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  • Writer's pictureNick Turner

Can scientists predict the future?...

...Is the underlying question that was asked at the launch of "What's Next?" at The Royal Institution last week. The book, edited by British Iraqi theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili, is a collection of scientific essays, written by selected experts, on what they believe is in store for the future of the human race.

At the launch event, in addition to Jim hosting, we were fortunate enough to hear from four of the contributors; science writer Philip Ball on demographics (although he also spoke about the impact of computing, robotics and AI), former chief scientist of the Met Office, Dame Julia SlingoAarathi Prasad, a molecular geneticist and finally Anna Ploszajski, a materials engineer and part-time stand-up comedian (apparently sponsored by Heinz Alphabetti Spaghetti, hence the spelling of her name - her joke not mine!).

I will leave the book review to others (science writer Brian Clegg offers a comprehensive, if slightly mixed opinion on Amazon), however I would like to offer a few thoughts on what was said at the launch and a couple of reflections since.

All four speakers were very eloquent in their own right. Dame Julia's presentation on global warming was one of the most articulate (and quite frankly frightening) explanations of what we can expect (and in many instances are already seeing) from our planet's future climate. How any political leader can ignore these facts is truly astonishing (a theme I shall return to momentarily). What was common across all the speaker's topics was the reliance on deep scientific research to deliver the anticipated breakthrough insights and innovations. From gene editing curing the most pernicious ills, to smart, shape-changing materials reinventing flight; all of which to become reality require a serious, long-term commitment to "grown-up" science and research.

Therefore, perhaps the question we should have been asking (at the risk of bastardising the famous Abraham Lincoln quote) is not can scientists predict the futurebut can they invent it?

There are a number of conditions that are necessary for great scientific advances, leading to significant innovation, not least:

  1. First class academic research, with robust peer review

  2. Financial backing and incentives

  3. Commercial leadership, risk appetite and translation capabilities

  4. Political will and appropriate regulatory frameworks

Sadly, as Tim Harford in the Financial Times pointed out recently, the world of scientific research is being challenged on many fronts. As an illustration, he referenced a recent research paper from three economists — Ashish Arora, Sharon Belenzon, and Andrea Patacconi — focused on the decline of science in corporate R&D.

"...research and development has become 'less R, more D'" - Prof. Ashish Arora

They and others have argued, we should be concerned about a number of barriers which potentially limit the future impact of scientific research.

  1. The obsession with "marginal gains". In itself, not a bad thing (and enormously popular in the world of sport) but such a focus on the detail can crowd out more speculative and innovative research.

  2. Short-term thinking by commercial organisations, studiously focused on speed and financial returns (not least to keep impatient investors and markets happy).

  3. The pressure for scientists to publish "successful" outcomes to advance (and in some cases save) careers, ignoring that often more is learnt from failure than success.

  4. The lack of long-term political leadership, focused on significant, structural advances that address fundamental issues of economic productivity.

  5. Too many scientists and researchers chasing too little funding (a situation only likely to be exacerbated in the UK by Brexit).

In short, scientists, business leaders and policy makers should perhaps be less concerned about predicting the future (so called "futurology") and more focused on reinvigorating challenging, "messy" and ground-breaking research that may help solve the numerous intractable problems that face our species.

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