A Unique Insight into Blue Sky Research

Congratulations to Patrick Thill (New College), a DPhil student in the Department of Engineering Science, who was awarded one of only five Oxford University places at this year’s prestigious Global Young Scientists Summit in Singapore. In this article Patrick shares his unique insights into the latest advances in science and technology and how research can be harnessed to address major global challenges.

Global Young Scientists Summit (GYSS) @one-north in Singapore. Patrick Thill (pictured right) is seen here with Sir Richard J. Roberts, who was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine.I was fortunate enough to attend this year’s Global Young Scientists Summit (GYSS) @one-north in Singapore. This is a yearly gathering where 300 young scientists and 21 eminent Field Medalists, Nobel Prize, Turing Award and Millennium Technology Prize winners interact in lectures, small group sessions and panel discussions under the motto ’Excite. Engage. Enable’. It has been one of the most exciting weeks during my PhD and I would like to share the unique insights I have gained as food for thought for everyone.

Excite

It turns out that predicting scientific An artist's impression in 1900 at what the world would look like in 2000.advances and their future directions is impossible. At the start of the 20th century, the French artist Jean-Marc Côté took a guess at what the world would look like in 2000 and he could not have been more wrong.

Similarly, Einstein had no idea that his discoveries in quantum theory would lead to the development of transistors, lasers and integrated circuits and the even less imaginable surge in social interactions through social networks. In another field, Keynes’ got his 15-hour working week prediction spectacularly wrong. They had no idea.

The best research is often developed from the pure need for knowledge. The Nobel laureates largely attributed their key discoveries to serendipity. They were, at the right place and time, allowed to do ‘non-structured’ blue sky research. Therefore, time and trust in good researchers is required. Perelman, who presented his solution out of the blue after many years without specific results, solved the Poincaré conjecture.

Today, in a world of limited funding and austerity, research is funded much more goal and problem oriented: applicants for research funding need to lay out detailed research plans including specific milestones and achievements. That seems far from how great scientific progress is typically made. Scientists need to be ‘left on their own’ to a certain degree and allowed to follow their passion and potentially uncover their Serendipity. Perhaps, funding bodies ought therefore reconsider including a ‘blue sky’ component into grant structures.

A little anecdote springs to mind. Queen Victoria visited Michael Faraday’s labs and was fascinated by his work on electromagnetic devices but wondered: What was all this good for? His reply: I have absolutely no idea, but when we find out, I’m sure you will tax it.

A PhD degree might currently be the best way to get involved deeply with a problem and do a little blue sky research. We learn how to ask the right questions by pursuing our hypotheses and the findings often reveal that we ought to have formulated the problem differently. Once we know there is something, i.e. once you ask the right questions, it is fairly easy to solve the problem, as Nobel prize winner J Robin Warren demonstrated on his discovery of the Helicobacter pylori, which he pursued against all odds.

Engage

Today, science is no longer considered to be just some sort of medieval necromancy, but it is well established and respected in society and it influences politics, just look at climate change. Nevertheless, we need to broaden the reach of science and further fortify its place in the world. We ought to be good citizens and integrate further with humanities and social sciences. Science can often be wrong and incomplete. In fact, as scientists we simply make the best rational conclusions on incomplete datasets. Preconceived ideas are meant to be challenged, which is encouraged in science. This sets it apart from some still prevalent doctrines that formed the backbone of society in the past. I’m sure Karl Popper would agree. Quantum theory is widely accepted these days, but perhaps we ought to revisit Bell’s no-go theorem and look at the small print assumptions and challenge it. History taught us that whenever something is a no-go, go there.

Inherently, science is about change, which is what people fear and which explains society’s de facto resistance to science. We therefore ought to communicate even better with the community to overcome this resistance to change (resistance to science), without falling in the trap of letting science communication becoming entertainment, which it sadly so often boils down to these days. Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson paved the way to communicate good science in an entertaining but engaging way and we all ought to follow and pull our weights as good scientists (citizens).

Enable

So how will we tackle the future’s problems according to some of the brightest minds on this planet? Science has a lot of the solutions but they need to be incorporated into society and that requires cooperation and unification of the world. Some models predict that Africa will have overtaken Asia in terms of population by the end of the century and advances in GM (e.g. golden rice) could be our best chance at helping to feed the world. Global warming will cause sea levels to rise and countries like Bangladesh will lose 20% of their land forcing 10s of millions of people to migrate. Looking at how much tension a few million migrants are currently causing in Europe ought to make us think about the systemic changes required to address future migration. And yes, it will happen, as a matter of fact it is already happening. So let’s, for once as humanity, be pre-emptive rather than reactive.

The unjust allocation of resources and distribution of wealth together with the aforementioned changing environment will test our systems and require novel scientific-political symbiotic sustainable solutions. We need to challenge the notion that you are entitled to resources just because you are sitting on them. The whole concept of nation borders could for example be changed in a cooperative fashion. As long as there are borders, there are ‘potential tensions’, similar to potential differences in physical systems, and they will cause conflicts. As Stephen Hawking keeps pointing out - we remain our own biggest enemies.

As Stephen Fry put it in his speech at the Oxford Union: ‘the world will be saved by the life of the mind. Humanity and freedom of thought are the most highly prized things we have today,’ and we need to preserve them at all cost. They underpin all scientific advancements and the conservation of life on planet Earth. With Fermi’s paradox upheld, life is most likely rare and it is wonderfully fragile. According to one Nobel Prize laureate: as long as we survive 10,000 years, we will explore/colonise the galaxy. The key to achieving this might lie in exciting enough young minds to follow their beliefs and ideas and pursue blue sky research, in bringing all members of society on board by engaging them and thus enabling humankind to live on and together create a better world.