Davos Agenda

Science helped us climb out of the pandemic. Now it can energize society

While science contributes intellectual capital to the global economy, it is also uniquely poised to play a greater role in science diplomacy.

While science contributes intellectual capital to the global economy, it is also uniquely poised to play a greater role in science diplomacy. Image: ETH Zurich/Andreas Eggenberger

Joël Mesot
President, ETH Zürich
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Science offers solutions for the world’s most complex challenges, if it fosters a close relationship with society.
  • While science contributes intellectual capital to the global economy, it is also uniquely poised to play a greater role in science diplomacy.
  • Global collaboration in science and technology research best succeeds within the context of shared values.

Current history-making events such as the COVID-19 pandemic reveal the interdependence of our global economy and raise a red flag to the vulnerabilities of an increasingly interconnected world. Significant global challenges lie ahead, ones in which researchers in both academia and industry are in a unique position to contribute their intellectual capital, engage in a dialogue with society, and leverage their international collaborations for science diplomacy.

The challenges of an interconnected world are so complex that it requires alliances between all “forces of goodwill” to tackle them. In this context, there is a growing recognition in scientific communities around the world that science-based diplomacy could build bridges and decisively improve problem-solving at many levels.

Science diplomacy: a high-water mark for science

Until the pandemic, scientists rarely occupied a seat at the table when it came to public policy-making. Epidemiologists and computational evolutionists, were suddenly in high demand as government advisers and media spokespeople. And the value of science was in evidence elsewhere. Researchers at ETH Zurich developed, nearly overnight, a low-cost DIY ventilator to address a global shortage, especially in low- and middle-income countries. Computer scientists in Switzerland developed a COVID contact tracing app with such convincing, high-level privacy protocols that even Apple and Google were inspired to integrate it into their respective operating systems. Entrepreneurs such as HeiQ went public focusing on filling gaps in the global market for antiviral and antibacterial textiles.

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As a physicist, I have dedicated my life to observing the phenomena of nature, contemplating its meaning from multiple perspectives and testing its limits – skills that also serve me well in my current function. From this perspective, I admired the ingenuity of the researchers with whom I work, and how they rolled up their sleeves in a time 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 fundamental research and the freedom to collaborate within the framework of well-established international networks such as the EU Horizon programmes.

The pandemic revealed however a worrisome gap in the understanding and acceptance of science in various segments of society. It manifested in the form of vaccine hesitancy fuelled, in part, by misinformation and misunderstanding. While the silos of academia might be part of the problem, the scientific community is also well-positioned to create and foster an open dialogue between society through science diplomacy. I think the scientific community needs to do a better job in considering the social aspects of new technologies. The accelerated pace in which technology is emerging has also increased its complexity, making it difficult for people, and even some scientists, to follow. Researchers have a duty to consider the voices of society before embarking on new scientific streams.

Science as a peloton race

Cycling is usually something I do on my own, but anyone who has tuned in to watch the Tour de France knows that serious bike racers, much like scientists, need to maintain discipline over a long haul, stay focused under pressure, and remain optimistic in the face of doubt. What you may not realise is that racers who ride together move faster and save energy – expending an estimated 30% less energy than riding alone.

Collaboration is the backbone of science. In the early days of the pandemic, biochemists – who spent decades dreaming about the potential of messenger RNA technology – found themselves in a precipitous race to “save humanity”. Where they previously struggled to obtain research grants, a flash flood of funding and a singular global focus led to the development of a viable vaccine within just a few weeks of the release of one of the first SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences. The fact that this early genome sequence was ever released at all under political opposition is a testament to a long-standing collaboration between a Chinese scientist in Shanghai and British scientist in Sydney. After months of prudent testing, pharma companies delivered vaccines en masse in just over a year – a process that might normally take up to a decade.

What enabled the accelerated delivery deemed “too quick to be safe” by sceptics was the decades of fundamental research into the potential of mRNA for vaccine efficacy, coupled with the vast established global research networks and collaborations. Foreign policy objectives could also benefit from scientific know-how and perspective. Diplomatic relations too could facilitate strategic international scientific collaborations; and science collaboration offers a new skill set for a more efficient and agile approach to diplomacy - 'science diplomacy'.

Climbing the mountains of truth

The future of innovation necessitates multidisciplinary, multilateral environments that attract and support talent. It is the next generation’s intellectual capital that will, at the very least, contribute to the knowledge economy; and, at the 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 help ensure an alliance of goodwill and foster trust between science and society. Scientists are on a quest for truth about how the world and the universe work. Their quest requires the freedom for open exchanges and the sharing of knowledge across geopolitical boundaries.

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As a native of Switzerland, I appreciate the challenging environment of the mountains. Nature is a powerful teacher and offers us some of life’s most valuable lessons. When in the back country, planning, preparedness and situational awareness impact your experience. The same is true for science. It often takes small incremental steps and a commitment to your decision to achieve your goals. As important as it is to reach your goals; however, it is just as 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 bind people together.

Acknowledgements: Marianne Lucien and Roman Klingler for contributions and editing.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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