Technology helps science advance, but the U.S. could struggle

Technology helps science advance, but the U.S. could struggle

By Marion Renault
The Columbus Dispatch

Printers can spit out glass figurines and live skin tissue.

Lab-grown burgers are old news.

Scientists have created cameras thinner than a strand of hair and spray paint that can transform flat surfaces into touchpads.

And still, the frontier of invention remains as vast and boundless as ever.


Tell us what you think Columbus should look like in 20 years


Within decades, how we teach science, fund innovation and grapple with research ethics will be just as unrecognizable as whatever futuristic gadgets and inventions become a reality.

“Thinking 20 years out, to 2037, to the tools that people will have to do their research, it’s almost impossible to imagine,” said Ohio State University Provost Bruce McPheron.

“We only know they’ll be fundamentally different from what we have now.”

What gadgets are on the horizon?

Expect a lot more computers:
• Medical machines that can design and produce an exact, living 3D replica of a patient’s heart for transplant.
• Wearable devices that track health indicators 24/7 through sweat monitors or sensors that can see through blood vessels.
• Collaborative robots that replace the most dangerous human jobs, such as entering burning buildings or performing back-breaking industrial work.

Dr. Jessica Winter, a professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at Ohio State University, [Brooke LaValley/Dispatch]

“Those technologies are definitely on the horizon,” said Ohio State biomedical professor Jessica Winter. “They are still very futuristic, but I don’t believe that it’s entirely impossible.”

In particular, as scientists continue unlocking nature’s basic building blocks over the next two decades, society's understanding of the human body and how to treat its many ailments will revolutionize.

“In the last century, physics was king. This century, it's biology,” Winter said. “That’s all leading to tremendous innovation that’s hard to keep up with sometimes.”

Medical researchers are waiting to test the full potential of CRISPR, an emerging technology that allows for permanent and precise gene editing. CRISPR — Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats — are segments of certain DNA that contain short, repetitive base sequences and form a bacterial defense system that could allow researchers to correct genetic causes of disease.

In 2015, CRISPR was used to revert cancer cells back to normal. Experts predict the technology could soon be used to treat everything from diabetes to HIV.

Engineers also will chip away at efforts to design sophisticated artificial intelligence, quantum computers and autonomous robots — innovations that will, in turn, bolster further advances in biology and medicine.

Kadri Parris, a 1st year engineering course co-ordinator at The Ohio State University, watches as student Richard Blocher conducts a demonstration on the OSU campus in Columbus, Ohio on July 26, 2017. [Brooke LaValley/Dispatch][/caption]“A lot of technologies are converging,” said John Bair, executive director of Ohio State’s Center for Design and Manufacturing and Engineering. “Tools are becoming more complicated and more connected.”

But researchers warn non-scientists not to hold their breath waiting for lab experiments to make it onto shelves. The lag time between a technology’s conception and its delivery to the masses? Somewhere around 15 and 20 years.

“Science can run as fast as science can run. I think things are going to continue to accelerate up this curve,” Bair said. “There has to be a catch-up. Invention has to keep pace with research.”

Kadri Parris, a first-year engineering course co-ordinator at Ohio State University, watches as student Richard Blocher conducts a demonstration. [Brooke LaValley/Dispatch]

Who’s going to pay for it?

When panels of scientists review proposals for biomedical research today, they don’t award grants to the most promising projects.

They choose which disease they want to cure.

“That’s where we are,” said OSU's Winter, who has firsthand experience allocating scarce federal funds as a member of review panels for the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and the Cancer Moonshot Initiative.

Already, universities and other research hubs are trying to adjust to flattened government support over the past decade. As of 2013, the federal government no longer funds a majority of basic research in the United States — a role it had served since World War II.

“The idea behind federal funding was that it was agnostic. That’s the ideal. This country led the world that way through decades,” said David Williams, dean of Ohio State’s College of Engineering.

Industry sponsorship of fundamental science has accelerated, and administrators say they expect corporate America to continue its financial presence in research labs.

Down the road, public research sites such as Ohio State will have to turn to groups that might benefit from researchers' work: industry, private foundations and local, regional and state governments.

Titans such as Elon Musk and Bill and Melinda Gates are expected to keep pouring money into niche science and technology initiatives, said Herb Bresler, senior research leader at Battelle.

Powerful tech companies will continue to form a pack of global investors in science and technology research. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) already collectively spend about as much money as the U.S. federal government does on non-defense research.

Near Cleveland, the NASA Glenn Research Center was actually slated for a bump in funding in President Trump’s budget blueprint.

There, Jim Heidmann and his team investigate crucial questions that underpin cutting-edge inventions by companies such as Boeing and Goodyear. Currently, they’re focused on exploring biofuels, increasing the sky’s capacity for flights, and reducing the environmental and noise pollution of air travel.

A model of a future aircraft concept vehicle outside a hangar at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. [Jonathan Quilter/Dispatch]

“Industry is focused on the near-term. They’re the ones that build and sell the product,” said Heidmann, project manager for NASA’s Advanced Air Transport Technologies Project.

“It’s the government’s role to push those technologies that might not get otherwise developed. What we do not only advances science and technology but helps U.S. industry survive and compete.”

Scientists say citizens should pay attention to who’s on the roster for funding research that could lead to new vaccines, cleaner fuel or the next iPhone.

“Knowledge does indeed impart power and so the public should be attuned to who is funding research and why,” said Demetri Capetanopoulos, Battelle's strategic partnerships manager.

How will we prepare for the new scientific frontier?

The edge of scientific knowledge is accelerating at full steam.

But the pace of progress presents a challenge for young scientists tasked with grabbing the baton and running the next leg of science’s sprint forward.

More and more will be demanded of researchers. Scientists of the future will operate and maintain incredibly complicated machines. They will play a bigger role in public engagement. They will run science-based businesses.

And all that means universities will have to train students to be more than just cerebral. To survive, they’ll have to be entrepreneurial, creative, adaptable and good with their hands.

“We are trying to prepare the next generation who, in 20 years’ time, will be at the forefront of a university, in a company or as an entrepreneur,” said engineering dean Williams. “I think it will bear little to no resemblance to the classrooms of today. We’ve got to be prepared to rethink, totally, how we teach our students.”

Some of those changes are underway. Elementary students take programming courses. Universities encourage students to use their research to launch start-ups.

“We’re seeing a different kind of student. “They’re broadening out,” said Bair. “They’re light-years ahead of where we were even 10 years ago.”

Experts say the organization of subjects and departments at universities also will be part of an impending education transformation.

It’s hard to know which, if any, departments could join phrenology, eugenics or alchemy in the historical graveyard of outdated and debunked fields of science.

But experts earmarked science education and communication, “-security” sub-disciplines (such as bio-cyber security or genomic-security), renewable energy and battery storage as urgent areas of focus for future scholars.

“The ones most likely to remain are those that are the least understood,” Bresler said /I can't find a first name and title for Bresler in story/, citing neurosciences and immune diseases as examples.

What challenges will face future scientists?

For one: By 2037, the environment will be markedly warmer and plagued by more frequent, unpredictable extreme weather events.

And those changes could impact the accuracy of knowledge amassed by humans over centuries about how the natural world functions, said environmental and urban economist Elena Irwin.

"That’s the scientific process: We incrementally add knowledge over time,” Irwin said. "Will all that become irrelevant?"

And as everyday life becomes steeped in technology, scientists and non-scientists will need to improve their relationship with each other.

Though three-quarters of Americans are confident in scientists to act in society’s best interest, surveys have documented a widening gulf between the public and scientists on contentious issues such as vaccines, animal research, genetically modified food and climate change.

Closing that gap requires better science education for laypeople and better communication training for scientists, experts said.

“Science must not be the purview of an elite few,” Capetanopoulos said. “Yes, there will always be specialized experts, but technology has increasingly given the public incredible tools to allow every person to be able to explore the universe we occupy.

“Fundamentally, all that is required is a curious intellect. That more than anything is what we must foster in every citizen.”

Where will Columbus and the United States stand?

Science is already a global endeavor.

But 20 years down the road, experts say, the U.S. role on the international stage for science will be far from starring.

“That’s not a fear. It’s a reality,” said Richard Hart, chairman of biomedical engineering at Ohio State.

The United States is expected to trail China and the European Union in overall funding and performance of research, said Mike Kuhlman, Battelle's chief scientist.
It won’t be the first time science’s global epicenter shifts. Germany and England were academic powerhouses before American universities started churning out doctorates.

Now, America is on the cusp of international brain drain, with scholars fleeing to countries with more resources for scientific training, funding and facilities, said Peter Shulman a science historian at Case Western University.

“You can already see the exodus,” Hart said.
And that’s a profoundly challenging scenario to reverse, said Williams, whose own sons have immigrated to Europe and Canada to pursue scientific careers.

“Forty years ago, this used to be the place to come and do research,” Williams said. “We are losing our innovation capital — which is people in their 20s and 30s — and you can’t grow that back quickly.”

Some, like Ohio State earth scientist Mike Bevis, see potential for Ohio and Columbus to salvage its scientific community by investing in sustainability and energy storage, what he describes as future-oriented fields.

“There’s this revolution that’s going to happen. Is the U.S. going to be a part of it, or not? Is Ohio going to be a part of it, or not?” he asked. “Columbus is supposed to be this 21st century city. We’re supposed to be a science city. (Are) our scientists and engineers going to be a part of the future, or not?”

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