In an editorial entitled “Why we can’t solve big problems” in the MIT Technology Review Jason Pontin does more than consider ‘big problems’, his piece leads to broader thinking as to what are ‘big problems’, and what problems science can actually deal with. With a background of the billions of dollars and the hundreds of thousands of people employed in the US space programme as an example of an earlier ‘big problem’, and transfers into the contrasting role of the relatively trivial developments funded by venture capitalism in today’s world. The conclusion is that there isn’t the political will, supported by the wider public,to solve these ‘big problems’ or even to attack some of the smaller ones that make them up. As Pontin accepts many of the problems are resolvable in technological terms but the harder problems are the social and political background ones that will allow us to direct resources at their solution.
Whilst I accept much of what Pontin says I do not believe problem resolution is anywhere near that straightforward. Even small problems that appear resolvable through the technological lens suddenly create other issues when attacked. Curing diseases brings more mouths to feed, which brings famine, sorting out famine increases the population and land and water requirements, and no amount of technology can control the elemental forces of the weather, earthquakes and unknown disasters to come. Yes, politicians and policy are an answer to some ‘big problems’ but we cannot entirely control planetary destiny.