Mihail C. Roco, National Science Foundation; Chair, National Science and Technology Council's Subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology (NSET)

Scientific discoveries and technological innovations are at the core of human endeavor, and it is expected that their role will increase over time. Such advancements evolve into coherence, with areas of temporary confluence and divergence that bring both synergism and tension for further developments. Six increasingly interconnected megatrends (Fig. A. 16) are perceived as dominating the science and engineering (S&E) scene for the next several decades: (a) information and computing, (b) nanoscale science and engineering, (c) biology and bio-environmental approaches, (d) medical sciences and enhancement of human physical capabilities, (e) cognitive sciences and enhancement of intellectual abilities, and (f) collective behavior and systems approaches.

This paper presents a perspective on the process of identifying, planning, and implementing S&E megatrends, with illustration for the U.S. research initiative on nanoscale science, engineering, and technology. The interplay between coherence and divergence that leads to unifying science and converging technologies does not develop only among simultaneous scientific trends but also over time and across geopolitical boundaries. There is no single way to develop S&E: here is the value of visionary thinking, to anticipate, inspire, and guide development. Scientists with a view of societal implications should be involved from the conceptual phase of any program that responds to an S&E megatrend.


Discoveries and advancements in science and technology evolve into coherence reflecting the trends towards unifying knowledge and global society, and has areas of both enduring confluence and temporary divergence. These dynamics bring synergism and tension that stimulate further developments following, on average, an exponential growth. Besides addressing societal needs for wealth, health, and peace, a key driver for discoveries is the intrinsic human need for intellectual advancement, to creatively address challenges at the frontiers of knowledge. A few of the most relevant discoveries lead to the birth of megatrends in science and engineering after passing important scientific thresholds, then building up to a critical mass and inducing wide societal implications. After reaching this higher plateau, such discoveries spread into the mainstream of disciplines and are assimilated into general knowledge. S&E megatrends always are traceable to human development and societal needs, which are their origin and purpose (Fig. A. 16). We speak about both science and engineering, because engineering skills provide the tools to implement scientific knowledge and thus the capability to transform society.

Funding a megatrend means enhancing the chance of support of researchers moving into the respective field while maintaining most of the investment in the original research fields. The goals are to increase the research outcomes of the total investment, obtain the benefits sooner, and create a suitable infrastructure for the new field in the long term.

Figure A.16. Coherence and synergism at the confluence of NBIC science and engineering streams.

At times, groups of researchers argue, targeted funding of S&E megatrends could present a threat to open science and technology advancement. We agree that targeted funding may present a threat to the uniform distribution of R&D funding and could present a larger threat to scientific advancement if the megatrend selection were arbitrary. With proper input from the scientific community to identify the megatrend to support, the primary purpose of a focused S&E effort at the national level is the big payoff in terms of accelerated and synergistic S&E development at the frontiers of science and at the interfaces between scientific disciplines. Without such divergent developments, the entire S&E dynamics would be much slower. There is a need for synergy and cooperative efforts between the disciplines supporting a new field of science or engineering, as well as the need to focus on and fund the key contributing disciplines in a timely fashion.

How should society identify an S&E megatrend? A megatrend is usually motivated by a challenge that may appear unfeasible and even unreasonable at the beginning, as were flying, landing on the Moon, or going into the nanoworld. The goals must be sufficiently broad, the benefits sufficiently valuable, and the development timeframe sufficiently long to justify the national attention and expense. This paper presents an overview of what we see as key national S&E trends in the United States and illustrates the process of identifying a new megatrend in the recent "National Nanotechnology Initiative" (NNI). Finally, the paper discusses the coherence and synergism among major S&E trends and the role of macroscale management decisions.

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