As presaged last week, I attended the 2011 Science and Technology for Society Forum in Kyoto, Japan. This was a truly wide-ranging and high-level meeting of politicians (including many present and previous Presidents, Prime Ministers and Ministers), funders, academic leaders and CEOs of major companies. The focus was on ensuring sustainability, not least in energy. I cannot possibly do it full justice, so I present a few examples, arguments and highlights.

The terrible Japanese earthquake and tsunami of March 11th, 2011, with its devastation of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, had served to concentrate minds firmly on the wisdom or otherwise of including nuclear power (especially conventional fission) in energy supply plans, with countries such as Germany and Japan likely abandoning it while others (the US, France and UK among them) are seemingly taking a different view. This looks like having the makings of a classical example (and study) of how and on which bases policies are made in different places. According to Matthias Kleiner of the DFG, “no production engineer would develop a process where after 50 years we do not know where to put the waste”. 

With at least 3 major accidents in the nuclear industry’s 60-year lifetime, a simple extrapolation means 500 in 10,000 years; if the UK has 1% of the world’s land area we would host 5. Are we willing? In making rational and evidence-based decisions, there is a clear need to make available the basis of calculations of the costs and benefits of different forms of energy along with their full life cycle costs (including of all their Greenhouse Gas emissions), something where DECC has made an important start. The costs and benefits of technologies and resources such as shale gas merit urgent and careful analysis. Heat, transport fuels and electricity are all important kinds of energy, but the best ways of providing them differ. Storage remains a huge issue in lowering the needs for peak installed capacity nearer to base load, and there may be much to gain by using chemical storage (using electricity to synthesise chemicals that that then be burnt or used in fuel cells to produce electricity). Hydrogen production from water electrolysis might be an important part of the equation. Energy efficiency is still a major driver, with the losses as unused heat from power stations that do not use CHP generation being a particularly questionable activity.

Innovation drives growth and youth drives innovation; we should invest accordingly. As pointed out by Esko Aho, the sweet spot is to be found when saving the world provides a good business model.

Sir John Beddington pointed out that the anticipated population growth equated to some 2000 new cities in Africa and 1000 in Asia. Providing them with energy generated at the right scale (maybe 250MW rather than the present average of 1100 MW) is a key issue.

In a breakout session on Collaboration among academia, industries and government, Suzanne Fortier of the Canadian NSERC rehearsed her Agency’s innovative use of an ‘Engage’ grants programme (‘the first date is on us’) designed to bring together academia and industry, with some very notable successes. 

A session on New challenges in global health recognised most of the issues with which BBSRC is familiar: an increasingly ageing population that needs to remain healthy; a general failure of the ‘blockbuster’ Pharmaceutical industry model; the extreme scarcity of new antibiotic families; health inequalities; and the opportunities opened up by e-health and the digital revolution.

I attended an interesting breakout session on Modifying human behaviour for a sustainable world. Sometimes legislation was effective (seat belts, motorcycle helmets, smoking in public), other times less so (Prohibition in the US) and it is of value to understand why, and how cultural norms can differ so much (e.g. French vs British behaviour towards alcohol usage). Culture is a powerful driver, and perhaps we would benefit from Universities inculcating more students with social responsibility than training them for careers in the financial sector.. Direct feedback can be effective, e.g. direct feedback of energy usage to consumers is known to lower usage. As Ursula Staudinger pointed out, humans tend to be hedonistic; can we find ways to make ‘good’ behaviour pleasurable? The social sciences have an important role in helping understand how to drive behaviour from the individual to the societal level.

A plenary session on Food and Population was obviously of particular interest. Roger Beachy pointed out that of the major Grand Challenges of biology (Food, energy, health, resilience to climate change), agriculture was important to them all, and that solutions must be both global and knowledge-based. Sanwen Huang (Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences Institute of Vegetables and Flowers) described how genomics is a major driver for the new breeding, and his program with the BGI to sequence the genomes of 100 varieties of 100 crop plants, the 100 x 100 project! One discovery from the cucumber genome was that as many as 700 genes had been modified during the domestication of the cucumber. Hopefully the data and seeds from this remarkable programme will be made available for phenotyping analyses in which the UK will participate. Huang considered that “we need a completely new set of crops”, and he was aiming to develop N2-fixing rice. However, “Next-generation rice needs next-generation breeders”. For Margaret Kamar (Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology of Kenya), promotion of dryland crops e.g. sorghum and millet was particularly important. Sorghum is the 5th most important crop for feed, forage and fuel, and there were many benefits to be had from fertiliser microdosing, as poor fertility was often more important than drought tolerance in determining yield.

Science and technology are increasingly global activities, and a session organised by Chuan-Poh Lim, Head of Singapore’s A-STAR organisation, looked at Science and technology diplomacy and international collaboration. William Bates of the US Council on Competitiveness rehearsed the 10 principles for improving growth, 7 of which touch on Science and Technology policy and most of which transcend borders. Competitiveness comes from the value of new jobs and companies that are created. Eric Mazur of Harvard stressed the utility of exchange programmes, noting that 78 Fulbright awardees had won Pullitzer prizes, while 43 had secured Nobels (more than any individual Institution). Not for the first time a note was made of the relationship between countries where significant fractions of their political representatives had a science or engineering background and the strength of that country’s economy (the “two cultures” issue?).

Finally, there was a session on What future ICT will transform economic activities and other aspects of society? Given the very welcome announcement last week of a £145M investment in e-infrastructure for science, this was a very timely and opportune session. It was led by Chi Onwurah, UK Shadow Minister for Innovation and Science (here representing the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology as a Board Member), who pointed out that we overestimate how quickly technologies will be adopted but underestimate their social effects. Nevertheless, by 2020 there will be 50 Billion devices connected to the internet (“the internet of things”). Issues include trust, privacy, security, liberty and whether broadband is a right. We need to understand where the next generation of critical technologies are coming from, and what their likely implications are.  Richard Schlichting of AT&T pointed out that latency is as important as bandwidth, and while present routers could deliver 40Gbit/s going to 100Gbit/s, they had achieved 64TB/s in laboratory experiments over 3 km in collaboration with NTT. Hopefully our science and scientists will be well placed to benefit.

On my return, we had a lively and thoughtful meeting of our Council, where discussion topics included the current Institute Assessment Exercise, Doctoral Training Partnerships, the roles of Council and our Strategy Advisory Board, and a superb discussion on how to develop the scientific leaders of the future. A particular focus was the distinction to be made between leading scientists and scientific leaders, and the types of role for which the latter were more suited than the former.

I also attended a dinner as part of our Integrative Systems Biology Panel’s meeting, where I enjoyed some very forward-looking discussions on the application of systems biology in areas such as industrial biotechnology.

We also attracted a massive amount of press coverage following our announcement of the launch of the high-glucoraphanin broccoli in the UK, based on research by Richard Mithen at the IFR. It attracted a very positive blog from BIS, and I had the pleasure of tasting it last Friday! Speaking of food and taste, I noted a couple of very nice data visualisations by David Candless on complementary foods (based on an analysis of recipes) and of the rather scary state of atlantic fish stocks relative to times past. Others in the series include a very detailed one on climate change.

Huang S et mult al. The genome of the cucumber, Cucumis sativus L. Nat Genet 2009; 41:1275-1281.

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