NASEM Holds Forum on Failures in Social Systems

The National Academies of Science held a symposium on “Failures in Social Systems: Converging Biological, Behavioral, and Engineering Insights” on March 7th. The panelists discussed how failures in the sciences are caused by human social factors and systems.

[See the Speaker Bios here and the Agenda here]

Dr. Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academy of Sciences, emphasized the critical role of interdisciplinary collaboration. Dr. McNutt highlighted the challenge scientists encounter in grasping the diverse work of their peers. For instance, when addressing topics like climate change, a biologist may approach the issue differently than an engineer. Dr. John Anderson, President of the National Academy of Engineering, echoed this sentiment, stressing the unprecedented focus on social failures and acknowledging the interconnected nature of our world.

Dr. Emanuel Robinson, Director of the Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (DBASSE) and Dr. Guru Madhavan, Senior Director of Programs for the National Academy of Engineering, spoke about social vulnerabilities. Madhavan recounted the 1915 Boston Molasses Spill, explaining how technical vulnerabilities were overlooked for cost-saving measures that resulted in a tragic disaster. He emphasized the role of engineers in mitigating vulnerabilities through improved regulations and testing. A key point from these speakers was that failure is integrated throughout the engineering process and that it is important to consider the ‘worst-case scenario’ on any project. Madhavan ended his presentation with the assertion that “Engineering is not just technology but also sociology”.

Dr. Sudip Parikh, the Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), emphasized the significance of integrating social sciences into shaping the future direction of scientific research and policy. Reflecting on the James Webb Telescope, he noted that the distinction between success and failure frequently hinges on organizational culture. He recalled the telescope’s chaotic development phase, marked by significant challenges such as cost-related concerns. However, the telescope has since emerged as a remarkable success story. Parikh attributes this achievement to a profound shift in the project’s cultural approach.

Dr. Christopher Austin, CEO Partner and Chief Executive Officer, Vesalius Therapeutics at Flagship Pioneering, offered insights into drug development dynamics within the bioeconomy. He revealed a notable reality: failure should be accepted as a vital part of innovation. The reluctance among some biologists and drug developers to acknowledge mistakes, citing a high failure rate of 90 percent to 99 percent, hampers progress in drug development. He proceeded to call for greater sharing of failures across disciplines.

This symposium underscored the interconnectedness of societal challenges. Speakers emphasized interdisciplinary collaboration and the imperative of addressing vulnerabilities through resilience. Austin’s insights into drug development dynamics further emphasized the necessity of embracing failure as essential for innovation, highlighting the importance of learning from setbacks for societal advancement.