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Clamoring for Instant Miracles From Science, We Fail to Lay the Groundwork

December 29, 1987|JACK M. NILLES | Jack M. Nilles is a futurist with the Center for Effective Organizations at USC, specializing in the effect of science and technology on society.

The age of instant gratification has now begun to color our expectations of science. We rage, we clamor, we yearn for a miracle a month. It happens on the tube, doesn't it? On several channels at a time, yet. We have grown to expect it. When the miracles don't come off on schedule we feel let down, cheated.

A recent headline in the Wall Street Journal is a case in point: "Heat Over Superconductor Research Cools." The bad news? After an entire six months or so of intensive research, the world's scientists have failed to produce a commercially viable superconductor able to levitate tall buildings in a single bound. Worse, the latest product from Bell Laboratories is still only one-tenth as capable of effortlessly conducting electrical current as it should be to become a commercial product--even at the level of an interesting toy. Sakes alive! What are those scientists doing all day, playing computer chess?

This may come as crushing news, but developments in science and, to a lesser extent, technology are not only slow but frequently unpredictable. Typically it takes 15 to 40 years from the time a new phenomenon is noticed in the laboratory to the first appearance of a commercially viable product based on it. It can take an added 10 to 20 years or more before the "new" discovery is in widespread use.

At least that's how long it used to take. It may be a little faster now. Along the way there are all sorts of traps waiting to fold, mutilate and/or spindle fledgling inventions. Some of the traps are the results of our imperfect understanding of nature, others of our failure to account for human nature. It's very much like the process of growing from an infant to a mature adult. Some of us do it in an astonishingly short time, others never make it, and many don't turn out the way we thought they would when they were tiny and cute and cuddly. Sometimes we get Apollos, sometimes Challengers.

What we have here is an expanding expectations gap. Do we expect our kids to leap fully formed from the delivery room into their waiting BMWs? It would be a lot easier on us if they did, but do we expect it? Do we expect to get them from diaper stage to college graduate without a little--all right, a lot of--heartburn and wallet-emptying in between? Why should we expect newly discovered phenomena of nature to be instantly molded into the products of our dreams? Science, too, is made by people.

Yet here we are complaining that our lives haven't been transformed instantly by discoveries just hatched. We want immediate commercialization of superconductivity. We're impatient that genetic engineers haven't cured or prevented all of our hereditary diseases. We want AIDS to go away overnight. We want an impenetrable shield around the United States so that no bad guys can get us from the Soviet Union or Beirut or Tehran or Managua. We want all of those miracles NOW!

As long as somebody else is buying, that is. We don't want to pay extra for more research. We don't want to improve the quality of our education and incentives for those scientists and teachers of the future--not if it means shelling out for it. Not if it means giving moral as well as financial support to the kids who opt for science and technology instead of business and law. It's hard work to become or to be a high-quality scientist. Even after all the study there's no guarantee that you're going to find out how superconductivity really works at room temperature, or what the key is to neutralizing AIDS viruses. There's not even a guarantee that it's possible to do those things, or that you'll get rich if you can do them. So why bother trying? Why not just wait for the Japanese to sell it to us?

The reason, best beloved, is that we must do many of those things if we want the future to be better than today. We must commit ourselves today so that the future will come out right--or at all. We must prepare the way by getting as strong as we can in science and technology and by learning to use them for human purposes.

And we must be patient. We must know that we're in the survival race for the long haul. There is no miracle-of-the-month club, not even in Japan.

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