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All challenges are grand, but some are grander than others

15 Jan 2018

Chinara Rustamova, Policy Adviser at the British Academy, introduces the Academy’s recently published paper ‘The most important challenges of our time’.

The world’s population is now 7.6 billion. According to the United Nations, by 2050 there will be nearly 10 billion people on Earth. It is hard to comprehend the sheer magnitude of these numbers. One billion more or less, who cares? As individuals we will still carry on our daily lives – we will still have our pizza, watch our favourite show or read our favourite book before bed. We may not think about the enormity of our collective impact on our good, old, gracious and generous host but she certainly notices. I believe our relationship with the earth was meant to be symbiotic, but it has become parasitic in recent times. The impact of humans on our planet presents us with a challenge which needs insights from all academic disciplines to tackle.

The most important challenges of our time

The recent paper from the British Academy’s chief executive Alun Evans and former president Lord Nicholas Stern outlines the key issues the world, and the UK, faces as we move into a future that is becoming increasingly globalised, while technological changes “coincide with rapid transformation of the international division of labour, the rapid movement of ideas, strong trade and substantial migration”.  They identify five great challenges of our time as priorities for research investment:

  • Cities, city regions and regional policies
  • The integration of health and health care
  • Pollution, environment and climate
  • The ageing society
  • The role of technology and globalisation in the future of economic structure and employment. 

These challenges are interrelated, but perhaps the most urgent we face is climate change and pollution, the direct consequences of our collective behaviour on this planet, and which are now also negatively affecting our health. The paper notes that rapid growth of population and of production, fuelled by energy dominated by fossil fuels along with pressure on land and forests has resulted in the great risks, and effects, of climate change. Have you seen this starving polar bear yet? One would only hope that the ageing society will mean a wiser humanity but that doesn’t seem to be how it works. 

The solutions to these problems are human and social, not just technical and scientific. Change needs to come in the economic, social and political spheres; we need to understand the forces which drive humans to act in this way, and how their behaviour can be managed. This is just one example of why the humanities and social sciences, the disciplines represented by the British Academy, need to be at the heart of any strategy for the UK’s, and the world’s, future.

Industrial Strategy

The Government in the Industrial Strategy white paper, published at the end of last year, set out four grand challenges focused on global trends:

  • Artificial Intelligence and data economy
  • Clean growth
  • Future of mobility
  • Ageing society

It is pleasing to see that the Government has recognised the need for the Industrial Strategy to tackle major global problems as well as local ones. The UK is set to become a world leader in artificial intelligence and the data revolution, mobility and meeting the needs of an ageing society but most importantly it will move to cleaner economic growth through low carbon technologies and the efficient use of resources. The white paper notes that clean energy “is not just an economic opportunity; it is also a moral duty in addressing climate change”. The challenge is how to tackle this by harnessing insights from all disciplines – collaborative responses are much stronger than solutions that come from a single way of thinking.


Our species enjoyed a careless and innocent childhood and survived into adolescence. The latter has been more or less irresponsible and abusive with two world wars behind us. Do you think it is now the time to transition into early adulthood? That is to say, time to contemplate the mistakes of our youth? I certainly do. It is high time to be more conscious and respectful to our host who continues to sail despite all the holes we are trying to make in it. Let’s hope the Government’s industrial strategy helps us take real steps to acting on climate change and creating a much better future for us all.

I believe we still can save polar bears and other species.   

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