Bringing science to Davos

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Last week, I attended the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, accompanied by an impressive amount of snow and an equally remarkable number of world leaders. This was not my first Davos, but it was the most memorable so far, since I had the privilege of co-chairing the meeting, along with six other women from all walks of life.

This was the first time that the head of a scientific organisation had been asked to serve as one of the co-chairs, and it provided a unique opportunity to promote the crucial role of science in addressing the major challenges facing society today to an audience of leaders of government, industry and civil society.

The main theme of Davos this year was “Creating a shared future in a fractured world”, a theme that could not have been better suited to science. One of my key messages was that science can play a leading role in connecting people because it is universal and unifying. It is universal because it is based on objective facts and not on opinions. It is unifying because the quest for knowledge and the passion for learning are shared values and aspirations of all humanity. Scientific knowledge has no passport, no gender, no race, no political party.

Scientific laboratories like CERN bring people together from all around the world, sometimes from countries that are in conflict. These people all work together peacefully, animated by the same passion for knowledge in pursuit of common goals. Certainly, places like CERN cannot directly solve geopolitical conflicts, but they can help break down barriers and nurture the young generation in a respectful and tolerant environment that values diversity and inclusiveness. Places like CERN and other scientific institutions can plant seeds of peace.

My other key message at Davos was that scientific knowledge is the fuel of progress because it pushes the limits of what we know. It is therefore essential if we are to successfully address societal challenges, such as those covered by the Sustainable Development Goals. Without innovative ideas and scientific breakthroughs, progress stagnates. History shows us that major breakthroughs often come from fundamental research. For instance, quantum mechanics and relativity, considered as useless knowledge by many at the time they were developed, are now the underpinnings of much modern electronics and of GPS systems.

My fellow co-chair, Christine Lagarde, had the task of moderating an hour-long discussion among the seven co-chairs last Tuesday. She opened with a quote from Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”. We spent an hour discussing the cracks and the light, and science emerged as one of the main components of the light.

On Thursday, I took part in another panel together with Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, and Nobel peace prize winner Malala Yousafzai. The theme was “Creating a shared future through education and empowerment”. I emphasised the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education, not only for those pursuing a scientific career, but also as an education for life. The scientific method, the value of evidence-based assessment and the meaning of a measurement and its uncertainty should be taught to everybody. These are skills we all need, whether scientists or not, if we are to be well-rounded citizens in the modern world.

I was encouraged by the very positive reactions of some of the participants. I could see that science is increasingly recognised as an integral part of global efforts to shape a more inclusive, better world. The challenge is, naturally, to ensure that this recognition is complemented by adequate funding.   

I also had the opportunity to have brief discussions with a number of leaders from our Member States, Associate Member States and beyond, including the Presidents of France, Switzerland and Lithuania and the Prime Ministers of Italy, Norway, Canada, Estonia and Latvia. I took away from these meetings valuable messages of support and praise for CERN’s mission and accomplishments.

It is my hope that science will have an equally prominent place at future annual meetings of the WEF, as an essential component of global discussions about the direction our world is taking. 

The 2018 WEF programme and sessions are available on the WEF website.