When a marine biologist went to Davos

By Alex Rogers, University of Oxford

If you were to believe the tabloid hype around Davos you might be forgiven for thinking it’s a giant party where elite business types meet celebrities and dole out a few quid to the less fortunate of the world while cheering their good fortune. There is another side, and there is genuine value for science and scientists in the middle of this icy melting pot.

As a busy academic working on the oceans I had been peripherally aware of Davos but had never really engaged with the World Economic Forum (WEF). Like me, many environmental scientists have experienced the financial world only through the squeeze on national science budgets as a result of the global economic crisis. However, to be asked to attend the WEF on the behalf of the University of Oxford was an honour, although for many of us this is a demanding time of year in terms of teaching, dealing with graduate applications, writing references … you get the picture. So the question is, was it worth it?

I’m not sure I really knew what to expect. The first hurdle was a talk with representatives from the WEF over the phone that felt like an interview. I was to present a five-minute talk (15 slides timed at exactly 20 seconds a slide) on the oceans as part of an Oxford Ideaslab on the global commons presented by the Martin School. I passed the interview – and the other participants and I set about preparing our presentations just before Christmas. Logistics were smoothly organised by the WEF so I had very little to do in terms of organising travel and accommodation. Invitations began flooding in by email for a variety of corporate-sponsored events and parties of an array of cultural flavours which was a little bewildering.

Climb every mountain

So I found myself on a bus from Zurich airport to Davos on January 20 talking to a consultant from PricewaterhouseCoopers about biodiversity and conservation. A good start. The congress itself is a whirlwind of sessions in formats that range from small intimate rooms or spaces where active audience participation is a must to the cavernous Congress Room where political, social and scientific movers and shakers perform in front of hundreds. Fortunately there is a fantastic online self-organisation system where you can create your own agenda to move you through the buzzing hive of activity across the week.

It’s all going on behind the boards.
World Economic Forum, CC BY-ND

For me, the most striking thing was the exceptional quality of the science presented throughout the meeting. I attended sessions where scientists from very different disciplines to my own talked about their work, often in fields of science that were undergoing enormous transformations and which are or will have a tremendous impact on society.

I learnt about new research on the gut microbiome showing the links between our bacterial flora and obesity and other aspects of nutritional health from Professor Rob Knight at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). David Christian from Macquarie University presented History 101, an exploration of the history of everything from the big bang to our own energy intensive civilisation presented in a visually spectacular way to a large audience in the Congress Room. This was followed by Al Gore who communicated in a dramatic and convincing fashion the human side of the catastrophe that is climate change (but also with a positive message that our reliance on fossil fuels is declining).

I learned about DNA as an information storage media, neuronal circuits and quantum technology that are likely to revolutionise computing and the successful application of stem-cell therapy to deal with serious eye conditions. Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre presented the latest paper on planetary boundaries published to coincide with the WEF. As a scientist this was enriching, engaging and exciting.

Black swan

For inspiration, National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry took the audience through a journey demonstrating the beauty of the oceans, some of its woes and some potential solutions. A showing of the documentary film Virunga about the recent struggle to protect Africa’s oldest national parks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was utterly gripping, moving – and a wake-up call to what we stand to lose in the natural world (and as humankind) if we sit back and do nothing.

The Q&A with Emmanuel de Merode, the director of the park, after the film was also powerful; he was ambushed and shot three times in early 2014, almost certainly because of his role (and that of his rangers who have shown extraordinary courage) in defending this jewel of African conservation that is home to a large portion of the world’s surviving mountain gorillas. The film also starkly communicated the human tragedy that has unfolded in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a result of the resource curse and the forces of greed and exploitation that have buffeted this part of the world for more than a century.

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt add some peripheral pizazz at Davos in 2006
World Economic Forum, CC BY-ND

Of course, you do see celebrities at some of the sessions and also out and about, but this was a very low-key part of the WEF. More important is the discussion and business which occurs behind the scenes and over a variety of social events. I talked to many people during the conference, without really knowing the backgrounds or interests of most of them beyond a simple introduction.

At the very least I have communicated what I do, some of the issues facing the oceans and my take on solutions. I don’t think I’ve had a life-transforming conversation (it’s not over yet), but I can see how this can easily happen in a potent mix of political and business elite, keen and open minds and finance… perhaps next time (and I hope there is a next time).

There are other attractions to the WEF as well. If you are involved in education and inspiration of young minds then there is real opportunity here to talk to young innovators and potential students who are keen to pick your brains and talk about their hopes and aspirations for the future.

If you are involved in an institutional event such as the Oxford IdeasLab then it can really help you to get to know parts of your organisation and fellow lecturers/tutors in other disciplines that previously you may not have come into contact with.

In short, Davos is for academics too, even marine biologists. Yes, there are frustrations; clashes in timetabling of sessions, traffic jams, heavy security. The town itself, however, is a stunning location and the WEF is a beautiful black swan; almost anything can happen, including many things for the global good.

The Conversation

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