The past week has been very Asian focussed as I attended the 11th STS forum in Japan and then went on to Taiwan to talk to scientists and funders about potential areas of collaboration.

The STS Forum has been called the ‘Davos of Science’ and there were certainly a wide range of countries and funders present together with politicians and policy makers. A theme that ran through much of the meeting was that of Big Data and the issues surrounding data acquisition and privacy. The rate of data acquisition via the internet is truly staggering and a figure mentioned by Ismail Serageldin was that 100,000 times the entire content of the Library of Congress is being generated every day on the internet. How we go about building a safe, effective and ethical digital world is one of the key challenges for the next decade.

There was discussion on whether ‘Big data’ has actually contributed anything concrete to date – there are clear examples from the financial services sectors and some business sectors, for example logistics, but much of what has been delivered is not easily visible. In terms of the actual data itself there are many challenges – how will this data be accessed, how can quality be ascertained, what will actually need to be stored to enable future validation, interrogation and reproducibility and how to balance the tensions between open access and competitiveness and intellectual property? Unfortunately there were no clear solutions postulated to these grand challenges although general agreement as to what they were. Ultimately of course the aim is that we will have much better decisions based on evidence and data although in areas such as health care and education there is still much work to be done.

On the flight over I read an interesting paper by Doug Kell and his collaborators who have been looking at new ways to improve the predictability of ‘druggability’, i.e. the optimisation of the physicochemical properties of molecules as potential therapeutic agents.

Another promising avenue for new pharmaceutical agents is glycobiology and on my visit to Taiwan, I was privileged to meet some real experts in the field. Professor Chi-Huey Wong, President of Academia Sinica, who was recently awarded the Wolf Prize in Chemistry, is a world leader in this area and the work of his colleagues at Academia Sinica was very interesting. Being exposed to 3D representations of the drosophilia brain was not something I had expected to see but the images from Dr Chang’s lab at the National Tsing-Hua university were truly amazing.

Finally we visited Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) where research is much closer to commercialization not just in life sciences but also in electronics and engineering. Inventions such as plastic light bulbs with LEDs that were many times brighter than conventional bulbs and which had greater longevity, sensors and robotics to aid health and micro-purification plants for water treatment were just a few of the things that have already been commercialised from the Institute. Many of the technologies developed for human health are equally applicable to animal health and this is perhaps something we can explore further in future.

BBSRC runs a number of schemes to enable researchers working in the UK and Taiwan to explore opportunities for further collaboration and I would encourage people who are interested to look on the BBSRC website or contact Tim Willis, Associate Director, International, email: tim.willis@bbsrc.ac.uk.

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