Are we heading for a new Renaissance?
Written in London after a frustratingly bad and boring lecture, and dispatched from a free wi-fi node in Woodbridge, Suffolk
As a young engineer I joined various professional bodies in order to get on the accreditation ladder and to gain access to their conferences, summer schools and publications. At that time it was the thing to do.
Later I was invited to join more science, technology and engineering institutions worldwide, and did so for the same reasons. These were true communities of enthusiasts bent on pushing the boundaries of their disciplines to the advantage of society.
At some point during the early 1990s, I drifted away from these communities as I chased the leading edge, and increasingly the really interesting stuff appeared on computer networks and not in journals and conferences. Somehow the professional bodies seemed to be held back by a slower and older world.
It also started to strike me that the age-profile of professional memberships seemed to be sliding upwards. Where were the young people, the radicals, the challengers of the status quo? The professional ranks were being progressively transformed into a pre-retirement set.
I also watched the style of conference presentation stagnate. I'd categorise this as the 'third-person boring' style, where Power Point became an overhead projector substitute. Attempts at multimedia inevitably resulted in foul-ups with material of a very poor quality.
What was happening? The world was changing faster than the institutions! The artificial silos created to categorise science, engineering and technology looked increasingly irrelevant - and were becoming an impediment to discovery and success. Worse, young people seemed to find the prospect of narrow thinking unattractive. Many didn't sign up in the first place and of those that did, a lot dropped out early.
In a so-called 'parallel universe of the failed' I found the vitality and innovation of the 70s engineering community. So does it all matter? There is certainly a downside to the unpopularity of professional bodies. The number of professional scientists, engineers and technologists in the UK is on the decline, especially in contrast to China and India.
Worse, a lack of deep understanding and rigour is a risk everywhere.
Today I reflect further on all this as I walk out of yet another presentation by an engineer who took an incredibly interesting topic and turned it into 1.5 hours of pure boredom. The presenter was old, the audience was old - and so was the style and thinking! So bad was the experience that I switched off and did my email.
I'm not sure I know how we fix all this or indeed if it needs fixing. It might just be that we are in a transition period similar to the Renaissance and all will come good even if we do nothing. I just get concerned when I see the power grid of my country run by overseas engineers because we no longer produce the homegrown capability - and when I see the West outsourcing huge amounts of vital activity at all levels for the same reason.
Perhaps worse, there is a visible rise in the numbers of people who take the view that if it isn't on the net it doesn't exist. We have a young population making apparently new discoveries in the 2000s that were actually recorded in the professional journals back in the 1960 to 1990 era (what I call BG - Before Google). In their defence I have to say the professional bodies do not help by keeping their paper materials and electronic archives locked and accessible to the select few.
In any society the loss of professionalism in any sector is always expensive, and the takeover by political or politically correct minds always leads to large and expensive errors - and ultimately to disasters.
Many years ago in the US I was engaged in a debate about education. I listened to the arguments from professionals in different scientific disciplines. 'We should teach physics first because of the big-bang.' 'No chemistry should go first because everything is made of chemicals'. 'No life is the prime mover - we should teach biology first.'
My reaction? Why not just teach science? There is no physics, chemistry, biology. There is only science - it is all the same thing. These subject divisions are artificial.
Increasingly I see our many professional disciplines in the same way. In a complex world solutions invariably span a wealth of understanding and depth, demanding the attention of multiple disciplines. The young may just be right and the necessary correction may be underway by people voting with their feet.