FROM RUTH COOPER IN THE SCIENCE POLICY CENTRE

The Royal Society recently co-organised the second UK-Hong Kong Frontiers of Science meeting with the Croucher Foundation. The meeting was held at the Kavli Centre.

Download  a list of talks and speakers.

Two of the  young scientists present describe their experience of the meeting.

Jue (Jade) Shi, Hong Kong Scientist:

Be it the giant camouflage octopus, or the ever expanding universe, or the omnipotent stem cells, or the fuel-producing algae, the UK-HK Frontier of Science meeting was truly a wonderful gathering with many unforgettable images of natural and unnatural wonders. As someone usually confined in a little office and by the minute details of lab routines, it was a rare treat for me to hear cutting-edge research happening in other science disciplines and talk to physicists, chemists, biologists, computer scientists and engineers about the fun and exciting side of our scientific endeavors. There was certainly no lack of inspiring questions and ideas. I genuinely feel it is exactly this kind of intimate interdisciplinary gathering that gets us to see or reminds us of the very essence of science, that it is without border, it is founded on reason, and its mission is to seek understanding of the unknown and wisdom behind data. Although we came from different backgrounds and work on seemingly different topics, we share the common curiosity towards nature that drew us into science in the first place and the belief that it is science and technology that would fundamentally change the way of our lives. I am sure both collaboration and friendship will grow from the precious seed of the UK-HK meeting, and I look forward to the scientific breakthrough and our next meeting!

Subhanjoy Mohanty, UK scientist:

To be honest, I arrived at the Royal Society’s UK-HK 2011 Frontiers of Science meeting with some trepidation.  The diverse topics on the table – from astrophysics (my specialty) to stem cell research to nanotechnology – were all fascinating to me, as surely they must be to any thinking person today, but I could hardly profess any expertise in most of them.  Would I be able to understand the talks, make some small contribution, and most importantly, learn beyond the narrow scope of my own field?

I needn’t have worried.  The organizers had done a marvellous job of selecting young participants who are not only at the cutting edge of research, but superb as well at lucidly conveying their work to an audience of lay scientists.  The format for each topic – an introductory talk, followed by two on specialized aspects of the field, with an extended question and answer session at the end – was also highly conducive to coming to grips with the subject at hand, its broader implications and relation to other disciplines.  Finally, there was ample time to informally bat theories and throw conjectures around: ideal for a rich exchange of ideas between scientists who, in the ordinary course of events, would have no more than a passing acquaintance with each other’s work in the corridors of academia.

A particularly nice touch was the session on the “Sociology of Science”, which focused on how best to communicate with, and educate, the public at large to further the goals of science.  While the subject is increasingly discussed in the scientific community today, the various studies presented by the speaker, and the manner in which she did so, aroused a rare level of debate and examination of basic assumptions.  Why is there apparently more support for science among less scientifically literate societies?  Is it more important for the public to trust scientists than to understand the details of their work?  Is there a qualitative difference between garnering public support for evidence-based issues, such as evolution through natural selection and global warming, and those perhaps more coloured by personal ethics, such as embryonic stem cell research?  How do we curb media overhyping of our results, to prevent exaggerated public expectations?  How objective are we scientists, even in matters of science?  In a time when science holds incredible promise for society (e.g., life-span extension, fusion energy) on the one hand, and has exposed far-reaching dangers to humanity (global warming, mass extinctions) on the other, and fulfilling the one and mitigating the other depend crucially on public understanding and financing, such candid discussion is essential to making progress.

More generally, the enterprise of science is at a curious juncture today.  Scientific knowledge has become too wide for any individual to gain mastery over most, or even a significant fraction, of its breadth.  To make a meaningful contribution, one must usually super-specialize even within one’s own field.  Answering some of the most exciting and fundamental scientific questions of our time, however, – the genesis of consciousness, the origins of life, the habitability of extrasolar planets, to randomly pick but a few – requires a truly multi-disciplinary approach, combining topics ranging from neuroscience to computer science to biochemistry to astrophysics.  Only close collaborations between experts in all these areas can accomplish this.  The Frontiers of Science series of meetings, bringing together some of the best scientists from very diverse fields and from all over the globe, is uniquely suited to this venture.  On a much more personal note, I came away from this meeting with at least one new idea, one germinating collaboration far outside my usual area of research, and a host of new friends both in the UK and Hong Kong that I very much intend to remain in touch with.  I can think of no better markers of success for a scientific conference.

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