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In a “Flattening” World, Innovation Must Be Global, S&T Leaders Say

VANCOUVER, British Columbia—With the world’s population pushing toward 9 billion by mid-century, humanity must find ways to meet unprecedented needs for food, water, and energy without further damaging the environment. It’s a daunting challenge, and experts gathered at the 178th AAAS Annual Meeting said that global research collaborations will be critically important for solving these complex and urgent problems.

In the address that opened the meeting, AAAS President Nina V. Fedoroff described one of these problems in stark relief: Scientists must find ways to double the world’s food supply by 2050, the influential plant biologist warned, but major crop yields have declined by roughly 10% for each degree of global climate warming.


Communication innovation. Hans Rosling used a humorous but compelling prop to explain world population growth at a standing-room-only discussion on public engagement with science. On the right, panelists Frank Sesno (top), Olivia Judson, and James Hansen.

“We need to develop crops that thrive in a hotter world on land we now consider unfarmable, using water we now consider unsuitable for agriculture,” Fedoroff said. She suggested that the challenge will be met only through innovations born out of stronger partnerships between the developed and developing world.

The problem-solving potential of such collaborations was a recurring theme during the 16 to 20 February meeting in Vancouver, the first to take place outside the United States since 1981. Under the theme “Flattening the World: Building a Global Knowledge Society,” more than 11,000 scientists, educators, journalists, and others explored ways to encourage research across borders.

“Much of the responsibility for building and maintaining international research connections falls to research institutions and scientists,” wrote University of British Columbia President Stephen Toope and AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner in a Vancouver Sun commentary published before the meeting. “We must expand our international perspective whenever possible, join in multinational projects, and serve as mentors when colleagues in developing nations ask for our help.”

The meeting itself was a multinational project in many respects, with participants from some 50 nations and a significant presence by the event’s Canadian hosts. David Lloyd Johnston, the governor-general of Canada, addressed the AAAS crowd at a reception following Fedoroff’s address. Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean and Canadian senator and First Nations member Lillian Eva Dyck gave prominent lectures. AAAS’s free Family Science Days drew a record crowd of more than 6400 local children and their parents and teachers.

The meeting offered a range of perspectives on the contributions of science in a flatter world. Sessions explored how new marine reserves can be governed across political boundaries; how surveillance at major ports like Vancouver has kept emerging “superbug” viruses under control; and how breakthroughs in artificial meat production could satisfy the world’s growing appetite for beef and pork.

But effective communication also will be essential for building public interest and support for initiatives in climate change and other global issues. The best approaches for public engagement were highlighted in a passionate and sometimes raucous discussion, moderated by former CNN anchor Frank Sesno and featuring NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies head James Hansen, international health statistician Hans Rosling, and author and biologist Olivia Judson.

Scientists must experiment with new techniques to deliver the message of climate change, the participants agreed, but they also suggested that a more fundamental shift is necessary. “What I would like to try and change is not so much the way people understand the facts,” Judson said, “but the way they look at the world and ask questions about it.”

The meeting’s participants also addressed social and political implications of global scientific challenges, including the impact of the Arab Spring movement and reverberations from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Ismail Serageldin, director of Egypt’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina, said science’s principles of “tolerance and rationality” can guide his nation and others in the region as they rebuild their governments. The best “defense against extremists is not by censorship or autocracy,” he said in a videotaped plenary address. “It is by embracing pluralism, and defeating ideas with ideas—and here science has much to say.”

The competition of ideas also fuels scientific innovation, said Canadian entrepreneur and BlackBerry founder Mike Lazaridis. But in his plenary speech, he suggested that governments and businesses must invest in ideas without obvious applications, even when practical solutions are needed for a host of global challenges.

History tells us, Lazaridis said, that it’s impossible to guess at the impact of today’s scientific breakthroughs and to predict which will solve the planet’s emerging threats. But “it’s the ideas themselves that got us this far,” he concluded, “and it’s new ideas that will get us even further.”