Recently, I participated in a panel discussion in Brussels on the threats widening countries face, how they prepare the research sector for new challenges (including the cost of security), and how science diplomacy is changing. The discussion was part of the Science| Business Annual Widening Conference: Strategies for R&D resilience in shifting security paradigms.
The current article was born from the fact that, like all good things, our discussion had to end too soon. Here, I will elaborate on what I discussed during the debate.
I work in a public institution, but at the same time, I am a futures thinker, which puts me in a position to keep an eye on the possible future development of different sectors and make recommendations to address emerging challenges.
Like all of us, scientists in the widening region face the pressing issues of our world, which is changed by technology. I believe that researchers need to incorporate three principles in their practice to address future challenges: utilizing AI for science, practicing open science, and applying strategic foresight for targeting science.
These principles offer a synergistic framework that addresses today's challenges and provides researchers with a robust foundation for adapting to the dynamic future.
So, let me elaborate a little bit on these:
Utilizing AI for Science
AI has extreme power in computing and working with vast volumes of data entirely incomprehensible to humans. Advanced algorithms and machine learning can streamline data processing, enhance analysis, and uncover patterns within large datasets, contributing to more effective research outcomes. Still, comprehension and self-consciousness are non-existent in AI now and will likely be lacking many years ahead. AI has become extremely powerful but still hits the all-important "barrier of meaning". On the other hand, our human abilities to work with mental models and construct simulations of future actions based on common sense are our strengths.
So, a way to advance research is to combine the immense computational powers of AI with our purely human capabilities. We cannot escape from the advancement of AI. And those who have a romantic, purely humanistic view of the world are bound to stay behind. I think the future of research lies in the concept of the "chess centaurs"– human and technological powers combined. Our brain's ability to think abstractly is what, combined with the purely logical abilities of AI, is the force that can drive human evolution even further to boundaries we have not even dared to imagine.
AI is here and will completely change how scientific research is done. According to Eric Schmidt, it can increase access to the field of science and reimagine the entire scientific process. Schmidt makes three critical points on how we can maximize the positive impact of AI on science:
We must use AI for the right problems. We should invest in scientific projects and research that produce large social benefits but are overlooked because of their minimal financial return or academic incentive.
We must adopt the right regulations. Regulation is vital to minimize the risks of AI and ensure its continued safe and beneficial use. This is necessary for both big tech companies and open-source models to balance safety concerns with the potential benefits of AI in science.
We must develop datasets for AI models to use. The government needs to support the development of large, high-quality datasets which scientists can use to push forward on research.
In addition, on 13th December 2023, the European Commission published a policy brief on harnessing the potential of AI in science. The paper focuses on the need to use artificial intelligence to advance the scientific process and increase Europe's competitiveness while also drawing attention to the AI-related ethical challenges involved in deploying the technology in science.
Practicing Open Science
I am aware that open science can be a tricky question, but at the same time, we cannot sacrifice its benefits due to the geopolitical polarization that is happening right now in the world. I recognize that while open science emphasizes sharing data, methodologies, and findings openly, it encounters unique challenges in terms of security. Still, the challenges ahead of humanity are too complex and fast-moving for single entities to tackle them. We need to cooperate even further to prevent Europe from falling out of the race of the future.
These are times of crisis, and in such times, the option to shut ourselves will only hinder our development. Collaboration will be the key driving force. Progress is not a zero-sum game, and it's built on exchanging ideas, transferring, and verifying knowledge and results, particularly in science. When we exchange ideas, our whole body of knowledge grows exponentially.
Open Science fosters resilience by creating a network of shared knowledge in the face of emerging challenges. It encourages collaboration and shared resources, which can help researchers collectively address and adapt to increased security and costs.
The challenge lies in balancing transparency with the need to protect sensitive information. Striking this balance requires a thorough understanding of the risks associated with different types of research. A way to overcome this is to conduct comprehensive risk assessments to identify potential vulnerabilities in research projects, considering security and openness. Other measures include clear communication on data sharing and security protocols, capacity building, regular audits and updates, etc.
Applying Strategic Foresight for Targeting Science
The third principle is that using strategic foresight will help scientists monitor key trends to prepare them for future developments in sectors like space and dual use, for example. By targeting science through strategic foresight, researchers can proactively address emerging challenges, align research efforts with societal needs, and contribute to solutions that have tangible and lasting benefits.
It is a valuable tool that fosters adaptability, resilience, and innovation in the ever-evolving landscape of science. It can help researchers to:
Anticipate emerging trends and challenges.
Optimize resource allocation by identifying areas of potential growth, prioritizing high-impact projects, and avoiding investments in areas that may become obsolete.
Mitigate risks and uncertainties.
Align research with societal needs.
Facilitate collaborative research by providing a shared understanding of future goals and potential challenges, fostering interdisciplinary teamwork, and enhancing the overall quality of research outcomes.
Adapt to tech advancements.
Build resilience against external shocks such as economic changes, geopolitical shifts, or global crises.
Addressing the research sector's mid- and long-term challenges, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, requires effective foresight and regional coordination. Researchers in this region can better prepare for the future and enhance their engagement in the broader EU research and innovation ecosystem by:
Strengthening institutional capacities for strategic foresight, encouraging the integration of foresight methodologies into research planning and decision-making processes.
Promoting even further the creation of regional networks or consortiums that facilitate collaboration among research institutions, universities, and industry partners across Central and Eastern Europe.
Fostering the development of joint research agendas addressing regional challenges. Aligning research priorities can enhance coordination and maximize the impact of research efforts.
By providing a more holistic approach, these three principles can help researchers ensure a stable transition through the volatile times in which we find ourselves in. By harnessing the technological power that artificial intelligence possesses, they can enrich their creativity and secure additional resources such as time and reduced costs for experimentation. Shared knowledge will help them rapidly progress toward solving the common global issues we face and enhance the region's competitiveness. Finally, by applying strategic foresight to their practice, researchers will have the opportunity to be more flexible and resilient in the face of sudden changes both regionally and globally.
We should remember that we will only be ready for such a speedy and diversified technological future if we are ready to break paradigms and boundaries. We must utilize technology to the maximum, open our thinking process, and look to the future.