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John Wood: European Dreams: Science in 2030
July 21st, 2009 / 0 Comments » /

I dread the school holidays. Why? Because getting to Imperial College front entrance in South Kensington, London, is a nightmare. It is on the same street of several museums including the Science Museum that is invaded by the hordes each vacation. The nearby underground station is packed with parents and grandparents herding their youngsters together. Even if I go out onto the street I have to barge through crowds of people, all apparently happy to loiter around with time to spare. What is it that is so fascinating about the history of science that attracts them? Playing with magnets, seeing laser light shows, seeing how drugs are developed and marvelling at the ingenuity of engineers who built steam engines in the 19th century are all part of the experience that most British children look back on fondly even in adult years. As we have just celebrated the 400th anniversary of the telescope have all the major discoveries of science been found; what will the museum of the future record of the present? Are we at the limit of what we can observe both in the space-time domain and in energy? Just what is ahead of these young people as they are wowed by the discoveries of yesteryear? What will research be like for them as they start their independent research careers in 2030 and how can those of us making decisions now affect them? This is one of the roles of the newly created European Research Area Board (ERAB). Our prime objective is to ensure that the research environment in Europe remains as fertile as in the recent past.

The concept of Europe developing a unified science policy is an ambitious goal. The rich diversity of cultures and languages combined with very different approaches to education and the financing of research should not be jettisoned in favour of dumbing everything down to the lowest common denominator. We need to build on this diversity and let the different cultures contribute together to build the future. It has been this very diversity that was fostered in the days of Charlemagne and came to its head in the Renaissance. We need to learn from history rather than just starting with a blank sheet of paper. How can we really create a gourmet dish out of the mix of disciplines and approaches - this is the challenge for us all.

As a young research fellow in Cambridge I was free to conduct my own experiments and I would often decide on what to do while walking to the laboratory. I might discuss it with colleagues but generally I had an idea that I wished to pursue. The experiments and the analysis were difficult but I had mastered them during my Ph.D. and had read most of the major papers in my field. I was being invited to give reviews and keynote talks at international meetings. Will this freedom still remain in the future? While I am a great believer in the role and inspiration of the individual, much research in the future is going to be conducted in large international teams with many of the experiments and simulations being undertaken remotely. The research environment of the future will be much more like that which particle physicists and astronomers have created already. Yet there will be a difference since this scenario will involve a mix of disciplines including social scientists and philosophers, with little common overlap in their knowledge base initially. Indeed will we still train university students in single disciplines? While I detect little enthusiasm for moving away from investigating one area in depth, much more attention will be required to ensure that, for example, a mechanical engineer will be able to work together with an environmental biologist, an expert on standards and a legislator. Only in this more holistic way will the challenges that face us now be resolved. Today there are few enough teams of critical mass that look to the challenges as a whole body problem. In fact as the debate on climate change has shown, there are even segments of society that do not even acknowledge the problem and some of them are in charge of finance. Today, more than ever, we need to have firm evidence based research that informs political decision making in an objective way. Ill informed media, looking for a popular campaign to boost sales, can make a logical political decision be a vote looser in no time at all.

If I am to think of the environment for a researcher at the beginning of their independent career, what things will be different from my own experience? Indeed, has the day of the Ph.D passed or will it be transformed? Just how will I become a member of a dispersed community yet retain my own identity. What will some of the issues I will have to face and how can the decision makers in Europe assist?

The first question ERAB has asked itself is whether universities and publicly funded research organisations are best suited for exploiting this new environment. The question for politicians is how best to fund whatever is needed without jeopardising their commitment to mass higher education. There is a tension between the support of excellence and the need for a cohesive European society. As the researcher will be using resources all around the world, does it make sense to be identified with a single institution? One can conceive of molecular structural data being undertaken remotely using NMRs in Japan, a neutron source in the USA and an X-ray source in France. All these will be accessible and possibly controlled using dedicated electronic infrastructure. Indeed today, Imperial College has a dedicated link to Georgia Tech allowing researchers in London to operate equipment in real time in Atlanta.

As the research infrastructures become more complex so does the volume of data that will be produced. For example the European X-ray Free Electron Laser being built at DESY in Hamburg is estimated to producing 100 times more data onto the Grid than the LHC at CERN will release. At a recent users meeting at the European XFEL it was stated that the reason so little data is released onto the Grid by CERN is the fact that the scientists know what they are looking for and can remove the vast majority of data that is not needed at source. This is not possible at the XFEL because of the wide range of disciplines and experiments that will be undertaken from mechanisms of drug delivery to fundamental investigations of superconductors.

The whole problem of data storage, curation and authentication is a hot discussion topic at the moment. Just who do we trust to keep the data safe and who decides on the way in which metadata is chosen?  With threats such as terrorism, protection of data from misuse is a high priority and the problem will become more severe in the future.

The young researcher in 2030 therefore will have to rely heavily on the work done by peers in different disciplines in various organisations around the world. However, in contrast to today, he or she might not even have to leave their own house to do this, being constantly connected with labs in all corners of the planet through the virtual world. As today the general public can marvel at the results from the Hubble Space Telescope from their home PC so this new world will enable the general public more access to living science. There is a great opportunity to engage the whole population in experiments and analysis.

Coupled with the data explosion will be the ever increasing power of super computers. In Europe there is a policy for a unified approach known as PRACE. As we proceed into the 100s of petaflops and beyond, the simulations that are being undertaken will become ever more complex and difficult to verify by reviewers. The mix of capacity alongside capability will be challenging. However as the large research infrastructures (both those which are large physical ones and also large complex networks) will be spewing out data at enormous speed so the simulations will be informing the experiment in a real time feed back situation. Just how will this all be controlled?

The European project Lifewatch is an excellent example of the emerging scenario. This infrastructure links together structural biology with environmental sensing from both land based and space detectors coordinated by the European Space Agency. The data are processed at CERN enabling biodiversity to be monitored and the models developed for a sustainable environment in order to inform policy and decision makers. This is an ambitious programme and the way it is conducted in the future may well be a model of the research environment of the future.

The challenges before us are well known and include climate change, health in an aging population, and the long term effects of the current economic crisis. The biggest challenge is likely to be how to achieve a good quality of life for all people around the globe, and to do this in a sustainable manner. If we want to have even a remote chance to tackle these problems, we need creative scientists, working together in networks of excellence.

What is the role which the European Research Area will play in this global, interconnected world, in which researchers meet virtually just as often as, if not more frequently than, face-to-face?

Research will be as global as the challenges it tries to address. Purely national research will continue but is currently ill prepared for tackling the global challenges. Initiatives such as the proposed Joint Programming which seeks to encourage funding bodies in different Member States to pool resources, are to be encouraged. Europe has the opportunity to draw together a critical mass of research infrastructure and human capital. To achieve its full potential, the ERA of 2030 has to be characterised by excellence, openness and innovation, interconnected with the rest of the world. In addition to this, science has to become a core part of European society and be owned by all citizens who will celebrate its achievements but who know how to sift out reliable evidence for policy decisions.

To counter the challenges we face in the world we have to concentrate on quality of research and allow excellence to flourish. The Europe of the future should not be afraid of supporting and demanding excellence. However, the way this excellence is identified and defined will change depending on the sector and geography. A clear distinction is necessary to delineate between world class excellent research and achieving European cohesion. The current European programmes do not make this distinction clear enough such that politicians can claim the concentration on excellence to be unfair. If the whole of European society has sufficient broadband access then the requirement for a more equitable distribution of facilities becomes less tenable. Indeed there is a good argument for co-location of facilities in a few well serviced hotspots. The creation of the Medicon valley in Sweden is one such example.

The Internet gives everybody the chance to become a publisher. This is not only true for life style blogs but has an increasing impact on the scientific world. It is now possible for science to easily reach large audiences, with the potential to eliminate the role of established filters and gatekeepers, such as the traditional scientific journal. This also means that science can be easily reviewed, assessed, rated and commented upon by anybody, reinforcing scientific democracy. Poor research might thus be identified more quickly and taken off the market. The challenge here is how to create these open access systems and how to ensure that old gatekeepers are not simply replaced by new ones.

The public access to assessment criteria will mean that individual reputation will become central and new ways to assess excellence will be developed. To state that "I am a scientist and I know best" will be unacceptable. A Ph.D. from an internationally respectable university will be a hallmark for some. However, as access becomes easier for all how will we give a kite mark to people with non conventional backgrounds? There will be more room for cranks to fill the networks with crazy ideas. Over the years I have received my own fair share of letters accusing me or wasting public money on large international research projects. They are normally typed on thin paper with a list of those copied that normally include the Prime Minister. I was once discussing these epistles with the head of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. We both took the same approach to ignore the letters but he then laughed and said he was always afraid that one of the crazy theories might turn out to be true and he would have gone down in history as ignoring it. This problem will grow. New approaches, which are open, flexible and transparent are emerging, based on implicit and explicit data (such as incoming links, page views and ratings). These developments will lead to the evolution of a new model of assessment, based on qualitative and quantitative data, which will contrast with the existing 'impact factor' model. Yet this does not mean that an organic, bottom-up and peer-to-peer approach is the only scenario: it is quite possible that some third-party system could be developed, which assesses and rates researchers in a dynamic way, including qualitative and quantitative input, emphasis on network analysis, implicit and explicit data - call it the Google of reputation.

In this networked world, an informal collaboration of scientists (even amateur scientists) may well produce better results than well established bureaucracies of research. Some research organizations could become irrelevant and be replaced by flexible networks. This would be accompanied by a labour market for researchers which will become more fluid, with greater mobility and differences in salaries. The European Research Area will profit from initiatives like the European Researcher Pass, which will allow researchers to move freely between all member states, carrying health care and social security with them where ever they go without long term disadvantage.

However, all of this does not mean that research institutions will disappear. In a world overloaded by information, institutions can guarantee standards of quality. Where will these institutions be located? Could they simply be in Second Life in many cases? All this begs the question of how these communities will interact socially. In many physical institutions the coffee room is where ideas are formulated and debated. In the virtual research environment will the same passion be developed or will the e-generation evolve accordingly?

Openness does not only mean that research will be conducted by networks of excellent researchers moving according to opportunities. Scientific research also has to be more transparent and accountable.  There is significant pressure to make scientific data available to the public, especially data collected with public funding or owned by the government (within the scope of Reuse of Public Sector Information). The mood is changing and there is stronger recognition of the immense value which could be generated from reusing such data, overcoming resistances from commercial interests and traditional gatekeeper positions. Initiatives such as Google Research Datasets will become a reality. In particular beta research material and rough data will increasingly be available and provide invaluable sources for research. Crucially, this can include digital versions of live meetings, such as audio/video recordings of physical meetings and conversations between researchers. These resources can be extremely valuable in blurring the boundaries between formal and informal knowledge exchange. While informational technology will not substitute physical contact, it will enhance its meaning.

This new approach to ownership of data, which is already discussed in the context of the open access movement, will have to lead to a totally new business models for research as proprietary data would change the fundamentals of revenue generation.

This openness does not only relate to rough data and the finished product. It also signifies a new emphasis on the research process itself rather than the single, perfect new invention. Innovation, new ideas, key scientific findings increasingly come in unpredictable ways, through continuous exchanges of view between high-level researchers with similar interests, and between relevant people at different levels of the innovation cycle. Increasingly, in the new open innovation model, innovative products are made public before being finalised, through the so-called permanent beta approach, because large-scale deployment brings insights which could not realistically be replicated in a protected environment. A parallel change is likely to happen in science: results are no longer solely delivered as a finalised product (the publication of an important journal; the book) but as draft products, in order to enable wider feedback mechanisms, and continuous improvement, enabled by the sharing of rough data, facilitating serendipitous innovation. This also helps meeting the challenge for improved knowledge transfer.

This process approach to science means that we will have to move towards a "science- as -a service mentality" (comparable to software development), where research is not only funded because it may be able to obtain a specific result, but as an on-going process that enables not only the achievement of great inventions ex-ante, but also the unplanned emergence of new ideas.

A key question is how will privately funded research interact with this more open and transparent approach to research. The current emphasis on "Open Innovation" will come under immense strain in the current economic climate. Likewise there is a need for a fundamental overhaul of the rules relating to State Aid and to Intellectual Property Protection in order to avoid the desire for protectionism. This will be the true test of European resolve in the coming months.

In this new interconnected, globalised world, why should there be a "European Research Area"? Europe's strength has always also been its weakness: its diversity. Research lives of the diversity of points of view. The European Union has already created an inner market which allows people from all member states to interact and trade with each other more easily. If it fully realises the Fifth Freedom - the freedom of knowledge, it has the huge potential to create a space where cultural diversity can unleash creativity and innovation.

In addition to diversity, Europe also has a strong common tradition of scientific and philosophical discovery. This European tradition has a holistic approach to education and research. It does not see education merely as knowledge transfer, but rather as the formation of a human being as a valuable member of society, expressed in words such as Bildung or formation. The German word Wissenschaft describes research in natural sciences as well as the arts, humanities and social sciences and the early modern period has seen the continuous development of all these areas. The European approach to scientific research, therefore, should build on the strength of this tradition. At the moment, arts, humanities and social science often see themselves as being in contrast to the natural sciences and there is very little cross-fertilisation. The early years of the 20th century have shown how fruitful the interchange of ideas between these disciplines can be and we should aim for a stronger dialogue between them, this could help to identify new areas of research, as well as the communication and acceptance of natural sciences in the society. Trying to understand how other disciplines work, particularly if those disciplines are somewhat alien to one's own specialisation can also promote thinking outside the box and unleash creativity. To enable this, students of the different disciplines will have to be educated so that they can communicate with each other more effectively. This has to be started long before students enter university and perhaps a greater emphasis on being a European Citizen should be included in schools' curricula.  Building on the tradition of early modern renaissance people could be one of the great benefits Europe can bring to the globalised world of science.

I would like to thank Jean-Claude Burgelman and Ulrike Uhlmann-Delaney for assistance in preparing this article.

Written by Professor John Wood


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