To my mind progress in science faces some pretty steep challenges in the years ahead. Chief among them is the follow-on economic damage of the Great Recession. Across the World, but particularly in North America and Europe, sovereign debt, structural deficits and political paralysis are beginning to threaten governmental support for scientific research. Here in the US, the election silly season combined with automatic sequestration cuts, increasingly make the FY13 scientific budget look pretty gloomy. In Europe, depending how the Euro crisis pans out, the ability of Brussels to go ahead with its ambitious Horizon 2020 plan is perhaps open to question. Moreover, even in Asia, there are economic clouds which have potential to derail the massive investments in science currently taking place. I worry most about the need for China to boost domestic demand in the face of reduced exports to Europe and America. If China can’t do that smoothly, then there could well be significant instability, both economic and potentially social. And the consequences for Chinese science could well be dire.
Another challenge, especially here in the States, are the increasingly frequent attacks on the credibility of scientists. This is part of a politicization of science, both with respect to scientific theories (which serve as surrogates for “culture wars”) and scientists themselves, as they find themselves drawn into those culture wars. I’ve blogged about this danger here quite recently. The upshot is, that when the general public, upon whose taxpayer dollars science depends, stops trusting science and scientists, then science progress runs into a brick wall.
Finally, Globalism itself is being challenged and with it the massive international collaborations (think LHC, Hubble, Antarctica, ISS) which make up “big science”. Many of the truly daunting scientific problems absolutely require a transnational approach. I can’t imagine a successful single country approach to pandemic flu, to say nothing of climate change, energy production or cracking the human “mind”.
Addressing those challenges wont be easy and will certainly require the sustained contributions of scientists and their supporters. Above all, it may require many scientists to look beyond the “bench” for a bit and to reach out to their colleagues, not only to collaborate scientifically, but to protect a larger scientific agenda.