By John Kerr 30/01/2017

What does the future hold in store for New Zealand science? What are the big issues our small, isolated country will face in a world of accelerating change?

Over last two weeks we’ve seen some excellent commentary from New Zealand researchers contributing to our Sciblogs Horizon Scan special series.

We asked experts across the spectrum of New Zealand science to give us their take on the big issues in their field and what might be around the corner.

You can get the full lowdown in this introductory post from Sciblogs Editor Peter Griffin.

Population demographics, artificial intelligence and forest health are just a few of the subjects covered in this ‘sneak peek’ over the horizon. Here’s a wrap up of what we’ve seen thus far (and there’s more to come…):

The Sciblogs Horizon Scan

The “Great Acceleration” is cause for great concern

Massey University’s Prof Ralph Sims kicked off the series with a hard-hitting post on the range of environmental and socio-economic stresses the planet faces. Although time is short, the goal of a diverse, stable and prosperous planet is still possible  but needs a bold approach to match the unprecedented scale of the challenge.

“Our growing demands for food, water, energy and natural resources have created huge stresses on the global commons and the entire planet. It is clearly evident that we cannot continue along the current pathways towards ever-increasing economic growth.”

Thinking about machines that “Think”

Robert Hickson tackles the hype around artificial intelligence (AI), writing that we need to be thinking more about how we will use the technology rather than focusing just on the technical details.

“AI is ultimately less about the machines that take over some of our cognitive tasks and more about our own mindset. How we approach designing and using systems like machine learning to help solve more complex or cognitive problems will be what matters most.”

Water fluoridation – what to expect in the near future

Debate over water fluoridation to improve dental health isn’t going away anytime soon, says Ken Perrott. New legislation, upcoming neurological research and ongoing push-back from anti-fluoride campaigners will keep the issues firmly in the headlines for years to come.

“Community water fluoridation (CWF) will persist in science news for the foreseeable future – not for any valid scientific reason but because of reaction to political pressures against it.”

‘Smart robots’ and the law

The advent of self-learning ‘smart robots’ raises all sorts of curly legal and ethical questions, warns Assoc Prof Colin Gavaghan, Director of the Centre for Law and Policy in Emerging Technologies at Otago University. Who is to blame when an autonomous robot breaks the law or injures someone? How will we manage the disruption of the employment sector? And should robots have rights?

“The new challenge with ‘smart robots’ is that they will be programmed to adapt and learn and change from their original programming, and typically, they won’t have an operator at all. So the question is: who’ll be responsible if they go wrong?”

Demographic disruption in New Zealand

Our aging population will have wide ranging and unprecedented impacts on New Zealand society in terms of healthcare and the economy, explains Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley. We do have options to tackle some of the challenges, he says, but need to act soon.

“We know what is happening and when it will happen. We know how much of the government’s resource is required. We know the implications for the health care system. But there seems a reluctance to engage with what is rapidly arriving. Why?”

Forest health in a changing climate

Forest healthDroughts, storms, fire and disease – the impacts of climate change on our native forests could be immense, says Dr Cate Macinnis-Ng. We urgently need to grasp a better understanding of how our treasured forests will cope in a warming world.

“Across the country, increasingly frequent extreme events and longer-lasting droughts also pose serious research questions. We all know that if we withhold water from plants for long enough, they will eventually die. We don’t know what that threshold is for our native forests. We also don’t know what the effects of subsequent droughts over successive summers will be.”

Better nutrition for mental health – food for thought

better nutrition for mental healthProf Julia Rucklidge highlights the growing body of evidence showing that nutrients can play a critical role in the treatment of conditions such as ADHD, autism and anxiety. However, what we currently know about good nutrition and mental health is only the tip of the iceberg.

“This approach of “one size fits all” will only go so far. Some people don’t respond. Some people only get marginally better. Why? Can we use genetic and nutrient testing to determine the optimal dose and nutrients that someone may require to get better based on their individualized profile?”