Techniques that have helped foster impressively rapid development in the semiconductor industry are to be applied to science and technology for sustainable development, with a view to overcoming intractable problems.
The International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS) was developed in the early 1990s as a global collaboration between semiconductor industries. Since then it has systematically mapped research paths and enabled researchers to spot potential technological bottlenecks and respond to them well in advance.
Predictions generated by the roadmap have helped investors develop long-term business plans and, as new technologies have emerged, enabled profitable enterprises to be launched.
Now, the International Union of Materials Research Societies (IUMRS) has proposed developing a similar roadmap to troubleshoot obstacles to sustainable development.
'It would be a systematic way of bypassing the many deadlocked issues in sustainable development,' John Baglin, emeritus research staff member at the IBM Almaden Research Center, United States, and IUMRS membership commission chair, told the Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development — taking place in Rio de Janeiro this week (12-15 June), in advance of the Rio+20 summit.
Materials scientists integrate a wide variety of research from diverse fields, such as physics, chemistry, engineering and bioengineering, Baglin told SciDev.Net, and, 'because of that, we are better prepared than many to prepare a roadmap that would require [such] interdisciplinary collaboration'.
He said the ITRS enjoyed high levels of trust from both industry and investors, because it was seen as prioritising technology assessment over commercial considerations.
In a sustainability context, a roadmap could generate a timeline for technology planning, development and funding, and identify research priorities with a view to developing products that would be ready to meet needs as they arose.
Promising targets for the roadmap approach include sustainable electricity generation and advanced science and technology for high volume water purification and desalination — for which a major market is expected to develop over the next few decades.
The same approach could be used to tackle issues related to the implementation of sustainable development goals.
Baglin noted that a roadmap process could also lead to universal education in S&T, which, he said, is conspicuously lacking in many countries, and which could positively impact governance, technology and economics.
Guillermo Solórzano, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), told SciDev.Net that the roadmap was a 'promising idea, especially because of its potential for [developing] technologies that affect large populations, like desalination'.
The approach could also be used to address challenges in the large-scale mining field, such as the end of mercury use in mining.
'It is impressive,' said Roberto Faria, president of Brazil's Materials Research Society, although he noted that countries would still need good governance in order to use the roadmap for sustainable development effectively.
Baglin is investigating establishing a consortium of experts and stakeholders who could develop the roadmap over the next five years.