Key lessons from the history of science and technology: knowns and unknowns, breakthroughs and cautions

Report summary

Key lessons from the history of science and technology.

New Zealand is at a critical point with respect to its ongoing relationship to biotechnology and genetic modification. A look at the last 200 years of science and technology, discussing the need for precaution, the possibility for severe, unintended and irreversible negative impacts on the environment to emerge decades after initial successes, and problems for risk assessment involving complex biological systems.

 

Commissioner's preface

I hope this collection of stories about science and resultant technologies will help us all reflect on how we can learn from past experience. Having reflected, I trust you will then contribute to the ongoing debate, and the development of processes aimed at ensuring that application of genetic sciences to New Zealand's future will be safe and ecologically sustainable.

 

Executive summary

What might be the actual or potential effects on the environment, including people and communities, of utilizing GM technology and products in New Zealand? As a contribution to the debate on genetic engineering and the work of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification, this paper looks for relevant lessons from the history of science and technology that can be applied to this emerging technology.

This paper discusses 24 examples drawn from a wide range of sciences and technologies, including: transportation, chemicals and materials, energy systems, military initiatives, medical advances, modern agriculture and ecological surprises including examples of unanticipated adverse effects of introduced species.

Among the lessons identified in the paper is the recognition that early optimism in a new advance is often followed by surprises and failures. While, in the case of engineering technologies, maturation of the technology has generally lead to safer operations, often with more circumscribed practices, biological systems are far more complex. Severe and unintended environmental outcomes may only emerge decades after initial successes. For example, some new materials and chemicals have had delayed negative impacts on human health and the environment that could not have been foreseen at the time they were introduced (e.g. asbestos, persistent organic chemicals and CFCs). These impacts have been global, systemic and complex, both in time and space, and have exposed a lack of understanding of underlying cause-and-effect relationships of scientific applications. Consequently, the paper illustrates that initial successes of a technology should not be taken as evidence of lasting benefit.

The paper also finds that there is a need to recognise the limits of science, the importance of applying the precautionary principle, and the relevance of ethical and social concerns to policy formulation and decision-making. There are a number of cases illustrated where harm has continued to be done even after negative consequences have been demonstrated. This has reduced public trust in the organisations involved and in decision-makers.

Finally, in recognition that complex problems, such as global change, require a correspondingly sophisticated approach to scientific research, the paper concludes that new models need to be, and are being, developed for linking the findings of scientific research to the policy process and to community concerns. These models will be part of more dynamic and participatory approaches to decision-making and require equal attention to scientific rigour, transparency of process and to justifying public trust as we face the challenges of new technologies and their potential applications.

 

Findings & recommendations

These examples from the history of science and technology point to a number of lessons that can usefully inform this dialogue. The immature phase of new technologies or scientific applications is often marked by surprises and failures, despite initial expressions of optimism.

  • In the case of engineering technologies the maturation phase leads to fewer unknowns, safer operations, better understanding of risk factors and more circumscribed operational practices. Occasionally, development of technologies is curtailed or dropped because of excessive costs or unresolved problems.
  • Medical advances often follow the same pattern of: initial optimism, lack of understanding of complex effects, and more judicious use as knowledge improves (e.g. use of X-rays, antibiotics). Given the complexity of organisms, however, surprises (e.g. the existence of prions) will continue to emerge.
  • Some new materials and chemicals have had delayed negative impacts on human health (e.g. asbestos, persistent organic chemicals) and the environment (e.g. CFCs) that could not have been foreseen at the time they were introduced. These impacts have been global, systemic and complex.
  • Other initiatives that sought to directly change environmental conditions (e.g. big dams) or enhance biological production systems (e.g. pesticides) have also resulted in adverse effects after initial positive outcomes. These have exposed a lack of understanding of underlying cause-and-effect relationships.
  • Although scientific understanding is always increasing, knowledge of organisms, ecosystems and people-nature relationships will always be incomplete because of their dynamic nature, organisational complexity and ongoing evolutionary changes.
  • It is a sobering reminder that a number of medical and engineering advances have been dependent on painful lessons learned as a consequence of human tragedy. Sometimes individuals were affected (e.g. thalidomide), but the power of science has caused pervasive and global harm (e.g. lead additives and persistent organic pollutants).
  • Accepting there is an 'unknowability' element in scientific uncertainty poses a fundamental challenge to the science of risk assessment. There is a need to recognise the limits of science, the importance of applying the precautionary principle, and the relevance of ethical concerns to policy formulation and decision-making.
  • There are a number of cases where harm has continued to be done after negative consequences have been demonstrated This has reduced public trust in the organisations involved and in decision-makers, as well as raising doubts about the independence of scientists linked to commercial or funding interests.

Let us learn from history. All these "lessons" imply that the progress of genetic sciences and their applications may be punctuated by unpleasant surprises, disasters and consequential remedial action. But these "lessons" also indicate we could reduce the surprise elements if we, as a society, were prepared to acknowledge the optimism that characterises new sciences and technologies and take a more precautionary approach. This is an imperative when the science involves the capacity to create new life forms - something fundamentally different from any of humanity's previous endeavours.

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