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.

Runner-up Evandro Ferrada explores a world with unlimited energy through an imagined interview transcript with research leader Alma Nur to mark the 50th anniversary of a mysterious ‘Eclosion Event’. Ferrada thinks deeply about his nouns: ‘eclosion’ is the act of an insect hatching; alma means ‘soul’ in Spanish; and nur is the Arabic word for ‘light’.

The Eclosion Event

In June 2081, to mark 50 years since the Eclosion Event launched an era of almost limitless energy, we present an excerpt from an interview with Explorer Institute for the Advancement of Science and Technology (eFAST) director and co-founder Alma Nur. Nur was awarded the 2033 Nobel Prize in Physics for her contribution to energy and sustainability.

In your view, when did the Eclosion Event start having an impact on science?

I might be a bit biased here, but I think it was 2046 — 15 years after the Eclosion Event, and the year of the foundation of eFAST. It was then that we began to see real change. Before that, most people were not fully aware of the immense inequality gap that the lack of energy had caused for humanity. Somehow, the harvesting of sustainable energy was the key innovation that we needed to move forward as a civilization. And this is precisely what the Eclosion Event provided us with.

In retrospect, of course, it seems so clear. After all, everything we do, make or use can be expressed in terms of how much energy it costs. The Event led not only to a virtually infinite supply of energy, but also to an exponential development of ways to design, print and transport all types of renewable materials. In the span of a decade, everyone was fed, dressed and provided with conditions to live sustainably. Today, only five decades later, a world like the one we knew before the Event seems unthinkable. But coming back to your question: yes! It was 15 years after the Event when the way we conceived and did science truly began to change.

What was the main factor that helped science to advance?

Before the Event, there was fierce competition and deeply rooted historical biases that gave only rich societies the means for true scientific development. Afterwards, however, anyone could access education, or become a scientist and develop their interests, whatever they were. The space, infrastructure and opportunities were readily available. Post-Event, the concept of diversity meant much more than gender and race, it also became a synonym of intellectual freedom. The scientific agendas of funding agencies, which were previously driven by societal and environmental crisis, were no longer an impediment to creating a completely new research field, or to exploring questions that had been deemed lower-priority due to the scarcity of resources. Equality unlocked intellectual diversity, which was fundamental for the transformation that followed.

At its inception, what role did eFAST play?

Well, we had been thinking of an ideal research environment way before the Event — we were not the only ones, of course — but it was not until we witnessed the impact of the Event that we realized what it meant for science and for its place in society. We wanted eFAST to become a place for the incubation and development of ideas. We redesigned our dynamics of interaction, and explored the logistics of management and resource distribution. The foundation of eFAST coincided with a manifesto that outlined our own set of norms, rights and duties as a scientific community of a new era. Then, everything followed naturally. eFAST evolved into a place for scientists to interact, share their work, and offer tutorials and lectures to the public on topics related to all aspects of science. And this is when the second major contribution of eFAST took place. Although it took a bit longer, we were able to promote transdisciplinarity, the full integration of the arts, humanities and sciences.

And what were the main innovations that eFAST pioneered ?

I believe that the main innovations began as a consequence of the spatial and temporal organization of individuals and institutions. The boundaries between nature and spaces for living, working and recreation were completely blurred out. Architectural innovations in the design of these spaces were fundamental. Complex organizational plans, or schemata, emerged to optimize schedules, interactions and collaborations. Collaborative and mentoring schemata were, at first, developed through artificial intelligence based on the psychometric and research profiles of scientists. This is how the best collaborators were identified. Soon, hierarchies vanished. Mentoring became fully collaborative. Researchers were allowed to work at any time and as much as they wanted. There was no incentive but the will to explore, discover and contribute. Fostered by such an environment, a new type of researcher evolved: one who would take on the understanding and development of virtually any aspect of nature and society.

Is there still room for improvement?

Certainly. One persistent difficulty is dealing with inherent human tendencies to seek power, which naturally leads to conflict. As you know, ways to address these issues have been a subject of large amounts of research that is still ongoing. Not everything is perfect, of course, but there is nothing like a nice place to keep dreaming ...