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Solutions to COVID problems lack STEAM

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(Cartoon by Mark David | @MDavidCartoons)

The ability to deal with large scale systems due to COVID-induced change is sorely testing our political process, writes Dr Peter Fisher.

DECADAL BREAKTHROUGH technologies now getting to scale are integral to reining in maladies like COVID-19 — for example, mRNA vaccines to combat the risk of future zoonotic viruses.

At present we have juxtaposition: two large scale systems off and running — a geological one, as a result of explosive population growth and mismanagement of emissions, and, insofar as viruses are concerned, overrunning of natural habitats.

Weary of talk of societal and scientific change? Well, try picturing yourself in Jane Austen’s time. Visiting Aunt Sarah in a neighbouring village was tortuous if not entirely out of the question.

Given the pitiful state of the roads, most living in the Regency period never got to travel more than 14 miles (20 kilometres) from where they resided – at least our isolation periods and travel restrictions have been intermittent – and they had to contend with roads that were quagmires after heavy rains or breathe in choking dust or, worse, face the prospect of encountering highwaymen. 

These conditions also weighed on the getting of coal from the collieries to ports to run a novel innovation – steam-powered cotton mills – and provide for heating and cooking in the final decades of the Little Ice Age. 

But engineering and metallurgical ingenuity were not to prove wanting. Wagonways were built using, at first, flanged cast iron wheels on wooden planks, then flanged wrought iron rails, then the combination. These two elements, steam engines and rails, fused. 

Breaking down Austen’s isolation

This development in itself was set to break down omnipresent isolation. In a relatively short period, railways sprang up all over the country — like watching a 30-50 year time-lapse sequence.

Mobility rocketed when new lines entered towns or their precincts. And, as the industrial revolution gathered strength, people fostered immigration to factory-rich larger centres. No greater change could be imagined as remote seasides might now be visited by low-cost day excursion trains

There was an enormous mass market in people travelling third class, enforcing railway companies to provide cheap tickets. An uncanny parallel, perhaps, with the extension of the NBN into regional Australia.

More than a “gear change”

The far-reaching innovations of pioneering Victorian engineers – the likes of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Robert Stevenson – are today mirrored in lab-enabling breakthrough technologies, such as highway electrification, lithium-ion batteries, green hydrogen, artificial intelligence (AI) and mRNA vaccines.

For the main part, these are at scale, already feeding, or on the brink of feeding, through into everyday life. Increasingly, new products move from prototypes to mature technologies in ever-narrowing time frames. Among which comes technical obsolescence — like that digital camera tucked away in a drawer somewhere, rendered surplus to innovation by mobile phones. 

No less so, fossil fuel-powered cars now slated to endure a similar fate (regardless of the Federal Government's reluctance to change gears).  

So many moving parts

To be fair these innovations are transitioning into a world steeped in complexity including a similar untidiness with respect to COVID-19 measures.

Centers for Disease Control’s Anthony Fauci for example – asked to comment on Omicron becoming endemic as the new normal – confessed there were:

"... too many unknowns."

Basically, nobody knows the number of people in the U.S. who've had no experience of the virus, who aren't vaccinated or haven't been infected. What is also not known is the level of protection Omicron infection might provide against the next variant.

Said Fauci:

"Because we will undoubtedly get a next variant."

One by-product of being at a knowledge frontier – it's a place familiar to scientists but where the public rarely, if ever, get to go.  

It’s okay to say “I don’t know”. Fauci was right. COVID-19 is a tricky business with many variables. Styles of thinking where processes are taken to be linear – conforming to ideas about the value of human intuition and pitted to binary interpretation – lack rigour and conceptually belong in the drawer alongside those digital cameras. 

Thought leadership

Taking a cue from global management consulting company McKinsey & Company

'Achieving net-zero [apropos of COP26] will require overcoming traditional orthodoxies and ways of working... Constructive actions taken during the pandemic have demonstrated the world’s ability to innovate and intervene at scale to support both lives and livelihoods.'

In Australia, opportunities will not be fully realised unless true failure points are addressed — the dearth of science background in our MPs, especially ministers, is a worry for starters. It extends to our mainstream media.   

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (S.T.E.M.) (or better still, S.T.E.A.M.), which includes the arts) offers promise in funnelling new generations into science and innovation.

But nothing beats filling contemporary leadership positions with those who know that science’s moment is here.

Dr Peter Fisher is an Honorary & Vice-Chancellor Fellows Group member, University of Melbourne.

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