This week has been a particularly busy week for the Royal Society. Our largest ever overseas event, the Commonwealth Science Conference, came to a close today in Singapore after 4 days of discussion, 14 plenary lectures, 4 breakout sessions and 2 panel discussions, and with over 400 delegates from 37 different countries in attendance.
Co-organised with the National Research Foundation Singapore and supported by the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, the conference has showcased excellent science from across the Commonwealth and stimulated a number of discussions on key scientific and science policy issues and how these might be addressed in a Commonwealth context. Singapore proved to be an excellent host venue for the conference, as one of the success stories of global science and innovation in recent years, and widely recognised as one of the world’s leading nations in science and mathematics education.
Professor CNR Rao FRS, former Head of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India, was a fitting choice to close the conference, with a talk on the Royal Society’s role as the science academy of the Commonwealth. Professor Rao was instrumental in inaugurating the return of these conferences, having co-chaired the previous conference in Bangalore in 2014.
Over the last four days, we have learned from Janet Rossant FRS, one of the world’s leading developmental biologists, how Commonwealth countries, including the UK, Canada, Australia and Singapore, are taking leading roles in human embryonic stem (hES) cell research through the International Stem Cell Initiative; and from Bernie Fanaroff, former Director of the Square Kilometre Array Telescope, how the world’s largest science infrastructure will be built in nine African countries – eight of which are in the Commonwealth – and Australia over the next 15 years, with the potential to greatly enhance our understanding of the universe.
We have discussed how we might better communicate science through the media in a ‘post-truth’ environment; advances in synthetic biology which are enabling the design and construction of novel biological systems; the burden of global malnutrition; robotic technologies which have the potential to address the challenges of food production; and the genomes of Australian animals, whose long evolutionary isolation enables insights into many fundamental biological processes.
The conference also featured four dedicated sessions on the themes of the conference: low carbon energy, emerging infectious diseases, sustainable cities, and the future of the oceans, the latter featuring the launch of a new Royal Society study on future ocean resources, with a focus on metal rich minerals and genetic resources. There were also panel discussions on the social and policy implications of new technologies, and a wide range of science and society issues including social licence for the use of data, managing risk in innovation, and supporting inclusivity and research group integrity.
We have listened to talks from a diverse range of speakers including physicists from Jamaica, microbiologists from Ghana, urban experts from India, futurologists from Singapore, virologists from Nigeria and a dozen excellent talks from competitively selected PhD students and early career scientists from countries including Malta, Fiji and Namibia. A particular highlight was a plenary lecture from Demis Hassabis, founder and CEO of Google Deep Mind, who discussed the development of the AlphaGo artificial intelligence programme, which last month defeated the world’s number one player of the ancient game of Go, Ke Jie. Go has long been considered to be one of the world’s most complex games, and is seen as much more challenging for computers than chess.
The conference also saw the presidents of 20 national science academies from Commonwealth countries meet together formally for the first time. There was a great appetite from the group to continue working together.
The focus for Commonwealth science now moves to the Commonwealth Summit, to be held in London and Windsor in April 2018. Heads of Government from all 52 Commonwealth countries are expected to attend.
It is also hoped that the conference provides the springboard for further collaboration. The Royal Society is providing travel grants for conference delegates and their nominees to support this, in addition to the many other funding schemes it and other bodies offer for collaboration between scientists from Commonwealth countries.
As Lord Rees, Astronomer Royal and former President of the Society summed it up, the Commonwealth is not the whole world – but, in scientific terms, it is a good sample of the world, providing a diverse mix of many different types of societies and economies from each of the world’s continents, which when combined together can make a difference.