Healthy Economy

New Views

Science advances through emerging technology

Cynthia Sagers

By Cynthia Sagers, Vice President for Research

As a young scientist, I was trained in hypothesis-driven research. I was taught that advances in knowledge come from a testable idea and a clever experiment. From one experiment to the next, evidence accumulates, and we become increasingly confident in our understanding of how the world works.

That process still stands at the heart of the scientific enterprise, but technology adds an important twist: As our machines become more powerful, we open new windows on the world and ask questions that we could have barely imagined in the past. For example, rapid genome sequencing and analytical methods offer tools for understanding and manipulating life. Geographic information systems help us grapple with trends in climate, vegetation and human health. Miniature sensors track wildlife, from whales to birds, and fuel the application of robotics and artificial intelligence to transportation and other aspects of daily life.

We make discoveries, gather data at a rapid rate and find creative ways to tease meaning out of mountains of details. And it couldn’t come at a more important time.

Through a renewal of the Scientists’ Warning to Humanity , first published in 1992, Oregon State researcher Bill Ripple and his colleagues have shown that we face daunting challenges and an uncertain future. We need to sustain ocean fisheries and coral reefs, to feed a growing global population and to help people displaced by war and climate change. Energy is critical for raising living standards, but we must simultaneously reduce our carbon emissions. And if we are to pass on a wild and beautiful world to the next generation, we must find ways to maintain habitats and still meet human needs for food and fiber.

The study of the marbled murrelet, featured in this issue of Terra, illustrates this point. The species is sensitive to conditions at sea and in our forests and is declining in the Northwest. With the support of the forest products industry and the state Legislature, Jim Rivers in the College of Forestry leads a team learning how the murrelet responds to changing conditions. The goal is to maintain an ecosystem and a forest products industry that directly and indirectly employs more than 60,000 Oregonians. Their project is a great example of OSU’s signature Marine Studies Initiative, which connects the health of our coastal ocean with communities and the economy.

Researchers at Oregon State University and their partners in business and government have been pioneers in new ways of observing the world:

  • remote sensing by satellites, airplanes and unmanned vehicles (underwater and in the air)
  • rapid detection and analysis of the consequences of chemical exposure to life
  • genome research tools to treat infectious diseases, develop new agricultural crops and understand microbiomes and their relationship to environmental and human health
  • geographic information systems that enable us to map the locations and to meet the needs of people displaced by war and natural disaster

Advances in these fields are more likely when disciplinary and cultural boundaries fall, when engineers and scientists work with people in the arts and humanities. The research enterprise at Oregon State University is committed to fostering interdisciplinary networks and applying emerging technologies to the most pressing problems out there.

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.