Far out: Speculations on science communication 50 years from now (Science Online London 2009)

John Gilbey

This session will discuss future models for online science communication – but on a timescale well beyond the usual technology horizon. To judge the role of science communication in possible futures, we need to assess how research itself will be carried out in the future. In many scenarios online communication becomes the core enabling force – rather than a useful adjunct – and we can speculate as to the form that communication might best take.

He will be discussing science communication “in the broadest sense”.

(Who is he? A science fiction author; a former research scientist. You may have seen his work in Nature, New Scientist, Times Higher Education, Guardian, Nature Physics. He is speaking only on behalf of himself, and not on behalf of any of his employers.)

If he could distill everything he’s learnt about the scientific process and create the fictional “University of Rural England (URE)”, where things are not always as they seem, and where students and faculty suffer the same weaknesses. Then he switches to a synopsis of the first Nature journal in 1869, where in the editorial TH Huxley said the people in 50 years would look at the back issues of Nature “not without a smile”. We’re in danger of losing that connection, he says.

Then he moves on to talking about Second Life, and speaks about physical representations of a virtual space being captured in a digital media and re-presented back in SL. 🙂 To his generation, internet/computers/etc are still the future, even though they’re here. To younger people, they are the present – this is a different way of thinking.

Three options for the future: 1) steady state 2) step change (significant developments) 3) surprise parties (major unexpected advances completely changing the game). So, back to URE, the fictional place where he has sci-fi story ideas: machine-enhanced clairvoyance for science quality auditors; network developments expose a temporal portal to allow historic (dead) research leaders to be employed on projects; digitally-supported thought control of higher mammals. Speculation 1: in 50 years’ time, the world political, economic and social structure will change radically. In that case, who will our sponsors be for research? How “free” will the science community be? Will science be encouraged to engage with the wider social environment? If it was your job on the line, would you lie or toe the party line?

Will you suffer for your integrity?

Speculation 2: Virtual reality in some form will become ubiquitous in society across the globe: location becomes irrelevant, scientists become nomadic, opportunities for citizen science increase, social involvement with science grows. Speculation 3: significant environment events will spur major increases in research activity: science profile is raised significantly, there is a greater need for communication of science. Speculation 4: Society crashes totally following an unrecoverable Internet failure.

Email him in the next week to vote as to which scenario you’d like to see the URE address, and he’ll do his best to get it into print! He’s at gilbey@bcs.org.uk

(This was one of my favorite talks of today.)

Question: will our universities be around in 50 years’ time? JG: I think they will be, but in a radically-different form. “VR” classes, for one.

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And there was at least one other Science Online London attendee blogging this presentation – take a look!

Please note that this post is merely my notes on the presentation. They are not guaranteed to be correct, and unless explicitly stated are not my opinions. They do not reflect the opinions of my employers. Any errors you can happily assume to be mine and no-one else’s. I’m happy to correct any errors you may spot – just let me know!

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