Today, the world spends US$1.4 trillion (about S$1.8 trillion) annually in R&D—a third each in Asia, Europe and the US. What are the implications of this massive investment and the massive output in knowledge and new discoveries that it enables? How will these contributions transform or reshape business, society and the way we live? What are some of the major trends and issues shaping the global science agenda in 2014? These were some questions raised by NUS President Professor Tan Chorh Chuan at a session on “The Global Science Outlook”, which he moderated during the World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting 2014.
Citing an interesting trend, one of the panellists, Professor Subra Suresh, said that last year, for the very first time in the history of national science funding, the top 10 Asian countries collectively invested more in R&D than the US did, according to the National Science Board statistics. The President of Carnegie Mellon University, Prof Suresh is also the former Director of the National Science Foundation. He noted that the rate at which the one-third investment in R&D from Asia is increasing is significantly higher than the rate of research expenditures in the Western World at the present time.
But notwithstanding this trend, no matter where substantial investment in R&D is being made, he added that we have to make sure that we do the right thing so that science thrives in the best way. One consideration he highlighted was “What can we collectively do so that the infrastructure for R&D is not just investments but also the basic infrastructure—scientific peer review, ethics, research integrity, respect for and protection of intellectual property, mobility of young researchers, open access to scientific publications and eventually open access to data that connects to big data? How do we make sure that there is at least a conversation?” Such a conversation has been achieved, for example, by a group of broad science and engineering funders who annually bring key people from a developed and a developing country together to tackle pressing global issues.
Another huge collaborative effort is the Human Brain Project led by Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) that has been awarded a 1-billion-euro (S$1.7 billion) grant. Heartened by the complementary major brain research initiatives launched by America, Europe and Israel, with China likely to do the same, EPFL President Professor Patrick Aebischer said: “This is a very encouraging thing—that those sciences are converging, that the agencies are ready to fund at the large level, at the big science level, which is very new. We would have to be sure that we work in a very collaborative way … and I think it is only by this massive effort that we will be able to provide new therapies.” But finding new efficient therapies for brain disease is a long and arduous task; and people have to keep their expectations at a reasonable level even as huge funds are poured into this area of research, he added.
Prof Aebischer was nevertheless optimistic about future prospects for global science. Though he felt that scientists still have to learn to make science attractive and understandable to others, and devote efforts to interact with and understand the perspectives of policymakers, he saw that some things are indeed moving in the right direction. Remarking on the Forum, he said: “Science is on the agenda now … we have sessions that are well attended in science and I start to see people from other communities being present.”
On the question of making science more accessible to laymen and policymakers, Ms Mariette DiChristina, Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American, who was also part of the panel, suggested capitalising on digital platforms and social media to communicate, tapping the passion of the people in science, and advancing science through crowd activities and funding.
Professor Neil Gershenfeld, Director of The Center for Bits and Atoms, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pointed out that “the transition from research to societal benefit and application involves the collision of unlike people. It doesn’t happen by yourself in a lab. You need to bring the communities together. The heart of it is not to more tightly constrain the scientist, but to more broadly engage the communities to find the value.”
Summarising his personal takeaways from the session, Prof Tan said that first, we are seeing greater and positive moves towards increased collaboration across countries, beyond the level of research to the level of research funding agencies. Secondly, there is greater convergence of research across disciplines under the umbrella of big-science initiatives. And the point was raised about including the human condition, the integration of social and behavioural sciences and cultural issues, into this research so as to inform technical ideas with the ones that link to societies. The third key point is about reaching out to the public and policymakers, making sure that they understand what is coming out from this massive investment in science, its long-term nature, its uncertainty, but also its long-term importance in advancing society and economies.
Finally, Prof Tan remarked that the future of scientific research is hard to predict, but there could be quite substantial changes brought about by the ease of information flow, of technical equipment and the blurring of disciplinary lines, leading to greater inclusiveness of people who may not be professional scientists.