This time yesterday I’d just come out from my first session at Davos and I have to say it was a very positive experience. The session was entitled ‘The Science Agenda in 2011’, and I was one of four panellists chosen to represent medical research, basic research, corporate R&D and life sciences. My first impression was just how popular the session was. People were queuing 20 minutes before we started and it was standing room only. The World Economic Forum says that the spirit of Davos is all about challenging its participants’ perceptions. The fact that science seems to be so high up the Davos agenda challenged one of mine in a very positive way before we even started.
The session’s moderator chose to order the talks in ascending order of budget. That put me first. CERN’s budget is the smallest of the organizations represented by a very large margin, and I think that came as a surprise to many. To me it just reinforces the fact that the CERN model for basic research funding represents extraordinarily good value for money.
Speaking first gave me the chance to set the scene with my main message that we can’t choose between basic and applied research. Innovation depends on a broad based approach to science, with constant interplay between the applied and basic ends of the spectrum. All of the panelists reinforced this message in different ways. Medical research, for example, without basic research in the life sciences would soon reach a dead end.
The importance of global collaboration also played a large part in the discussions. It surprised me that this message came from the private sector, which my prejudice would have led me to assume would take a more insular point of view. That no single organization can assure the complete innovation chain from basic science to end product was the conclusion we drew. A piecemeal approach to science won’t work: only strong coordination between public and private sectors can deliver the scientific results we all strive to achieve.
This wasn’t the only surprise in store for me. Participants also discussed the importance of academic freedom in a research environment. That’s obvious in a lab like CERN, but perhaps less evident in industry. It was refreshing to see captains of industry acknowledging the importance of leaving room for creativity, rather than putting a straight jacket on research. Similarly, there was a consensus that open access has its merits: that the intellectual property approach to innovation has limits and could even hinder progress.
Two examples from the history of CERN illustrate this very well. Firstly, the reason we have a single World Wide Web today is that CERN took an open access approach to the technology in 1993 by putting it in the public domain. Two decades earlier, however, the same approach didn’t work. Our touch screen technology of the 1970s came too early for an open access approach. The necessary investment from industry to develop it to a standard that could be used beyond the control rooms of a particle physics lab was perhaps too much for a company to take the risk without knowing that the intellectual property was protected.
If Davos is supposed to be about challenging peoples’ perceptions of fields that are not their own, it succeeded in this session. My views were certainly challenged by the notion that things that are dear to CERN, such as open access, and global collaboration also appear to be important to the private sector. For my part, I’d like to think that I did some perception challenging of my own.