Our questions for 2020

New year, new decade. What will we be talking about, thinking about, concerned about in 2020? We asked some of our academics to share their predictions on what the urgent issues will be during the year ahead.

How do we prepare for the next global pandemic?

Asks Professor Devi Sridhar

Devi Sridhar

“The next deadly disease that will cause a global pandemic is coming. A major priority of my work in 2020 is looking at how governments, international institutions and the private sector can better prepare for and respond to outbreaks. With increased urbanisation, movement of people, and closer interactions between animals and humans, it is certain that we will have a rising number of outbreaks of infectious disease. One of the recommendations we had in the Independent Commission on the Response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak (which I co-chaired with Peter Piot) was for countries to invest in their health systems so that core capacities to detect an outbreak, diagnose the pathogen and respond quickly would be in place. Our team has ongoing research analysing the ways in which health systems strengthening and building basic primary healthcare can support health security objectives and vice-versa.”

Professor Devi Sridhar, Director of the Global Health Governance Programme & Chair in Global Public Health. She advises the World Health Organisation, the UK government, and the Centre for Biosecurity Studies, and University of West Indies on global health security.

How can the voices of the arts, humanities and social sciences contribute to the debate about AI ethics?

Asks Professor Melissa Terras

Melissa Terras

“We’re hearing a lot of talk about AI, machine learning, and the digitalisation of society. Much of it is science fiction, much of it is scaremongering, but for some of it, we don't understand the truths, and we aren’t scared - or informed - enough. My main talking point throughout 2020 will be: how can we bring the voice of the arts, humanities, and social sciences to this table? How can we interrogate and understand AI approaches, and question the power structures and biases that are endemic within them? But how also can we find the areas where we can utilise these tools and techniques for our benefit? One of my own research projects is an involvement with software that uses machine learning for the transcription of historical manuscript material, which is opening up new avenues for researchers, as we can then search across mass-digitised datasets more easily. AI in this case is not all surveillance and bad news, but we’re having to work hard at making this not be a “black box” solution. We need to walk through these issues, and show the relevance of machine learning approaches to areas which could benefit massively from them, while continuing to question them.”

Professor Melissa Terras is the Professor of Digital Cultural Heritage for the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, a Turing Institute Fellow, and Research Director at the Edinburgh Futures Institute.

How do we nurture enough compassion to achieve sustainable living?

Asks Professor Liz Grant

Liz Grant

“The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out a blueprint for a different world where, by 2030, all people and the planet are able to flourish together. We will have most of the science to make the necessary changes to deliver the blueprint for the SDGs. But shifting the paradigm to create a world where people care for each other enough to make these changes will be our greatest challenge. Compassion is the glue that holds the SDGs together. Understanding how to nurture compassion will be the biggest planetary health challenge of the decade.”

Professor Liz Grant is Director of the Global Health Academy and Assistant Principal for Global Health.

Will 2020 be the tipping point for global climate change action?

Asks Professor Dave Reay

Dave Reay

“In climate science we often talk about ‘tipping points’: those triggers in the Earth system where, if we push too far, things flip into a whole new state. For most climate change tipping points we are unsure when exactly they might be passed – just how much more we can push the accelerator before things spin out of our control. But there is one fork in the global climate road that is all too stark, a tipping point that is about people rather than science. It’s 2020.

This year is of monumental importance for climate change action. November will see Glasgow play host to COP26 (the 26th ‘Conference of the Parties’) where all nations come together to set out what action they will take to deliver on the Paris Climate Goals.

Current global climate commitments fall far short and so the Glasgow COP – where new commitments through to 2030 will be set – represents a crucial (and likely final) chance to steer the world away from failure in the climate emergency.

It’s daunting. But it’s also doable. In Scotland we have the public and political will to not only realise a sustainable net zero future for our own nation, but also to help other nations do the same. The world-leading expertise at the University of Edinburgh and other top institutions is already combining with government, public and private sector partners to deliver the solutions we need. Whether it’s implementing large-scale technologies like Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), or understanding human behaviour and local contexts, Scotland has the will and the way to stand in the glare of global scrutiny in 2020 and show the way forward. As tipping points go, this year can be the one that stops all the others in their tracks."

Professor Dave Reay is Chair in Carbon Management at the University of Edinburgh and Principal Investigator of ClimateXChange. Dave is also the incoming Executive Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI).

What role can business play in leading societal transformation to address the climate crisis?

Asks Dr Sarah Ivory

Sarah Ivory

“Climate change used to be a problem on the horizon that we needed to consider seriously – now it is a crisis that impacts us daily, for some in a devastating and life-changing way. We used to think that some good policy, behaviour change, and a little bit of sacrifice would be needed – now we realise the truth. The climate crisis is changing the way our environmental, societal, and economic systems interact and are organised. Whole industries are being lost, entire ecosystems are being pushed to (and in some cases beyond) the point of survival, species are becoming extinct, parts of the planet are on fire or under water. And from this new industries are emerging to lead us to a low-carbon future. We need these entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, business-community partnerships, and business-business collaboration, and we need the government policies and institutions that support them. This is my focus for 2020.”

Dr Sarah Ivory is a lecturer in Climate Change and Business Strategy at the University of Edinburgh Business School and Co-Director of the Centre for Business and Climate Change.

How can we respond to threats to planetary health in ways that bring communities together, rather than exacerbating schism? 

Asks Professor Lesley McAra

Lesley McAra

"Universities, as producers and purveyors of expert knowledge, have a key leadership role to play.  At the Edinburgh Futures Institute we aim to build democratic modes of engagement and be a place of creative convocation and innovation, collaborating with communities to deploy data driven insights to tackling global challenges. Success, however, will be measured by our deeds not just words. In 2020 we will be building the infrastructure to turn our ambition into practical action with meaningful and measurable results."

Professor Lesley McAra holds the Chair of Penology in the University's Law School, and is Director of the Edinburgh Futures Institute.

Related links


The Usher Institute

Edinburgh Futures Institute