- Science offers solutions to the world’s most complex challenges, if it fosters a close relationship with society.
- While science brings intellectual capital to the global economy, it is also uniquely positioned to play a greater role in science diplomacy.
- Global collaboration in science and technology research works best in the context of shared values.
Current historical events such as the COVID-19 pandemic reveal the interconnectedness of our global economy and signal the vulnerabilities of an increasingly interconnected world. Important global challenges lie ahead, ones in which researchers from academia and industry are in a unique position to contribute their intellectual capital, engage in dialogue with society and leverage their international collaborations for science diplomacy.
The challenges of an interconnected world are so complex that it takes alliances between all “forces of goodwill” to meet them. In this context, scientific communities around the world are increasingly recognizing that science-based diplomacy could build bridges and decisively improve problem solving at many levels.
Science diplomacy: a high point for science
Until the pandemic, scientists rarely had a seat at the public policy-making table. Epidemiologists and computational evolutionists were suddenly in high demand as government advisers and media spokespersons. And the value of science was evident elsewhere. Researchers at ETH Zurich have developed, almost overnight, a low-cost DIY ventilator to address a global shortage, especially in low- and middle-income countries. Computer scientists in Switzerland have developed a COVID contact tracing app with high-level privacy protocols so compelling that even Apple and Google have been inspired to integrate it into their respective operating systems. Entrepreneurs such as HeiQ have gone public focusing on filling gaps in the global antiviral and antibacterial textiles market.
As a physicist, I have dedicated my life to observing the phenomena of nature, contemplating its meaning from multiple angles, and testing its limits – skills that serve me well in my current role as well. From this point of view, I admired the ingenuity of the researchers with whom I work, and how they rolled up their sleeves in times of crisis. I felt inspired and energized by the collective efforts of scientists around the world; efforts that would not have been possible without decades of investment in basic research and the freedom to collaborate in well-established international networks such as the EU’s Horizon programs.
The pandemic, however, has revealed a disturbing gap in the understanding and acceptance of science in various segments of society. It has manifested itself in the form of vaccine hesitancy fueled, in part, by misinformation and misunderstanding. While silos in academia can be part of the problem, the scientific community is also well placed to create and foster open dialogue between society through science diplomacy. I think the scientific community needs to do a better job of considering the social aspects of new technologies. The accelerated pace at which technology is emerging has also increased its complexity, making it difficult for people, and even some scientists, to keep up with. Researchers have a duty to take into account the voices of society before embarking on new scientific trends.
Science as peloton racing
Cycling is usually something I do myself, but anyone who’s watched the Tour de France knows that serious racing cyclists, like scientists, need to maintain discipline for the long haul, stay focused under pressure and stay optimists in the face of doubt. What you might not realize is that runners who ride together move faster and save energy – expending about 30% less energy than riding alone.
Collaboration is the backbone of science. At the start of the pandemic, biochemists – who had spent decades dreaming of the potential of messenger RNA technology – found themselves in a frantic race to “save humanity”. Where they previously struggled to secure research grants, a flash flood of funding and a singular global focus led to the development of a viable vaccine just weeks after one of the first SARS genome sequences was published. -CoV-2. The fact that this first genome sequence was ever published under political opposition testifies to a long-standing collaboration between a Chinese scientist in Shanghai and a British scientist in Sydney. After months of careful testing, pharmaceutical companies delivered vaccines en masse in just over a year – a process that could normally take up to a decade.
What enabled the accelerated delivery deemed “too fast to be safe” by skeptics was the decades of basic research into the potential of mRNA for vaccine efficacy, coupled with the extensive established global research networks and collaborations. . Foreign policy objectives could also benefit from scientific expertise and perspective. Diplomatic relations could also facilitate strategic international scientific collaborations; and science collaboration offers a new set of skills for a more efficient and agile approach to diplomacy – “science diplomacy”.
Climb the mountains of truth
The future of innovation requires multidisciplinary and multilateral environments that attract and support talent. It is the intellectual capital of the next generation that will contribute, at the very least, to the knowledge economy; and, at most, save the human species. Such an academic utopia is best achieved when the scientific community operates within the context of a common set of values and principles. Values form a foundation that ensures an alliance of goodwill and promotes trust between science and society. Scientists are searching for the truth about how the world and the universe work. Their quest requires the freedom of open exchanges and the sharing of knowledge across geopolitical borders.
The Young Scientists Community, founded in 2008, brings together extraordinary rising star scientists from various academic disciplines and geographies, all under the age of 40. Their mission is to help leaders engage with science and the role it plays in society.
The World Economic Forum trains and empowers young scientists to communicate cutting-edge research and champion evidence-based decision-making, and in doing so, helps build a diverse global community of next-generation science leaders.
Each year, the Forum selects and integrates a new class of young scientists, adding to the growing community of more than 400 alumni. Meet the 2020 Young Scientists tackling the world’s most pressing challenges through scientific innovation. Contact us to learn more about the community.
As a native of Switzerland, I appreciate the demanding mountain environment. Nature is a powerful teacher and offers us some of life’s most valuable lessons. When you’re in the backcountry, planning, preparation, and situational awareness all impact your experience. The same is true for science. It often takes small incremental steps and commitment to your decision to achieve your goals. As important as it is to achieve your goals; however, it is equally crucial to recognize the need to slow down, speak up, or reassess a risk. Shared values through science diplomacy define your partnerships; whether in the mountains or in science, they can make all the difference. In difficult times, shared values unite people.
Acknowledgements: Marianne Lucien and Roman Klingler for their contributions and editing.