Spotting the next GM-like controversy before it happens

As well as highlighting areas where research effort should be focused, the exercise shows how “horizon scanning” could help us foresee issues that have taken scientists and policy makers by surprise in the past, such as the UK public's response to genetically modified crops.

The list, published online this week in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology, includes issues such as artificial life and biomimetic robots; nanotechnology; the impact of geo-engineering the planet to mitigate climate change; and the effect of rising demand for biofuels.

The list is the outcome of an innovative two-day meeting held in Cambridge involving 35 representatives from government, environmental NGOs and academia. It builds on a hugely successful exercise conducted in 2006 to identify the 100 ecological questions policy makers most wanted answered.

According to the lead author, Professor Bill Sutherland of the University of Cambridge: “Horizon scanning is more and more common in government and business, but we should also be using it to help prioritise scientific research. We hope that horizon scanning will help cut down the number of times that policy dealing with foreseeable issues needs to made in the absence of the appropriate research.”

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This complex theme deals primarily with interactions between organisms and the environmental factors that impact them, but to a greater extent between individual inanimate environmental factors.

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