The Falling Walls Conference in Berlin commemorates the fall of the Berlin Wall. Renown scientists from around the world present Breaking Walls research. In times of rising political walls, this year’s conference took a political stance: It demanded freedom for science. A big step for science that admits: Science is political!
Science is changing its act. It recognizes that it is entangled with politics and ideology and operates within a political context. And, on top of this, the whipped cream: no more lengthy and dry lectures, but short and entertaining pitches. During the Lab part of the conference the organizers dared the experiment: 100 young academicians presented in only three minutes time their research – including Q&A’s.
WALL BREAKING RESEARCH
They started with “This is the wall I want to break” and off they went in lively and descriptive sessions, all in competition with each other. At the end of the day the jury decided on three winners. The young researchers invited to Berlin into the Academy of Arts, right across the Brandenburg Gate and within sight of the vitreous dome of the German Parliament, were the winners of 69 lab events around the globe. Yes, Wall Breaking Science is about stiff international competition on both, best scientific evidence and none the least: best performance.
Besides of gaining thrilling insights into research such as new blood tests, highly efficient turbines, urine wastage, measures against democratic crisis, the audience learned a lesson on how to be concise, relaxed and hammer the message home, in 150 seconds – and allow 30 seconds for two questions, answer them briefly before a gong finishes the presentation. Impressive, entertaining, and educational!
AGAINST THE CLOCK
Falling Walls consists of various layers with events spread out throughout the city. This is integrated into the Berlin Science Week, a multitude of other events: 200+ Speakers, 50+ Events, 7+ Days (1-10 November) + 1 City. A bit complicated – perhaps typical German? – but if you get the hunch, you mostly easily navigate back and forth, at least to the British Embassy round the corner.
Under “Ventures”, there is a Lab-similar session, only with a higher profile and in connection with venture capital to promote new start-ups. The time allowance is more generous, ten minutes with an introduction, an extended Q&A part and no obnoxious gong. But all in all less moving, less adrenaline-driven.
BIODEGRADABLE ALGAE INK
Sophisticated stuff, on higher professional levels: biodegradable ink made of algae, superfast charging electric vehicles, electrocoagulation instead of chemicals to remove contaminants from wastewater, a recommendation system what to grow in urban gardens, molecules to reprogram the immune system of a cancer patient.
And then, after these lead-ups, there is the Falling Walls Conference on November 9, on the very day of the end of Berlin’s Wall. The venue is an old rehabbed factory right by the Spree river, quite groovy and adequate at the same time. What sites like this and the Academy of Art convey: a very casual atmosphere which melts the ice between the participants. This is another change in science and how it celebrates itself: No walls, we’re one community.
FATIGUE AND DRUNK DRIVING
“Radialsystem V”, the name of the location, is the stage for academic bigshots with really cutting-edge research, which is out to rock the walls of knowledge. For example, breaking the wall of sleep, who’d know that fatigue driving is more frequent than drunk driving and much more dangerous? Sleep research has not only entered the stage to warn drivers, but it opens a whole new gate to mental health and psychiatry.
And on we go: Break the wall of medicine shortage, a specially engineered yeast will help mankind. It produces opioids which serve as painkillers. Finally, new quantum science satellites, how to stop ocean pollution with plastic, why graphene batteries last 1000 times longer than conventional ones, how to make cities liveable again, that corruption can be fought.
4 CROPS OUT OF 7000
Artificial Intelligence, the ins and out of the Long Short-Term Memory LSTM, with really visionary views, “robots replacing the current crown of evolution and colonizing the universe”, Juergen Schmidhuber enthusiastically laid out – a blessing?
Two highlights of the November 9 Conference day stuck out. The lecture on food insecurity, that out of before 7000 crops we mainly use only four: rice, maize, wheat, soybeans and how to recultivate forgotten crops. “Whenever an African farmer dies, a library goes with him”, regretted Sayed Azam-Ali.
SUPPRESSION OF RESEARCH
Accordingly, the lunch avoided conventional main staples of our diet and served foods found in the rural farmlands outside Berlin such as “black cabbage” or various beets and parsley roots: ingredients for an “underground curry”.
Another outstanding feature was the discussion about “Alternative facts stop here”. Before this, world leading academics had presented the banner next to the US American embassy and had held a press conference, in which they opposed rising pressure on scientists in Hungary and Turkey, also the hostile atmosphere at British universities in the wake of Brexit and a US president “who suppresses scientific research”, namely on climate change.
OUR BEST TOOL
Helga Nowotny, board of trustees Falling Walls Foundation said that “science is best protected by a functioning liberal democracy and must not allow alternative facts to undermine it”. Guus Velders, professor of “Air quality and Climate Interactions”, Utrecht University, quoted US astronomer Carl Sagan: “Science is not perfect. It can be misused. It is the only tool. But it is by far the best tool we have.” He added that we should not spend so much time refuting alternative facts, but improve communication.
COMMENTARY: No Innovation Without Representation!
First of all, the conference promotes Berlin, the German capital with so much history of Nazi and Communist Germany and Cold War, now a center of excellency in science. This promotion is well deserved. Modern Berlin, indeed, is an exuberant hub of science and technology. This comes with the realization that Germany, formerly the world’s science flagship, is lagging behind the United States and China.
As visits to the Einstein Center Digital Future (ECDF), Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Science and Weizenbaum Institute for the networked society showed, great efforts are undertaken to catch up. Impressive how the Leibniz Institute digitalizes 30 million artifacts and specimen, so this treasure will be available to everyone in the world.
Secondly, very timely the realization that facts, also scientific ones can be faked, which always has been practice, especially in totalitarian regimes, which Berlin also stands for. I’m not only concerned, along with my colleague Aisling Irvin, ABSW, in her post “Alternative Facts Stop Here”, about the lack of solutions proposed how to stop fact twisters at such a high-level conference.
LOOTING OF OUR PLANET
I’m more worried about the fact that in a capitalistic system with unleashed markets all scientific research is mercilessly utilized for economic growth and consumption, which endorses the looting of our planet and that this is not really addressed at Falling Walls. If not here, where else?
In summation and thirdly, this scientific-economic reality must be questioned and therefore I additionally propose to the STOP signal: “No Innovation Without Representation” – which means scientific applications must be debated in the society with a range of various stakeholders, especially citizens, voters, tax payers, consumers, civil society. It’s all about communication, said Guus Velders. Right, so let’s do it. Overcome the separation of science and society, in practice.
This is the most powerful wall we have to knock down in our heads, everyone for herself and himself, to make this world work in fundamentally changing times.
Author: Wolfgang Chr. Goede, based in Munich/Germany and Medellín/Colombia. He visited the conference on a fellowship, granted by Falling Walls Foundation to the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations EUSJA.