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Science sees further: How science will answer some of the world's biggest questions

30 November 2010


Are we alone in the universe? Can we save the lives of millions with new vaccines? How can we manage the increasing demands on our planet’s resources? These questions and many of the other most challenging issues for the world today will be answered by the scientific advances described in the Royal Society’s new report, Science sees further, launched today to celebrate its founding 350 years ago.

Outgoing President of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, said: “In 1660, when the Royal Society was founded, science was in its infancy. Our lives today differ from those of our ancestors largely because of the scientific advances made in the subsequent 350 years. There may well be 9 billion people on Earth by mid-century, each having rising expectations, and the consequent pressures on the environment will be hard to manage. However, the answer will lie in new science, and in better application of what we already know. Science is an unending quest for understanding: as old questions are settled, new ones come into sharper focus. There can be no better way to celebrate the Royal Society's 350th anniversary than to look to the future of science, built on the foundations of today's cutting-edge research."

Science sees further will describe how science will address some of the biggest issues the world currently faces, each one explored by an eminent scientist or scientists in the relevant field. The document will focus on twelve key areas of scientific endeavour, covering subjects such as health, the environment, technology and the universe. Issues that the document will address include:

  • Are we alone in the universe?
  • How can we accurately assess our greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on the climate?
  • How can we make good decisions in an uncertain world?
  • How can we stay young?
  • Is culture unique to humans?
  • How can we manage the increasing demands on our planet’s finite resources?
  • What is consciousness?
  • How is the World Wide Web changing the world?
  • How will stem cell technology revolutionise medicine?
  • What is the value of biodiversity in our changing world?
  • Should we try to engineer our planet’s climate to prevent global warming?
  • How could new vaccines save the lives of millions?

What is the value of biodiversity in our changing world?
Sir David Attenborough, Fellow of the Royal Society, said: “There can be no more important issue for us to consider than the health of our global biodiversity. Throughout a career spent exploring some of the most species-rich places known to man, I have had the wonderful opportunity to come into contact with what is, in fact, just a tiny fraction of the extraordinary life all around us. From understanding how species contribute to ecosystem services like pollination or carbon capture and storage to differentiating one microbe species from millions of others, science has done an immense amount to expand our knowledge in this area. There can be no doubt that future scientific advances will be integral to improving our understanding of our fellow species and ensuring that they remain a vital part of the world we share.”

How can we stay young?
Lady Joan Bakewell said: “This is a thrilling time to be getting on in years. The quality of life for those of us living longer is vastly improved on, say, the life of my own grandmother. Science clearly recognises that people are pleased to be living longer, but don't want to be trapped for years in bodies that are suffering too badly from a decay of functions. The ideal life is one that is vigorous to the end, with the minimum time of illness before death. Science is working towards this end. In so many different ways it is tracking down how the body ages and what can be done to delay not only the classic diseases but also the wear and tear that makes having an active life increasingly difficult. Across so many areas of existence, those of us who are old would welcome a little help: better hearing and eyesight, something to keep our joints active, and especially help with our brains. Alzheimers is the scourge we all fear. We live in dread that a forgetful memory is the first symptom. I take great reassurance that this relatively new science - the science of ageing - is attracting some of the country's best brains and the backing of our finest institutions.”

How is the World Wide Web changing the world?
Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Fellow of the Royal Society, said: "The Web has had an unprecedented effect on the way science, industry and democracy work. But as powerful a tool as the Web is, our understanding of how it works on a microscopic scale (at the network protocol level) doesn't help us understand the way in which new kinds of human interactions emerge at the macroscopic level. Answering these questions involves bringing together scientists of many disciplines, including psychologists, computer scientists, economists, mathematicians, sociologists, network scientists and so on, each of whom bring insights from different angles. The Web is a complex system, but unlike others we study - the cell, the brain, the cosmos - it is a system which we have designed and which we can improve. Web science should lead us to new and more powerful tools which, in turn, will help us tackle in dramatically more effective ways the challenges of the other sciences, of industry, and global democracy and peace."

Is culture unique to humans?
Lord Melvyn Bragg, Fellow of the Royal Society, said: “We’ve always considered culture as a uniquely human attribute, something to be celebrated as an integral part of civilisations through the ages. However, scientific research is now questioning this perceived wisdom and identifying in other species some fascinating examples of social customs and other practices associated with culture. That science may show that culture is an attribute shared by species other than our own would result in some challenging moral dilemmas for us to navigate, as well as potentially challenging our own understanding of what it means to be human.”

How can we manage the increasing demands on our planet’s finite resources?
Dr James Lovelock, Fellow of the Royal Society, said: “There is a persistent belief that the Earth's resources, the sunlight, the atmosphere, the oceans and the crustal rocks are there solely for the benefit of humanity. Equally, there is a denial that a considerable proportion of these resources are needed by the Earth System to regulate itself and sustain a habitable environment for its burgeoning life. The then convenient division of science in the 19th century into the separate disciplines of Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Geology has grievously hampered the understanding of our planet as a live system. The Earth, like any living system, is at a much lower entropic state than would be expected, or found, for a dead planet like Mars or Venus. We need sufficient resources for humanity to survive the climate and other adverse changes that may soon be due and for this we have to have at least a working understanding of our Earth System. How else can we avoid taking more than is our fair share?”

Are we alone in the universe?
British-born astronaut Piers Sellers said: “I’m certain there is life out there somewhere in our universe – I think it’s just a question of time before we find it. We know that many of the stars around us have their own solar systems, perhaps with planets like ours. Within our lifetimes, we will probably have space-based telescopes that can actually see some of these planets and tell us more about what they’re like. One day, we will be able to send robots and then ourselves to other stars, to see for ourselves. Science will have an extraordinary role to play in our exploration of the cosmos and finding out whether there is any life out there.”

The Science sees further document will also reveal the results of a poll carried out to assess the views of the general public on some of the key scientific issues addressed in the document, such as pandemics, ageing populations and climate change, as well as the public’s attitudes to science itself. Highlights include the findings that 74% of people believe that scientists are put under pressure to appear more certain than they are, 70% of people are confident in scientists’ ability to deliver vaccines against major disease and over 70% of people believe that renewable technologies will play a major part in our lives over the next 20 years.