Some of you may ask, "What is TED? And how does it relate to science in the next decade?"
TED is a conference held every year in California where the world's best thinkers, innovators, scientists, designers, engineers, entertainers, politicians, philosophers, convention breakers, envelope pushers, you name it- come together in a glorious think tank environment in which to spread ideas and share innovation from every area of society. As TED attendee Red Maxwell, President of onramp branding, so cleverly stated, "Every speaker at TED is a type of hero. Everyone has their own super power, based on their field." Indeed, TED speakers are all superheroes in their prospective domains, and TED itself is the Hall of Justice for thinkers and innovators. Even the attendees at TED are amazing. They are some of the most passionate, creative, interesting people in the world, meeting for four days of networking, sharing of ideas, and learning from one another. I have had the pleasure of meeting some incredible people at TED, who have inspired me to share my vision of science in the next decade.
The most interesting thing about TED is that everyone is here for the same purpose: finding answers. All of our questions may be different, but we are all seekers of truth. One person may be looking for the answer to stopping world hunger or the spread of disease. Someone else may be seeking the solution on how to educate our children about food. Others may want answers to questions such as why some people can perceive meaningful patterns in noise, while others struggle to decipher relevance in the same stimuli. The questions may all be different, but the answers all lie in science. We can look to science to see what types of interventions work when targeting disease. We can look to science to tell us how much sugar a child takes in with a single carton of chocolate milk a day over all of the days spent through middle school. And we can look to science to tell us what the difference is in someone's brain who can see relevant patterns in ambiguous stimuli versus someone who sees every pattern, regardless of relevance. Science can give us the answers to all of our questions, but we just need to understand how to best utilize science for the solutions it can give.
I met three quite extraordinary people at TED this week, which give a great random sampling of how science is utilized in three very different domains.
Red Maxwell, mentioned earlier, President of onramp branding, uses the science of how people think and perceive in order to develop concepts for companies, products, and communications. By taking into account the science and psychology of perception and cognition, they are able to create ideas for companies that most appeal to our needs, motivations, and desires as consumers.
David Bolinsky, Partner and Medical Director of XVIVO Scientific Animation, approaches this from a slightly different angle. By understanding what turns people on from an entertainment perspective, he finds ways to bring the truth and beauty of science to a wider audience in order to heighten their understanding of complex concepts. His ground-breaking and award winning animations have helped to reach audiences that may have otherwise missed out on the wonders of life that science has to teach us.
Juan Enriquez, Managing Director of Excel Medical Ventures, LLC, and founding director of the Harvard Business School's Life Sciences Project, is a world authority on the economic impact of science on business. He knows that we need to understand science if we are to understand how to approach business and public policy in the decades to come.
All three of these people are from quite different domains, but science is the unifying concept that drives all three of their unique visions, on how they can contribute to solve the challenges and problems that society presents.
The theme of TED this year was "What the World Needs Now". Every presenter, and maybe even every attendee, had their own vision of what the world needs. I tend to agree most with author Michael Specter, of the New Yorker, who said, "We've never needed science and progress more than we have now," and continued, "... You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts; sorry about that." According to Specter, what the world needs is to embrace scientific discovery, instead of fearing what it brings to light. Knowledge and truth can serve to advance society, as long as we are responsible in how we use and interpret its contributions.
So what does science look like in the next decade? Collaboration. Transdisciplinary research. Cross-cultural analysis of findings. Creativity and innovation from every field will be (and should be) a crucial element in scientific research. Just as TED's business model is the merging of ideas from every domain to solve world problems, science needs to think in this direction as well. We cannot just sit inside our labs or offices and narrow our focus to our one scientific problem. We need to look to the outside world and all of its influences to help develop the solutions. The problems of science do not belong to just one domain, such as biology, physics, or neuroscience, but to society as a whole. Science influences every aspect of society, so when we look to solve our scientific problems, we need to look to every aspect of society for potential solutions. When we get this cross mixing of ideas, with inspiration sprinkled in from multiple domains, we can generate the best solutions- ones that have the highest potential for success, for we get unique perspectives on these issues that otherwise might never have come to light.
The days of attempting to solve a scientific problem in a linear, unidisciplinary fashion are coming to an end. Institutions that have already latched on to the new model of collaborative research are in the forefront of discovery. More and more research departments and industries are embracing this transdisciplinary approach, utilizing experts from every domain, such as economics, math, computer science, biology, psychology, and neuroscience, all striving towards a comprehensive answer to a single problem.
TED curator Chris Anderson seems to know this fact intuitively. At the beginning of the conference on Wednesday, he said that in a world with so many intelligent people, we should be better at coming up with solutions to solve world problems. I share his frustration. But we don't need to just generate new ideas, we need to find ways to put those ideas to use and actually solve the problems. That is where transdisciplinary collaboration comes in. Once we understand and accept that the world's problems (and science's problems) belong to not just one domain, but to society as a whole, we can start to work together to generate real solutions that can be put to practical use.
So what do I think the world needs now? Science. But not only does the world need to embrace science, science needs to embrace the world as well.