The correct answer, of course, is batteries. Better ones. Or effective carbon capture tools. But improved climate-tech is less ‘one small step for a man’ and more ‘our updated tax return form’: not that exciting. By contrast, teleportation devices; missions to Mars; adequate research funding – all incredibly exciting, but not incredibly feasible. So what, within reason, can we hope for in the coming decades?
Technologies to improve condoms and other sexual health devices are potentially revolutionary. Worldwide, around 40% of pregnancies are unwanted, and empowering women to control their fertility is a critical challenge for the 21st Century. Condoms are the first defence against both pregnancy and STIs, but fail on around 20% of occasions, with typical usage. Worse, only half of sexually active people in the Western world use condoms, which health experts attribute to decreased sensation when wearing prophylactics. Today, subtle but important developments are underway: tip-only devices, reusable products, ultrathin polyurethane condoms. Safe devices that reliably prevent pregnancy and transmission of diseases, maximise pleasure, and can be made widely – and cheaply – available are needed. But technological improvements are not the only limitation – social scientists and public health bodies (and the Pope?) need to work to change attitudes and ensure adequate funding for sexual healthcare, particularly in developing countries.
Genetic technology, from medicine, to agriculture, to conservation, will become ever more important in the coming decades. Meat substitutes, for example, are rapidly increasing in quality and decreasing in cost. GMO crops are becoming ever more efficient and nutritional. These replacements and others like them have the potential to change our eating and spending habits, reduce carbon output, and cause vast land-use changes, as farming becomes less profitable. Genetic technologies will restructure the way we produce food… if we let them. In the EU, strict regulations surround the use of GMOs in farming. The regulations covering medical genetics are even more conservative, with application of life-improving technologies limited by concerned governments. Common understanding of genetic technology is poor, and this inspires fear; governments respond to this public distrust, and strict restrictions are placed on the use of genetic technology. Scientific advancements have been and are being made, but poor communication between the public and scientists limits the application of these innovations.
Other realms of innovation are often forgotten in discussions about scientific advancement. AI technology is much more appealing than diggers and road substrates, but technological advancement is critical at both the high and low end of the excitement spectrum. In developed countries, we complain about potholes or make passive-aggressive statements on their longevity, but road condition is essentially a minor inconvenience, rather than a life-or-death infrastructural failing. In other parts of the world, this isn’t true. Road access is a key issue affecting many of the world’s poorest people. Rural communities in Africa, Asia, and South America often have little or no access to the real technological innovations of today because they are simply too far away. Aid and disaster relief, development and employment, and political consciousness just can’t reach people. Roads are too expensive to build, or don’t survive the local weather when they are laid. Partially, this is an economics problem. But solutions which are only available at a high price are limited solutions. Engineers and materials scientists bear some responsibility for failing to provide affordable solutions to the planet’s infrastructure crisis, of which roads are only one example. Scientists need to develop cheaper materials and technologies, and lead data-focused conservations with governments and NGOs to demonstrate the importance of prioritising infrastructure development for some of the world’s most neglected communities.
Roads may not be exciting, but other scientific advances are. Nano-surgery tools are interesting, and open up new worlds of minimally-invasive medicine. Computer learning technology, mining vast databases of our online behaviour, has the potential to give major insight into the human condition. And autonomous vehicles – including drones – are sure to change much of our day-to-day life. Science is not short of a few exciting stories. But the topics I highlight above are, in my opinion, some of the most significant issues facing humanity in the coming years. And scientific advancement is needed to solve all of them.
As I write, a classicist has just taken office as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He heads a government filled with students of the arts: of 650 MPs, only 103 have even the vaguest of scientific backgrounds. The same is true around the world. Scientists in positions of power and authority are few and far between, which is why governments have scientific advisors. An army of these advisors is responsible for explaining why that value next to the ‘p’ means this report probably isn’t useful; how an average survey response of 2.5 masks a population where everyone prefers option 1 or 4; or why this vaccination is cheaper, more effective, and safer than that one. Politicians, like the general public, rely on scientists to communicate what we’ve found. And that, all too often, is the problem: science continues to advance apace, but when it is hidden in boring reports, or turgid academic papers, we fail to engage the public in our work. Young scientists are given no training on how to engage with the public, which is not surprising, as even old scientists can be uniquely bad at this. Science and technology are exciting; every day, new, unexpected things are being discovered, developed, used in ways that make the world better. But without adequate integration between science and policy, science and business, science and the general public, much of this innovation will go to waste. Forget missions to Mars, or algae-based fuels. If, within my lifetime, scientists can learn how to effectively discuss our research, and encourage people to use science to inform decisions, from the household to the international stage, then that will be the most important advance of all.