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Scientific utopias: tackling an early-morning crisis at the Institute of Merged Sciences 1

Many researchers dream of a better scholarly world — with fewer funding rounds, greater equality and politer reviewers. Earlier this year, Nature co-sponsored a science-fiction essay competition run by EU-LIFE, an alliance of European research institutes, asking for visions of a scientific utopia.

Some of the competition’s 326 entrants aimed for high ideals of scientific paradise. Others outlined humbler changes, suggesting small differences in how funding is delivered or how research is conducted.

Here we publish the winning science-fiction essay, and two runners-up. Read the judges’ impressions on the EU-LIFE website.

The winning essay by Katherine Ember fast-forwards to 2053 and outlines a typical day for one scientist at the fictional Institute of Merged Sciences in Edinburgh, UK. Ember completed her PhD in Edinburgh and is now a radiologist at the Montreal Polytechnic in Canada. Her scientific utopia is one in which scientists are obliged to assist their local community.


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Golden sunlight, no jacket, a gentle breeze. A fragment of human face in my bag.

Mornings like this are the reason I won’t be retiring any time soon.

It’s mid-July, 8 a.m., and my bicycle tyres skim over the well-paved cycling path. My fingers are on the brakes, as always: I have the tendency to daydream and I don’t want to drift and get hit by the free shuttle bus from central Edinburgh. I often joke that I wouldn’t mind dying in the Institute of Merged Sciences (IMS), but I’d envisaged myself clutching my chest mid-eureka or choking at after-work drinks. Not crushed on the way to the building itself.

I round the corner and the IMS towers above me: glass and gleaming metal, solar panels and smooth surfaces. Plants sprout from the rooftop. That’s something I love about it — this unruly wig of green. It’s a reminder that, in time, nature will always prevail. The Aerial Garden is also the best place to read papers, hold meetings and work on grant outlines before submission to the writing team. I’m glad that scientists now have a more positive outlook to working outside than when I started out. For decades, we had the data about sunlight staving off depression but — similarly to the benefits of exercise, relaxation and sleep — we felt above it all.

I glide down the ramp and into the cool air of the bicycle storage, drifting over to locker number 437. The lock, activated by my access chip, springs open and I push my bike inside. “Welcome, Professor Fand,” chirps the lock. I could deactivate the welcome message, but I’ve grown to like it.

Once I’ve entered the lift from the bike park, I select the fourteenth floor and click the biohazard symbol. This prevents anyone else from entering the lift at the same time as me, as I’m (a) carrying a potentially dangerous sample and (b) in a rush to get it analysed.

As the lift hums, I think of the face fragment safely sealed in my backpack. Twenty per cent of our work here at the IMS must be classed as ‘research for citizens’ (or R4C). We spend that time responding to the needs of society now, directly, without waiting for think tanks to identify key problems or funding bodies to catch on. My most recent R4C case presented itself early this morning: a nurse knocking on my door, clutching a yellow biohazard box.

“I don’t mean to bother you at home,” said the nurse, clearly bothering me at home, “but our medical practice is just around the corner and it seemed simplest to come here directly.” He nodded towards the city’s Morningside area. “We had a lad come in, early twenties, who’s been experiencing exhaustion, peeling skin and loss of subcutaneous tissue, particularly from his face. Looks a right state. We haven’t been able to diagnose him.”

“Any recent foreign travel? Contact with anyone with similar symptoms?”

“Not that he’s aware of. Works on a strawberry farm; hasn’t had much time off lately.” The nurse thrust the box into my hands. “Those are the specimens.”

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic 30 years ago, I’ve been wary of cases like this, but the nurse assured me that the samples were safely contained.

The lift slows, then stops. My laboratory has an astonishing view of the countryside south of Edinburgh — lush green trees and rolling fields. This morning, I ignore the view and head to a work bench.

The analysis shouldn’t take long. I lift three vials from the biohazard box. One contains the portion of facial tissue, another some saliva and the last contains a strawberry-plant cutting. Under a containment hood, I decant each sample into analysis tubes. The tubes and pipette tips will eventually be collected by the Recycling Department to be sterilized and reused. The IMS has a militant environmental policy: it is not only carbon-neutral, but carbon-negative.

The tubes fit snugly into my benchtop spectroscopy and sequencing unit. I run the ‘biological organism search’. From the face fragment, there are multiple matches: human cells and bacteria from the skin of the average 20-year-old man. Soil bacteria — I keep scrolling — strawberry, a few other plants. The saliva throws up nothing — traces of blood, but no signs of viral or bacterial infection. The strawberry plant, unsurprisingly, has an overwhelmingly strawberry molecular composition. It’s rare that the spectroscopy unit doesn’t give me answers. Almost out of frustration, I run the ‘counterfeit’ algorithm that we use for detecting fraudulent foods and products. Thanks to a decade-long international collaboration, this contains a database of molecular fingerprints from almost every product ever sold in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.

The screen lights up. “Product match! This sample contains chemicals from the following products: Sarubam High Concentration Weed Killer (Discontinued, high toxicity).” That’s it. I pull out my phone and dial Dr Lee, my first point of contact in Environmental Sciences. She listens patiently as I relay the results to her. Her double-take is almost audible.


“Sarubam High Concentrat…”

“Yeah, that’s one of the strongest pesticides ever developed. It was discontinued immediately after brief US use and is now almost universally banned. Where did you find it?”

“On the hands of a farm worker based west of Edinburgh.”

Our conversation doesn’t last much longer. It’s clear that I have two more calls to make: to the medical practice, and to our Urgencies Lead in the Science Policy Department. Through him, I can be assured that this is dealt with effectively — at a government level, if needed — because we live in a world of dwindling resources, of water scarcity, of people taking drastic measures to grow food. This is where our scientific utopia must be built. Not in the perfect future, but in the imperfect now.

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