Research in 2050

This week I’m at the Open Science Retreat in the Netherlands. It’s an “unconference” where folks discuss on the first day of the event what their shared interests/passions/frustrations are, form loose groups, and work together for the rest of the week. It tends to be the case that lots of “I’ve been wanting to work on X for ages, but I haven’t had the time/space/resources…“-type projects come up. Last year I started this blog and wrote a blog post about a collaborative knowlegde management system that I’d set up - both things that I thought were important/valuable, but that I hadn’t made the time to do during “normal life”.

This year, the project I’m working on is “Research in 2050”. I blame thank my Turing Way colleague Arielle Bennett for planting the seed of this idea in my brain - they’re working on a paper on this subject currently, though sadly I’ve missed most of the work meetings so far for that project. The idea has stuck though. It appeals to me because I believe that we need to imagine futures before they can become reality. In the Open Science world I think we spend a lot of time thinking about incremental improvements that we might be able to make to our world, but I think there’s value in pushing ourselves to imagine a more distant future.

What does our eutopia look like?

I’ve been reading a lot of solarpunk recently and I’ve been playing with the idea that I’d like to write some solarpunk speculative sci-fi that addressed the question: what does a day in the life of a researcher in 2050 look like?

A few other folks were interested in this idea, and on Tuesday we (Lena Karvovskaya, Maya Anderson-González, and I) had a good morning talking, which I’ll try to summarise here…

Broadly, in our discussions we covered the “who”, and the “how”.

How will research be funded? It depends on the broader landscape: will we still labour under capitalism? Will there be a universal basic income? Will grants, and grant applications, still be the bread and butter of researchers? Or will there be a lottery-based process, where qualified researchers who propose sensible projects are placed in a pool for funding which is awarded randomly? (We’ve seen little forays into lottery-based funding recently)

Will we still have the large traditional academic institutions that we’re used to? They’re undergoing huge change currently - with a shift to online teaching, but they’re incredibly powerful (in terms of funding, reputation, and how ingrained they are in wider culture) that we don’t see them dissapearing anytime soon. Maya told us about a new structure that is developing in France: that of Scientist Co-operatives, where likeminded scientists join forces as a co-operative organisation which allows them to apply for funding and take on consulting jobs independent from traditional institutions (they’re planning on writing a wikipedia page on the subject…). We also mentioned organisations like IGDORE which operate a little bit like shell organisations that allow researchers to work with more independence than if they were employed at a traditional organisation, without the high overheads. We were unsure what the place of international institutions like this would be given our sense that funding is increasingly nationalistic (for example, Dutch funding being more frequnetly restricted to Dutch research projects currently compared to in previous years).

One question that particularly interested me was: what problems will still exist? Which parts of academic life are integral vs which should we be trying to “solve”? For example, I think that coralling people with diverse interests, working styles, and niche skills, might be a core part of academic “work”. Likewise, time management is likely to be an ongoing challenge - it might be that academics by their nature are prone to take on too many projects, and that juggling them is a perrenial balancing act. (Maya recommeded the book: Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.)

Lena asked ChatGPT what it thought a day in the future of an academic might look like, and I was struck by how all the innovations were technological in nature (VR this… AI that…) - I wondered: what innovations might be see that are social or process-based. I was reminded of a section in a Murderbot book I read recently where the goodies were trying to understand the motivations of the baddies - the goodies came together around a logic map (where the assumptions were laid out in what sounded like a network graph - lots of “if this then this”) and the thing that struck me was not so much the system itself, but rather than everyone immediately knew what it was and how to use it. What ways of thinking that are yet to be invented will be common by 2050? (I’m thinking of things like: nudge theory, Gantt charts, citation graphs, pomodoro technique.)

I was also struck by how ChatGPT thought that the researcher would start work at 0630 and work until midnight… not if I have anything to do with it…

These ideas inspired me to write a little chunk of speculative fiction, centering on the idea that maybe waiting for a reply from someone will be an enduring part of the academic experience. I got pretty into the process, and I think I’m going to keep going with it… stay tuned.

Speaking about who would be doing research, we discussed the power dynamics in organisations we’ve seen where researchers, capitalistic companies, and patients/participants are involved, and each have to balance their power and interests. We hope that in the future it will be the norm for patients who interact in medical studies to be invited to interact more deeply with the research than is current practice. I was reminded of The Vagina Museum’s current exhibition on Endometriosis, which discusses the relationship disconnect between patient and healthcare provider/researcher in depth. We briefly touched on the idea of crowdfunding science.

I’m sure I’ve missed bits, but hopefully this gives you a little window into our dicussion! 🔮🌱📡


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