A More Holistic Approach Will Help Avoid Pandemics

    Bridging the gaps between disciplines and between science and technology could lead to greater progress than AI, says Jinghai Li

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    Human knowledge of viruses and human bodies has reached the molecular and even atomic scale, but recent months have revealed just how vulnerable we are to pandemics. This, in turn, illustrates that for all of humanity’s progress in understanding nature and humanity itself over the past centuries, some of the scientific problems and global challenges that have plagued humanity for a long time remain unsolved. entering the third decade of the 21st century.

    One of the key questions we need to address is what transformational changes are needed in research and education to drive advances in these areas. People form different points of view from different perspectives. For example, some would argue that artificial intelligence and big data should be prioritized. However, in my opinion, even greater benefits would be derived from a systemic evaluation of the logic and landscape of human knowledge, identifying the missing links and better exploring how science and technology should interact.

    It may not be easy to locate a common or shared problem if we study any discipline or area in isolation. However, by taking a whole system approach, comparing and analyzing different disciplines and technological fields, we can easily identify two features of the existing knowledge system. The first is that the logic and landscape of our knowledge system mirror those of the natural world in that they both contain multiple levels, each of which is multiscalar. Complexity always occurs at the intermediate mesoscale, between the elemental and systemic scales. These two ideas are the key to a more efficient future innovation system, which will break traditional disciplinary restrictions and effectively promote transdisciplinarity and the convergence of knowledge and application.

    This paradigm shift in research and education will help us better understand why changes at the primary scale have a fundamental impact on the system, revealing the common principles of complexity at different levels. This change requires changes in the approach, methodology and domains of research. With regard to the former, scientific scrutiny must extend from the elemental behavior and function of the system to encompass their interaction as well. That is, it should extend from static equilibrium states to dynamic structures and from local phenomena to system behavior.

    A multi-scale framework

    In the meantime, research methodology must move beyond traditional theories to complex science, and from a standard single-scale analysis to a multi-scale framework. It should gradually move from a fragmented, multi-layered disciplinary approach to a transdisciplinary search for integrated knowledge based on universal principles. And traditional qualitative analysis should give way to quantitative prediction, simulated computing to virtual reality, and data processing to artificial intelligence. I don’t deny the importance of AI and big data, but I don’t think they are enough on their own. In fact, I would argue that AI development itself also urgently needs to search for the common principle of complexity.

    Great implications for the educational system

    All this also has great implications for the educational system. The fundamental task of education is not only to preserve and impart knowledge, but also to guide future generations to learn the logic and landscape of the knowledge system, thus expanding the frontiers of knowledge and improving the problem-solving ability of the community. humanity.

    The current disciplinary structure appears to be set in stone, but its isolated nature, coupled with human and random factors along the way, is responsible for the incomplete, fractured, and repetitive nature of our current system of knowledge. It has significantly undermined the effectiveness of education and created a gap between education and scientific research. Therefore, the educational system must be mapped according to the logic and landscape of the knowledge system. This would make it possible to balance the common principles, the disciplinary knowledge and the fields of application, broadening the horizon of knowledge and disseminating the most necessary and complete knowledge in the most effective way.

    The paradigm shift I describe will not happen naturally: there is too much intellectual inertia in the scientific and educational communities. It will only happen if there is a high-level global effort to promote a consensus that this is what needs to happen. I believe that a closer integration of research and education is already a shared ambition among the global scientific community. But we must match words with actions. Funding agencies, international scientific organizations and bilateral or multilateral cooperation protocols should join forces to promote coordination in this regard.

    Harnessing global wisdom and resources through a new paradigm of understanding and research

    The current COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted our lack of knowledge about the transmission and infection mechanisms of the virus and the complex and multilevel ways in which the immune system responds to them. Harnessing global wisdom and resources through a new paradigm of understanding and research will put us in a much better position to respond to this and other challenges for humanity in the next century.
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