Report From Dubai

Universe in 2009 / by Lionel Beehner /

Last November, the World Economic Forum convened thought leaders and heads of industry to discuss the state of the world. Seed followed up to ask where we go from here.

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Food and Water Security
Two of the most fundamental issues affecting the planet’s sustainability are food and water security. More than a billion people, or one-sixth of the planet’s population, go hungry every day, a figure that jumped by 120 million in 2008 because of the global food crisis. Food insecurity harms the urban poor the most because it stymies economic growth, raises health-care costs, and impairs their productivity. For example, nearly half of India’s children suffer from malnutrition. The council suggested a number of near-term solutions to curb hunger while boosting food output. First, fix current trade policies that distort food prices and erect market barriers, specifically subsidies for biofuels that inflate food prices and cause the inefficient use of arable land. Second, partner private-sector companies with community organizations to improve the distribution of food, promote breastfeeding, and allow emergency food-crisis provision for grains. Third, ramp up agricultural technologies, accelerate R&D, and establish a “talent exchange” to entice private-sector specialists. And finally, experiment with what Josette Sheeran, executive director of the World Food Program, calls “purchase for progress,” which entails buying food straight from small-scale farmers to break their low-yield poverty trap.

Water security is no less important. Our unsustainable overuse of water, due to swift urbanization and deforestation, has created a “water bubble” of sorts. Without potable water, millions will die and ecosystems remain under threat. Because water has social, cultural, and religious dimensions, it cannot be simply considered an economic good. Still, the world must stop managing water so inefficiently, since nothing can replace it as a resource. Investments in wastewater infrastructure and poor irrigation systems must be improved. Some have called for a “new blue deal,” pointing to such indicators as the market for toilets in the developing world, which may be in the billions of dollars. There were the usual calls to protect the world’s freshwater seas with stricter regulations against overuse, industrial discharge, and use of pesticides. Finally, instead of just building better dams for hydroelectric power, greater energy is needed to extract water from aquifers and transport water via canals.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease and Research and Policy (CIDRAP), predicts that while a Paul Ehrlich-style “population bomb” may be overblown, famine is not unlikely in our lifetime or on our shores. “When you look at what’s coming down the pike — the rapid depletion of groundwater and peak oil concurrent with pesticides in the food chain, fungi that are microbes-resistant, human medicine falling further behind, and a planet of 8 billion people within the next couple of decades… In 25 years, that’s a perfect storm for widespread famine.”

While economic fears and energy concerns have knocked talk of worldwide influenza out of the news, the threat remains high. The risk of a human pandemic, as recent scares over the bird flu and avian influenza suggest, is real and could come without warning. Some epidemiologists say it is inevitable and will be triggered by an influenza virus or drug-resistant strands of pathogens.

The problem is manifold. Millions live in close proximity to poultry, a virtual Petri dish for transmitting viruses from animals to humans. Also, there is little cooperation between industry and government bodies monitoring the supply chain, as recent health scares among Chinese exports highlight. Then there is the trouble with preparing a preventive first-line response to a global pandemic, which includes breaking transmission chains and assessing outbreak flashpoints.

Epidemiologists say a pandemic should not be considered solely a health issue but rather an event that can lead to widespread disruptions in society, travel, and financial systems. Given our dependency on global trade, any break in this supply chain could be devastating. “When we think of the items for which we rely on just-in-time delivery from overseas — fuel, food, ingredients for essential drugs — a serious upset to global shipping would threaten many vital services,” says Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, which is why pandemic preparedness should be considered a public good. Adds Lipsitch: “The present model in many countries of leaving planning largely to individual hospitals, companies, and local jurisdictions is ill suited to this public-good conception of preparedness.”

In addition to influenza scares, HIV/AIDS remains high on the docket of health specialists. With 2.7 million new HIV infections and 2 million AIDSrelated deaths last year alone, the epidemic looms large as possibly the most devastating to face humankind; it’s bound to be with us for generations. The epidemic cuts across all sectors of society. Worse yet, the disease kills people at the height of their human potential, creating a multiplier effect on economies and societies.

The good news, says Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, is that for the first time we are seeing a return on our investment. Fewer people are dying from the disease or becoming infected with the virus, thanks to greater coordination between local communities, governments, and multilateral organizations. And more responsible leadership by political, religious, and business leaders has helped confront the stigma and discrimination still attached to HIV/AIDS. “Good politics saves lives and bad politics kills people,” says Piot. An example of “good politics”: China opening up 300 methadone and needle-exchange clinics. “Bad politics”: Russia’s refusal to provide substitution therapy for drug users.

But the global financial crisis may see both private and public donor funding dry up and result in backslides on recent progress made. “This will obviously have a knock-on effect with both patients as well as caregivers,” says Sudler & Hennessey’s Jed Beitler. Also, the economic rise of Russia, India, and China has coincided with a dramatic rise in transmission of HIV there.

What can be done? The goal should be twofold: First, continue to treat those 33 million people already infected with HIV; second, achieve an HIV-free generation — that is, a world with no HIV orphans. The council recommends using the “excess capacity” of the private sector to combat HIV — i.e., information technology and branding expertise to achieve behavioral change — and empowering younger generations to take action and educate their peers through social networking sites and multiplayer videogames. Businesses, too, have an incentive to help combat the disease, which reduces their workforce, jacks up their medical costs, and reduces labor productivity.

To be sure, the epidemic is still evolving. It remains unclear how the food crisis or financial crisis will impact treatment or prevention efforts, or how HIV will spread in different populations. “We know we’ve made progress, but we also need a healthy dose of realism. This is a financial crisis like nothing we’ve faced,” says Pamela Barnes, president of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Access to antiretroviral treatment remains a problem, as medicines reach only about a quarter of the victims. Treatment costs vary greatly across countries and continents. And taboos over sex and gender inequality remain. Another obstacle is the availability of data, which participants said should stay in the public domain, as it is a global public good, but also build the capacity of developing nations to analyze their own data more effectively.

Geography of Innovation
Innovation, technology, and scientific literacy are key to economic development. Yet while technology has rid the world of many of its problems, it also adds new challenges — such as creating a technological gap between rich and poor that is at risk of widening. New products like laptops can now be seen in almost every country of the world, and 5 billion people now talk on mobile phones. But innovation doesn’t grow on trees. And intellectual property laws under debate could stifle incentives for companies to invest in R&D. It takes government incentives — i.e., permanent tax relief on R&D — to create a catalyst for new products and ensure that science continues to be put to good use. Policymakers should reward those research models that deliver the most cost-effective results.

One healthy development has been the geography of innovation and emergence of information clusters, such as Silicon Valley. What results is a system that channels creative energy and fosters competition to spur innovation. These things also yield strong relationships between the public and private sectors. Experts agree that the public sector plays a vital role in funding technology and innovation but that the bulk of the funding for bleedingedge research must come from the private sector. That requires greater collaboration with leading research organizations and universities in order to sow the seeds for greater science literacy among future generations.

An increasing driver of innovation is nanotechnology, which is relevant across a variety of disciplines, from drug distribution to desalination, from renewable energy resources to microelectronics. This emerging science may allow us to meet our burgeoning needs with fewer materials. Jackie Ying, executive director of the Singapore-based Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, points to two areas in which nanotechnology may revolutionize the world: the biomedical arena — specifically, its ability to detect communicable diseases at earlier stages before they become pandemics — and energy and water security, and the promise of nanotechnology’s ability to purify water in undeveloped rural areas and generate energy in miniaturized devices, such as fuel or solar cells.

But much about nanotechnology still remains unknown, which makes patent lawyers nervous and venture capitalists skittish. Greater transparency is needed, regarding how and where nanotechnology is being used. Also, because of the limited returns on venture-backed nanotech startups to date, a new approach to financing this industry may be in order — perhaps a cooperative business model between large corporations and startup companies to jointly develop technologies but also share the risk and reward. “It is still in the research phase,” says Ying. “In that sense if financiers jump the gun and invest before the technology is matured, they will be disappointed in what can be delivered. We need to make it more cost effective.” Some have called not just for more self-regulation of nanotech research but also greater government regulation, given the unclear toxicity of some materials, even our own human bodies, to nano-particles, not to mention their unclear environmental impact.

Technology and Education
There are other inhibitors to innovation, some closer to the classroom. Our math and science curriculums currently enforce the memorization of facts and figures rather than the adoption of critical and interdisciplinary thinking. Scientific literacy requires innovators and free thinkers, not just number crunchers or automatons, which is why technology gurus are now also wary that the economic recession could lead to a recession of ideas. Barack Obama has said that he envisions a world “connected by our science and imagination.” To that end, he has spoken about appointing a “chief technology officer,” something Bruce Nussbaum, assistant managing editor of Business- Week, says on his blog should be renamed “chief innovation officer (CIO) because change is as much about sociology as technology and as much about creativity as science.”

On this front, recommendations at the summit ran the gamut, from engaging patent holders to reset the intellectual property framework; to restructuring the way our next generation of mathematicians and scientists are educated by encouraging them to think, not just calculate; to instituting something like a Marshall Plan founded on science and imagination to bridge the digital divide. “What we need,” says John Petersen, president of the Arlington Institute, “is a new global enlightenment that shifts our perspective as a species to understand that we are all interdependent and that our survival and salvation depend upon our seeing ourselves and the world in this new way.” The global financial crisis, adds David Nordfors, director of Innovation Journalism at Stanford University, underlines the need for governments to get more involved in encouraging innovation, not less. “Traditionally, when the economy goes bad, everyone cuts down on science and R&D,” he says. “The message from this forum was this time it should be the other way around, that new knowledge and innovation are the way out of this crisis.”

Originally published February 3, 2009

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