It’s like walking into Switzerland. That’s how a fellow Young Scientist describes the huge multilevel modernist World Expo Centre in Dalian, People’s Republic of China. The Geneva presentation room is decorated with see-through plastic chairs and coffee tables that welcome the audience with glass mugs filled with hot water and Chinese tea leaves. At the Cultural Soirée, white tutu’d ballerinas are juxtaposed with young women serving cocktails with lighted ice cubes from the center of red-skirted tables (visual: they are wearing the table). The Young Scientists, a group of 42 scientists around the age of 40 from 23 countries, have been invited to this 3-day extravaganza because the business world acknowledges that they need science to survive. This is, after all, the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) Annual Meeting of the New Champions.
We are entertainment, answers one Young Scientist when I jokingly ask why we are not paid to speak here. Soon I realize that, unlike us, most others have paid thousands of dollars to attend. In our group are scientists developing biotechnology to cure the blind and new materials to solve the world's energy crisis. Surely our presence here is justified. So what makes so many of us young scientists cautious, restrained, modest, and sometimes downright insecure about our place here? Do we have doubts about what we as scientists can deliver?
Take out the clutter, answers a visual artist when asked by the CEO of a manufacturing company how to foster innovation. Yes, there are artists here, too. The arts sessions are just as packed as the pure science sessions (e.g., “Astrophysics: Cracking the Cosmos”) by people in dark suits and patent leather. One afternoon, when offered the opportunity to attend “Strengthening Global Supply Chains,” “The New Growth Equation," “New Approaches to Food Security,” or “Frontiers of Biotechnology,” I choose instead “Asia’s Art Scene: What’s Happening?” I hear about China's high-powered art market and am surprised to find science where I least expect it: A graphic designer uses pure mathematics and computation to beautify currency.
WEF’s slogan, “Committed to improving the state of the world,” should sound familiar, particularly to those of us working in the sciences of health, technology, and sustainability. But we find it hard at times to talk with business, media, and political leaders, as well as other WEF-defined communities -- the Social Entrepreneurs, the Young Global Leaders, and the Tech Pioneers.
A Social Entrepreneur tells me that we are the coolest group there. I think they are. He is using sand filtration and solar-powered water purification to provide clean drinking water for small, isolated communities. A businessman I meet mines metals from garbage. A Tech Pioneer has sold us on the idea of cloud computing for the network we are trying to create for ourselves. But many of us scientists seem to agree that we need some drawing out.
Don’t wait for permission, shouts a Young Global Leader who is a full professor working on his second Ph.D., a scientific adviser to governments, and the head of some kind of consulting company all before the age of 40. I think of the views of a fellow Young Scientist: “Business people don’t think; they’re just there.” Though we are recognized as leaders at the international level in our respective scientific disciplines, here we could use some mentoring on how to sell our work and interact with this community. We agree on this as we sit in our ghetto, the Young Scientists Lounge. The rest of the world is out there, travelling across the globe, solving problems -- and, yes, making money -- with a handshake or exchange of business cards. Perhaps it’s just that we academics think too much, or maybe we all could benefit from a dose of this kind of reality. More of us should experience, at least once in our scientific lives, something like WEF. How many young scientists are even aware of these meetings? Others could be inspired, as I have been, to become more engaged in problem-solving, more integrated with a global community.
In my paneled session on resource scarcity, I end my 3-minute “pitch” hoping for not much more than small strides toward putting the problem of global forest sustainability -- the pure science of which we all seem to agree is largely done -- into the hearts and hands of some of these mind-blowingly successful businessmen and social entrepreneurs. Then, on the flight home from Dalian, I find within the pages of The Economist an artist’s rendering of swamp white oaks being restored at Ground Zero. As diverse as all the communities at the World Economic Form seem, we are indeed connected.
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Madhur Anand, Ph.D., is an associate professor of global ecological change at the University of Guelph and a Young Scientist of the World Economic Forum.