UChicago scholars consider possibilities—and pitfalls—that their fields could see

In the last 10 years, we saw discoveries scientists had only dreamed of—from the precise genetic engineering allowed by a little molecule called CRISPR to being able to detect ripples in the fabric of space-time.

So what could be next as the 2020s begin? Four eminent University of Chicago scientists consider the possibilities—and pitfalls—their own fields could see in the decade ahead.

Bryan Dickinson, synthetic biochemist 

What do you think might be the most exciting result of scientific or technological advances in the next decade?

Drug discovery since the dawn of civilization has generally involved finding chemicals from our natural world or discovering molecules in the lab, and it’s mostly to treat the symptoms of disease. Now we are entering a new era, where one can go into a cell or organism and make permanent DNA changes. This precision will allow us to better treat disease, modify the natural world around us, and create more environmentally-friendly biotechnologies. I believe engineered biotechnologies are going to become a bigger part of our life—and key solutions to seemingly intractable problems dealing with food safety, human health, and pollution.

What’s a possible consequence of science or technology in the next decade that you worry about?

The public has a lot of misconceptions about engineered biological systems. The “GMO” fear is an especially worrying example of the backlash that can emerge if some bad commercial players drive a technology. So there are ethical questions to deal with—like when and how is appropriate to engineer humans?—as well as regulatory questions—like how can truly individualized genetic medicines be tested and approved?

Engaging the public in open dialogue—and ensuring that there is broad understanding and buy-in—is absolutely critical to fully capitalizing on the awesome potential of synthetic biology to address important problems in the next decade.

Daniel Holz, astrophysicist

What do you think might be the most exciting result of scientific or technological advances in the next decade?

Our gravitational wave detectors are getting more and more sensitive, so we’ll learn a ton about the universe as we get more data. Then there’s a few roll-of-the-dice things that could happen that would be amazing. Like if a supernova went off in our own galaxy—with all the ways we have to detect astronomical events now, that would be an incredible way to learn about everything from the physics of stars to the history of the universe. Those happen about once every hundred years, so it could be anytime. Or maybe something unusual will pop up in our gravitational wave detectors—we’ve picked up black hole collisions and neutron star collisions, but what if we detected waves from cosmic strings?

The most exciting thing is always something you haven’t anticipated. In astronomy, whenever we’ve invented a new way to look at the sky, we discover something new that no one had ever thought of before. Our gravitational wave detectors haven’t discovered anything profoundly unexpected, at least not yet.

What’s a possible consequence of science or technology in the next decade that you worry about?

Two things that worry me about the future are nuclear annihilation and climate change—both due to technological advancements. I’m a member of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which sets the Doomsday Clock, so that’s something we think about a lot.

The next 10 years will be critical for climate. We can impact just how bad things will get decades from now. If we act now, we might avoid some of the worst, civilization-threatening outcomes. The danger of nuclear annihilation is on the rise, too. These are compounded by the deliberate erosion of facts and truth, which pose grave threats to society.

The number of ways in which we walk blithely into Armageddon is very high. But that’s something all of us can help address. Agitate for change! It’s not too late.

Read more at UChicago News.