Presenting Infrastructural Science
Many things we have long taken for granted are now endangered. Safe and reliable public infrastructures are among those things.
Infrastructure is more than physical hardware like roads, electrical wires, water pipes and airports. Hardware becomes infrastructure when it enables flow--the steady and reliable movement of material or information. So understanding infrastructure also requires understanding the social systems necessary to manage hardware so that flows are uninterrupted.
I study the kind of scientific work that people who operate infrastructures depend upon. I call it “infrastructural science,” and it is not an exaggeration to say that this obscure science is essential to the functioning of the modern world. Last week I presented an overview of my research at a National Council on Science and the Environment meeting.
Scientists and technicians are one part of the social system necessary for making different infrastructures work reliably. These people observe the natural world, and then report and forecast how the natural world changes. Government agencies perform most of the scientific observations, and provide forecasts and reports as public goods. As the natural world changes in very ordinary ways (storms pass through, streams swell or shrink, diseases come and go), the engineers and technicians who operate infrastructures use those forecasts to make routine adjustments.
There are many examples of infrastructural science, including: weather and climate forecasting; water quality testing; animal and plant disease inspection; space weather prediction; and flood prediction and control.
Mostly this "infrastructural science" happens almost invisibly, noticed mainly by the observers who do it and the infrastructure operators who use it. But it is a crucial part of how the modern industrial world works.
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan shows how people can be seriously harmed when infrastructural science breaks down. We are all being put in danger by anti-government political rhetoric, and especially the declining government budgets for providing public services that have accompanied this rhetoric.
Infrastructural science is obscure, but we forget it at our peril.