Archive November 2011

The Future of Science in 2021? Robert Hickson Nov 25

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The Institute for The Future has released another of its graphics of future developments. This one is about where science will be in ten years’ time. I find their graphics in general are more style over substance, and often difficult to digest.


Their ‘Multiverse of Exploration’ includes fairly obvious advances over the next decade, such as developments in neuroscience, and data intensive science. They also plump for quirky things such as invisibility cloaks, real time genome tweaking, and $1000 satellites. They don’t go into a lot of background analysis of how they selected the key developments and have an eclectic range of signals (such as reverse engineering a chicken to create a dinosaur, and a strange conference series called BLUEMiND that links studying the ocean with understanding the human mind).

The ‘Multiverse’ has an absence of health-related developments, but perhaps that is because they have another forecast of well-being in 2020. Their main purpose is to stimulate thinking, but I find that they do a poor job of that. The Institute for the Future’s graphics are more hedgehog than fox - they seem to proclaim what is going to happen, rather than provide a more open discussion of possibilities.

For one thing, they leave a lot out — such as energy- related developments, robotics, or non-oceanic environmental science. Missing stuff out is fine if you provide additional background material that points you toward some of the other interesting things. They don’t, so for those unfamiliar with what is going on in science it is too simplistic and misleading.

There is also an underlying assumption that these things will happen, without acknowledging technical and societal factors that may influence what and when. A catastrophic failure of SpaceShipOne, for example, will change the optimism about private space flight.

I’m sure various forms of open innovation will be around in 2021, but it isn’t how all science will be done in the future. Open innovation works in some cases, but not in others.  Similarly, “massively multiplayer data” may be less successful than they think. Sydney Brenner has voiced scepticism that more data is always better. A quote of Prof Brenner’s, which I unfortunately haven’t found a source for, is apt:

So we now have a culture which is based on everything must be high-throughput. I like to call it low-input, high-throughput, no-output biology

What’s next also produces some complex maps of trends, which overwhelm rather than enlighten.

I don’t want to be too negative. Making good graphics of trends and developments is hard. We got this far in MoRST’s Futurewatch programme, but I always considered it a work in progress that needed refining. I’m a big fan of Edward Tufte  and his insights about visual representations. Some of the graphics from David McCandless are also great. We need more of this in the futures space.

So what do you think are big science developments  that may happen over the next ten to twenty years? If I have enough time over the summer I’ll try and put together a more informative futures graphic that includes your insights.



Stem Cell Therapies Robert Hickson Nov 17


The US Biotech company Geron was the first company to get FDA approval for an embryonic stem cell trial (in 2009). It has just announced that it is ending the trial, and will instead focus on cancer therapies. Stem cell therapies have been a bright hope as a way to treat or cure many illnesses for several decades (an exception being bone marrow transplants, a common and less sophisticated way of adding stem cells). However, scientific challenges and ethical concerns have resulted in slower clinical use of stem cells than many had anticipated.

Drivers: Technological progress, combat injuries

Trends: Increasing number of stem cell trials & other forms of regenerative medicine applications

Opportunities: Treating or curing diseases and serious injuries

Challenges: Demonstrating long term benefit and safety. Securing funding for trials.

Geron’s trial was on repairing spinal cord injuries, and was a phase I clinical trial that was solely to assess safety. Geron state that they are cutting the trial short not because of safety reasons, but because they are having trouble raising money to keep the trial going.

Does this mean stem cell therapies have had a major setback? No. The issue doesn’t appear to be one of safety, but of finance. Some researchers were sceptical of Geron’s chances of success before the trial started.

The FDA and some other regulators are taking a cautious approach to embryonic stem cell trials, because of the newness of the field and concerns that stem cells could create tumours. They have approved only one other embryonic stem cell trial — one by Advanced Cell Technology that is attempting to repair an eye disorder. There are though many other trials (Phase I and II) underway in the US and elsewhere involving adult or foetal stem cells; the Financial Times stated ‘more than 2,700 trials’ worldwide (unsourced, but presumably using info partly from

Firms like Geron, as well as some patient advocacy groups, have criticised the cautiousness of the FDA in their approach to stem cells. However, regulators recall deaths and other unexpected outcomes in the 1990s from another novel approach; gene therapy. Plus there are quite a few dodgy stem cell treatments are being offered by dubious companies and physicians.

Greater caution is warranted because stem cells are not the same as a pharmaceutical. They are living complex biological entities whose behaviour in our (or a mouse’s) body we don’t fully understand and can’t control. A recent review by Trounson et al. notes the wide variety of stem cell trials underway. While these trials have all demonstrated safety, they haven’t all demonstrated that the treatments work, or will have sustained curative benefit. Trounson and colleagues also comment in their paper that the initial hope of induced pluripotent stem cells as an ethically acceptable treatment option has been tempered due to abnormalities that result when they are used.

Approved human treatments probably won’t be available for another decade or more. But for those who have the money, treatments for pets are already available. The North American Veterinary Regenerative Medicine Association is also interested in veterinary applications. Meanwhile, lab-grown meat, created from stem cells, is also a (distant) possibility.

While now 5 years old, a Futurewatch report from MoRST – ‘Stem Cell Research in New Zealand’ — describes both the medical and agricultural stem cell research (not trials) that was underway in New Zealand a few years ago. AgResearch is interested in using stem cells as part of its livestock breeding programme.

Some of the recent human stem cell trials initiated around the world include treatments for heart disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis and eye disorders . Red blood cells have also been created from stem cells. Stem cells may be able to be collected and banked from your teeth for future use.

This recent activity in stem cell therapies is part of a surge in the field of regenerative medicine. This involves not just treating diseases, but growing replacement body parts —be they pituitary glands, blood vessels or muscle. Technologies such as 3D printing and nano-structured materials are helping provide scaffolds for tissues and organs to grow upon.

The US’s Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, a consortium between the army, universities and medical centres, is being particularly assertive in developing and testing treatments to repair burns, replace limbs, and treat other traumas resulting from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others are also interested in using stem cells as part of reconstructive or cosmetic surgery.

The non-biological challenges, as Geron has found, are that such trials will take considerable financial backing, which is currently in short supply, and lengthy regulatory oversight. However, the variety and pace of developments signal that a range of new options are emerging to both repair, replace or enhance bits of our bodies. Which are going to be acceptable (and affordable), and which aren’t?

The Atlas of Economic Complexity Robert Hickson Nov 02

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An analysis of economic complexity by Hausmann et al. from MIT presents a different perspective on economic potential than that provided by the World Economic Forum. The main contention from Hausmann is that wealth comes from the use of productive knowledge, and that the better a country is at connecting this knowledge in different ways the more prosperous it can be.

This is similar to other current discussions about networks — for example, Steven Johnson [TED video] and Shaun Hendy’s blog. Shaun has previously discussed earlier reports by Hausmann and Hidalgo on this theme. W. Brian Arthur has also argued the point in his book The Nature of Technology that technologies develop along similar lines of increasing complexity.

Hausmann and his colleagues delve deep into economic factors but convert their findings into captivating visual analytics. They claim that future economic performance can be predicted from their ‘economic complexity index.’ This index involves characterising the diversity and ubiquity of products that a country exports. Their analysis only considers exported products, ignoring products that aren’t exported and services. The latter exclusion is problematical given that around two thirds of both the US economy and the New Zealand economy (and many other countries) are based on services. The authors recognise this and are working to incorporate services into their models.

Time will tell if their predictions of performance potential hold up, but their analysis does provide hope that New Zealand has scope to improve. Our exports have diversified over the past 50 years, and perhaps surprisingly we have greater diversity than Australia. [Warning: the visualisations on the Atlas web site weren’t running earlier today, so you may need to try again later]

New Zealand's exports in 2009. Source: Hausmann et al. (2011). Atlas of Economic Complexity
New Zealand’s exports in 2009. Source: Hausmann et al. (2011). Atlas of Economic Complexity

Countries that do well are those that export complex products. Hausmann and colleagues point out that countries diversify by building on what they already have. This isn’t an argument for the status quo or conservative thinking. New Zealand is unlikely to prosper by just shifting from exporting bulk milk powder to exporting more fancy milk products (since most of the value will be captured by the big multinational food companies — for another dose of mathematics applied to global corporate control see this paper by Vitali et al [PDF, 2 MB]).

A better example of leveraging off existing capabilities is how Gallagher’s transformed from producing largely electric fences for farmers into a global company producing agricultural electronics and security fence systems. NDA Group also evolved from a cooperative farm servicing company (gumboots to milk vats) to a global supplier of specialised engineered products for a range of markets. Lanzatech has picked up on microbial fermentation and used it in the biofuels field.

The latest TIN100 report identifies companies (particularly IT and healthcare companies) with the potential to do a lot for the economy, although the report does note that we have to expect some failures. (See this Herald article for more on the findings of the TIN100 report).

My view is that rather than rush away from primary production to ‘High Tech’ sectors, we still need to consider what other capabilities we have in primary production that we can better build on. We are seeing this in the wool garment industry, and in developing bioenergy potential from plantation forests. What other skills can we capitalise on?

While appealing, Hausmann & Hidalgo’s analyses need to be considered alongside other factors so that the potential they identify can be reached. Underplayed in their report is the role that ‘Intelligent Design’ (irony — I’m talking about government) as well as ‘Darwinian Evolution’ can play in enhancing complexity. For a country like Singapore, 60 years ago half of their economy was based on natural rubber products but look at it now. Government policies and support were needed to make that switch. They didn’t just leverage off capabilities developed in tapping rubber. It is also instructive to see how the exports of Denmark (to which NZ politicians and policy makers frequently look now) have evolved from 1962 to 2009. In 1962 New Zealand’s exports looked like this.

The Atlas makes light of the role that education plays in developing complexity. They compare the effort put into education by Ghana with Thailand and their current exports, commenting that Ghana’s investment hasn’t paid off. This is unfair and glib — a more comprehensive analysis needs to be made.

Still, many commentators enthuse over the wealth of data that the Atlas brings together and the scope for exploring it in more detail. And it provides good food for thought for us to consider how to improve our economic future.

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