Looking Into the Future

by | May 28, 2019 | 0 comments

Daniel HookDaniel Hook, CEO Digital Science, @danielintheory / @digitalscience

John Lennon once said that life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. For those of us in the research sector, research is what happens while history is making other plans.

Research, often synonymous with expertise, has fallen out of favour with the public. There is growing discontent with experts, who are closely associated with the social elite and the ‘one percenters’ thought to be working to increase inequity.  

The Internet brought everyone closer to information, resulting in several subtle issues. Firstly, people have not historically been taught to critically evaluate information at school. Many believe information delivered from a ‘trusted’ source, rather than learning to question all sources.  Additionally, sources making their information more believable. Even critical thinkers are duped by information on the Internet.  Secondly, people confuse information and understanding. Information is everywhere and easily accessible, especially to busy people. Thinking about a newspaper article is less common than consuming 280 characters on Twitter.  Convenient packaging and the need for speed has led to a lack of consideration of facts. When the facts seem clear, what use are experts? At the same time, today’s flow of data is not toward people but away from them, with personal information and online actions being constantly monitored.

The growing importance of data in research and the increasing power of computers over the last 25 years could have been predicted, but the multifaceted nature of the developments that these steps have supported, from the rise of Digital Humanities to the profound developments in Deep Learning that are moving beyond the achievements of simple machine-learning approaches, could not have been anticipated.

And yet, the most important changes in the research environment in this time have not been triggered by research itself, but by 50 years of ecopolitical change.  Generally the timescale for most research impact is significantly longer than a decade. Today’s dominance of computer science and data science is down to investments made in the US during the Cold War, from the 1950s to the 1980s.  In 1994, five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world was more optimistic than in previous decades, with fresh hopes for collaboration, democracy and opportunities to develop stable economies and shared goals.

However in 2008, the tide began to turn in favour of a less stable ecopolitical situation, which has given rise to the current evaluation and funding environment: the financial crisis. Now after a decade of austerity measures implemented by many governments to combat the effects of the financial crisis, it is debatable whether austerity has been successful, or is adding to the original crisis. Many governments that chose austerity protected research by committing to continue to fund public research institutions at pre-crisis levels.  The justification was that academic institutions are not only for teaching but are also engines of economic development.  These governments forced institutions to focus on application, innovation and impact. The underlying freedom of a researcher to do curiosity-driven research has been eroded. In the last 10 years of research we have seen a significant shift toward justifiable, tangible returns on public investment, and now live in a much more impact-centred research economy than a decade ago.

In the future, we must consider the changes taking place around us today, whether they are the possibility of Brexit and increased national isolationism, ‘fake research’ and fabricated forgeries, challenges like antibiotic resistance, the reproducibility crisis, availability of funding for the arts, humanities and social science, the impact of AI on inequality, or government action in response to evidence of climate change. Considerations such as these start to shape an interesting future.

Let’s look at a few examples of these. China will likely be the dominant global research power in the next 25 years.  While the US is likely to retain the second spot, India and Brazil will both be vying for the positions below that.  Europe will still be a significant research power but individual countries such as Germany, Italy, France, Spain and the Netherlands will have to work more closely together to remain internationally competitive, so there is the possibility of a completely common research area across Europe within 25 years, and national research councils and agendas may have a more integrated approach to achieve the same level of impact.  If the UK leaves the EU, it may strive to punch above its weight, but it will increasingly become a niche player with excellent research.

It is likely that inequalities in the world will be the drivers of governments and consequently of the public research system in years to come.  Race, gender and neurodiversity together with inequity in health, wealth and resources will determine the world’s development in the next 25 years.

Environmental and medical challenges such as energy and antibiotic resistance will have pushed government-funded research into even more applied areas with increasing resource ploughed into areas that are seen as threats to social well-being.  The quest for longer and higher quality of life will focus research efforts around the problems of microbial resistance, gene therapies and, most importantly, redoubled efforts around neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer’s Disease. Some areas will suffer from limited funding as research focus narrows.

For more than 40 years governments such as those in the UK, New Zealand and Japan have been withdrawing funding from research.  Such governments have been looking to industry to bridge the funding gap.  Over the next 25 years we may see companies such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Tencent move far beyond research that is core to their business and becoming the destinations that young researchers aspire to take up academic positions. Their interest may well include arts, humanities and social sciences, and they may have the scope to incorporate blue skies thinking into their agendas.

It is difficult to foresee the future of artificial intelligence.  As AIs develop, their cognitive capacity is increasingly a black box, even for AI experts.  AIs are truly the product of the world that they experience, but the data that they consume gives them biases that are difficult to predict.  Work done by Google recently to create an AI to assist with hiring decisions culminated in significant gender biases due to data used to train it.  This project was discontinued, but not all outcomes are as obvious as this one and more subtle issues may escape even complex tests.

Looking at ‘fake news’ and the reproducibility crisis in research, truth eludes us in the flood of data that pervades our lives. How we address this will be formative and fundamental to the world that we will live in, not just in research.  All research stakeholders are aware of the opportunities and dangers of making research increasingly open.  However, one discussion that this forces in research circles goes beyond authenticating research in a data- and technology-driven environment.  The nature of research itself is changing as data and analytical tools becomes more ubiquitous, even in the humanities. Soon every researcher will need to be trained in data science.  Even if instrumentation has further developed to provide data analysis and manipulation at the touch of a button, the infrastructure will remain invisible, and data will need to be handled appropriately to ensure that the results are correct. I hope that the tools and methodologies developed to authenticate, verify and validate data are not just kept within that world but rather are translated into the world at large.

Though this vision seems somewhat dystopian, I don’t think that we will lose 350 years of development in the next 25 years.  However, all research stakeholders should play a role in shaping the future.  By understanding the world around us, we have the best chance to secure a world in which millions of people work together across cultures and geographies to solve diverse and difficult problems that improve the lives of billions. After all, shouldn’t it be that history is what happens while research is making plans?

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