DISCOVER Vol. 21 No. 10 (October 2000)
20 Ideas That Will Rule Research in the Next 20 Years
As we head into the 21st century, knowledge is being created and disseminated far, far faster than ever before. Given this wealth of discovery, we invited some scientists to predict what questions or ethical issues will dominate their fields over the next 20 years. Their replies express not only excitement at the pace of discovery but also a broad concern about the use of new technologies and scientific information. Many noted the impact of the Human Genome Project and the ethical problems that will attend screening patients' DNA for information about genetic vulnerabilities. Others remarked upon the parallel explosion of information or, more precisely, surveillance in cyberspace and how it, too, threatens individual privacy.
The business of science, so to speak, is knowledge. And knowledge is power. Deciding how to handle these new forms of knowledge will be just as important as and probably far more problematic than creating the knowledge itself.
Second, there will be a heavy emphasis on determining the hereditary contributions to common diseases. Among the insights with the greatest immediate consequence will be an understanding of individual variability in response to drugs.
Third, our increasing ability to predict the structure of proteins will accelerate our understanding of how individual proteins work and interact with other proteins and/or DNA elements. This will also contribute to more rapid identification of potential therapeutic agents.
Fourth, human genetic and genomic research will become significantly more computational in approach. In silico will replace in vitro or even in vivo for many experiments.
Fifth, the debate about the ethical, legal, and social consequences of research in human genetics will intensify. While it is hoped that legislative solutions to the problems of genetic discrimination and breaches of privacy will be implemented in many countries, the challenge of educating health care providers to be practitioners of this new brand of genetic medicine will be considerable. Furious debates, not all of them grounded in the scientific facts, will rage about the limits of genetic intervention of our own species. To traverse these troubled waters successfully, we will need full and informed engagement by a diverse group of potential stakeholders.
But the developments in clinical neuroscience will be no less important. The remarkable success in identifying the genetic basis of single gene disorders, such as Huntington's disease, and in identifying the many genes that make individuals vulnerable to such disorders as Alzheimer's disease, suggests that the genetic contribution to several devastating neurological conditions will be discovered in just a few years. If neuroscience does its job properly, it will be possible to discover, for example, how the abnormal protein produced by a sick gene can lead to the death of nerve cells, thus opening a new universe of treatment possibilities before our eyes. We will be able to screen our own genome in the early part of our lives, and we will be able, by taking appropriate medications, to prevent the damage that a sick gene will cause, or repair it rapidly. However, this optimistic scenario is not without pitfalls. It will be argued that having one's genetic screening made public could limit the choice of a career, preclude certain forms of employment, and make one uninsurable or perhaps insurable only at prohibitive cost. These dire scenarios can be preempted only by the development of effective treatments, much compassion, intense social awareness, and protective laws.
The humanities will be freed from sterile postmodernism and social determinism and be seen as being about products of human minds; they will thereby benefit from insights about perception, cognition, and emotion. Politics and history will be enriched by an understanding of the psychological roots of human aggression, cooperation, coalition formation, and conflict resolution, rather than invoking unanalyzed "social forces." Law will replace its folk theories of free will, deterrence, and "the reasonable person" with ones compatible with neuroscience, genetics, and evolution. Likewise, economics will augment its folk theory of "economic man" with research about human reasoning, decision-making, and passion.
Medicine will transcend its craftsman's understanding of disease and place itself on a theoretical foundation from evolutionary biology. Education will start with a better understanding of which skills develop instinctively in children and which require intensive instruction and hard work. These changes will not be unopposed. Professional insularity, lazy political arguments, and the ancient doctrine that the mind is a blank slate will slow them down. But the gains in insight will be too great to halt them for long.
On the ethical side, the rapid growth of new opportunities outside the universities for people with scientific training will sooner or later give rise to a long overdue reform of the university system. Universities are among the most bureaucratic institutions in society; they will have to reform to compete for talent. The important ethical question is the extent to which these reforms can be managed to foster the main values of the university: teaching, research, and scholarship. The question will be how to protect and foster these necessarily labor-intensive and fragile activities within new organizational structures that will resemble much more the horizontal structures of small technical companies than they do the present rigid and hierarchical university system.
Now, thanks to the Human Genome Project, we have the sequences of all the genes involved in human reproduction. This includes all the genes involved in the production of sperm, all the genes that govern the environment inside the uterus, all the genes involved in ovulation and implantation, and all the genes that code for neuropeptides and other hormones that influence sexual behavior. We do not yet know how most of these genes work, but the opportunities for finding cheap, safe, effective, and reversible ways to prevent conception are boundless. Let's find them before the next 20 years are up.
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