According to a poll of 50 Nobel laureates – the world’s leading figures in science in their field – the biggest threats facing the world today include environmental issues, the threat of nuclear war, and leaders like Donald Trump.
Political polarization, the rise in populism, ignorance in world leaders, distortion of the truth, and encouraging distrust among people, their leaders, and the media are considered dangerous enough to be featured on a list that includes climate change, population increase, and infectious diseases.
The survey was conducted by Time Higher Education, the body that puts together the world university rankings, ahead of its World Academic Summit held in London this week. They surveyed 50 of the world’s Nobel prize winners for science, medicine, and economics – that’s one in five of the living laureates – on their views on a range of topics, from university funding to the biggest threats facing mankind today.
Unsurprisingly, more than a third (34 percent) said environmental issues such as environmental degradation and population increase were the biggest threat. Nuclear war was next, as suggested by 23 percent of the laureates, followed by infectious disease/drug resistance, and selfishness/dishonesty/loss of humanity.
Next up on the list is ignorant leaders/distortion of truth, which is above artificial intelligence (AI), inequality, drugs, Facebook, and fundamentalism/terrorism.
Asked about how modern science is being affected by the rise in populism in politics and the current political polarization happening on both sides of the Atlantic, 70 percent of the Nobel Prize winners considered it a "grave" or "serious" threat.
“Today, facts seem to be questioned by many people who prefer to believe rumours rather than well-established scientific facts,” said Jean-Pierre Sauvage, who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2016.
Many actually name-checked Donald Trump in reference to populist leaders choosing to ignore evidence provided by the scientific community and purposely distorting the truth to mislead people.
Peter Agre, the director of Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute and 2003 winner of the Chemistry Prize, called Mr Trump “extraordinarily uninformed and bad-natured” and likened him to a “Batman villain… wicked and selfish”.
They feared that the trend for anti-intellectualism, coupled with the threat to international mobility for researchers – both in terms of the Trump administration's attitudes to border control and the UK's Brexit negotiations – may affect science funding and the ability to recruit and utilize the best scientific talent around the world.
“It is only by sharing ideas from great minds and institutions [in this way] that you can hope to make the fastest progress on advancing knowledge,” said Brian Schmidt, the 2011 Nobel Prize winner for physics.
On the other hand, 74 percent of the laureates don’t think we need to fear our robot overlords just yet, as they don’t believe AI or robotics will actually result in the need for fewer humans, or scientists at least.