Editorial by Sir Venki Ramakrishnan: The Need To Foster Scientific Expertise Across the Commonwealth Through Collaborations

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The Commonwealth Science Conference was held from 13 to 16 June 2017 at Biopolis, Singapore. Jointly organized by the National Research Foundation Singapore and The Royal Society, this multi-disciplinary conference brought together leading scientists to celebrate excellence in science throughout the Commonwealth; and provided opportunities for cooperation between researchers, builds scientific capacity on issues of common interest to Commonwealth countries, as well as serves to inspire young scientists on their scientific career.  

Sir Venky Ramakrishnan Pic Credit: www.biotechin.asia

Sir Venki Ramakrishnan is the current President of the Royal Society and is a Group Leader at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England. He is best known for his studies on the structure and function of the ribosome, the large molecule that translates genetic information to make proteins. He received a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009 which he shares with Thomas A. Steitz and Ada Yonath, “for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome. In this editorial, he discusses the reasons for hosting the Royal Society’s Commonwealth Science Conference in Singapore. He also writes about the need to encourage collaborations among the Commonwealth countries. 

In June 2017, Singapore welcomed 400 scientists from across the Commonwealth to the Commonwealth Science Conference. The Commonwealth represents nearly a third of the world’s population, in 53 countries. It is home to 12 percent of the world’s researchers and accounts for around 10 percent of global research and development expenditure. Science is uniquely placed to contribute to the Commonwealth’s shared goals of democracy and development. And with an estimated 60 percent of its population under the age of 30, the Commonwealth is set to play an ever more important role in the world’s future.

That future will present many challenges where science can help us respond. The themes of the conference reflect this: Emerging infectious diseases; low carbon energy; the future of the oceans and sustainable cities.

These are global challenges that demand global solutions, and in our speakers, we have world-leading scientists from across the Commonwealth who are helping us to rise to these challenges.

Professor Janet Rossant from Canada, is a leading authority in stem cell research and helped to establish guidelines for human embryonic stem cell research in Canada and beyond. Australia’s Dr Janice Lough, specializes in tropical coral reefs and climate change, as well as Jamaica’s Professor Terrence Forrester, who has pioneered research in nutritional stress and its impact on diseases such as hypertension. Singapore’s very own Professor Chua Nam Hai is spearheading research that could lead to drought-resilient plants. Emerging technologies are another strand of the conference as they cut across all of our themes and we will also hear from Demis Hassabis, the Founder and CEO of Google DeepMind, a world leading tech company that made international headlines in 2016 when its AI programme AlphaGo, trounced the human world champion of Go.

But science does not operate in a vacuum. It is itself nurtured and its priorities are influenced by the policy of governments and other organizations. In turn, science generates evidence that governments and multinational organizations can use to formulate policy for a broad range of issues.Indeed, evidence-based policy making is a characteristic of good governance.

Good policy ensures that scientific understanding underpins the solutions to many current problems. Tackling the threat of climate change, for example, is most likely to be met by moving the debate to providing feasible solutions. We recently saw the example of wholesale solar power prices reaching a new low in India, undercutting fossil fuels. This is an example of policy driving innovation, and innovation driving change.

Science and innovation are key drivers of economic growth, and the wealth of nations in the last few centuries can be directly correlated with their standing in science and technology. Nowhere is the importance of science and innovation to economic growth more evident than here in Singapore, a country that is now ranked number 2 in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index. Economic growth is not just a result of advances in science and technology, but also of trade, which itself is fuelled by advances in science and technology. For example, there are still plenty of crates on container ships, but there is now a growing trade in things like data.

President Tan was awarded the Royal Society’s King Charles II Medal in recognition of the role he played in transforming Singapore’s R&D landscape. Today, through our joint hosts, the National Research Foundation, Singapore invests more per researcher in blue-sky research than all of the other leading economies in the Asia Pacific area. That is the sort of vision that many countries will envy.

Commonwealth countries are not only home to outstanding individual scientists but are also home to large-scale collaborative efforts. Perhaps the most striking example of the latter is the Square Kilometre Array, which is one of the world’s largest science projects. This colossal international endeavor, constructing the largest radio telescope on the planet, spreads across the Commonwealth. South Africa and Australia are at the heart of a collaboration involving New Zealand, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Mozambique, Nambia and Zambia.

There are also examples of using recent advances in the biomedical sciences for social benefit by individual countries. These include plans by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation to use gene drives to rid the country of its most damaging introduced predators. Similarly, the UK is leading the world in its use of the so-called three-parent baby technique to prevent genetic mitochondrial diseases from being inherited by children.

There is much excellent science being done in our countries but the fact that the Commonwealth has a third of the world’s population but only 10% of global R&D expenditure shows that there is great scope for capacity building. Contributing to that will be, I hope, one of the true legacies of this conference. We also want to encourage collaborations. These collaborations will not only serve to move science forward, but will also help to foster scientific expertise across the Commonwealth.

We need to build a critical mass of researchers who will have a special insight into the specific needs of their own communities as well as contributing to tackling global problems. These activities across the Commonwealth reflect the fact that modern science is global.