TaSED (Nov 13, 2002):“Mundane Science” Presenter: Alastair Iles
What is Mundane Science? • Scientific and engineering research that focuses on everyday problems: “mundane topics”. • Research that engages with user needs and demands, not expert-defined goals. • Research that does not produce fundamental, “new” scientific insight but simply uses existing knowledge.
What doesn’t get on the research agenda? • Basic human needs: water, energy, housing. • Technical development that grows out of observing people in their everyday settings. • Environmental health problems: indoor air pollution, food-borne and water-borne diseases. -> Is there a pervasive bias in academic research against these problems?
Some examples of mundane science • Jhoti cookstove • Fluid-filled adjustable, low-cost glasses • Oral Rehydration Therapy • Water collectors for roofs • Sustainable, easy-to-build houses using straw or earth
Five Fallacies • Mundane science is antiscientific in spirit; • The greatest overall returns come from basic rather than applied research; • Mundane science is simply an application distinct from basic research; • Mundane science is subjective, while basic science is objective; • Mundane science has more to do with society than science.
More observations: 1. Mundane science may in fact be highly demanding, with sophisticated scientific analysis. - In designing the jhoti stove, researchers had to conduct extensive physics and materials engineering studies to attain “good” design. - Earlier stove designs by development fieldworkers failed because they did not look at the functioning of stoves.
2. The resulting technologies can be complicated, or result from advanced manufacturing processes. - For example, the Grameen Bank mobile phone addresses a mundane need, but is technologically advanced.
3. Mundane science can lead to diverse outcomes beyond technology: - new data (e.g., household surveys) - new participatory analysis methods - materials science know-how - creation of new local economies and institutions - unexpected environmental health findings - social and cultural changes (e.g., human rights)
4. Mundane science involves major shifts in what knowledge is produced, by who, for whom, with which methods. - Users are treated as collaborators in the design process: their knowledge of social and environmental conditions is needed to make the technology work. - Research uses multiple sources of knowledge: interviews, observations, gender-sensitive analysis, data-logging… as well as established methods. - knowledge is produced for users, not just researchers.
Knowledge in academic research • In most academic settings, research is driven by technical problems, not societal or human need. • Researchers generate knowledge through technical methodologies divorced from social and cultural considerations. • This knowledge is imposed on users-to-be rather than generated in collaboration.
Example: • UC Berkeley computer scientists are working on “smart dust”. “The goal of the Smart Dust project is to build a self-contained, millimeter-scale sensing and communication platform for a massively distributed sensor network. This device will be around the size of a grain of sand and will contain sensors, computational ability, bi-directional wireless communications, and a power supply, while being inexpensive enough to deploy by the hundreds.”
(target for Jul ’01) (as of Jul ’99)
Smart dust for sustainable development • Smart dust could well be useful for sustainable development: - energy efficiency - environmental health monitoring - helping preserve food - provide decentralized telecommunications Yet, neither website has any real discussion of the above possibilities.
How will smart dust actually work in the conditions of developing countries? • What social and cultural changes are needed to support the use of smart dust? - The Janitor example… At the BID Retreat, people were extolling the benefits of smart dust helping janitors replace defective lights. But, who trains the janitors? Will they be paid more to use smart dust? Is defective light ID technology really what developing countries need? (Who are the janitors in developing countries?)
http://robotics.eecs.berkeley.edu/~pister/SmartDust/ “A lot of people seem to be worried about environmental impact. Not to worry! Even in my wildest imagination I don't think that we'll ever produce enough Smart Dust to bother anyone. If Intel stopped producing Pentia and produced only Smart Dust, and you spread them evenly around the country, you'd get around one grain-of-sand sized mote per acre per year. If by ill chance you did inhale one, it would be just like inhaling a gnat. You'd cough it up post-haste. Unpleasant, but not very likely.” Eeks...
Some questions to consider... • Are there cases of technology for sustainable development that is driven by practical applications but that also involves fundamental knowledge? • How does mundane science propagate changes beyond technology? • Can researchers at UC Berkeley work on mundane science issues?