Why we need 2030 vision

Fri, Mar 30, 2012, 01:00

It’s hard to see beyond the current fog of bailouts and debt, but we must take a long-term view of science, or be left behind

THE OVERWHELMING financial burden that faces the country for the foreseeable future makes it almost impossible to see beyond the billions of euro it will take to make the country right again. And yet we must take a longer term view, one that allows us to imagine a time when we will no longer have to obsess over bond spreads and promissory notes.

Certainly, we should have stopped worrying about what Standard Poor’s has to say about us by 2030. We should also be able to see a changed enterprise landscape, with returns flowing from the investments being made today in our knowledge economy future.

It is a challenge to predict how State spending in support of cloud computing and other information and communications technologies will pan out. The industry changes so quickly that the almost two decades to 2030 seems like several tech lifetimes.

Cloud has come in for special attention from the current Government which, within months of coming into office, announced €5 million in support of a dedicated cloud computing research centre.

Yet cloud will undoubtedly have peaked long before 2030. If we cannot carve out a significant presence for ourselves within the next five years, we will have missed the boat. The question by 2030 will be whether cloud has evolved gradually into a new technology or has been supplanted by a replacement technology.

The factors that will create the need for a replacement or improved technology are already there. The volume of information arriving on our desks daily continues to grow exponentially, so do the maths when counting up to 2030.

Some commentators talk of “data science” as an emerging discipline. Its goal is to marshal the incoming ocean of data, interpret it on the basis of user interest or need and then spit out useful information. Typically the platform is assumed to have some level of learning built-in, so that it gets better at guessing what the user wants. So 2030 will mean more raw data flowing in from all quarters, but smarter systems: they will filter and distil, but also learn.

Gaming is another growth area targeted by Government, with assumptions that 12,000 jobs in that sector are possible. We have shining-star examples of home-grown companies such as Havok and Big Fish Games.

We also have multinationals such as EA Games, Vivendi and Activision, to name a few, although the markets are dynamic. Cork-based Blizzard Entertainment recently shed 200 staff in a reorganisation of its international operations.

Given the growth of the gaming market, now worth billions around the world, there is no question that participation in the electronic gaming industry will be worth the investment by 2030.

Medical devices and life sciences are areas consistently targeted by successive governments due to their exceptional value. Life sciences is the catch-all for medical devices, pharma and related areas, industries that already provide tens of thousands of jobs and exports, running into the billions.

The medical devices sector has proven highly successful, with leading multinationals locating here, and many indigenous firms that grew out of academic research findings. This market is unlikely to falter, given that there will always be a need for new medical technologies. The only real danger arises if we cut back on State support for research.

Foreign firms locate here because they can source staff and ideas from the third-level sector. Academic scientists will continue to produce new ideas for products and companies, but only if they continue to receive research funding. So success by 2030 will depend on high-level research continuing to be conducted here. Climate change will have advanced significantly by 2030, assuming the dire predictions made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change come to pass. The latest research on the Arctic suggests that the Arctic Ocean will be completely ice-free by 2030, profoundly changing utilisation of this vast resource.

Climate change is also expected to produce the “New North”, with warming at higher latitudes transforming formerly cool locations such as Ireland, Scotland and Scandinavia into wine-growing, maize-producing, mosquito-spawning regions.

Such changes here could throw up unexpected opportunities. Our academic labs are already well positioned to work on the emergent bacteria, viruses and fungi that may begin to appear in a warmer Ireland.

If existing trends continue, we will also see the arrival of invasive species: insects, plants, birds and animals able to extend their range northward given rising temperatures. All of these species will have altered genomes as environment combines with the magic of evolution to deliver new genes and traits.

Our own capacity to manipulate DNA will undoubtedly advance in line with world trends. But Ireland already has both the infrastructure and the researchers to pursue opportunities in the genetic sciences. As with medical devices, this will remain a highly important area of research in which we must participate as major players as much as we can.

One segment of this certain to develop rapidly in the coming years is personalised medicine, the business of hand tailoring medical therapies based on a person’s unique genetic mix.

Personal tolerance of individual medicines is already being assessed by checking characteristics of, say, a person’s liver. But in the future, it will not be liver enzymes but a person’s DNA that will be used to select the best available drugs.

This reflects the fact that many modern medicines deliver benefit, but only for a part of the general population. DNA assessment will allow doctors to know immediately whether you will benefit from a given drug or whether you might be in a sub-group that will be harmed by it. Personalised medicine is based on this.

Assuming a continuing advance in the genetic technologies, by 2030 we should be well over our scepticism about genetically modified foods, plants and animals and may see some of these altered organisms deployed given an altered climate.

No doubt the business of producing a transgenic organism will have simplified to the point that a DIY kit is all one would need. Yet such a development would also suggest that by that time we will have produced comprehensive legislative controls over our wielding of DNA. The potential for “designer” organisms and favoured genetic traits for animals and humans dictates that tough controls be available to prevent abuse.

Finally, by 2030, we might have got past the question: “Is there a Higgs boson?” Scientists believe that within the next two years we will know, but then, maybe the Higgs atomic particle, if it is there, won’t co-operate. The same is true of lots of other big questions in physics – what is dark energy, what is dark matter, why is the universe so short of antimatter, and so on.

Many of these questions will find answers arising from experimentation underway at the giant Large Hadron Collider at Cern on the French-Swiss border. There, scientists send beams of particles whizzing around a 27km circuit in opposite directions, then watch the fireworks as they collide.

The mini Big Bangs produced will reveal much about the nature of the universe. The assumption is that the collider will eventually reveal the Higgs, but what happens if these experiments prove there is no Higgs? Physicists are excited by both prospects. Either all the theories were correct and all the dots connect, or there is a requirement for a radical new theory to explain what keeps the universe going.