February 9, 2014 | 1
Since 1845, Scientific American has covered the innovations that sit at the nexus of science, business and policy. In its early years, as the Industrial Revolution swept across the U.S., our pages were rife with the focus and expectation that human’s inventiveness would ease humankind’s labors and improve the world. Today, with a global population of 7 billion trying to live sustainably in a finite world, the problems seem more intricate and challenging than ever. But the innovations that will solve them still come from basic research.
With that in mind, we at Scientific American have been working with the World Economic Forum to help enhance the presence of annual speakers who offer to business and policy leaders expert insights in science, technology and innovation at its annual events, including the meeting at Davos in Switzerland, which I attended along with colleagues Fred Guterl, executive editor of Scientific American, and Phil Campbell, editor in chief of the journal Nature, a sister publication. Toward this end, in 2013, we also expanded our monthly Forum essays by scientists and other experts into a regular online series. Fred and Seth Fletcher, a Scientific American senior editor, commission, edit and manage the series, which includes the writing of many WEF participants and which you can see on the Forum landing page.
Last year, savvy Davos commentators noted that the science talks and panels were among some of the liveliest and best attended (despite ongoing concerns expressed by some that they are merely there for “entertainment”). This year’s line up included, among other things, an encouraging 23 sessions on climate change alone. I served on four public sessions myself, and a number of private meetings for planning science activities as well.
My first event was a memorable live telecast interview on January 22 with Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, about her journey of discovery in telomere research, starting with research in a denizen of “pond scum” through to the increasing understanding of how non-genetic factors such as the mind can influence aging. She shared the 2009 prize in Physiology or Medicine with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak (see his Scientific American article, “The Origin of Life on Earth.” We spoke about the basics of telomeres, those protective ends of our chromosomes that tend to shorten as we age, and how they can be influenced by non-genetic factors such as environment, stress, depression, abuse, having a lower level of education—and even maternal stress before birth. Blackburn advised the audience that—given the globally aging demographic—policy leaders could start thinking about addressing these issues now, rather than waiting for the science to develop further. Blackburn’s recent talk explains more:
That evening, I was a speaker at a dinner session called “Revolutionary Learning,” which explored how knowledge of history can help us to create a better future. I was struck by the storytelling prowess and incredible perspective of historians David Christian, history professor, Macqarie University, Australia; T.J. Stiles, Pulitzer-Prize-winning U.S. author and historian; and Wang Hui, professor of Modern Chinese Thought and Literature, Tsinghua University. Thomas Campbell, director and CEO, Metropolitan Museum of Art, here in New York City, spoke about cultural awareness. I got a good laugh when I offered to the group to start off with “something easy: physics.” My pitch—familiar to anyone who reads Scientific American—is that you never can predict the value of basic research and how it can benefit humanity. For proof, I outlined the benefits today of Albert Einstein’s work on relativity (GPS correction), stimulated emission of radiation (lasers in items such as CDs, DVDs) and the Nobel Prize-winning photoelectric effect (door opening, streetlights, camera exposures, breathalyzers)—all of which you can read more about in Phil Yam’s 2004 feature article, “Everyday Einstein.”
At lunch the next day, I moderated a fascinating session on “Raising Science Literacy in Society.” Joining me were David Christian, professor of history, Macquarie University, Australia; Alan Gershenfeld, founder and president, E-Line Media: Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology, University of California, Berkeley; Henry Markram, professor, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, and editor in chief and co-founder of Frontiers; and Nobel laureate Dan Shechtman, professor, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Israel. The key takeaways for me were: inspire them when they are young, make connections to things people care about as a pathway for further learning, and take advantage of opportunities outside the classroom, where people live most of their lives.
Last, I was a speaker for a live webcast session called “The Global Science Outlook,” on Saturday, 25 January. Other speakers: Patrick Aebischer, President, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, World Economic Forum Foundation Board Member, Global Agenda Council on the Future of Universities; Neil Gershenfeld, Director, The Center for Bits and Atoms, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA; Subra Suresh, President, Carnegie Mellon University, USA (and former head of the U.S. National Science Foundation). With the moderator, Tan Chorh-Chuan, President, National University of Singapore, Singapore, we spoke about how we can collaborate across nations to maximize the benefits of the world’s science spending—$1.4 trillion last year, according to Suresh. Science has always been a collaborative enterprise, and today’s digital tools make that more true than ever. Gershenfeld spoke about the growth of Fab Labs, Aebischer about the giant projects to understand the brain, and Suresh pointed out that the top 10 Asian countries spent more on R&D than the U.S. The article “Insights from Davos: Greater Collaboration in Global Science,” provides more details.
Scientific American had 400 issues on display in the Davos newsstands, which were snapped up quickly. They included a feature article by Davos speaker Alan Gershenfeld, “Why Gaming Could Be the Future of Education.”
And here are posts from last year’s annual meeting at Davos:
My blog about the first-ever panel on space at Davos, which I moderated: Davos: The Future of Space | Observations, Scientific American Blog Network
A round up of Davos doings: Davos: Decisions and Data
The Nature-WEF-branded panel that Phil Campbell moderated on X Factors and Risk; I served as rapporteur (official blogger), and you can also see the post-event interview that Phil and I via a link in the post as well: Davos: X Marks the Unknown | Observations, Scientific American Blog Network