Imperial College London

The year ahead

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The year ahead

It's in the nature of thinkers and scientists to ponder what is going to happen in the future. Here, Imperial academics share their thoughts on 2013..

Attempting to make predictions about science, technology and economics is a famously fraught task. Former IBM Chairman Thomas Watson apparently once remarked: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”. But it’s in the nature of thinkers and scientists to ponder what is going to happen before it actually does. Here at Imperial, we’re in the unique position of having staff that can make predictions across a whole spectrum of disciplines. Reporter caught up with four of them to see what might be in store for 2013 and beyond….

Space

SpaceAs the space shuttle was sent off to retirement in 2012, many mourned what they saw as the end of a golden era of exploration. But space science has never been more active, as the Curiosity Mars rover showed just a few months later with its incredible images of the planet’s surface. Indeed, a raft of umanned robotic missions will launch in 2013 including Gaia, which will perform a ‘stellar census’ of around one billion stars; SWARM, which will, for the first time, use three spacecraft working in unison to map the Earth’s magnetic field; and, possibly, Don Quijote, which will test whether a spacecraft could successfully deflect an asteroid on a collision course with Earth.

"There’ll be people queuing up to live out the rest of their lives on Mars.”

– Prof Steven Schwartz

“Space exploration doesn’t need a shuttle,” says Professor Steven Schwartz (Physics). “I think, by and large, science will be done by unmanned activities. Getting a human being on the surface of Mars is incredibly difficult and getting them back alive all but impossible. One day we will do it. The human spirit is such that when we can do the one-way trip, which is easier, there’ll be people queuing up to live out the rest of their lives on Mars.”

There’s also a sense that space missions may no longer be the preserve of big budget space programmes – private organisations and even universities could get in on the action. The Virgin Galactic craft will make its maiden voyage in 2013 carrying Richard Branson, his family and a dozen or so customers who have paid $200,000 (£121,000) to go to the edge of space.

“Space is a big game and there’s money to be made in it. During the early stages it has to be done through public investment, as it’s too high risk. But at some point it passes over and you get technology that’s sufficiently advanced and stable.”

In 2013 Imperial will send two more student experiments into space by hitching a ride on board compact satellites (‘cubesats’), after the success of the first such mission this year. They will perform data gathering experiments, for example of space weather. Then in early 2014 the Rosetta spacecraft, with Mr Chris Carr (Physics) as a Principal Investigator, will follow a comet as it approaches the Sun to study things like how its tail forms.

Economy

EconomyDespite a lot of retrospective finger-wagging, few people foresaw the financial crash of 2008. The big question now is how long the western economies will be stuck in first gear. Next year could be a crucial one as Obama settles in for a second term, a new leadership is established in China and Germany holds general elections.

“I’m afraid I’m one of those economists who’s very depressed about the future and I don’t see the prospects getting much better,” says Professor Jonathan Haskel (Business School). “The reason for that, fundamentally, is an unreformed banking system and the eurozone in the disastrous mess that it’s in at the moment. Unless those are reformed there’s going to be no confidence and therefore no incentive for companies to make large scale investment.”

“I’m afraid I’m one of those economists who’s very depressed about the future and I don’t see the prospects getting much better”

– Prof Jonathan Haskel

With the Chinese economy still growing steadily at around eight per cent annually, will 2013 be the year when the country finally usurps the west as the major economic superpower?

“What people think about trade is deeply misinformed,” Jonathan continues. “They think that the consequence of China growing is that everybody else has to go down, so it’s all a zero sum game. That’s total ignorance about world history, because for the past 2,000 years when nations have traded, they’ve both become richer – that’s the whole point. It’s quite the opposite concern, namely, if China were to slow down that would slow down the demand for goods and services from here.”

For the UK specifically, there’s much discussion about how national infrastructure projects such as a new London airport, a second highspeed rail link and a new fleet of nuclear power plants might boost the economy.

“It’s all politics,” Jonathan concludes. “These are trophy projects with which ministers can get themselves onto the TV. There is one infrastructure project, which we can do in a minute, that would be incredibly helpful for growth and that’s build more houses. But there’s no political will to do it.”

Medicine

MedicineThe idea that we might one day be able to regrow damaged body parts with patients’ own cells is perhaps one of the most powerful in medicine, and it has slowly become a reality. This is because scientists now understand that stem cells are quite sensitive and need nurturing if they are to reach their potential and form complete organs.

“The cells live in a micro-environment, you cannot just separate the cells from the environment,” said Emeritus Professor Dame Julia Polak (Medicine). “At the beginning, there seemed to be two separate fields: people studying stem cell biology and those developing novel biomaterials but now they are coming together. People are now aware they can use smart materials and cells and grow them in a bioreactor.”

"Could you regenerate scar tissue after a heart attack?"

– Prof Dame Julia Polak

After successful ‘self-transplants’ of relatively simple tissues like the trachea, 2013 could be the year when we see major breakthroughs with more complex organs. “Each organ presents its own challenges. For instance the heart – could you regenerate scar tissue after a heart attack? We’re particularly focused on lung regeneration, which is difficult because there are so many different cell types.”

In the immediate future, Julia and Professor Athanasios Mantalaris (Chemical Engineering) will be working on a €5.6 million EU project with medical device company Novalung to develop a ‘hybrid’ artificial lung that incorporates human lung cells.

Climate and weather

Climate and weatherOf all the topics discussed here, climate and weather patterns have the potential to have the greatest impact globally. Just ask the residents of New York in the wake of superstorm Sandy or even people affected by recent flooding in the UK. But it’s a contentious topic.

“It is too soon to say that there is irrefutable evidence that this collection of extreme events is associated with climate change, and this may remain the case until it is too late to do much about it. However, we can say that some of the events are more likely to occur because of the greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere by human activity,” said Professor Sir Brian Hoskins Director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change. “We’re currently looking into how extreme storms might change in the future but the models and records we currently have aren’t good enough to make a confident prediction.”

"Beyond a certain point the entire climate system will change and we’re going to see massively different weather patterns."

– Prof Brian Hoskins

Nevertheless, with the El Niño climate pattern likely to reach a peak in its cycle quite soon, we could well see a particularly eventful 12 months for climate and weather.

 “I’ll be surprised if we don’t get a record year soon. The multi-decadal trend of increasing global temperature is very clear; of the 10 hottest years on record, nine of them have occurred over the last 12 years.”

That could in turn mean more Arctic sea ice melt next summer and the possible consequences that brings.

“If you talk about 2°C or 4°C warming people say ‘oh we can adapt to that’, but beyond a certain point the entire climate system will change and we’re going to see massively different weather patterns.”

Reporter

Andrew Czyzewski

Andrew Czyzewski
Communications Division

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