Venki Ramakrishnan PRS opens the Commonwealth Science Conference 2017

13 June 2017

The Royal Society’s Commonwealth Science Conference took place on 13-16 June 2017 in Singapore. In his opening address Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, reflected on the global nature of science and the Commonwealth’s role at the heart of this. This global network is key to tackling many of the challenges we face today from disease and climate change to food security and driving sustainable economic growth.

"Your Excellency Deputy Prime Minister, Your Royal Highness the Duke of York, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, Distinguished Guests,

"It gives me great pleasure to be here in Singapore for the Commonwealth Science Conference. When we gathered in Bangalore in 2014, it was the first Commonwealth Science Conference for 50 years. Two and a half years seems like a much better interval. I would like to thank our co-hosts the National Research Foundation for their warm welcome and generous support. The Foundation – part of the Prime Minister’s office here in Singapore – has made a major contribution to establishing Singapore as a global innovation leader.

"Science is global and depends on a free flow of people who bring in new ideas and expertise. The Commonwealth is also global. It represents nearly a third of the world’s population, in 52 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 this conference reflect that: 

  • Emerging infectious diseases (add a facts/figures/research)
  • Low carbon energy
  • The future of the oceans
  • Sustainable cities

"These are global challenges that demand global solutions, and in our speakers we have world leading experts from across the Commonwealth who are helping us to rise to those 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, specialises 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 Professor Chua Nam Hai from Singapore, is spearheading research that could lead to drought-resilient plants. Emerging technologies are another strand of our conference as they cut across all of our themes and we will hear from Demis Hassabis, the Founder and CEO of DeepMind on Thursday evening.

"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. It is important for scientists not only to understand the policy issues but also to engage with them – not in the expectation that scientific evidence will be the only consideration, but in the expectation that decisions will be informed by the evidence. We cannot expect good policy making if it is not informed by the evidence and that is why it is important that at this conference we have a discussion on how to develop policy on issues of common interest. 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.

"The Commonwealth can be a powerful political force for change. At the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta in 2015 issues such as climate change, oceans and infectious diseases featured prominently on the agenda and sustainable development and protecting the environment are enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter. That Charter also promotes good governance, rule of law, democracy and other values that create ideal conditions for science to flourish. I would like to see the next Heads of Government Meeting build on that. Science must become more central to the Commonwealth's agenda so that it can play an important part in the aspirations of the organisation. 

"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 endeavour, 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 we have 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 want to encourage collaborations among those of you who are here. We want to address the global challenges identified as a part of this conference and we want to strengthen research capacity in developing countries. The UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund will help us to do that and is a clear sign that the UK remains an open country that is committed to the pursuit of science as a global endeavor.

"That Global Challenges Research Fund enables the Royal Society to fund the range of activities I have just mentioned, and I would urge you to explore the possibilities on the conference website. I also want to thank the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, who along with the Global Challenges Research Fund have supported travel grants for this conference.

"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.

"There is a long tradition of links between the Royal Society and Singapore. Sir Stamford Raffles, who was instrumental in the establishment of Singapore, was a Fellow of the Royal Society. Another Fellow, Professor Henry Nicholas Ridley, was the first Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, the first and only tropical botanic garden on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List.  And those links remain strong today. Next month the Royal Society will host Singapore’s National Day reception in London.  

"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.

"As I mentioned around 60 percent of the Commonwealth’s population is under the age of 30. Those people are the future and some of them will be the future of science. I’m delighted that some of them are with us here in Singapore and engaging with them is a very important part of this conference.

"Phylicia Ricketts from the University of the West Indies is assessing prenatal mercury from fish consumption using the placenta as a biomarker. Fishing is a lucrative industry in the Caribbean, so her research is not only important for public health but also for the economy of the West Indies.

"Robson Tigona from the University of the South Pacific in Fiji is working on improving rainfall predictions in the islands of the Southwest Pacific. That work will hopefully help enhance adaptation to drought and extreme rainfall.

"And Boniface Antwi from the University of Ghana is studying the synthesis of novel organic molecules for applications in organic photovoltaics. The search for molecules that are easy to synthesise, scale up and process will be key to creating cheaper and more efficient solar cells that can produce cheaper and cleaner energy.

"I hope the experience of this conference will inspire our young attendees to think globally because they will benefit enormously by going abroad for training and to gain experience. I myself left India for the USA as a young man to pursue graduate studies and after a long career there, have spent nearly the last two decades in the UK. Moreover, I left India with a degree in physics but eventually changed directions and became a molecular biologist.

"Many will stay abroad as I have, while others will return home as better scientists with an international network that they can tap into. The international nature of science can benefit everyone and is increasingly just the way science is done.

"In 1981 only 10 percent of research papers from the UK involved international collaboration, but by 2011 it was over half. That number is only headed in one direction. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa are Commonwealth countries that feature among key collaborators and I expect other Commonwealth members to grow in importance.

"The UK is a prime example of how important an international perspective is. A major reason for the success of UK science and technology is that it has been open and welcoming to the best talent from around the world. Five of the last 15 UK Nobel Laureates were foreign born. In fact, three of the last five Presidents of the Royal Society were born abroad, and a sixth was the son of immigrants. 

"The UK’s decision to leave the EU has caused some to question our desire to be engaged internationally, but I want to assure you that is not the case. We want more collaboration with EU member states, we want more collaboration with Commonwealth countries and we want more collaboration with the rest of the world.

"These collaborations not only serve to move science forward but they also help to foster scientific expertise across the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth brings together scientific powerhouses and developing countries, and collaboration can provide a means by which the latter can build research strengths. I spoke earlier about the importance of mobility but it is important to emphasise that is not about ‘brain drain’ but is rather about ‘brain connectivity and circulation’. I hope that this conference can be a starting point for some of you to develop productive collaborations. Some of them can 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."