This week I infiltrated the Global Grand Challenges Summit. You might not of heard of it, as it wasn't really advertised that well - but it was a major event developed in partnership by the national academies of engineering in the UK, the US and China. The summit brought together leading international thinkers and innovators to explore new approaches to solving some of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century, on themes ranging from sustainability to healthcare; from driving growth and employment to protecting our planet. With guest appearances from Will.i.am and Bill Gates, the summit proved to be a more than interesting event.
As a non scientist or engineer, I felt that I was about to be unmasked at any given moment, and sacrificed for my lack of knowledge on all of the topics. This luckily did not happen. What DID happen was my mind was blown by all of the wonderful things happening in the world of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) that I didn't know about.
Dr Craig Venter had me gripping my seat as he talked humbly on how he had, you know, been one of the first to sequence the human genome and for creating the first cell with a synthetic genome. As he continued to talk on his research, which can be seen here, he caused my airy writing mind to run away with me, as I envisioned a science fiction world where Dr Venter had created Cylons to take over the earth. When an Oxford University student stood up to ask about the potential of "creating a virus to wipe out mankind", Dr Venter replied with "and that's what happens when science fiction takes the place of real science", shutting him down. I joined in with all the other delegates, guffawing at the suggestion "what an idiot", whilst sinking in my seat and vowing to not open my mouth unless it was to ask for the time.
There were fantastic speakers - including Professor Angela Belcher (pronounced "Balch" but there was no way people weren't going to say "Belch"), Rebecca Richards-Kortum, Dr Frances Arnold (a glamorous LA biochemist from Caltech), and many more - all of whom can be seen here.
What I learned over the two days were as follows:
1) Scientists need the public's help as much as we need theirs.
2) Scientists are really under exposed.
Will.i.am argued that "scientists need to be more sexy" advocating for a more celebrated and exposed community. "You guys need to have your own Oscars. We're at one of the world's most important events and no one knows about it". Bill Gates went on to say how "more money is invested into researching male baldness than helping the developing world".
Bald men have a lot to answer for. And politicians. Bald politicians more than anyone.
So what can we do and what can the science community do? As a non-scientist I felt this summit should have been live on television - shame on you BBC, Channel 4 and ITV. It's so important us plebeians have access to what's going on in the scientific world. The science community should have Tyra Banks do shows like "America's Next Top Scientist", with writers from the Big Bang appearing at the next summit in China as Will.i.am performs with a range of other musicians to jazz it up - literally.
Aside from the feel that the science community has a lot to do - the main message I took was that they should have to reach out to other communities. The alliance of science with the arts would ensure a world where science is as exposed as much as terrible shows like "The Only Way is Essex" is.
On the topic of allying arts with science, I had the privilege of watching my twin brother Paul receive an award after winning the film competition posed by the summit. He was given his award by the director of NASA's jet propulsion laboratory and Mr Will.i.am. Paul's a nuclear Physicist. I sat there holding his bag. Whatever happened to baby Michael?