Urgent Science in 2020

What’s the most urgent action we need to take in 2020?
09 January 2020




Declaring a global planetary emergency, improving sub-volcanic imaging to predict eruptions and developing artificial intelligence that works for humans are some of the urgent actions and research that experts in different fields want to see in 2020.

Horizon asked a selection of scientists featured in the magazine last year for their opinion on priorities for 2020.

Declare a global planetary emergency – Sandrine Dixson-Declève

‘2020 is a super-year for international policy action,’ said Sandrine Dixson-Declève, co-president of global think tank the Club of Rome and chair of an expert EU group on the economic and societal impact of research (ESIR). An oceans treaty will be agreed, biodiversity targets announced, it’s the first opportunity for nations to increase their climate goals, and the start of the decade to scale action for the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, she says.

‘This decade must be a turning point, the moment when the world bends the curve, averts the impending disaster and opts instead to embark on the fastest economic transformation in our history,’ she said. ‘Declaring and putting in place a planetary emergency plan will ensure that all (international) action from 2020 will be taken in light of the impact on the global commons, regional, national and local ecosystems.’

Understand human behaviour towards wildfires - Oriol Vilalta

Oriol Vilalta, director of Spanish wildfire prevention group Pau Costa Foundation, says that research must aim to better understand the human dimension of fires and why people take decisions that can have fatal consequences. This includes not taking preventive action or, during a blaze, evacuating their home without knowing where to go.

‘We need to know from researchers how we can connect with society (to work towards protection),’ he said. It’s a cultural shift that still has yet to happen.

Accurately see underneath volcanoes - Dr Catherine Annen

Dr Catherine Annen, a volcanologist at the University Savoie Mont Blanc in France, says that the biggest research priority in her field is developing techniques to accurately image sub-volcanic systems or magma chambers. ‘At the moment, the images we get from geophysical studies are blurred,’ she said, adding that this means that it’s difficult to estimate the size, geometry and, crucially, the degree of melting going on in the magma reservoirs which feed eruptions.

High-precision imaging can tell us the proportion of melt, crystals and gas in the magma and whether it will lead to an eruption. Dr Annen says the plumbing systems of supervolcanoes with extremely violent eruptions in the past, like the Phlegraean Fields in Italy or the Yellowstone caldera in the US, would be particularly interesting to study.

Make cancer diagnostic methods more precise – Professor Ali Salanti

Cancer therapy is moving towards a personalised therapeutic strategy, says Professor Ali Salanti, a translational microbiologist at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. This strategy has been proven in clinical trials and makes sense as cancers are highly diverse, he says. But to really make a difference, Prof. Salanti says we urgently need novel diagnostic methods to isolate the exact drug targets, something that needle biopsies may not accurately do.

‘I believe that we in 2020 will see a boom in emerging and validated technologies within the field of liquid biopsies, including circulating tumor cells (CTC), exosomes and circulating tumor DNA,’ he said.

Define what kind of artificial intelligence we want – Professor Virginia Dignum

‘In 2020, we need to take action towards developing AI that is human-centred and trustworthy,’ said Virginia Dignum, a professor in social and ethical artificial intelligence at Umeå University in Sweden.

This means defining standards and thresholds to measure AI algorithms’ ability to explain its decisions, to minimise the use of computational power, and to guarantee reliability across different contexts and applications, she says. ‘Current deep learning approaches are not strong on these issues,’ she said.

Track down the host galaxies of fast radio bursts - Dr Jason Hessels

‘We need to precisely localise the host galaxies of fast radio bursts and probe the galactic neighbourhoods in which they form,’ said Dr Jason Hessels at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. To do this, astronomers need high-sensitivity radio telescopes offering both high time and spatial resolution, he says.

‘(Localisation is) critical to solving the puzzle of what creates these astonishingly bright radio flashes that originate at distances of billions of lightyears,’ Dr Hessels said. ‘We currently don’t even know whether there is just one type of source that creates the bursts we observe, or whether astronomers have stumbled on a host of phenomena that appear similar but have distinct physical origins.’

Work out how cities can address loss of nature and climate change – Professor Harriet Bulkeley

As cities are key drivers of the loss of nature and climate change, they need to be part of the solutions, says Harriet Bulkeley, professor of geography at Durham University, UK. ‘A key priority for the research field is to identify how cities can be included in the design and implementation of measures that are capable of addressing these twin challenges,’ she said.

Possible actions include urban forests, as trees are ‘natural climate solutions’ which can absorb carbon and provide a home for animals, and green roofs to manage flooding. But we still need to know more about how urban nature works, she says, as developing it can lead to social exclusion through gentrification and we have few examples where this has not happened. ‘We need to be able to ensure that as cities use nature-based solutions to tackle climate change and biodiversity, this is not at the expense of social justice,’ she said.

Address biodiversity, climate and sustainable development together - Professor Georgina Mace

‘2020 is a crucial year for intergovernmental commitments for sustainable development and to address the risks from climate change and biodiversity loss,’ said Professor Georgina Mace, head of the Centre for Biodiversity and Environmental Research at University College London, UK. While there are many links between the three agendas, she says that most on-the-ground interventions focus on addressing one at a time. ‘There are many potential win-win strategies, but they are not well understood,’ she said.

In 2020, we must prioritise highlighting the scientific evidence for interventions, such as ecosystem restoration activities, that address the three challenges simultaneously to show what works and where they’ll make a difference, says Prof. Mace.

Pin down how AMR spreads – Dr Lisandra Zepeda Mendoza

To tackle antimicrobial resistance (AMR), Dr Lisandra Zepeda Mendoza, a genomics expert at the University of Birmingham, UK, says that we need to better understand how it spreads among disease-causing bacteria, which leads to therapy failure or death. ‘Clinically important antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) can spread rapidly among diverse bacteria,’ said Dr Mendoza.

This makes it hard to pinpoint the microbial hosts of ARGs. ‘Understanding the mechanisms of spread of AMR is a priority, because this understanding can help in the development of new treatment approaches to microbial infections,’ she said. Dr Mendoza said she would like in 2020 to see more research on phage (virus) therapy, the implications of gene transfer between bacteria in AMR, and computational modelling to identify druggable targets.

Study why people become undocumented - Michele LeVoy

Michele LeVoy director of the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) in Brussels, Belgium, says that a credible study into Europe’s undocumented is long overdue, with the last big study taking place more than a decade ago. The majority of undocumented migrants come to the EU in a regular way but lose their status, according to LeVoy.

‘(We need) in-depth, robust research that looks at the paths to irregularities – so why people are becoming undocumented,’ she said. Understanding more will help policymakers to find ways to regularise informal jobs, protect child rights and public health, and address workplace exploitation, according to LeVoy. ‘All of the issues that undocumented face always have an impact on the broader population,’ she said.

Realign institutions to overcome ‘post-truth’ challenges - Eyal Weizman

Professor Eyal Weizman at Goldsmiths, University of London, UK, and founder of the independent research group Forensic Architecture believes that diverse organisations should come together to reclaim the conversation around ‘truth’. ‘(Alignments between) the science laboratory, the artist studio, the university, activist organisations, victim groups, national and international legal forums, the media, and cultural institutions, can offer a robust new approach,’ he said.

He says that our current ‘post truth’ moment, characterised by the rejection of basic facts, expertise and traditional institutions, could tip towards a better way of establishing truth. ‘(It) could give rise to an alternative set of truth practices that can challenge both the dark epistemology of the present as well as traditional notions of truth production,’ he said.

Encourage surprise results by fund small ideas rather than big goals - Dr Michael Kramer

Dr Michael Kramer, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, Germany, and a member of the ERC’s scientific council, says that he would like to see funding agencies go for small, ambitious and bold ideas rather than big, specific goals in hopes of yielding something surprising.

Despite being one of the scientists who was part of a global effort to capture the first ever picture of a black hole in 2019, he says that the greatest breakthroughs or innovations don’t always come from organised ideas. ‘Discovery sometimes cannot be organised. The chances can be maximised for discovery, but the surprise is sometimes lurking at the most unexpected corners,’ he said.


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