike, to be generated at vastly accelerated volumes.

Much like the 15th century Gutenberg Press, networking is changing all facets of how we develop and share knowledge.  Even science, the principal source of refined, formal knowledge, is proving to be no exception.

A couple of years ago, Cambridge University Tim Gowers engineered a remarkable demonstration of the significance of generative capacity to scientific inquiry when he used his personal blog to solicit the help of people around the world in solving a highly complicated mathematical problem.

His effort, cleverly dubbed the Polymath Project, proceeded on the relatively straightforward premise that online tools can be used to enlist disparate brains into a temporary but greatly enhanced cognitive intelligence.

Within weeks Gowers’s problem was solved as mathematicians from sundry perspectives and with varying levels of expertise weighed in with insights.

Granted, not all of Gowers’s collaborative efforts have met with similar success, but his efforts have been successful enough to lead a number of observers to conclude that this networked approach to problem solving represents the future of science.

As the title of an Oct. 29 Wall Street Journal article aptly observed, “The new Einsteins Will Be Scientists Who Share” — or, in other words, collaborate.

In fact, that rather clever title underscores how these two factors, generative capacity and collaboration, will be inextricably linked in the future.   Borrowing the lyrics from that beloved Sinatra classic, “Love and Marriage,” what unfolds over the next few decades will only underscore that “you can’t have one without the other.”

Collaboration is the critical guarantee of generativeness (again, excuse my digression from standard English).  They work hand in hand.  Optimal generative capacity can only be ensured within open, fluid networks, which are secured only through optimal levels of collaboration.  One of the principal preoccupation of all knowledge providers in the future will be building fluid learning environments — platforms as I prefer to call them — that strive to secure the highest levels of collaboration and generative capacity.

For what it’s worth, I’m personally convinced that science will prove no exception.   Yes, there is resistance.  Proprietorship has been a defining characteristic of science for the last three centuries.  It will take years to divest scientists of the increasingly antiquated notion that writing for professionally refereed journal articles is more valuable to the future of human progress than open sharing of knowledge within extended networks.

Even so, the advent of a new, open and networked scientific model that ensures the fullest measure of generative capacity by securing optimal levels of collaboration is inevitable. As the WSJ article stresses, the immense potential of “discoveries not yet dreamt of” is simply too valuable to ignore.

Generative capacity lies at the heart of this immense potential, and as growing number of scientists will learn, it will only be secured through maximum levels of collaboration.

The Promise — and Peril — of Open Science to Extension

Timothy Gowers

World renowned mathematician and Cambridge University researcher Timothy Gowers, who has pioneered part of the open science movement with his Polymath Project.

If you’ve been reading my weblog for a while, you’ve possibly garnered some appreciation for one of my driving professional preoccupations: the need for Extension to develop a new outreach model over the next decade.

I’m even more preoccupied after reading and rereading “Open Science: a Future Shaped by Shared Experience” an article by Bobbie Johnson that appeared recently in the Guardian, a British daily.

I’ll even go out on a limb and predict that the open science movement may be every bit as far reaching to the future of humanity as the scientific method, first articulated by Roger Bacon in the 13th century.

Open science is interpreted in several ways, but it essentially boils down to making scientific research more open, more public.  Open science proponents contend that the traditional approach to research is not only a retrograde approach to inquiry but is also hindering progress.  Opening up research — in many cases, crowdsourcing it — not only would revolutionize scientific inquiry but also render it more efficient, they argue.

The article highlights eminent mathematician and Cambridge University researcher Timothy Gowers’s efforts to solve a handful of highly complex mathematical problems by crowdsourcing them — inviting other people to weigh in with their own suggestions for resolving them.  He dubbed it the Polymath Project, an undertaking that ultimately produced a series of new ideas and insights as well as several collaborative papers published under the collective pseudonym DHJ Polymath.

The potential of open science already has also been foreshadowed other areas of science, notably The Human Genome Project’s pioneering efforts to map and share DNA.

Much of this parallels what has already unfolded within the computer software industry, Johnson says.   Science is proving no more immune to the effects of Web 2.0 than any other facet of modern life.  With the lowered transaction costs that have accompanied Web 2.0, much of the research that once required heavily funded research departments can now be conducted in a garage.

The economic downturn has contributed too.  Open science may prove a cost-effective alternative as governments around the world slash conventional research funding, proponents contend.

Needless to say, the implications for Extension are profound.  To a significant degree we’ve been involved in open science from the very beginning of our history.  So much of what we’ve done has foreshadowed this trend.

Even so, a respectable number of Extension educators, many of whom balance research assignments with Extension responsibilities, will steadfastly maintain that the advent of open science portends the end of science as we know it.

Genuine scientific achievement, they would contend, is not possible without research — sometimes even centuries of research — which not only requires immense investments of time and manpower but, certainly in the case of many land-grant university researchers, mentally and physically taxing data collection, often in inhospitable research environments.

Even then, the fruits of this research are wasted efforts unless they are shared with other scientific peers in one or more refereed scientific journals — along with painstaking data collection, a crucial step in the refinement and advancement of scientific advancement.

For their part, many open science proponents freely concede that there is still a place for these rigorous research practices.  But as Johnson observes, they are also right to point out that this highly formalized, institutional research is of relatively recent vintage and that some of the greatest advances in human history have come from autodidactic polymaths — self-taught gentlemen scholars such as Robert Hooke, Charles Darwin and Benjamin Franklin.

My take, for what it’s worth:  I see lots of promise and, yes, some peril in what’s taking place.   The promising part is the valuable role Extension educators can serve as subject matter curators and in helping refine discussion within this new open, freewheeling knowledge environment.  In some respects, it’s the same role we’ve played throughout the past century, although we will be dealing with a much more sophisticated audience who, by every conceivable measure, will no longer be clients in any conventional sense.

Our historical experiences uniquely equip us for many of the challenges that lie ahead.  We were not only early forerunners of open science but also of applied research methods.

Now for the peril: I sometimes despair at the number of Extension professionals who fail to grasp the full implications of Web 2.0 and the imperative need to redefine our role as knowledge providers.  To state it bluntly, I fear that we face the real risk of being sandbagged by the technological, social and cultural effects of Web 2.0.  If we don’t learn quickly how to become effective players in this new environment, we will be quickly bypassed.

We need to give serious thought to what it means to be a knowledge provider in the 21st century — and fast.

From Crusader to Conciliator: Extension’s Coming Transformation

"Agriculture Move Onward"

"Agriculture Moves Onward." The final mural of the Historical Panorama of Alabama Agriculture and a testament to the boundless faith Americans once invested in the march of scientific/technological progress.

Some 100 years ago, Extension educators were crusaders in the truest contemporary meaning of that word.

We were crusaders for a cause, the cause of scientific/technological progress in farming and homemaking. Extension educators were dispatched to every rural hamlet in America to impart the message of scientific and technological progress.

In manner of speaking, we were techno-crusaders.

Perhaps no other artistic rendering better expresses our techno-crusader role than the final mural of the Historical Panorama of Alabama Agriculture.  Commissioned along with the other murals for display at the 1939 Alabama State Fair, it underscored how adopting scientific and technological practices on the farm would secure a veritable cornucopia of material goods and creature comforts.

This faith in scientific and technological achievement was not confined to Extension educators. Americans in general once possessed an almost boundless faith in science’s potential for securing material comforts and, with it, a generous measure of human happiness.

As a one of my Extension colleagues once noted, Americans as recently as the 1950s routinely passed highway billboards unabashedly proclaiming “Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry” without so much as blinking an eye.

Such a message today would invariably be interpreted as a twisted joke.

How times have changed: Extension educators are now struggling to navigate their way across an increasingly steep, jagged divide between techno-skeptics, who harbor a deep mistrust of technology and its long-term implications, and techies, who, despite some misgivings, generally believe that each technological advance ultimately works to secure a better life and world for all of us.

But why should we be surprised by this? Science, after all, is as much a process of refinement as it is of discovery.  With this refinement has come a clearer understanding of the environmental costs associated with scientific and technological progress.  Scientific farming practices have proven to be no exception.

To be sure, we Extension educators should take immense pride in what we have built within the last century.

As one of the world’s premier philosophers of technology, Kevin Kelly, stresses in his recent book, What Technology Wants, the highly mechanized, petrol-dependent farming model we helped construct in the last century has been indispensable in many respects.  It provided the “foundation of leisure” that promoted a drastic increase in population, which, in turn, generated the intellectual insights that define much of the 21st century.

Nevertheless, Kelly is one of a number of techno-pundits who foresee the inevitable rise of a new, more sustainable, possibly even more decentralized, farming model, though one that incorporates many of the scientific and technological attributes of the current model.

In building a new model that incorporates elements of scientific/technological farming and sustainability, the need for Extension educators will be more critical than ever.

Who but Extension is equipped for this task?  Our intimate understanding of the current scientific farming model provides us with one critical insight that many green proponents are now only reluctantly beginning to accept: replacing the prevailing farming model with a wholly sustainable model is not only impractical but impossible given the present state of science.

We have a indispensable role to play in the future not only in bridging a divide between hostile camps but also in helping articulate the elements of this new farming model, piece by piece.

Consequently, we will be called upon to abandon our traditional role of technological crusader and to accept a new role as technological conciliator.

Our new role as conciliator not only will be confined to the farm sector.  There will be an increasing need for public intellectuals within Extension — people equipped to explain to the general public how this new farming model will be expressed and how it ultimately will affect them.

Herein lies an enormous opportunity for Extension — an opportunity for profound organizational transformation.

Future generations of Extension educators may reflect on this chapter of our history as our finest hour.

Sputnik Lessons for Cooperative Extension

Artist's rendering of Sputnik orbit.

Sputnik sparked a crisis as well as one of the most generative emergent platforms in human history.

Monday, October 7, 1957, was a day of bewilderment mixed with a generous but subdued measure of geekish awe at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

Americans had been confronted the previous weekend by newspaper headlines announcing the successful Soviet launch of Sputnik.

As science writer and bestselling author Steven Johnson relates in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural Science of Innovation, APL scientists spent the following Monday reflecting on this troubling event and discussing the implications for the arms race and for the future of U.S. scientific leadership.

Somewhere along the way, in what turned out to be one of the most far-reaching “AH HA!” movements in human history, two young scientists, William Guier and George Weiffenbach, realized that they could use equipment in APL’s inventory to track Sputnik’s microwave emissions.

This insight soon led the young scientists to another discovery: that they could use the Doppler effect to calculate the speed with which Sputnik was moving through space.

Guier and Weiffenbach were on the verge of what they later recalled as “the adventure of their lives,” only they didn’t know it at the time.

Several months later, they were asked by an APL administrator to subject this insight to reverse processing — in other words, to determine if the position of a receiver on the ground could be calculated based on the precise location of an orbiting satellite.

In a manner of speaking, the Soviets ended up being hoisted on their own technological petard.  This reverse processing not only proved to be achievable but also provided the basis for using satellites to navigate nuclear-powered Polaris submarines.

Less than a generation later,in the tragic aftermath of the Korean Airlines 007 crash in 1983, President Reagan declared that satellite-based navigation would become a “common good” open to civilian use to avoid similar tragedies — not to mention, potential nuclear crises —in the future.

In only a short time, this system acquired its current name — GPS — a common good that has provided critical guidance for everything from mobile phones to precision agriculture.

While scarcely aware of it, Guier and Weiffenback had begun initial construction on what Johnson describes in his book as an “emergent platform,” one that has benefited human beings in ways scarcely imaginable a half century ago.

There are a couple of lessons here for Extension educators.  First, much like Guier and Weiffenbach, we have constructed our own emergent platforms within the last century.  Much like the platform that grew out of the Sputnik crisis, these have produced their own far-reaching effects.

One notable example: The emergent platform that developed from efforts to control boll weevil outbreaks in cotton and that led to a wealth of innovations, including row-crop entomology, cotton scouting, crop diversification (notably the introduction of peanuts) and aerial spraying, which, in turn, led directly to the formation of the commercial airline company, Delta.

In fact, the platform that grew out of the Boll Weevil crisis was an unusually generative one  in terms of how information has been recycled and used for other purposes— something we should bear in mind as we reconstruct the new Extension outreach model.

Johnson’s Sputnik account presents Extension educators with another critical insight: Our success in the 21st century will depend on how well we create ecologies of openness — on how well we optimize the conditions for similar highly generative emergent platforms of the future.

Taller? Healthier? Thank an Extension Educator

Tuskegee Institute Movable SchoolI’ve spoken more than once in this forum about Uva Hester, a pioneering Extension public health educator of the early 20th century.

Writing her weekly report in June 1920, Hester, a Tuskegee Institute health educator, related a horrifying experience with one of her clients, a young woman and tuberculosis patient, bedridden for more than a year, suffering from openings in her chest and side as well as a bedsore the size of a human hand on her back.

Her family had made no provision to protect her from the flies that swarmed around her, Hester soberly related.

It was a sight that almost defies human comprehension in the 21st century but that was all too common among southerners, particularly black southerners, in early 20th century Alabama.

Hester, along with a team of poorly funded but determined Tuskegee Institute educators, led by an equally determined and resourceful agent named Thomas Campbell, vowed to do something about it.  Working with the state’s health department, Tuskegee educators fanned out across the state, not only to care for the chronically ill but also to show their families and neighbors what they could do to prevent the spread of tuberculosis and other unsafe, if not potentially deadly, conditions.

I was reminded of Hester today after reading a New York Times article attesting to the immense advances in human health and well-being that have occurred within the last few centuries.

The Times reports that for almost three decades, a team of researchers led by Nobel Laureate Robert W. Fogel has been diligently investigating how changes in the size and shape of the human body reflect the dramatic strides in food production and human health and nutrition.  The results of this study have been compiled into a book titled “The Changing Human Body: Health, Nutrition and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700,” which will be published by Cambridge University Press in May, 2011.

The researchers maintain that “in most if not quite all parts of the world, the size, shape and longevity of the human body have changed more substantially, and much more rapidly, during the past three centuries than over many previous millennia” — as they stress, “minutely short by the standards of Darwinian evolution.”

One of the nation’s leading demographers and sociologists, the University of Pennsylvania’s Samuel Preston, puts the issue into sharp perspective:  Without the advances in nutrition, sanitation, and medicine, only half of the current American population would be alive today.

The last 100 years of progress are due in no small measure to Uva Hester and the thousands of Extension public health educators who have acquainted Americans with working knowledge that has not only improved their lives but, in an immense number of cases, actually saved them.

The Tuskegee Institute Extension efforts are only one of many examples of Extension-sponsored efforts aimed at improving basic nutritional and health skills, especially among limited resource families.  For example, in the early 1960s, five rural Alabama counties served as pilot sites for what later became known as the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), which was developed to provide directed education to limited resource families to improve their eating habits and homemaking skills.  The program was eventually expanded to all 50 states.

The role that pioneering Extension nutritional and health educators have played in these advances, while impressive, should not detract from the equally critical contributions of Extension agricultural educators in helping the nation’s farmers secure one of the greatest technological achievements in human history: a comparatively cheap, diverse and abundant food supply.

As Fogel stresses, technological advances rescued farmers from the endless cycle of subsistence farming.  For example, colonial-era farmers worked some 78 hours during a five-and-a-half day week.  Farmers needed more food to grow and gain strength, but they were unable to grow more food without being stronger.

The improved yields secured by advanced scientific farming methods broke this cycle and changed the face of farming forever.

The strong Extension emphasis on adopting farm mechanization — replacing draft animals with farm machinery — ultimately helped free up millions of acres of agricultural land to supply human needs — land that had been previously tied up to feed farm animals.

Despite these immense strides, Extension educators still face a bevy of challenges.

Fogel concedes that when he first began his research, he never imagined that technological advances would lead to chronic problems of overnutrition, which have contributed to obesity and related chronic conditions such as heart disease, stroke, hypertension and certain types of cancer.

Extension nutrition and health educators increasingly are being called upon to demonstrate practical ways to avoid these conditions.

Meanwhile, Extension agricultural educators are gearing up to help farmers build a new farming model by mid-20th century that not only incorporates both scientific farming advances and sustainable practices but  that is also equipped to feed some 9 billion people across the planet using less land, less water and less energy.

Of Southerners, Yankees and Cooperative Extension Work

I’m a native-born Southerner — a Southerner down to the very marrow of my bones, as I like telling friends.

Excuse the pun, but I make no bones about that fact.

Even so, at this point in my life, I have little patience with this notion, prevalent even today among some self-identified Southerners, that Southern is synonymous with agrarianism.

Unlike a lot of Southerners, I’m glad my ancestors were dragged kicking and screaming into the 19th, the 20th, and, ultimately, the 21st centuries.

I’m sitting here today on a university campus typing these words because the people who ultimately emerged victorious during the Civil War — the Yankees, as we call them down here — put a series of factors into play that forced my yeoman Southern ancestors off 40-acre farms.

Among these factors: land-grant universities, secured through congressional passage of the Morrill Act of 1862, which, I regret to say, was secured only because the Southern states were not represented at the time in Congress; the Hatch Act of 1887, which equipped these land-grant universities with facilities through which applied agricultural research could occur; and, finally, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which created a statewide network of educators to ensure that the practical results of this research were adequately disseminated to the laboring and farming classes.

For these and other similar reforms, I am eternally grateful, notwithstanding the fact that I remain an unrepentant Southerner in many respects.

If you think about it, the material advantages we take so much for granted in the western world are due to the success of previous generations in drawing more people away from the farm into factories, ultimately securing what we perceive today as the fruits of modernity. 

I was reminded of this a couple of days ago reading a New York Times article about ongoing efforts to secure clean water for Africans.

As it happens, one of the biggest challenges facing many 21st century Africans is strikingly similar to the ones westerners faced until comparatively recently.

“Getting water is staggeringly burdensome — in southwestern Ethiopia, I met women who spend eight hours a day or more each day traveling back and forth to the river with 50-pound yellow plastic jerry cans on their backs,” writes Tina Rosenberg.  “The need to help mom while she fetches water is a primary reason that many girls don’t go to school.

“Fetching water enslaves women.”

If any phrase aptly summarizes the role scientific progress has served in emancipating human beings, it’s that one: “Fetching water enslaves women.”

Back-breaking human labor has enslaved earlier generations men and women in the South and throughout every corner of the earth.   The development and dissemination of scientific farming methods have put an end to much of this slavery.

These methods have advanced the human condition in two crucial ways: by rendering farming more efficient, it freed up increasing numbers of people to move to urban environments not only where they have a better chance at improving their educational and economic fortunes but also at exchanging ideas with increasing numbers of other people.

As you may have guessed, I’m relating all of this to drive home what I consider to be an essential lesson about the enduring value Cooperative Extension work.

This growing clamor for locally grown food and against so-called industrial farming has worked to demoralize many our ranks, leading us to believe that this century-long investment in building history’s most efficient farming system has amounted to a wasted effort.  It shouldn’t. 

As inevitably happens with intellectual fads, the reality — that is to say, the limits — of organic farming and locavorism already is sinking in among a growing number of commentators and policy makers.

The fact remains that we are up against a set of challenges remarkably similar to what our great-grandparents faced a century ago: to develop new scientific farming methods to feed billions more people — this time with considerably reduced inputs, particularly water and nonrenewable energy.

But this only speaks to part of the truth: Human progress has always on depended on specialization — on the constant refinement of scientific research to render labor more efficient, thereby ensuring that more specialization and, ultimately, more intellectual exchange follows.

Cooperative Extension developed into one of the most successful educational movements in human history because of the ways it has contributed to this effect.

Some people fear that our biggest challenge is to avoid becoming irrelevant.  I disagree — wholeheartedly. For the role we have served in advancing human beings down the current path, our mission remains more relevant than ever.

Our biggest challenge isn’t mission but rather how we carry it out — our outreach methods.  These must be refined and updated to enhance what we do best: rendering the lives and livelihoods of our clients more efficient, freeing them to make more valuable use of their time — in other words, advancing human progress.

We Are Human Infrastructure!

I’ve experienced an epiphany within the last couple of weeks.

We need to be proclaiming Cooperative Extension for what it is, what it’s always been: infrastructure — not the inanimate stuff like Interstates and sprawling high-speed rail or airport terminals but the flesh-and-bone variety — human infrastructure.

I owe New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman for that insight. He used a couple of recent columns to illustrate how technological infrastructural development under way in China and India is destined to change the world as we know it.

Actually, that troubles him a bit. It’s led him to wonder whether the frantic effort under way in these countries within the past couple of decades to put this technological and educational structure in place is only the beginning of something even bigger and more far-reaching.

One thing is certain: These technologies are popping up on the Asian landscape like mushrooms after a heavy summer rain — so many, in fact, that they appear to be attracting many Chinese and Indians who otherwise would have stayed behind after graduate school to seek their fortunes in the United States.

Of course, there is every reason in the world for the Chinese and Indians to follow this path, to put more and more of this infrastructure in place: Each innovation offers more opportunity for intellectual exchange, which, in turn, creates enhanced opportunities for creativity and innovation.

Our own history has driven home this essential truth: Think of the enormous intellectual and economic advantages telegraphs provided American society in the 19th century.

That’s precisely what concerns Friedman: the threat these immense leaps in Asia pose to America’s leadership as the world’s preeminent creator and innovator.

He may be right.  The technological implications of this infrastructure to our future are immense. But so are the implications of the human infrastructure. 

Until now, we Americans have been way ahead of the curve on the human dimension.  The Morrill Act of 1862, which established land-grant institutions, followed by the Hatch Act and the Smith-Lever Act, represented a few of history’s most visionary attempts to develop human infrastructure.

Granted, some would contend that this type of human infrastructure is antiquated and that the sole emphasis in the future should be on building the same kind of infrastructure as Asia.

I disagree. We Americans run the risk of selling ourselves short if we emphasize technological infrastructure at the expense of human infrastructure.  There is still enormous value in the dense network face-to-face relationships that characterize the Cooperative Extension mission.  They have enormous potential for enhancing the connections that emerge from this newer, technological infrastructure.

I’ve already seen this through my own experiences working with Extension educators who already have successfully merged their traditional Extension roles with the emerging roles of networked educators. Yes, they’re learning how to use social media tools to expand their reach to newer, larger numbers of clientele, thereby increasing the speed and volume of intellectual exchange.

But through their traditional face-to-face relationships, they’re also enriching this dialogue.  And by enriching this dialogue, they are equipping themselves with a comparative advantage that many other educational entities lack. 

One effort that speaks volumes about the continued relevance of this older infrastructure is the work of Alabama Extension precision farming educators.  Using social media, they are drawing on the experiences they’ve gained through longstanding face-to-face relationships with row-crop producers in their regions to provide producers in other states and even other regions of the world with a clearer picture of some of the challenges they will face in adopting this new technology.

Of course, this is only one of many imaginative ways a successful marriage of older and newer infrastructure is occurring.

In this era of ultra-lean budgeting, it behooves all of us in Extension to take stock of our comparative advantages. 

We represent some of the best human infrastructure ever developed in any place of the world and at any time in history.  With some technological enhancements, we can become even better.

One other important point to bear in mind: We should be proclaiming this essential truth to the people who hold our future in their hands — our stakeholders.