A question of thought

15 October 2012

Cloudquestionmark Credit Julia Banfield
© Julia Banfield

When I joined the Oxford Martin School a year ago, a friend commented on the number of questions that we ask on our website, saying that it’s surely answers we should be promoting.

Looking at the website today I still see a lot of questions; Can new technology help provide healthcare? Are extreme weather events more likely? Should we investigate geoengineering techniques as a means of combating climate change? Can globalisation help the world’s poor?

I’ve spent much of this year talking to Oxford Martin School academics and asking questions of my own. It has been fascinating. I now have a limited understanding of the cutting edge research into everything from the efficacy and efficiency of tidal turbines in creating energy, to the shortcomings of economic forecasting models, and the potential of nanotechnology to deliver cancer treatments to malignant cells.

What I realise from all these questions is that they not only generate discussion, they generate ideas. And when academics from across the disciplines of the University of Oxford, put their heads together to address issues like the resilience of our global systems or the best ways to garner information from large data sets, those ideas do have the potential to change the world.

Our founder, Dr James Martin asked School Director, Professor Ian Goldin, “How can ideas change the world?” Bringing great minds together not only brings fresh insights, it accelerates our ability to solve problems, said Goldin.

But it’s more than that. If you don’t ask the questions, how will you ever find the answers? Questions generate questions and as the research continues, we gain greater understanding of the issues, and breakthroughs are made. Unknowns become knowns and answers become solutions. Sounds glib? Maybe. But through complex research projects which seek to answer equally complex questions we are learning how to preserve the biodiversity of our planet; how to protect innocent populations from mass atrocity crimes; how to create alternative forms of energy that are cost effective and sustainable; how to cure previously deadly infections. Arming global decision makers with such knowledge must surely be a good thing.

We certainly don’t have all the answers, but it is exciting to work in an environment where questions are constantly being asked. Not only that, it gives me hope that solutions will be found to the problems that threaten generations to come.

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.