The Future of Science in 2021?

By Robert Hickson 25/11/2011

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.