Mapping our Place on the Planet while Stepping Away from Solutions

Some of our open space work at the conference

Our October (2013) exercise in systems mapping prompts us to suggest that science will be better served by stepping away from solutions. Rather than finding solutions, we invite scientists and engineers to step toward creating community, embracing the art of communication, and re-integrating into society. Because we are in sore need of new approaches, which we are convinced will lead to new solutions.

‘Mapping the Systems of Science and Technology’ working conference, held in San Francisco California at the Presidio Oct 28-30th, 2013, had the goal of creating a physical ‘systems map’ of science and technology, built by a vibrant cross-section of the scientific, academic, non-profit and corporate domains[i].

Our conclusion from the event: we need to generate scientists as participatory change-agents. We’d like to engage our community in a clear self-assessment of where we are, choosing where we want to be, and nurturing a place for science within the fabric of society.

A Strange Back-drop

In order to help us fund this hands-on conference at the Presidio, we submitted a small NSF conference grant just hours before the government shut-down on Sep 30th, 2013. Submission of a formal grant by a small non-profit such as ourselves is no small feat, as the National Science Foundation is positioned for large academic entities with grants offices. We were required to attain a DUNS numbers, our own CCR code, and all manner of artifacts symbolic of bureaucracy. Our secretary of the board at the time, Amy Asleson, was able to navigate with me through the many layers to get ‘into the system’ – a system not designed with social entrepreneurs such as ourselves in mind. In general, we find the organizational structures of science are grappling with innovative approaches, and finding a foothold for such can be difficult.

Emails we sent to the National Science Foundation to check on the status of our application bounced back with ‘Due to a lapse in government funding, National Science Foundation staff will not be receiving or responding to email until further notice….

I believe this is an early warning sign of system failure. I feel strongly that our larger system – the planet we live on – shows signs of similar systems failure. We ran a last-minute call to action with the invitation Tired of Things that Don’t Work? Join Us for Mapping the Systems of Science and Technology:  Assessing Tools for Teamwork.
The time seems ideal for getting a group of visionary, committed, caring scientists and technology folks into a room to map out our current system, and to perhaps even create a path to a desired future. What we found instead was a deeper chasm of questions. We’ve spent the months since the event on a learning cycle.  

Mapping our Future

Our conclusion: a movement, as well as (potentially) a map to get there, is needed. How do we come to this?

The idea of ‘Maps’ is becoming more popular as a way of characterizing a complex systems or problems. The National Science Foundation-funded program, Places and Spaces (, has maps that are designed to make sense of massive amounts of data. Ours is different. We were creating a “mess map.”

Mess maps are systems maps built for wicked problems; areas too complex to see through a single lens. According to Robert Horn (the originator of this mapping approach, and a participant at our working conference) wicked problems “…are not … merely problems. Problems have solutions. Messes do not have straightforward solutions.” A brief background on the development of mess maps by Robert Horn and Elsa Roberts can be seen at Social Mess Mapping).

While maps with a global focus were drafted as a result of the conference, it appears that for the younger scientists in particular, the focus on their own survival in building a long-term career in science was such an overwhelming challenge that the larger picture, and the risks to our planet, blurred into the background. We did not create a ‘mess map’ able to capture those larger connections. We seemed caught in the weeds, with single-item solutions popping out all over the place. We’re not alone.

In April of this year, Bruce Alberts, Marc Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman and Harold Varmus published “Rescuing US Biomedical Research from its Systemic Flaws” in PNAS, publicly declaring a major breakdown in the way we train scientists. A stakeholder meeting convened shortly after, on April 27th 2014 as part of the ASBMB annual meeting, was rife with ‘instant fixes.’ Suggestions such as limiting the number of students going into graduate school, or making post-docs leave their positions after ‘aging out,’ were band-aid fixes to much more complex issues. And a major player – the health of the human population, and the health of the planet – were not even on the docket.

Why Urgency?

Kennan Salinero at the mapping wall 2013

For our mess mapping exercise, we convened at the Golden Gate Club (a former enlisted men’s club from when the Presidio was a premier army base), overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay. We feel it was a perfect setting, as the Presidio is now renovated as a mixed base public/private sector collaborative of residences and organizations, offering both stunning views and the creative atmosphere of an incubator.

We wished to explore current systems-wide trends in science, including the call for more STEM-ready workers juxtaposed to the breakdown in job availability for STEM workers at the PhD and post-doctoral level; the need for more STEM teachers juxtaposed to the high turnover rates for teachers, especially STEM teachers, in their first four years on the job. Our goal was to begin connecting the bigger picture.

Our map-maker brings to the fore what I call the “Bob Horn Effect.”

Whenever I visit with Bob, he has yet another article about rapid changes to the planet. He is dogged in his passion and bluntness about the trouble we’re in. Along with scenario-building exercises on pandemics, nuclear waste disposal, health-care, terrorism and geopolitical issues, Bob was part of a visionary scenario building project called Vision 2050 lead by 50 world business leaders. This group put their considerable informed knowledge and concerns on the table. Bob is aware that nine planetary boundaries have been identified. Of those three have been dangerously exceeded and we are moving toward toward the dangerous thresholds of four more. [ii]

Science and technology have everything to do with tipping points. Some may be attributed to our current technology-driven practices. Many, if not most, are recoverable from new technologies. I believe scientists and engineers can be central to society’s effective stewardship of the planet.

But over three days at the Presidio, no clear connections were being discerned. A young scientist shared with us after the event that with so many distinguished and influential people in the room, we should have come to answers.
The desire to get to that solution space quickly appears to be a human compunction.
Bob Horn and I had a follow-up meeting with the Science Policy group at UCSF, a group of concerned PhD students and post-docs. UCSF has been at the forefront in assessing current trends and outcomes for the Life Sciences (see for example

The young scientists who gathered in the room to speak with us about the mess map were not clear on its purpose. Further inquiry indicated they were clear on the solutions they proposed for the country’s scientific future. More and better science education in our public schools. More (and reliable) funding. A deeper appreciation for science from the American public. These solutions are familiar to members of the scientific community…yet they do not seem to be making much headway.

Going Upstream

So now we are looking at what might be missing, to fill the spaces between individual needs (as represented by career issues), and humanity’s and the world’s needs (as represented by a sustainable planet).

Next I will be writing about what I believe THE major global challenge is, how we are addressing the major chasm we have discovered, and how the Bauhaus movement of last century has valuable input for our current generations.

[i] Individuals from NSF, NIH, NAS, universities, foundations, as well as next-generation scientists (graduate students and post-docs), IT specialists, educators, technologists and program leaders from industry and government participated.

[ii] Nature Vol 461|24 September 2009 pp 472-475.


Originally posted on blogger: Mapping Ourselves in Science