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Systems Theory as Applied to ScienceResearch Paper

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There are a lot of similarities between scientific systems and technological ones, and this is born of necessity. While scientists have tended to specialize, nothing in the world is fully isolated from the rest of existence. This has brought about greater recognition of areas of convergence, and people who have begun to specialize in cross-disciplinary studies and understanding how different scientific concepts are interrelated. This resembles technological systems, which are built to be independent, yet with the advent of the internet have become much more linked with each other, creating a higher degree of interdependence among such technological systems. The way that these interdependencies have evolved is parallel, if science lags slightly these same developments in technology.

The Nature of Technological Systems

To understand how science is moving in the direction of technological systems, perhaps it is best to understand the elements of a technological system. One of the first differentiating factors between technological systems is between open and closed systems (Shields, 2007). A closed system is one that has no interaction with its environment, save perhaps directly with a user, whereas an open system is influenced by the environment. Increasingly, technological systems have become open in nature. The Internet and other communications advances have facilitates this transition. The key to an open system is its ability to influence and be influenced by a variety of different external factors. This influence creates relationships between the system and the external environment, and these relationships have an influence over how the system behaves.

A good example of a modern technological system might be a logistics system at a major corporation, or Google's advertising systems. Such systems are constantly receiving and processing new data. They are always available to interact with users as well, so there is a constant flow of information, both into and out of the system. Key to technological systems is their high degree of complexity, but also important is that they are developed in order to solve problems (Hughes, 1987). Open systems benefit from the free flow of information through the systems, and the function of the system is in part determined by the needs of its users, in addition to its inherent capabilities, but those capabilities may evolve over time.

Science Systems

Like with technology, science has traditionally been compartmentalized. Early technological systems, even the more complex ones, were compartmentalized. A railroad may have many inputs, but in the 19th century the entire railroad system would still not have had much if any interaction with any other technological system. Gradually, of course, that changed. Technological systems began to be increasingly integrated. This would have typically been in response to commercial needs, but ultimately the motivation is not that important -- the reality is that systems that once operated independent of one another are now linked through various information portals.

However, there was always the implicit understanding that different specialties were linked. Some of this is embedded in scientific fields themselves -- biology + chemistry = biochemistry. Kenneth Boulding in his seminal 1956 paper outlined how general systems theory was a foundational theory of science. It was possible, through the scientific observation of different natural phenomena, to understand a lot about our world, but that there would be interactions that were highly complex, difficult to understand, and that would only be understood if science was viewed as an open system, where millions contributed to the input of information, its processing and finally to the output of knowledge.

Technological systems have been more oriented towards open systems in response to two factors. The first is the development of the Internet and similar information technology where common system architecture allows a wide variety of systems to communicate with each other. The other factor is that the people running the systems have recognized the value of such interdependencies. Thus, there is motivation and there is means (Dodgson, Gann & Salter, 2006). Science systems were not studied as closed -- prior to the industrial age there were few scientific specialists and the leading scientists tended to be polymaths. Over time, specialization in science became the norm, and fields that were once viewed as related instead became compartmentalized. Only recently has there been a push back to an understanding of the world as an integrated place. It always was, of course, but science did not treat it as such. Most scientists ended up being rather myopic in their studies, and there were few links to connect different fields, even when those fields converged at a subject.

However, information technology has allowed for scientists to start linking up their knowledge, but so too has a shift in scientific thinking. Perhaps the best of example of this is with climate science. There are a number of different fields that make their contributions to the understanding of the climate and how it works. Because climate change has created this imperative to understand what is happening, why, and what outcomes can be expected, science has starting to visualize the world more as an open system than perhaps was the case for most of the 20th century.

Climate Change -- A Science System

The climate has always been known to be a system. There are many different aspects to the climate -- temperature, humidity, etc. -- and these all combine to result in the atmosphere and environment in which we live. To understand how the climate works requires expert knowledge in a number of different fields. As an example, soil experts can be tapped for their knowledge of how soil temperature contributes to climate change (Mellilo, 2012). So, too, can an understanding of the links between desert dust, ocean biogeochemistry and climate change (Jickells, 2005).

Tackling an issue as large, important and complex as climate change has required systems thinking. If scientists studying individual components of the problem are working within their own academic silos, that is because of the need for specialization. Machines also specialize, within the context of their systems. But linked specialists form a system, particularly when working towards the same objective. In the case of understanding the climate, this is clearly the case. Specialists form a variety of fields, whose common link is understanding how different elements of the system are linked to the global climate, form a system when they begin to communicate with each other.

The main outcome of this system is a body of knowledge that is collectively understood as climate science. It is complex, with many component parts. There are multiple portals for information inputs in climate science, and multiple output portals as well. This makes climate science a system. The system is not coordinated, but there is a specific role for people who understand the different things being studied to build models, for example, that illustrate how the different factors come together, thereby providing an overview of the climate and the expected future climate.

One of the interesting ways that science as a system differs from technological systems is that science seeks to study that which already exists. A technological system is purpose-built, seeking to creates goods, create information and control its flow, and not necessarily to describe. But a science system seeks mainly to describe and understand. Information, and knowledge, might be created by this system, but it is still with the objective of understanding pre-existing phenomena so it is distinct from a technological system, even though it has many of the same elements.

In particular, scientific systems are driven by communication links. There are many -- online, journals, conferences are three of the more important ones. Scientists have strong knowledge in their field, but the study of natural phenomena comes with the realization that there are many links, and no field of study can be said to exist in isolation from all other fields. One of the common traits of science and scientists is inquisitiveness, and this trait is important in the respect that people do not just have concern for their field of expertise, but how their field connects and converges with other fields.

The practice of science is a system, therefore, because it studies systems. It is possible to isolate a variable or two, but impossible to discount the reality that those variables exist within a system. To fully understand how anything works requires an understanding of the different influences on that system. In other words, science is a system by necessity, because that which science studies is also a system. While this might seem to complicate science, arguably modern information technology in particular has created many more linkages for information flow. These enhanced information flows make the system of science stronger, just as they have for technological systems.


There are many similarities between technological systems and scientific ones. At the most fundamental level, science studies systems, because everything in the natural world is part of the same massive system. A system has innumerable inputs, throughputs and outputs, and science seeks to understand those. It can only do so by being a system itself.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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