Detail vs. the Big Picture in Science – A Personal Reflection by Katherine Richardson


Sustainable Energy Symposium at Chalmers – A personal reflection.

I had the pleasure of participating on December 7 in the Sustainable Energy Symposium at Chalmers. My calendar unfortunately only allowed attendance on one of the three meeting days. However, when it could only be one day, I am so glad that I was there last Thursday as that was the conference day devoted to the participation of high school chemistry students –

“There is nothing more exciting than speaking to and with the curious young minds of the generation whose actions will, ultimately, control whether or not the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are achieved.”

The student-speaker interaction was extraordinary (I was so often interrupted with relevant and reflective questions on my way to the tables with coffee that I never actually got anything to drink on my “fikas”). I cannot, of course, evaluate my own contribution but I found the other 5 speakers to be outstanding! I learned a lot and was captivated the entire day. What was particularly striking, however, was that half of the speakers focused on very detailed aspects of chemistry, while the rest, including myself, took a big-picture approach to developing renewable energy “systems”. Following every two speakers, there was a panel discussion where the audience quizzed the speakers. I was in a session with the Nobel prize recipient, Steve Chu, who was the US Secretary for Energy during President Obama’s first term.

I have, since the conference, ruminated especially long and hard over the first question we were confronted with – one that highlighted this conflict between the detail that we reward in science and the “big picture approach” needed to promote systemic change.

“The student asked what we would recommend – If she really wanted to “make a difference”, should she concentrate her efforts in the lab or in external fora focusing at a higher scale of societal development?”

We answered that she should follow her heart. If it feels good, then it is probably right. For some people a life in the lab is right. For others, it will be more “right” to commit at least a part of one’s attention to networks outside of the lab. I am convinced that the answer we gave her is correct in terms of an individual’s career choice. However, since returning home from the conference, I have speculated what this “detail vs. big picture” dichotomy in science actually means for the role of academia in achieving the SDGs.

“We argue on the one hand that the SDGs cannot be achieved without the input of research but, on the other, achievement of the SDGs requires systemic transformations.”

We employ and reward scientists for being experts in detail, so it would be wrong to suggest to a budding scientist who hopes to change the world, that a focus on detail is wrong. Nothing in our training or employment of scientists rewards having a “big-picture” or systemic understanding. Maybe it is time that we carefully consider how, when, and under what conditions research is actually a prerequisite for achieving the SDGs?

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