A Meeting of Great Minds: The Commonwealth Science Conference 2017

Over four days in June, Singaporean researcher Huang Zhixiang had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of scientists from across the Commonwealth and learn about their research and countries.

Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, the president of the Royal Society, speaking at the Commonwealth Science Conference 2017, co-organised by The Royal Society and the National Research Foundation – Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore.

*This is a post conference editorial from the Royal Society Commonwealth Science Conference 2017*

The 29-year-old PhD candidate was one of the participants at the Commonwealth Science Conference (CSC) 2017, which was held in Singapore from June 13 to 16 and organised by Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF) and The Royal Society, United Kingdom.

With more than 400 scientists from 37 Commonwealth countries attending the event, the breadth and depth of the panel discussions, plenary sessions and seminars were impressive, Mr Huang said.

“We could also interact with researchers from many different countries and fields, get a good overview of the many ways to conduct research, and pose questions to senior scientists such as science advisors to governments,” he said.

A wealth of experience

Focussed on the Commonwealth countries’ shared challenges, the conference had four themes: emerging infectious diseases, sustainable cities, low carbon energy and the future of oceans. The social and policy implications of new technologies were also addressed.

Professor Fiona Hunter from Brock University in Ontario, Canada, for example, spoke about her investigations into the mosquito species that transmit the Zika virus, and the importance of keeping an open mind during epidemics.

Professor Hsu Li Yang from Singapore’s National University of Singapore, on the other hand, zeroed in on the causes of antimicrobial resistance and efforts to prevent it.

Professors Martin Green and Jenny Nelson, pioneers in the field of solar power from the University of New South Wales in Australia and Imperial College London, respectively, traced the dramatic rise of the renewable energy and outlined ongoing efforts to develop new materials to harvest it, including molecular electronic materials.

In the area of sustainable cities, Professor Amita Bhide from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in India stressed the importance of looking after cities’ poorest and most vulnerable inhabitants, while Professor Edgar Pieterse from the African Centre for Cities set out how researchers can work with policy makers to build sustainable cities.

Continuing the conference’s diversity, the speakers during the sessions on the future of oceans included Dr Janice Lough from the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Professor Isabelle Ansorge from the University of Cape Town in South Africa and Professor Gideon Henderson from Britain’s University of Oxford.

They gave presentations on the dangers facing tropical coral reefs due to climate change, the opportunities and challenges of South Africa’s ocean science programme, and the impact of metals such as iron, zinc and manganese in the oceans respectively.

During the panel discussions on the social and policy implications of new technologies, Sir Mark Walport, the Chief Government Scientific Advisor in Britain, urged scientists to acknowledge and address the risks inherent in new innovations.

Mr Peter Ho, who was formerly the head of Singapore’s Civil Service, added that now, more than ever, cities are facing complex issues, such as ageing populations, that require multidisciplinary solutions combining expertise in economics, demographics, environment and technology.

Bringing great minds together

During his speech at the conference’s closing ceremony, Professor C N R Rao, a National Research Professor in India and founder and honorary president of its Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, noted that the issues discussed were relevant to all of humanity.

“The beauty and complexity of the Commonwealth is that it has countries from several continents with wide variations in gross domestic product and development. There is much that we can do to help through cooperation and collaboration,” he said.

Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, the president of the Royal Society, added that conferences such as the CSC can be the catalyst for such collaboration.

“Science is global and depends on a free flow of people who bring in new ideas and expertise… The Commonwealth brings together scientific powerhouses and developing countries, and collaborations can provide a means by which the latter can build research strengths. This conference can be a starting point to developing productive collaborations,” he said.

He added that the Commonwealth, which is home to nearly a third of the world’s population, 12 percent of the world’s researchers and 10 percent of global research and development expenditure, will play an ever more important role in the planet’s future.

Britain’s Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, was a guest of honour at the conference’s opening ceremony. He noted: “Throughout the Commonwealth there are some really great minds. We need to be able to get hold of these minds in a Commonwealth setting and work on the world’s knotty problems.

“It’s about engaging people in science, engaging people in recognising that so much can be done through the use of science and great minds.”

To Singapore – and beyond

Prince Andrew also thanked Singapore for hosting the conference, which was only its second edition in 50 years. After a lull of 47 years, a Commonwealth Science Conference was held in Bangalore, India, in 2014.

Singapore was chosen as the next host due to its sterling reputation as a research hub, track record of nurturing young scientists and history of shaping Commonwealth policy. In 1971, for example, Singapore hosted the first-ever Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which was chaired by then-Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Through the NRF, Singapore also invests more per researcher in blue-sky research than all of the other leading economies in the Asia Pacific. It also has extensive research partnerships globally.

“With the success of the reenergised conference in Bangalore, and now the conference in Singapore, I would like to offer my thanks to our Singapore partners, and we look forward to continuing this process in other Commonwealth countries in the future,” said Prince Andrew.

He summed up: “The more contacts, interactions and connectivity there is, the greater the potential to bring minds together.”

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About the Commonwealth Science Conference

The Commonwealth Science Conference will be held from 13 to 16 June 2017 at the Matrix Building, Biopolis, Singapore. Jointly organised by the National Research Foundation Singapore and The Royal Society, this multi-disciplinary conference brings together leading scientists to celebrate excellence in science throughout the Commonwealth; provides opportunities for cooperation between researchers, builds scientific capacity on issues of common interest to Commonwealth countries, as well as inspires young scientists on their scientific career. The conference will be attended by over 400 scientists from Commonwealth countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Americas, the Pacific and Europe.

For media enquiries, please contact:

Head, Media Relations
The Royal Society
Email: [email protected]
Contact: +44 (0)207 451 2514

Charlotte CHEN
Head, Corporate Communications
National Research Foundation Singapore, Prime Minister’s Office
Email: [email protected]
Contact: +65 6684 2928; +65 9829 9304

Written by Feng Zenkun