This year has lasted a decade. As we pivoted from crammed lecture halls to online teaching, and from bustling, energized labs to working shifts and eating lunch on our own, we adapted to a new normal that still feels anything but normal. I’m nostalgic for holding lab meetings and grant review panels in person, talking science in the corridor, and waiting in line at the coffee shop. I miss the lower halves of all my colleagues’ faces. Yes, all of them. So it’s time for a thought experiment. Let’s leap forward to a future when concerns about SARS-CoV-2 no longer dictate our daily routines.
In this future, public confidence in science is strong and scientists’ voices are respected. The unprecedented scientific response to defeat the virus became the starting point for a new conversation between scientists and the public on climate change, untangled from political motivations. Mainstream public opinion is that governments must act. Protection of plant biodiversity and global food security are issues at the forefront of the political agenda.
In this future, international collaborations are incentivized by funding agencies. Science is recognized and used as a tool of soft diplomacy. We’ve learned how to make online collaboration effective and engaging while minimizing our carbon footprint. An era of team science has begun, in which global problems are tackled by experts in international laboratories that are no longer bounded by their physical locations.
In this future, the community of plant scientists is diverse across the dimensions of race and gender. Because of the pandemic, our attention was focused on the news, and we witnessed the horror of the murders of George Floyd and others on our TV screens. We reexamined implicit bias in our institutions and in the research enterprise, and we took to heart a commitment to inclusion in our own discipline.
In this future, a biomass-based bioeconomy is a growing sector of the global economy. The significant dip in carbon dioxide emissions as global travel was curtailed underscored how we could address greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond changing human behaviors, we have increasingly replaced fuels, chemicals, and materials once derived from fossil fuels with products synthesized by living organisms. Plant biotechnologists work with material scientists and engineers to redesign physical inputs for a circular economy: future materials will be deconstructed at the end of their useful lives and the subunits recycled. Plant and microbial synthetic biologists collaborate to create entrepreneurial opportunities and economic value.
In this future, early career plant biologists are optimistic about their future. The incredible speed with which therapies and vaccines were developed compared with historical precedents showcased the revolution in the life sciences that had happened over the previous decade. This revolution was enabled by technologies in reading and writing DNA, in facile gene and genome editing, in powerful genome-wide association studies, in new capabilities of mass spectrometry, and in computational modeling. The tipping point of a global health emergency revealed the importance of the careful and creative work of science.
In this future, as attention shifts to the urgent need to mitigate the impacts of climate change on crops and biodiversity, plant biologists are afforded the respect of first responders in the protection of our agricultural and natural landscapes. As technology continues to accelerate the pace of discovery, the costs of doing experiments are driven down. The ability to test decades-old and freshly minted hypotheses has become democratized and is no longer the purview of a small number of labs with large resources. Tools of artificial intelligence and machine learning enable more efficient experimental design, and more analyses are automated, freeing up time for creative thought and innovation. Although the career paths of those still at an early stage may not be as linear as those of their mentors, those paths will be intellectually and professionally rich and rewarding.
What good is a thought experiment if you don’t find yourself at the lab bench? In the time of COVID-19, ASPB has been true to its mission. The Science Policy Committee couldn’t advocate in person this year in the rooms of members of Congress, but the committee still engaged with leadership in the funding agencies to inform, communicate, and positively influence policy related to plant biology. Our annual meeting, the first Plant Biology Worldwide Summit, was a hugely successful virtual event with workshops for professional development and learning opportunities. Society-wide, we continued the conversation on equity, diversity, and inclusion in plant biology. ASPB provided venues and platforms for communication through workshops, seminar series, and newsletters, both for our science and for the integrity of that science.
Working mostly from home over the past 9 months has revealed new skill sets. I had no idea that Nick—my favorite colleague, the best husband, and the gourmet chef in our house—could wield a pair of scissors like a hair-cutting diva (and I get to see his whole face). He has commented politely on my obsession with homemade croissant dough and my quest for the elusive perfection of pains au chocolat. I hope that we have learned to value the present at its true worth, that we are truly grateful for all that we have. But the fun of the thought experiment is in defining the desired future state. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive definition, so please let me know what I’ve missed. Write me at email@example.com. As a community, we can take the next steps forward. Here’s hoping.