5 big questions about the future of science

Elsevier leaders and the chair of the Campaign for Science and Engineering share their visions

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When CaSE, the Campaign for Science and Engineering, celebrated its 30th anniversary last month, science luminaries from across the UK convened in the majestic Senate House at the University of London. From Professor Brian Cox, an English physicist famous for his science commentary on radio and television, to UK Science Minister Jo Johnson, guests took the stage to share their visions for “shaping the future of science.”

The setting was ideal for this theme. The Senate House is a towering structure in the art deco tradition with a futuristic feel that prevails more than eight decades after its construction. It’s been immortalized in films, from Nineteen Eighty-Four to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises.

On this occasion, just a week after Trump’s victory, the audience was poised to hear what Johnson and Cox thought about the president elect and how his administration would affect science in the UK. Other topics included the future of British science in light of Brexit, with a focus on funding and immigration; how to get more women in STEM; and how to get children excited about science. You can read more about the panel discussions here.

I work with CaSE as part of Elsevier’s support for their efforts to advocate for science and engineering in the UK. And working with them on this night’s theme inspired me to ask Elsevier’s senior executives and CaSE Chair Prof. Graeme Reid to share their visions for the future of science. I asked them five seemingly simple questions that are actually quite challenging.

1. “From your perspective, what will the next 30 years of science bring?”

Prof. Graeme Reid, PhDGraeme Reid, Professor of Science & Research Policy, University College London: “I am optimistic that by 2046, the scientific and political communities will have learnt how to work together more effectively, overcoming some of their long-standing differences in culture, ambitions and time horizons. This will … unlock enormous benefits through better funding decisions for research, and an easier interface between researchers and policy officials who might use research expertise to inform policy.”

Dan Olley, PhDDan Olley, Chief Information Officer, Elsevier: “Over the next 30 years, I believe the advances in technology, especially around data and machine learning, will offer the ability to accelerate the pace of scientific breakthrough to levels we can’t even conceive of today. The ability to process data on ever increasing scales in near real time, build predictive models that can quickly reject ideas that don’t work and filter those that do, use technology to filter and summarize information from both within a discipline and across disciplines so scientists have just Nick Fowler, PhDthe information they need when they need – it will enable a step change in scientific output.”

Nick Fowler, Managing Director Research Networks, Elsevier: “This is such a hard question – just think what we can imagine now versus 30 years ago! Whatever it brings will be the result of more collaboration, more increasingly massive datasets, and more global participation.”

Hannfried von Hinderburg, PhDHannfried von Hindenburg, Senior VP of Global Communications, Elsevier: “Science, like many other sectors, will see the rise of China and other emerging markets. Already today, China produces nearly 20 percent of the English-language research. There is only one trajectory one can imagine for this going forward: up. Research will also be communicated in bite- (or byte-) sized pieces. Articles as we know them today will be replaced by sets of data and information.”

Youngsuk "YS" ChiYoungsuk “YS” Chi, Chairman, Elsevier: “I don’t think we can ever predict what specific discoveries are going to be made that far out in the future. But what I do think will happen is that advanced data processing is going to become an even more critical component of the way science is conducted. In 30 years when a group of physicists gets together to run an experiment, they will be taking an incredible volume of data into account from really diverse sources in order to orient their hypotheses and understand the implications of their results.”

2. “Where would you like to see society benefiting most from science?”

Hannfried von Hindenburg: “Probably, and most importantly, contributing to world peace by strengthening civil society and the functioning of democratic institutions around the globe.”

Youngsuk “YS” Chi: “There are lots of global issues that I’m passionate about. … But when it comes down to it, all of these issues are related to sustainability. How do we operate as a global society in a way that isn’t destructive in the long term? How do we use technology to improve human life today without affecting some really negative outcome tomorrow? To me, that’s the number one global question we all have to be thinking about.”

Prof. Graeme Reid: “I would like to see the benefits of science reach a wider population both geographically and socially. For example, unacceptable numbers of people around the world do not have secure supplies of food, water and health care. Science alone cannot remedy that position but it can help. Huge resources.”

Dan Olley: “Personally I think we are facing three big issue that we need Science to solve: climate change, population growth and health. We are already seeing the impact of climate change on the planets ecosystems, and having a background in astrophysics, I know we aren’t going to be hopping to other planets any time soon. Therefore we need to find ways of powering the world without destroying the incredibly fragile ecological equilibrium we depend on.

Population has exploded from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 7.4 billion just over a century later. While it is true we are seeing a reduction in the rate of population growth, predictions for 2100 are between 9.5 billion and 11 billion; meanwhile, the developing world is pushing to obtain the standard of living of the developed world, something the planet simply doesn’t have the resources to support. From fresh water and the problems with eating meat at this scale to technology and connectivity of a global population, we need science to help innovate our way through this.

Finally health: there are two aspects to this. Firstly, with people living longer in the developed world and the rising cost of healthcare, we need to find new ways of balancing this equation as the current trends make it economically unsustainable. The second is just a math problem. The more human hosts on the planet, the more likely we will get a virus that mutates to create a pandemic, and we need to be ready. So if we can stop climate change, raise the overall standard of living across the globe, provide affordable healthcare and be ready for the next pandemic, I’d be pretty happy that science has had an impact.”

Nick Fowler: “I would add cyber security to the list.”

3. “Which technologies do you think will shape science in the next decade?

Prof. Graeme Reid: “Predicting the future is beyond me, but genomics, quantum technologies and artificial intelligence are at stages that promise major benefits to society while raising big new questions about our understanding of the natural world. Of course the exciting thing about science is that my views could be overturned tomorrow. Maybe economists will begin to understand economics. Who knows?”

Dan Olley: “I think it’s all about our ability to model and process data on a huge scale; from genomics to sociology, all fields of science are generating more and more data, and our ability to process it and even get machines to “understand” and reason over it for us will be the technology that unlocks so many others.”

Nick Fowler: “All the ones we know, and new ones we’ve yet to learn about – that’s how technology flows through society, and why we’re still using technologies that are thousands of years old, for example, measuring devices, paper, horses.”

Hannfried von Hindenburg: “Automation. Computers will know things about us and will be able to do things for us that we can’t even imagine yet.”

Youngsuk “YS” Chi: “Again, I think advanced data processing is going to have a huge effect. Today we are seeing the beginning of what people like to call the “Internet of Things,” where common objects collect, send and receive data on a network. The implication of this is that the volume of quantitative data out there is growing rapidly – and it’s only going to keep growing. So over the next 10 years, I think technologies that help scientists leverage vast amounts of data to make discoveries will fundamentally change how science is conducted.”

4. “Which fields of research do you think will experience exponential growth?”

Prof. Graeme Reid: “I suspect we shall see growth in cross-disciplinary research – for example, research that brings together the natural sciences and humanities to address major economic and societal challenges. I wonder if peer review processes, funding agencies and academic journals are ready to support that development.”

Dan Olley: “I think healthcare, and specifically genetics and targeted therapies, will grow immensely over the next decade. Energy production and storage also has to change over the next decade. Breakthroughs in renewable/clean energy and battery technology are critical. I’d love to believe someone will crack fusion, but we’ll see. On a more practical level, autonomous vehicles will be commonplace, and I think we will increasingly see people moving to a subscription life in general, where there is less ownership and people call services on demand.”

Nick Fowler: “Data sciences, data security and knowledge management.”

Hannfried von Hindenburg: “Genetics, for good and for bad.”

Youngsuk “YS” Chi: “One field that’s taking off right now is neuroscience, and I don’t see any reason that it would slow down any time soon. If anything is worth studying, it’s the brain; yet we still don’t really understand much about how the brain works. So I think we’re going to see a lot more development in the field. Neuroscience is so interesting because it touches virtually every other discipline in a fundamental way: psychology, economics, mathematics, biology, computer science, linguistics – the list goes on.”

5. “Which single adjective would you use to describe the science of the future?”

Prof. Graeme Reid: “Wonderful”

Nick Fowler: “Big”

Hannfried von Hindenburg: “Groundbreaking”

Youngsuk “YS” Chi: “Cross-disciplinary”

Dan Olley: “Unimaginable”

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