In science and technology as a whole, I’d suggest that the key challenge is energy. One can argue forever about exactly when global warming will arrive in a big way, and what the climatic and social consequences will be. The fact is that it will happen in the 21st century, and that the implications will be significant. So, how will we obtain our energy from non-fossil fuel sources?
- Is nuclear (fission) energy socially/environmentally acceptable (and commercially viable)?
- How big a contribution can renewables (wind/wave/solar energy) make?
- Can hydrogen be produced from photocatalysis or biological sources?
- Is controlled nuclear fusion ever going to be feasible?
- How far can energy conservation help?
The second key challenge is health. With the exception of AIDS, the major questions about global health are not scientific but economic. Most premature deaths throughout the world are already preventable in principle, but that’s not where most of the funding and resources go. Having said that, advances in medical diagnostics could make a huge difference to diseases of developed nations, particularly cancer: genetic technologies combined with nanotechnologies could make for much earlier detection, and thus greatly improve the survival rates from cancers.
The third challenge is water. There is going to be too little of it to meet all our needs, and it will continue to cause international tension and conflict. There is still a lot of scope for improving our water-use technologies (large dams may be on the way out; irrigation methods can still be very inefficient; water pollution is a serious issue, especially in rapidly developing countries; we can make much better use of waste water, e.g. in sewage farming). Desalination still looks like a very expensive solution (in money and energy) in dry countries, but there are signs that it is getting more economically feasible.
Space and military technologies will continue to be a challenge – the challenge being whether we can stop wasting so much money and resources on them.
All of the above should be on the agenda for the next 18 years. I’m not sure I’d want to make a forecast much beyond that horizon. We always overestimate what technology will do in the next 5 years, and underestimate it in the next 50. (Vannevar Bush said that, not me.) But I’d also like to add that I’d like to see significant progress, over the next 18 years, in enabling the African nations to create a self-determined and self-supporting science and technology infrastructure. I’d like to see science find its proper social role as an enabler and a humanistic endeavour, rather than being seen as either a panacea or the source of all ills.
Philip Ball is author of books including Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)), and Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website.