Impact science: beyond feeling helpless and disarmed

Keywords: rebel-competent, glue-people, middle-ground, paradoxes, overlaps.

After years of study and hard work, students know so much about climate change, education, society, or agriculture and forestry, and can’t believe the sluggish response of society to changing things. This paradox makes students feel helpless. What to do after graduation if this is to reinforce this headlong rush? Sometimes it seems like the best thing to do is to go to the margins of society. This shows that there is a missing link between students’ commitment and society, and this is where impact science makes sense. It supports science-driven people to develop impact-driven solutions.

Let’s examine two impact science cases which show that a flexible space for new ideas can be created. Both cases now have an entire building at their disposal in the hearts of Paris and London, with hundreds of researchers working together to advance science and help people, society, and the planet in novel ways. The first is a charity and a research and development center called the Learning Planet Institute, dedicated to exploring and sharing interdisciplinary knowledge in new ways for the purpose of facing the great social and environmental challenges of our time. This charity has experienced exponential growth since its creation in 2006, thanks to being supported by a private foundation and being recognised as an academic institution by the French government. The second one is a company and a research laboratory named DeepMind, founded in 2010. It aims to develop artificial intelligence to expand human knowledge and make a positive global impact. It has also undergone an exponential expansion by being able to raise substantial funding and combine the power of interdisciplinary research with the pace of a company.

From how the Learning Planet Institute and DeepMind came to be and grew, there are some important lessons to be learned. These successful experiences from academia and business teach us that what matters is not really the strength of the initial idea, but rather the way to deal with it. The co-founders of these two organisations can be defined as “rebel-competent.” They are considered to be competent enough to be part of society but they are rebel enough to change it. They use their scientific credibility to come up with unwise ideas, like starting a research center on education and interdisciplinary research after getting scientific awards in molecular biology and evolution or making a start-up in artificial intelligence after getting a PhD in cognitive neuroscience. This paradoxical attitude is reflected in their ways of leading their organisation. Both are acting like “glue-people” who make connections between people with different worldviews and bring together individuals with initially disparate interests. This approach of generalists, by contrast with that of specialists, enables them to operate in a middle-ground environment. The Learning Planet Institute and DeepMind are typically operating in environments where upperground institutions such as universities, big companies, and government agencies overlap with underground organisations such as NGOs, local charities, and other small-scale organisations. They have built an impact science because they have been able to move between different levels of power and create overlaps between different sources of interest.

Impact science is more than science. Aristotle highlighted three different forms of knowledge: episteme, that has led to science, but also techne, that has led to technology, and phronesis, the ethics of action. The co-founders of the Learning Planet Institute or DeepMind have partnered to translate episteme through techne into ethical actions or what we can call an impactful science. Students can feel helpless to impact society, but they are not disarmed. Being attracted to the margins of society is perfectly fine. Margins are very good places to combine science, technology and ethics. With travelling companions it is possible to develop science-based impactful and regenerative solutions for society and the planet.

“Traveler, your footprints
are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road;
you make your own path as you walk.
As you walk, you make your own road,
and when you look back
you see the path
you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no road;
only a ship's wake on the sea.”
Antonio Machado 

“Everything that does not regenerate, degenerates.” 
Edgar Morin

Understand impact science with practical examples => Sanchez-Andrade Nuño, Bruno. 2019. Impact Science: The Science of Getting to Radical Social and Environmental Breakthroughs.

More science-driven ideas that we need to develop => Hawken, Paul. 2021. Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation. Penguin.

Image by Jorge Guillen from Pixabay 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.