Unthinkable: Should Trinity make poverty history or find a cure for cancer?

TCD has pledged to tackle one of the ‘great questions facing humankind’, but which one should it choose?

The global disparity of healthcare is unjust. The current Ebola outbreak is a perfect example of inequity. Photograph: Christopher Black/WHO/Handout via Reuters

You can't fault Trinity College Dublin for its ambition. Not only is it trying to raise the guts of €600 million through philanthropy over the next five years to fund its strategic plan, but it says it will identify and then tackle a "global research question" with the aim of making a "long-term positive impact" on humanity.

The global question could spring from science or the humanities. The university only stipulates that it plays to the research strengths of Trinity. Oh, and also that it’s also one of the “great questions facing the future of humankind”.

So what should TCD try to do? Make poverty history? Find a cure for cancer?

Unthinkable seeks some views from the Trinity campus:



Kevin Mitchell, associate professor, Smurfit Institute of Genetics

“One area that I would really like to see Trinity taking an active leadership role in is the challenge of mental illness. Brain-based disorders affect

more than 35 per cent of people over their lifetime and generate a larger health and economic burden than cancer or cardiovascular disease, but receive far less funding for research.

“Until recently, we have had very little understanding of the underlying causes of conditions such as schizophrenia, autism and depression, and psychiatry has lagged far behind other areas of medicine in the development of new treatments. But that is changing, with important advances in genetics that have helped to identify many specific causes of mental illness and provided tools to uncover the underlying mechanisms causing psychiatric symptoms.”


Dr Paul O’Grady

Department of philosophy “While humankind has unquestionably advanced in knowledge – especially scientific knowledge – it is not at all clear that it has advanced in wisdom. What is wisdom and why might it be important?

“Despite the word philosophy meaning ‘love of wisdom’, there is little academic research within philosophy on this topic. However, recent changes in epistemology (the theoretical study of knowledge) has made the prospects for clarifying wisdom better. Renewed interest in the study of virtue and how we might have intellectual virtue has led to a changed way of exploring questions of knowledge, value, happiness and their interconnections.

“Implications of a sustained research programme into wisdom include insights for ethics, education, psychology, psychotherapy, as well as theoretical advances within philosophy itself, offering new analyses of knowledge, justification, contextualism and different kinds of knowledge.”


Amy Worrall, medical student, secretary to the TCD Scholars

“The existing global disparity of healthcare is unjust. The current Ebola outbreak or the prohibitive costs of personalised medicine are perfect examples of inequity.

“How can we make healthcare available and sustainable for all in society? What practical and economic benefits would follow? Could we learn from looking to Cuba or Scandinavia?

“Adopting an interdisciplinary global research question based on universal access to healthcare would allow researchers to be ambitious and strive for a truly just, healthy and sustainable world.”


Brian Lucey, professor in finance

“How can we move to a post-scarcity world? There are huge changes potentially happening in three areas. One is 3D-printed technology. Allied to that is the possibility of creating cheap energy through advances in nuclear fusion, and the third issue is the ever expanding internet of ideas and things.

“Those three things together would create an entirely new economy and society, and I would be asking: how can Trinity aid in that? How can we contribute to a post-scarcity world?”


Twitter @JoeHumphreys42