Science can provide solutions for society, says Rutger van Santen, but only if it is given the freedom to find the unexpected

A recent public meeting at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences dealt with the question: ‘For whom does an academic publish a paper?’. This reflects a growing debate in society on the purpose of science and the scientific community. Increasingly, there is a demand that publicly funded research addresses urgent current needs in society. The urgency to address issues such as climate change, diseases, natural disasters, financial disruptions and energy resources is great as my coauthors and I note in a recent book.1 However, such goal-driven research can seem at odds with discovery or curiousity-led approaches to research that can lead to unexpected and novel solutions.

Comprehending complexity

This apparent paradox is elegantly illustrated by the discovery of complexity science. Until recently, few suspected that seemingly unrelated societal issues can be addressed with a common scientific framework. But that changed through the intriguing discovery that the mathematics of networks and self organisation are similar and relate many diverse systems in society and in the sciences. Itself the result of discovery-led research, complexity science dictates that in these complicated inter-related systems, new, unpredicted phenomena may emerge. And in this highly unpredicatable, near chaotic state lies the potential to deliver the greatest change. The Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico was founded precisely to explore the physics and mathematics of such complexity phenomena.

The choice of research topics of scientists in Santa Fe and elsewhere clearly reflects awareness of critical issues in society: the mathematics of the spread of disease; economic theories on wealth distribution; and volcanic eruptions are early examples. This awareness of the relevance to society is reflected in the many popular science books written by complexity scientists.2

Complexity in catalysis

In my own research field of heterogeneous catalysis, we have gradually discovered the value of the complexity approach in developing technological solutions that address important societal issues. An example is the renewed interest in the Fischer-Tropsch reaction. I first encountered this reaction working for Shell Research during the oil crisis in 1976, as a means to convert coal or natural gas into liquid hydrocarbon fuels. Now, in 2012, I am once more working on the same catalytic reaction, but now as a university scientist, because the same reaction can also be used to convert biomass waste to liquid fuels. So a societal need is met by an unexpected application of a known process. Furthermore, the catalysts that are actually used need to be better; they are still the result of extensive empirical testing efforts and the actual molecular mechanism of this reaction that is now close to 100 years old is not completely understood. This is where the insights of complexity science may bring a leap forward. Thanks to the work of Nobel laureate Gerhard Ertl we are now aware that complexity phenomena such as self organisation may play a role in these systems.

Coming to grips with such complex processes as self organisation requires precise measurements, which brings another example of discovery enabling delivery. The scientific tools I use now are completely different from the tools available 40 years ago. Then, the first spectroscopic tools to actually measure the composition and structure of the catalysts and their changes were just being invented. Now we can look at the catalyst in atomic detail and use computational modelling tools to relate reactivity with organisation at the reacting surface. Spectroscopic techniques and computational modelling have provided us with unprecedented insight into the complex phenomena at a catalyst surface. When one applies the same tools to the investigation of practical catalytic systems, a correlation of catalytic performance and chemistry of the catalyst can be made, which was unthinkable before. This has been of immense help in the discovery of new and improved catalysts and scaling up of production. It is the combination of goal-driven research enabled by discovery-led innovation that has allowed this to happen, and the two are inextricably linked by complexity.

The paradox of scientific endeavour is that real new knowledge comes as a surprise. A good scientist will initially question its truth, then recognise its value and then will promote its use. The process towards actual use in society involves many different actors and actions (public acceptance, financial support, market development, scale up facilities, etc) and depends strongly on social and cultural acceptance. So the innovation process itself also has the characteristics of a complex system. The way science is perceived in society has a vital influence on support for scientific enterprise. We have to integrate this awareness into science education.

Sustaining our human culture depends upon a healthy evolutionary innovation system that will deliver the solutions to the great scientific challenges. This demands a balance of activities, and those that can lead to the unexpected are needed just as much as those focused on actual solutions.

Rutger van Santen is professor of catalysis at Eindhoven University of Technology, the Netherlands