As I start to write this, I am just returning on the Shinkansen to Tokyo airport from the 2009 Science and Technology in Society Forum held in Kyoto. Styled as ‘the Davos of Japan’, this meeting brought together some 600 CEOs and research leaders, including many Nobelists, to discuss the important role that Science has to play in solving the world’s problems, with global health and sustainable energy (including bioenergy) production very much to the fore. The breadth and depth of the discussions were profound.

All were buoyed by the recognition given to science by leaders such as President Obama (e.g. in his Inaugural Lecture and in a speech reprinted in Issues in Science and Technology) and Prime Minister Gordon Brown (e.g. in his Romanes Lecture). There were far too many lectures to summarise, so I pick just a few of the points made. Ralph Cicerone, President of the US Academy of Sciences, urged us to avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable. John Beddington, our own Chief Scientist, made 6 points in his allotted 6 minutes, stressing e.g. that demands for food, water and energy were all increasing because of demographics and urbanisation, that the need was to feed people equitably, healthily and sustainably, that 70% of water was presently used in Agriculture, and that only Science and Technology could solve this. While the threats were global, there were regional differences, and collaboration would be the byword of the future. Sally Kosgei, a Minister in the Kenyan Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology, pointed out that there was already a long-standing and highly damaging drought in her country.

Many speakers, including Rupert Murdoch, stressed the importance of quality education in maths and science. Emerging infectious diseases were seen as a major problem, most being viral and zoonotic in origin, some recent and some longstanding  (the disease we now call influenza having been recognised by Hippocrates). H1N1 swine-origin influenza virus contained parts of the 1918 Spanish Flu, so immunity was likely only in those over 90! According to Shigeru Omi, a public health expert who had been heavily involved in the Asian SARS outbreak, Japan had suffered few deaths from H1N1, due to a combination of medicinal drugs (such as tamiflu) and vaccination, considerable public health measures (‘social distancing’) such as closing schools, and a high level of public awareness and personal hygiene (including the provision of alcohol washes in restrooms) that others could do well to emulate. It would be of value to publicise this in the media. New vaccines against H1N1 are on the way, and may no longer need to be made in eggs. Neglected Tropical Diseases remain a major issue, although progress is being made via ‘Product Development Partnerships’, but S. pneumoniae remains the largest killer of children in developing countries, despite the existence of vaccines and antibiotics. A Finnish initiative to have ‘health [care] in all policies’ was widely praised.

Bill Castell, Chair of the Wellcome Trust, pointed out that a new case of HIV-AIDS arises every 10s, while Elias Zerhouni stressed that ramping up healthcare at scale remained the largest issue: there was a world deficit of 4.3 million healthcare workers, including 2.8M doctors. It would take 4300 Institutes producing 100 per year for 10 years to solve this. There are some strange anomalies, with only 700 PIs working on TB worldwide, but 150,000 working on cancer in various forms. Shinya Yamanaka pointed out that there were already 20,000 centenarians in Japan, while Luc Montagnier stressed the importance of moving medicine from a curative to a preventive science. The measurement of serum DNA might prove a very valuable diagnostic.

In a wide-ranging break-out session on genomics for personalised medicine, there was recognition that information management and data analysis were the weak links. Huanming Yang, Head of the Beijing Genomics Institute said that his Institute was sequencing 60 Gbases per day! How to regulate the dissemination of personal genomics data was not yet a solved problem, and the development of personal genomics would benefit strongly from the standardisation of electronic medical records, but would long remain out of the hands of the poor. Like the Universe, genomics had its own ‘dark matter’, including ‘envirogenomics’ (gene x environment interactions), metagenomics (e.g. of the human microbiomes) and epigenomics.

Finally, I attended a breakout session on the role of GMOs for food, fuel and fibre production. It was recognised that agricultural innovations had excited controversy throughout history, even the invention of the iron plough having its detractors (who thought it would poison the soil). To deliver the necessary agricultural yields, no one technology held all the answers, and molecular breeding, high-throughput phenotyping, genetic manipulation  and mutagenesis coupled to sequencing would all play a part. Certainly many efforts were being applied to these problems, with Monsanto’s R&D budget exceeding $1Bn per annum and with realistic goals of doubling yields in maize, soy and cotton by 2030. A variety of maize that needs 30% less water would be launched in 2012. 30% of the maize crop in Lombardy (Italy) had been lost to corn rootworm this year.

Overall, I learnt a huge amount, including the fact that 2% of the energy for Rio Tinto’s aluminium smelter in Lynemouth, Northumberland comes from cofiring biomass. Clearly one would like to reduce the carbon footprint even more, and statistics like these illustrate that the importance of bioenergy is very real indeed.

One nice feature of Japan is the availability of high quality green tea, widely considered to have considerable health benefits (possibly in part through the liganding of iron by its chief constituent epigallocatechin-3-gallate). A recent online e-print  summarises what is known.

For the latest Chief Executive’s column in BBSRC Business magazine see: (PDF)

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