Knowledge creates questions
Breakneck advances in our scientific understanding are creating new fields of study on what seems like a daily basis. Whether it’s applying cutting-edge quantum physics to explore biology in new ways, or nutrigenomics bringing new light to the complex interplay between nutrition and genetic expression, new avenues of enquiry are specializing and overlapping, creating brand-new interdisciplinary fields of study. Consequently, we’re asking – and re-asking – the big questions about some of the most fundamental scientific and biological processes.
As we do so, we’ll create as many new questions as answers. Principles we thought we understood will be overturned with each new breakthrough. And, as scientific avenues of enquiry specialize, brand-new areas of study will appear overnight.
Examples? Gene therapies to correct inherited blindness, an artificial pancreas that uses algorithms to deliver precise amounts of insulin for diabetes sufferers or a smart pill that transmits data to a clinician from a patient with mental illness. And organic electronics, using carbon-based conductive polymers and molecules to synthesize functional organic and inorganic materials, potentially enables everything from organic solar cells, to self-assembling monolayers in electronic devices, to chemical circuits for human implantation.
Social sciences, too, are being tasked with tackling the apparently intractable challenges facing society – from racial strife to mass incarceration – and combining traditionally discrete disciplines to look for new answers. Computational social science combines sociology, economics, and mathematics to study how social phenomena evolve over time. That’s bringing new understanding to the spread of social information and the development of intimate relationships over digital networks, for example. Cognitive economics is generating new insights into the way our brains think when we’re faced with a decision. And cliodynamics is breaking new ground in attempts to describe and quantify the broad social forces of history.
In medicine, new moonshot therapies will be developed and delivered. The stem-cell arms race in regenerative medicine will continue apace. Japan, for example, is pushing innovations like the mass production of clotting blood platelets from iPS cells. Biology and health will become the next frontier for Big Data to conquer. A new age of personalized medicine will emerge. Google R&D spin-out Calico Labs is already using data to examine how dietary changes impact biological aging at the cellular level.
But for all the greater understanding, the better science, and the growing optimism, many promising avenues still turn out to be dead ends. Pfizer’s decision to pull the plug on its Alzheimer’s and Dementia drug discovery after years of disappointing results was a heavy blow for the medical community – and the nearly 50 million sufferers of these conditions worldwide. Science still progresses, but it’s often two steps forward and one back. And the setbacks receive more attention.
Those, albeit limited, reverses are contributing to a growing popular skepticism about scientific expertise. Some of that sentiment is mixed up with the global tide of irrationality and fake news perhaps. But the disappointments have been real. So, the scientific community will need to get smarter in how it pushes back. Researchers will think more about the social context of their work. Increasingly, more than a purely scientific mindset will be needed.
Because whatever the field of study, one thing always remains the same – with more answers comes new questions.