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The Science of Looking Ahead: A tribute to AAAS Fellow Joseph F. Coates

Some people just see farther. For a "consulting futurist," foresight would seem to be mandatory. For AAAS Fellow Joseph F. Coates, who died October 16 at age 85, the scientific study of what's beyond the visible horizon yielded a career that combined brilliance, effrontery and a legion of devotees.  

Initially an industrial chemist with 19 patents, Coates was known as an alumnus of universities, think tanks, and two federal agencies—NSF and the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). When I arrived at OTA in 1986, Coates was already legendary. He went on to found the consulting firm of Coates & Jarratt, Inc., (today known as Leading Futurists), offering studies on the future of technology, business and government to Fortune 500 companies and a range of professional, trade and public interest groups.

Most professional fields eschew long-term predictions and the unintended consequences of research and/or its use. In authoring hundreds of reports and columns, augmented by speeches with titles like, "Coming to Grips With the Future," he reminded us that work and the workforce were being reshaped by science and technology. Therefore, management must change, not to mention policy, education, human resource development and the measurement of each.  

One measure of futurist's legacy is the accuracy (part art, part science) of his predictions. In a New York Times interview months after the 911 attacks, Coates offered this:

"The most interesting thing that's beginning to unfold at an increasing pace is molecular biology, molecular genetics. We're going to find pressure on people—family members, friends, employers—if there's a disease in the family to go and get a test. Prevention and treatment will follow much more slowly. But diagnostics will be quick, cheap and very important, and out of that will come the growth of genetic counseling" [for other hits and misses, see the complete interview]. 

Agree with him on a particular issue or not, Coates was the embodiment of gravitas. Consulting his quotations (from columns in the journal Technological Forecasting & Social Change) on the U.S. Congress, dealing with complexity, ethics, terrorism, and the tough- and tender-minded, imparts a flavor of his formidable range. 

Coates made the phrase "unintended consequences" a watchword for analysts and clients alike. He also legitimized futurist studies as a counterweight to short-term, politically expedient decision making. For looking so far ahead, we should be grateful to Joe Coates. One encounters such a role model no more than once or twice in a lifetime.