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Special Report - Cultivating Future Technologies

Science in the next millennium

Gerry Stokes

As the year 2000 arrives, many people are looking back in time to determine how the world will change in the next millennium. Science has always played a significant role in society, but according to Dr. Gerry Stokes, who leads Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's Environmental Science and Health Division, that role will change in the coming century and in the next millennium. He notes that science has evolved over time and will continue to evolve as it plays an increasingly important role in our daily lives. We asked Dr. Stokes about how science has changed and how it will tackle the tough problems in the future.

How has science evolved in the last century?

Prior to this century, two kinds of science evolved. First, we had Galileo. He asked, `Why should people just think about something when they could go out and measure it?' This way of thinking led to modern experimental science. Then we had Newton and modern mathematically based theoretical science. He brought rigor to the process of creating a self-consistent explanation of existing facts. In the twentieth century, driven by Von Neumann, we began computational science, in which we use computer models to examine the consequences of what we think we already know. While this is related to Newton's theoretical approach, it is very different.

Do you see computer models as the wave of the future?

Yes, but computers aren't large enough to hold everything we know. We have to decide what to put in them, and that is the heart of computational science. Science has traditionally focused on the process of reductionism—taking things apart and forming specialties to look at every little piece. We have to reassemble knowledge to attack the big complicated problems. For example, we don't know how the human body operates as a whole. We study cells, or systems, or some smaller piece of the puzzle that can be brought into the lab or entered into a computer. Computational science will help make the transition from science of the lab to science in the real world.

How will this transition from science in the lab to science in the world take place?

As I look to the future, I see science as being necessarily multidisciplinary and perhaps inter-disciplinary. Teams of people from different disciplines will have to come together to tackle a problem. This will be challenging because we're used to dealing with things in small pieces. There are some technologies in today's world, like automobiles and aircraft, that no one person knows everything there is to know about them. Instead we have specialized experts that understand specific parts and work together to create the product. As we look at the real world, if we're not looking at the whole problem, I don't think we know how to ask the right questions to guide these teams on a path to the solution.

Gerry Stokes
Gerry Stokes
Gerry Stokes

Can you explain what you mean about the "right" questions?

We have a difficult time articulating the big questions. It's not obvious to me that the breakthroughs we need will come from looking through the small windows of traditional science. In studies of global warming the questions being addressed deal with how much the climate is changing, how fast it is changing and what will happen as a result. I'm not convinced that those are the questions we need to be answering. Maybe the question should be more like `How can we characterize the planet in a way to understand how it changes and how we are affected by those changes?'

Has the obligation of science changed in the last century?

The biggest change is that science is far more central to civilization than it was at the start of the century. The advancement of civilization depends on it and reaps the benefits from it. I think society expects more of us.

What does society expect from science?

The world wants more than technology. The public wants science to help make sense of the world around us—to put things into perspective. In that regard, science has a lot to offer. I think that the environment and health are the two biggest challenges the public wants addressed.

How can Pacific Northwest help address those issues?

There are three strands in our environmental mission here at the lab. Environmental science helps us understand the legacy of past practices. Society has created situations that are causing difficulty now, and we need science to help `unfoul the footpath.'

Then there's the stewardship issue. What kind of legacy are we leaving behind? For every gallon of gas we use we're putting five pounds of carbon into the atmosphere. We want to know if some seemingly unconnected act, such as driving cars, is causing the extinction of a species or the elimination of a small island nation.

The focus now is moving to the question of how the environment impacts human health. How is what we're putting into the environment affecting people? The science we use to answer this question is 20 years old. As a society we've based our conclusions on experiments where animals are exposed to high doses and then inferences are made on how lower doses would affect people. Finding a better way is a new and challenging area for science. It's significant because these results are the basis for environmental legislation and regulation.

Why did it take so long for the need to understand how the environment affects human health to rise to the surface?

It comes back to whether we're asking the right questions. Health issues can be very personal. Medicine is very diagnostic. People feel bad and they want to be healed. Outside of epidemiology, there haven't been many attempts to deal with populations as a whole. We've had computer models of climate systems for about 10 years and yet there are no models of the public health. We need to ask questions like how would changing the smoking habits of every person affect society's health? How many people would still get lung disease from other causes? We need to understand the compounding factors to truly determine the risk elements of disease.

Besides computer modeling, what kinds of research are becoming increasingly important?

We're learning what drives biotechnology. We're building an understanding of the human genome, which is the code for life. We will then be able to determine what proteins are being made in cells, but that's only part of the picture. Some are made and destroyed, others combine to form something else.

Now we're beginning to determine what proteins are actually present and what they do. This will create a new class of diagnostics to show how humans react to the environment. In the final analysis, computation will be critical here as well. What's the point of knowing something if you don't know the consequences? With computer modeling you can decrease the amount of experimentation it takes to make the world approachable.

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