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Organised by the Royal Society and the National Research Foundation, Singapore, the Commonwealth Science Conference 2017 took place on 13-16 June 2017 in Singapore.


Organised by the Royal Society and the National Research Foundation, Singapore, the Commonwealth Science Conference 2017 took place on 13-16 June 2017 in Singapore. 

The conference brought together leading scientists to showcase the best science from across the commonwealth and aimed to celebrate excellence in science throughout the Commonwealth; provide opportunities for cooperation between researchers in different Commonwealth countries; inspire young scientists, students and pupils; build understanding about policy issues of common interest and encourage scientific capacity building in Commonwealth countries. 

The conference was attended by 400 scientists from across the Commonwealth, at difference stages of their career.

Watch the conference

View plenary sessions and lectures from the Conference on our YouTube playlist

Speaker and poster abstracts

Download the full conference abstract book.

The poster sessions took place on Thursday 15 June.

Download the Poster session abstracts.




5.05pm - Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society

5.35pm - Deputy Prime Minister and Chairman, NRF Board Teo Chee Hean

5.50pm - Baroness Scotland, Commonwealth Secretary General

6.00pm - Sir David King, UK Special Representative for Climate Change


Professor Teck Seng Low FREng and Professor Anthony Cheetham FRS

Co-chairs: Dr Julie Maxton and Professor Terrence Forrester


Sir David Spiegelhalter OBE FRS , University of Cambridge

Communicating science through the media: what could possibly go wrong?

Scientists are increasingly encouraged to use media to communicate the outcomes of their research, whether it’s through social media, blogging, print, radio or TV, as well as providing an authoritative voice concerning issues of societal concern.  This can be an enjoyable and rewarding activity, but brings challenges.  There are claims we live in a ‘post-truth’ society in which emotional responses matter more than careful consideration of evidence, and the way in which some science is portrayed can seem to support this, with the risk that exaggerated stories of the dangers of everyday activities will increase public scepticism.  I will also talk about personal experiences, some good and some spectacularly bad, and suggest ways of improving the way that scientific and statistical evidence is discussed and used in the public forum.

Professor Janet Rossant FRS, University of Toronto

Embryos, stem cells and ethical concerns

Embryonic stem cell research is founded in our understanding of the development of the mammalian blastocyst, when the pluripotent embryo progenitors are set aside from the cells that make the placenta. Research on the underlying mechanisms of these early cell decisions in the mouse has informed the derivation of human stem cell lines with pluripotent properties.  Human embryonic stem (hES) cell research has become a major international venture, with Commonwealth countries, including the UK, Canada, Australia and Singapore, playing leadership roles in the International Stem Cell Initiative. HES cells can differentiate into many different cell types with the potential to treat serious degenerative diseases. The first clinical trials with hES-derived products are now underway. However, hES cells were ethically controversial, because of their derivation from human early embryos.  The ability to generate induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells directly from adult human cells has limited these ethical concerns. Patient-specific iPS cells can be used to study disease in the petri dish, develop screens for novel drug therapies and eventually provide replacement cell types for regenerative therapies. However, recent scientific advances have reignited ethical debate about the appropriate limits on human embryo research and applications. New studies have raised the possibility of extending culture of human embryos past the blastocyst stage, making human-animal chimeras, and CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing of the human germline. I will discuss the science of embryonic development and stem cells and the need for ongoing international debate related to human embryo and stem cell research and the limits of gene editing.

Emerging infectious diseases - Chair: Sir John Skehel


Professor Fiona Hunter, Brock University

Mosquitoes and Zika virus in the Americas

Historically there have been a relatively small number of mosquito-borne diseases in Canada including a brief, but unsustained, malaria outbreak during the construction of the Rideau Canal in the 19th century. Since 2001, however, there have been several outbreaks of West Nile virus encephalitis in humans. The students in my lab study mosquito systematics, geographic distributions, and arbovirus transmission dynamics. We have been able to model the effects of shorter winters and warmer summers on West Nike virus transmission in Canada and predict that more mosquito-borne viruses will become endemic over time.

To date there are ~500 human cases of travel-related Zika virus (ZIKV) infection in Canada. Understanding which local mosquito species might serve as competent vectors for this emerging disease is the current research focus in my lab. Based on the phylogenetic placement of ZIKV among the flaviviruses, we challenge the current paradigm that it is only Aedes aegypti and possibly Aedes albopictus that are of concern as vectors of ZIKV. Our lab has shown that under certain conditions local Canadian mosquito species can also become infected with ZIKV, develop disseminated infections, and spit out ZIKV in their saliva.

Transmission risks are complicated by the northward range expansions of at least 10 mosquito species over the past 15 years. Most importantly, in September and October of 2016 we discovered breeding populations of the Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus) and the yellow fever mosquito (Aedes aegypti) in southern Ontario for the first time ever. 

With 15 years of intensive mosquito surveillance and viral testing for West Nile virus behind us, we are now setting up mosquito arbovirus surveillance programs in places like Dominican Republic. We would welcome collaborations in Commonwealth countries around the globe to more fully understand the transmission dynamics of emerging mosquito-borne diseases.

Professor Oyewale Tomori, Nigerian Academy of Science

Emerging Infectious diseases: Strengthening research collaboration among Commonwealth countries

Emerging infectious diseases continue to expose national and global unpreparedness for prevention and control of disease outbreaks. The widespread transmission of Ebola Virus Diseases (EVD) in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and subsequent exportation to 7 other countries, highlight the significant threat of emerging diseases to global health security. Three of the ten countries which recorded at least on EVD case are members of the Commonwealth group of nations. During the period between 1940 and 1960, Britain, through the Medical Research Councils, spearheaded intense research collaboration in medicine and agriculture among countries that now make up the Commonwealth of Nations. During this period, as an example, workers in the Ugandan research center isolated several new viruses – Chikungunya, West Nile and Zika - that are now emerging and causing public health emergencies of global concern. However, soon after 1960, research collaboration activities waned, between Britain and independent African countries, except for the Gambia, where there was an active Medical Research Council Unit in Fajara. On the other hand, French speaking African countries and France have maintained active research collaboration through the network of the Institut Pasteur laboratories. The Commonwealth of Nations will benefit tremendously from a renewed and intensified research collaboration, especially on emerging infectious diseases. However, such collaboration must be based on equity contribution of human and financial resources by participating countries, so as to engender mutual respect and benefit.

Dr Hsu Li Yang, National University of Singapore

Antimicrobial Resistance in Singapore and the Region

Antimicrobial resistance is an escalating global health threat. In the local and regional setting, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), carbapenem-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii-calcoaceticus complex (CRAB) and Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) are increasingly common causes of difficult-to-treat infections, raising the spectre of a return to the pre-antibiotic era. In this discourse, we trace the links between acute, intermediate, and long-term care facilities in terms of MRSA transmission in a regional healthcare system in Singapore. We also review the epidemiology and prevalence of CRAB and CRE in South and Southeast Asia, where the rates of resistance are some of the highest in the world. These countries house more than a third of the world’s population and several are also major medical tourism destinations. There are significant data gaps, and the almost universal lack of comprehensive surveillance programs that include molecular epidemiologic testing has made it difficult to understand the origins and extent of the problem in depth.  A complex combination of factors – including inappropriate prescription of antibiotics, overstretched health systems and international travel - including the phenomenon of medical tourism – probably led to the rapid rise and spread of these drug-resistant bacteria in hospitals in South and Southeast Asia. Considerable political will and effort, including from countries outside these regions, is vital in order to reduce the prevalence of such bacteria in South and Southeast Asia, and preventing their global spread.

Sustainable cities - Chair: Professor Teck Seng Low


Professor Amita Bhide, Tata Institute of Social Sciences

Framing Social Sustainability in the Sustainable Cities Discourse: Completing the loop or Disrupting it?

The criticality of cities to the future of the planet is now well established. It is also accepted that the ‘social’ is an important part of the sustainability discourse. There has been very little engagement with the concept of social sustainability. The few definitions that exist bound it by the city context and equate it with social cohesion. However, social sustainability, if It must carry any valence, needs to be seen beyond the confines of the city and social cohesion. It needs to include notions of justice and democracy and a space that links cities to non-cities and other places across the world. Defined in this broad manner, the consideration of the ‘social’ then does not just complete the missing link in the sustainability discourse but adds new tensions, complexities and disrupts the neat techno-economic visions of environmental sustainability. The paper argues that this is because of the fundamental problematique of the urban. ‘Urbanization is produced through particular forms of socio-physical metabolism ‘(Swyngedow,2004) and exploitation and injustice are embedded within at multiple scales. Defining social sustainability then is a political act. The paper elucidates some of these complexities and suggests possible ways forward.

Professor Wun Jern Ng, Nanyang Technological University

The Singapore Water Story

The Singapore water story began some 60 years ago.  For reasons such as infrastructure inadequacies, water was scarce and this may seem ironical on a tropical island which receives much rainfall.  Then as Singapore developed there was need to ensure water supply could keep pace with demand and that there is water security.  This a brief discussion on the journey Singapore embarked on towards water sustainability.  The journey included fresh perspectives on land used as water catchments, education to better ensure a sense of ownership towards waterbodies, minimising loss and wastage, and deployment of “new” technologies to produce more freshwater such as membranes in desalination and reclaiming water from used water.  In the midst of deploying such technologies, the fact Singapore imports energy looms large as this then impacts on water production costs.  Reducing energy needs and recovering energy are issues addressed by ongoing R&D on issues such as carbon capture and enhanced anaerobic digestion.

Professor Edgar Pieterse, African Centre for Cities

Research and public policy interfaces on sustainable cities

Sustainable cities cannot be achieved without a strong public sector commitment to enact governance institutions and systems that can facilitate an ongoing exchange between researchers, the state and various interested parties. One of the ongoing problems with public policy discourses on sustainable development is that it favours a consensus-based model of deliberation and decision-making. This creates a political/policy context that avoids irresolvable differences in favour of so-called low hanging (policy) fruits that effectively serves to legitimize the status quo in the name of sustainable development. This phenomenon is particularly problematic in very poor and highly unequal societies such as the South Asian and African members of the Commonwealth. Over the last decade, I have been involved in designing and operationalising various kinds of research/public policy interfaces on sustainable cities that range from the city level, i.e. Cape Town; to the national scale—South Africa; and sub-Saharan Africa. With the benefit of hindsight, I now prefer to think of these as proto-innovation systems for defining and advancing sustainable urban development policies and epistemic communities. My research and experimentation in this domain achieved significant global policy impact when we could craft the norm-setting approach to urban governance and sustainable development as encapsulated in the flagship development report of United Cities and Local Government: Co-creating the urban future. The agenda of metropolises, cities and territories. The paper will summarise the core argument of this publication set against a brief elaboration of the urban science research/policy approaches at various scales of urban development policy formulation.

Towards low carbon energy - Chairs: Professor Andrew Holmes and Andrew Wee


Professor Martin Green, UNSW

How did silicon solar cells get so cheap?

Over the last 9 years, the average wholesale selling price of silicon photovoltaic modules has reduced by a factor of twelve while the energy conversion efficiency of standard product has increased from 13-14% to the 16-17% range. Recent international bids for large scale electricity supply demonstrate that photovoltaics now provide the lowest cost option for such supply, with this technology expected to account for most of the new electricity generation capacity installed over coming decades.

The research leading to this transformation will be described as will the key events underpinning it. Ongoing research targeting commercial efficiencies twice present values by 2030 is also to be described.

Professor Anthony Chen, University of the West Indies

Low Carbon Timeline:  Will Market Forces Suffice?

This talk will briefly outline the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of which the author was a member.   It will discuss the timeline for low carbon energy in order to avoid the dangerous consequences of climate change.  Technology to achieve low carbon will be reviewed briefly, but emphasis will be placed on renewable energy.  The work of the University of the West Indies on renewable energy will be briefly mentioned but, in the light of the variability of renewable energy, the emphasis of the talk will be on storage of energy which will make solar and wind energy a genuine substitute for fossil fuel.  The special problem of small islands in this respect will be discussed.  Massive investment to solve the problems of renewable energy, such as envisaged by the Global Apollo Programme in climate change, has not materialized.   An opportunity for this was lost in the Green Climate Fund initiative.  Market forces seem to be the only one capable of solving the problem of renewables energy and storage.  A suggested project, in which the Commonwealth scientists and economists can participate, for driving market forces to accelerate research and development in order to meet low carbon timelines will be discussed.

Professor Jenny Nelson FRS, Imperial College London

Solar photovoltaics for low carbon development: design of materials and energy systems

Solar photovoltaic energy conversion could play a major role in the future supply of low carbon electricity and in sustainable development. Challenges and opportunities lie in the development of new photovoltaic technologies with higher efficiency or with wider applicability, in the development of associated technologies for power distribution and storage, and in the policy and regulatory framework. Over the last ten years, photovoltaic materials that can be processed from solution, such as molecular electronic materials and metal halide perovskites, have attracted intense interest. Their appeal lies in the potential to tune material properties (electronic, optical, mechanical and thermal) through control of chemical structure and processing, whilst using facile fabrication methods, as well as in their potential application in buildings. Developing design rules for ideal materials has been challenging, due to the intrinsic disorder and structural heterogeneity of the materials and the lack of appropriate device-physics models to relate structure to physical properties. In the first part of this talk we will report on developments in materials design, computational modelling and experimental characterisation that have led to the rational design and demonstration of improved materials systems for solution-processed photovoltaics. In the second part, we will address the design of energy systems that include solar photovoltaics and show how simple models can be used in the optimisation of  rural power systems for low carbon development. 

Future of the oceans - Chairs: Professor Alex Halliday


Professor Stephanie Waterman, University of British Columbia

Send in the robots: Using an ocean drone to map Arctic Ocean mixing rates

The distributions of heat, salt, nutrients and chemicals in the oceans are critical to ocean transports, climate variations, and the health of marine ecosystems. Understanding how and at what rate mixing of these properties occurs is fundamental to our understanding of how the oceans work, and crucial for the development of accurate ocean models and robust climate change predictions.

The Arctic Ocean is a rapidly changing environment that is tightly linked to changes in the Earth’s climate. As such it is a place where understanding mixing rates and mechanisms is especially important. Historically the Arctic Ocean interior has been quiet, and heat contained in subsurface waters has been sequestered from contact with the surface by strong stratification and weak mixing rates. However, as more ice melts and the ocean is increasingly exposed to winds at the surface, we expect the Arctic Ocean to become increasingly turbulent. There exists the potential for accompanying increased mixing rates to become sufficient to mix the Arctic Ocean’s deep heat upward. This would warm surface waters, accelerate the rate of ice melt, and increase turbulent energies further.

For a number of reasons, measurements of ocean mixing to date are strikingly sparse in space and time. This is especially true in the Arctic. Based on the measurements that do exist, it is clear that we are still far from developing a complete picture of Arctic Ocean mixing rates. In this talk, I will describe my research group’s efforts to help address the critical need for more data in this remote and harsh environment by exploiting recent advances in ocean observing technology, specifically in autonomous drone-like platforms and the sensors they carry. As is typical, looking at the ocean at this new level of detail has revealed a wealth of complexity and small-scale structure in need of characterization and understanding. Despite this, the unique view that these measurements has revealed has advanced our understanding of ocean mixing in this region in important ways. I’ll review the key lessons learned thus far, and outline the most pressing questions remaining.

Professor Rashid Sumaila, University of British Columbia

An interdisciplinary economic approach to a thriving future ocean

Currently, approximately 60% of the world’s population lives within 60 km of the coast, and this number is expected to reach 75% within the next few decades. Millions of these people live in Commonwealth countries worldwide. I argue that the ocean is a global system and that the set of knowledge needed to understand and manage human interactions with the ocean and the life it supports is outside the scope of any one discipline. I therefore begin my talk by presenting me and my research and how it is contributing to ensuring a thriving future ocean for the benefit of both current and future generations. I present key areas of my work and how my findings are influencing policy, emphasizing the regional and global nature of my research and how it is relevant to coastal communities in commonwealth countries.  I will also present ideas on how to ensure a thriving future ocean both in Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth countries; and share my passion for the training of future ocean leaders to take on challenges at the interface of human-ocean interactions. Finally, I will discuss how I have communicated my research outcomes to policy-makers and the broader public.

Dr Karenne Tun, National University of Singapore

New technologies session - Chairs: Professor Tony Cheetham and Sir Bill Wakeham


Professor Matthew Chang, National University of Singapore

Reprogramming cells through synthetic biology 

Synthetic biology aims to engineer genetically modified biological systems that perform novel functions that do not exist in nature, with reusable, standard interchangeable biological parts. The use of these standard biological parts enables the exploitation of common engineering principles such as standardization, decoupling, and abstraction for synthetic biology. With this engineering framework in place, synthetic biology has the potential to make the construction of novel biological systems a predictable, reliable, systematic process. While the development of most synthetic biological systems remains largely ad hoc, recent efforts to implement an engineering framework in synthetic biology have provided long-awaited evidences that engineering principles can facilitate the construction of novel biological systems. Synthetic biology has so far demonstrated that its framework can be applied to a wide range of areas such as energy, environment, and health care. In this talk, our recent efforts to develop synthetic microbes with programmable behaviors will be presented. In this talk, our recent efforts to develop synthetic microbes with programmable behaviors will be presented. In particular, an emphasis will be placed on our recent development of auto-regulatory genetic circuits for cell factories and therapeutics.

Professor Peter Corke, Queensland University of Technology

Meeting the challenge of food production with robots

Food production faces many challenges: we need to produce more food with less land, water and labour in the face of changing climate, rising input costs and emerging threats such as herbicide resistant weeds.  This talk will briefly discuss these challenges and then introduce robotic technologies for broad-acre weed control and for horticultural fruit harvesting.

New technologies session - Chairs: Professor Tony Cheetham and Sir Bill Wakeham


Professor Indira Nath, Blue Peter Research Centre

Technologies for Health

Human health is in danger due to environmental changes and cross infections from animals and plants. The ingenuity of man tries to keep up with current and future dangers through science and technology. 6/10 infections diseases and ¾ emerging infections have their source in animals. Life style changes and traffic accidents add further dangers to health. Some of the new technologies include diagnostics based on genetic approaches, including the sequencing of the organisms, identification of the susceptibility genes in man. CRISPER-Cas technologies have immense potential for vaccines, diagnostics and future therapeutics. Wearable technologies from the common ‘fit-bit’ to other sensors make monitoring of BP, pulse and O2 from the home to the hospital. Electroceuticals are another class of future therapeutics that are on the horizon. Antibiotic resistance is a current threat and technologies to diagnose and combat these are also underway using CRISPER as well as Hybrid molecules.

Professor Andrew Hopper, University of Cambridge

Computing for the future of the planet

Digital technology is an indispensable and crucial component of our lives, society, and the physical environment. 

A challenge is how to use the power of computing to deal with the problems facing the world. In his talk, Professor Andy Hopper will present a framework for the role of computing in dealing with sustainability of the planet. The framework has a number of goals: an optimal digital infrastructure; sensing and optimising the use of resources in the physical world; guaranteeing the performance of indispensable systems; and digital alternatives to physical activities. 

In this talk, Professor Hopper discusses practical industrial examples alongside research goals and societal challenges and dilemmas.

Co-chairs: Sir Peter Gluckman and Professor Andy Hopper


Professor Terrence Foster, University of the West Indies

The Double Burden of Malnutrition: Mechanistic Insights for Better Management

Today, 159 million children are stunted, 50 million are wasted and more than two billion people are overweight or obese; all suffer a form of malnutrition. Undernutrition underlies 45% of childhood deaths under 5y and importantly increases the risk for later obesity, diabetes, hypertension and vascular disease. Children who survive severe acute (wasting) or severe chronic (stunting) malnutrition suffer poor brain development, cognitive impairment, turn in poor school performance that then constrains economic activity in adulthood. Resultant impaired labour productivity costs between 3% and 16% of GDP annually in Africa and Asia where malnutrition is a massive problem. Investments in optimum nutrition during the critical first 1,000 days of life help prevent the devastating, lifelong consequences of childhood malnutrition and enable children to be healthy, educated, productive members of society. The scale-up of a set of nutrition interventions needed to reach the global nutrition targets would generate enormous economic benefits: $417 billion for stunting, $110 billion for anemia, $298 billion for breastfeeding, and $25 billion for the treatment of severe wasting. Returns on every dollar invested in reaching the global nutrition targets range from $4 for wasting to $11 for stunting, $12 for anemia, and $35 for investing in exclusive breastfeeding. We can accomplish even more if we understand the underlying molecular, metabolic and physiological substrates that underlie adaptation to sustained undernutrition. This knowledge will help us customise not only life-saving care to reduce mortality in childhood, but also improve long term health and performance outcomes.

Dr Bernie Fanaroff, Square Kilometre Array

Making Africa great: radio astronomy and big data in Africa

The Square Kilometre Array Telescope, the world’s largest science infrastructure, will be built in nine African countries (eight in the Commonwealth) and Australia over the next 15 years. Its core will be on a large, arid site in South Africa, protected by law. An SKA precursor, the MeerKAT radio telescope, designed and built by South African engineers and scientists, is the largest and most sensitive cm-wavelength radio telescope in the world until the SKA is built and will be integrated into the SKA. The low-frequency array of the SKA will be built in Australia. I will show recent MeerKAT commissioning observations.

South Africa is collaborating with partners in Africa to rebuild old satcom dishes for the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (AVN). The first refurbished dish, in Ghana, recently started commissioning science observations. The AVN is being used as a focus for the training of scientists, engineers, technicians and artisans. 
South Africa has also funded an extensive Human Capital Programme, to develop cutting-edge science, engineering and data science expertise in South Africa and its African partners. Training in data science is being funded partly through the Newton Fund.

The African Research Cloud is a new flagship programme, which builds on the data challenges of radio astronomy. It will facilitate collaboration across Africa and with the rest of the Commonwealth and the world. It will be multi-disciplinary and will facilitate access to huge data sets and tools in astronomy, health, genomics, earth observation and other subjects.

Social and policy implications of new technologies - Chair: Lord Martin Rees


Dame Diane Robertson DNZM, Data Futures Partnership

Gaining and maintaining social licence

Social licence occurs when community acceptance is gained and maintained for the use of data. Social licence is needed to gain and maintain trust for specific uses of data. The Data Futures Partnership Working Group in New Zealand have been exploring the public attitudes towards data collection and use. The Partnership have engaged with the public to explore the benefits and risks the public perceive for specific uses of health, education and IOT data. The Partnership are developing guidelines for obtaining social licence.

Professor Jennifer Thomson, University of Cape Town

Social and policy implications of new technologies in agricultural biotechnology

The toolkit available to scientists working in agricultural biotechnology has been given a boost due to the advent of CRISPR technology. Although much of the work has concentrated on animal science, crop research has also been impacted. To date the emphasis has been on the removal of genes with harmful effects. A good example is the development of a non-browning mushroom. The response of society and regulatory authorities have, predictably, varied. In some, this case is viewed as not requiring any regulation. However, the issue becomes more complicated when considering examples in which genes are added. As flanking DNA, which normally accompanies conventional genetic engineering techniques, is not present in the product it is more difficult to detect that DNA has been inserted. These and other issues around the social acceptance and regulatory aspects of modern agricultural biotechnology will be discussed. The potential impact on agriculture in developing countries will be emphasised.

Professor Rees Kassen, University of Ottawa

DIY Synthetic Biology: a new geography of knowledge

Synthetic biology uses engineering principles to design biological parts and systems to produce useful biological products like medicines or fuels. The key technological advance is the ability to synthesize – not just read – the genetic code.  While there remain significant conceptual and economic hurdles to doing synthetic biology at scale, the barriers to entry are rapidly falling.  It will soon be possible to produce a biological product by ordering the relevant genetic parts online and assembling them at home or in a community lab for as little as a few hundred dollars.  Consequently, synthetic biology has attracted the attention of entrepreneurs, educators, and young people, many with a mindset disposed towards open-source innovation, disruption, and a Do-It-Yourself attitude that eschews the traditions of formal academic training.  The promise of synthetic biology is not just what can be produced but also where and by whom. Reliable advice about how to manage, support, and regulate synthetic biology thus demands that we recognize this new geography and demography of knowledge creation and innovation.  We most go beyond the usual sources of ‘accredited’ experts located in academia and industry to engage directly with this new generation of practitioners – some of whom may have little formal academic training – developing new biological products in kitchens, garages, high schools, and community centers around the world.

Professor Sir Peter Gluckman,  Chief Science Advisor to PM of NZ

Co-chairs: Sir John Skehel and Professor Richard Catlow


12 students will each present 2 charts:

Group 1

  • • Phylicia Ricketts, University of the West Indies
  • • Evan Brenton-Rule, Victoria University of Wellington
  • • Amy King, University of Cambridge
  • • Andree Hartanto, Singapore Management University
  • • Selma Lendelvo, University of Namibia
  • • Robson Tigona, University of the South Pacific

Group 2

  • • Boniface Antwi, University of Ghana
  • • Vrinda Mukundan, Space Physics Laboratory
  • • Luke Mizzi, University of Malta
  • • Jasmine Lee, University of Queensland
  • • Michael Gallaugher, McMaster University
  • • X Osmond Mlonyeni, University of Pretoria
Emerging infectious diseases - Chair: Sir John Skehel


Professor Anne O'Garra FRS, Francis Crick Institute

The Host Transcriptome in Infection

Analysis of the blood transcriptional response to infection has provided valuable information on immune factors contributing to disease progression. This approach has several advantages. Blood contains the effector cells of the immune system which traffic to and from the site of disease, facilitating the study of changes at inaccessible sites. Tuberculosis, caused by infection with Mycobacterium tuberculosis, is a major cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide. Efforts to control tuberculosis are hampered by difficulties with diagnosis, prevention and treatment. Most people infected with M. tuberculosis remain asymptomatic/latent with a 10% lifetime risk of developing active disease. We identified a blood transcript signature for active tuberculosis which correlated with the radiological extent of disease, was diminished upon successful treatment, and was absent in healthy individuals and the majority of those with latent tuberculosis. Identification of a meta-signature of active tuberculosis in 13 independent studies, by analysis of publicly available datasets, confirmed the robustness of this approach. The blood signature of tuberculosis is dominated by an interferon (IFN)-inducible gene profile, consisting of both IFN and Type I IFNαβ signaling, suggesting a hitherto under-appreciated role of Type I IFNαβ signalling in the pathogenesis of tuberculosis. Our subsequent studies have defined mechanisms underlying the contribution of type I IFN to exacerbation of tuberculosis. Collectively, these studies provide strategies for the design and implementation of blood transcriptomic tools to support diagnostics and treatment monitoring of tuberculosis, and the development of potential therapeutics. The approach is similarly being applied to the study of other infectious diseases.

Professor Yaw Adu-Sarkodie, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology

Controlling the global threat of Emerging Infectious Diseases – lessons from the Ebola outbreak

The West Africa Sub region was declared Ebola-free in March 2016 following from an epidemic in 2014 which caused 28,646 cases and claimed the lives of 11,323 people. Many interventions were carried out to bring the epidemic under control. These ranged from local community efforts, regional support from West Africa and efforts of the International/Global community.  With the best of intentions, some of these efforts divided communities, further hampering control efforts and also led to export of infections to other countries far away from the index countries where the epidemic began. Could coordination of these efforts have been better done and are there any lessons to learn for the future? This presentation will address these issues.

Professor Hugh Taylor, University of Melbourne

Emerging and disappearing infectious diseases; progress towards the Global Elimination of Trachoma 

Trachoma is an ancient, blinding eye infection caused by Chlamydia trachomatis.  Repeated episodes of conjunctivitis cause prolonged inflammation leading to scarring of the upper eyelid and inturned eyelashes that cause blindness.  Although most infection occurs in young children, blindness usually develops in older adults.  Blindness results from 150 – 200 episodes of re-infection.

In 1997, the World Health Organization (WHO) initiated the Global Elimination of Trachoma by the year 2020 (GET2020) using the SAFE Strategy (surgery for inturned eyelashes, antibiotic treatment, facial cleanliness and environmental improvement) to eliminate trachoma.  Then 54 countries had endemic trachoma. Following a huge global effort three countries now have elimination of trachoma and seven others are awaiting verification.  The Diamond Jubilee Trust was established in 2013 to recognise the Queen.  It has supported trachoma programs in five African Commonwealth countries, Kenya, Mozambique, Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda, four Pacific Island countries, Fiji, Kiribati, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, and Australia.  In parallel, DFID has provided over 60 million pounds to support the global mapping of trachoma and other trachoma activities in seven other African countries.

Australia is the only developed country to still have trachoma, although considerable progress has been made over the last eight years with particular attention paid to health promotion to reduce transmission with improved facial cleanliness.

Overall, there is good progress in eliminating this blinding scourge and trachoma is projected to be eliminated in 75% of the countries by 2020 and in the remaining by around 2025.

Sustainable cities - Chair: Professor Teck Seng Low


Professor Peter Edwards, Singapore-ETH Centre

Making cities liveable, sustainable and resilient: innovative research at the Singapore-ETH Centre

We are in the throes of an extraordinary demographic transition, with an increasing proportion of the world’s population living in large urban areas. In 1950 there was just one city with a population of over 10 million (the usual definition of a megacity); today there are over 30. Because large cities are such a recent phenomenon, we still know little about how they develop and function, and about the impact they have upon surrounding rural areas. But such knowledge will be essential if we are to construct and manage urban areas in ways that are both sustainable and resilient. 

Against this background, many universities are now investing heavily in new forms of urban research that link science, engineering and design, and make heavy use of information technology and ‘big data’. One of pioneers in this ‘new urban science’ is the Singapore-ETH Centre (part of Singapore’s CREATE campus), with its programmes ‘Future Cities Laboratory’ and ‘Future Resilient Systems’.  In this presentation I show how these programmes apply concepts from ecology, complexity science and network theory in their effort to understand cities and develop ideas to make them more liveable and resilient. And at a larger scale, I show some of the complex inter-dependencies between cities and their surroundings, characterized by flows of natural resources, people and wealth, and by less tangible things such as ideas and cultural influences. I argue that this kind of multidisciplinary research, conducted in close collaboration with stakeholders, will be essential for a sustainable urban future.

Professor Barbara Norman, University of Canberra

Innovative platforms are critical for sharing knowledge and experience to solve complex urban problems: three case studies on cities, coasts and climate change. 

Innovative platforms are increasingly being recognised as critical for sharing knowledge and experience to solve complex urban problems including urban transport, the built environment, climate change and green infrastructure. I will present three examples connecting science, policy and the community by providing platforms for connecting and implementing more sustainable urban solutions. The first is the development of a national ‘climate ready cities’ policy information brief for Australian cities, the second is national award winning guidelines for coastal centres planning for climate change and the third is an innovative knowledge platform Canberra Urban & Regional Futures established 2010. I wish to share our research findings and the opportunities and lessons learned at the national, regional and local scale. I will also highlight possible wider application and the scope for partnerships with other commonwealth nations.

Professor Michael Keith, University of Oxford

The future of the future city

In many domains we see a proliferation of claims made about how we can predict and measure the future city, how we make visible its form and shape its settlement. This presentation considers the historical context of such claims making around urban futures and the promise (and promises) of attempts to make visible the urban as a ‘lab’ or ‘observatory’ through which we might ‘see like a city’. The paper considers the potential for academic research to inform the capacity of cities to anticipate and  reshape the challenges that characterise 21st century urban life through engaged scholarship.

Towards low carbon energy - Chairs: Professor Andrew Holmes and Professor Andrew Wee


Professor DD Sarma, Indian Institute of Science

Organic-inorganic hybrid and all-inorganic ferroelectric perovskite materials for photovoltaic applications: The role of the polar field

One of the areas involving intense activities to improve photovoltaic efficiency involves making use of ferroelectric materials, as it offers the possibility of splitting the photo-excited electron-hole pair with the help of the internal polar field. There are two distinct classes of systems where this concept has been invoked in recent times, leading to a great deal of excitement in the community. One class of materials is based on organic-inorganic hybrid methyl ammonium (MA) lead halides (MAPbX3, with X = I, Br, and Cl) compounds that have led to extraordinary efficiencies of > 20% in conjunction with many other attractive features, such as solution processability. An intensely debated issue in this field concerns the ability of permanent dipoles on MA units to give rise to polar fields, either in the normal state (as in the case of any ferroelectric material) or in the photo-excited state, contributing to its spectacular photovoltaic properties. The other class of materials are based on well-known inorganic ferroelectric materials; unfortunately, most such materials have large bandgaps, thereby not being able to harvest a major part of the solar spectrum. Our own efforts in these areas rely on investigating physical properties of hybrid materials with a host of techniques that are differently sensitive to polar nature of any given material, probing time-scales from the static down to a few hundred femto-seconds, both without and in presence of photo-excitation to address the outstanding issue of polar fields in this case. Our results conclusively establish the absence of any significant polar field in MAPbX3, In the case of all inorganic materials, we show how solid state chemistry can be used to reduce the bandgap of ferroelectric materials significantly while retaining their ferroelectric properties, making these more suitable for solar light harvesting applications.

Professor Ya-Huei (Cathy) Chin, University of Toronto 

Catalytic Production of Low Carbon Fuels

Lignocellulosic biomass is an attractive, renewable feedstock for producing sustainable fuels and chemicals. It is structurally complex and contains not only carbon and hydrogen, but also oxygen, thus its deconstruction and chemical transformation face significant technological challenges. I will discuss the various catalytic processing strategies aimed for the removal of oxygen heteroatoms from biomass derived molecules, focusing specifically on the reactivity and selectivity tuning via designing catalysts and chemical processes to enable selective oxygen removal. I will describe the chemical strategies for creating catalytically active sites and local reaction environment that promote kinetically coupled reactions, minimizing the use of hydrogen and the loss of carbon atoms to lighter products. The emphasis is on applying catalytic knowledge at the molecular scale level to rationally design the highly effective and selective active surfaces with atomically precise structures. The fundamental knowledge of catalytic chemistry, when applies together with reaction engineering strategies, would allow us to improve the atom and energy efficiencies.

Professor Phuti Ngoepe, University of Limpopo

Nanoscale modeling of low carbon energy storage materials

Climate change has prompted reduction in usage of fossil fuels in favour of low carbon energy sources, particularly renewables such as solar and wind. This is also an affordable option of expanding supply of much needed electricity in some developing countries of the Commonwealth. However, a major drawback is the intermittent nature of renewables, and limited ability of storing generated energy. Consequently, extensive studies on lithium ion batteries and beyond, are conducted to find and optimise materials for good performing, affordable and safe batteries. The 25th anniversary on commercialisation of lithium ion batteries was celebrated in 2016, where noteworthy achievements in electronics, transportation and stationary units were highlighted. This provides an ideal opportunity for addressing goals of value addition to natural resources, especially in developing countries, whilst promoting usage of low carbon energy.  

We have used high performance computing methods to simulate synthesis of metal oxide composites with complex nano-architectures. Recently, we laid a framework for modelling composites of layered and spinel structures, reported amongst high capacity lithium-metal-oxide cathodes for lithium-ion batteries by Thackeray, but with potential for performance enhancement. Our simulated microstructures were characterised and validated with high resolution transmission electron microscope images and X-ray diffractions results. The performance of such composites was predicted from mechanical properties which demonstrated, at a nanoscale, that electrochemical activity of batteries is sustained by maintaining open pathways for lithium ion transport during charging and discharging processes. This is mainly achievable in certain nano-architectures which confer long battery life, whilst enabling fast charge by providing access for electrolytes into voids and pores of battery electrodes.

Future of the oceans - Chair: Professor Alex Halliday


Professor Gideon Henderson FRS, University of Oxford

Metals in the ocean

Metals such as iron, zinc, and manganese are required for biological processes to function in the oceans.  These metals are present at low concentration, and their supply can limit the amount or type of life present across large areas of the oceans.  Metals can also be toxic to life, including notable pollutants such as lead and mercury.  Recent scientific advances have overcome analytical challenges to develop a more complete understanding of the natural marine cycling of metals, and the relationship between metals and biological systems.  This talk will summarise some of these key developments in understanding.

Oceanic metal cycles are perturbed by human activity.  Direct anthropogenic fluxes to the ocean increase metal concentrations, and secondary changes to the ocean, such as acidification and decreasing oxygen concentration, create significant change in metal cycles.  Intentional manipulation of the iron cycle has also been proposed, to stimulate fish stocks and ocean CO2 uptake, but is highly controversial.

A major additional factor in future metal cycles may be the pursuit of mining on the sea floor.  Significant deposits of metals are present in nodules, crusts, and mass sulphide formations found on the seafloor of the deep ocean, sometimes at grades higher than those in remaining ore deposits on land.  These mineral resources are an attractive resource for supply of the critical metals required for modern information and green technologies, but recovery of these metals could significantly perturb the deep-ocean environment with long-lasted impact to ecosystems.  The potential and risks of mining of metals from the seafloor is one focus of a new publication by the Royal Society.  This Royal Society Evidence Pack has considered two classes of possible future ocean resource:  metal-rich minerals, and marine genetic resources.  The report will be launched at the Commonwealth Science Conference, and the findings briefly summarised in this talk.

Professor Isabelle Ansorge, University of Cape Town

Sink or Swim? – a review of South Africa’s ocean science programme: opportunities and challenges

The 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, using CMIP5 and EMIC model outputs, suggests that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (MOC) is very likely to weaken by 11-34% over the next century, with consequences for global rainfall and temperature patterns. However, these coupled, global climate models cannot accurately resolve important oceanic features such as the Agulhas Current and its leakage around South Africa, which these studies have suggested may act to balance MOC weakening in the future. To properly understand oceanic changes and feedbacks on anthropogenic climate change we need to substantially improve global ocean observations, particularly within boundary current regions such as the Agulhas Current. The South African science community, in collaboration with governing bodies and international partners, has recently established one of the world’s most comprehensive observational networks of a western boundary current system, measuring the Greater Agulhas Current System and its inter-ocean exchanges south of Africa. This observational network, through its design for long-term monitoring, collaborative coordination of resources, and skills sharing, represents a model for the international community. This paper highlights the current status of South African ocean sciences, where opportunities lie and more importantly provides an overview of the challenges that many researchers face.

Dr Janice Lough, Australian Institute of Marine Science

A changing climate for tropical coral reefs

Tropical coral reefs are spectacular, complex and diverse ecosystems.  Although occupying less than 0.5% of the sea floor (an area about the size of Kenya), they support 25% of all marine species and provide goods and services that contribute to the livelihoods of over 500 million people worldwide.  Over 60% of Commonwealth countries contain coral reefs and together these make up 40% of the world’s coral reefs.  Reefs are, however, in trouble.  Some have suffered decades of over exploitation which is now being compounded, on even the most pristine reefs, by the impacts of a rapidly changing global climate system.  This has been most dramatically demonstrated by the recent increase in frequency and extent of mass coral bleaching events – when the delicate, mutually beneficial relationship between the coral animal host and their photosynthesising algal symbionts breaks down.  These recent events have been driven by unusually warm surface ocean temperatures and are a direct result of anthropogenically-driven global climate change.  This talk will review how climate is already changing for coral reefs, why they are so sensitive to rapidly changing environmental conditions and the historical evidence for such changes as revealed in the annual skeletal records of certain long-lived massive corals. I will also consider what the future of these immensely valuable tropical ecosystems may look like given different trajectories of projected global warming and global and local actions that can contribute to their maintenance into the future.

Chair: Professor Andy Hopper


Dr Demis Hassabis FRSA, Founder & CEO, DeepMind

Explorations at the Edge of Knowledge

Dr Demis Hassabis is the co-founder and CEO of DeepMind, the world’s leading artificial intelligence company, acquired by Google in their largest ever European purchase. Demis will draw on his experiences as an AI researcher, neuroscientist and game designer to discuss the ways in which AI breakthroughs are helping us explore the edge of knowledge. He will cover projects such as AlphaGo, and discuss the exciting implications of applying AI technologies to advancing science.