The Commonwealth Science Conference held in India in 2014 was the first for nearly 50 years. To encourage collaborative research across the Commonwealth, and to gather ideas on how future scientific research and communication should progress, the Royal Society brought the conference back to life.
After being nominated by my PhD supervisor, I was then lucky enough to be selected by the Royal Academy of Engineering as one of only two PhD students to represent UK engineering at the conference. Not only did I go as a representative for the UK, but also the University of York and the field of Computer Science.
The conference message was all about science for the common good, and included 350 delegates with diverse scientific and engineering backgrounds coming from 33 of the Commonwealth countries. This included 70 PhD students, who were invited to represent the young scientists, and were acknowledged as the future of science with the ability to change and mould scientific research for the good of the Commonwealth and the world.
It was a fascinating event that everyone thoroughly enjoyed - never before have I seen so many conference sessions with so many people in attendance. It was noted in the closing remarks how people didn't feel the need to get laptops, tablets, and phones out of their bags - even the final plenary talks on the final day were full of attentive delegates... Emails could wait!
The Indian government and local researchers were immensely proud to be hosting the event for the first time after its revival. So much so that the Indian president was the guest of honour at the opening ceremony. There were speeches given by the Minister of Science and Technology for India, Dr Jitendra Singh, the president of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, the Commonwealth Secretary General, His Excellency Kamalesh Sharma, The Duke of York, HRH Prince Andrew, the President of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee, Professor CNR Rao, and Professor Anthony Cheetham. It is an event I will never forget.
After the opening ceremony, Sir Paul Nurse gave the first lecture of the conference and asked the question "how do we trust science?" His message to the Commonwealth was clear - the way in which we do science needs to be open and honest. Those sceptical of the work of others need to take a step back and evaluate their own first. He also stressed the importance of public embrace of science, and noted that scientific journalists are good at portraying information in an understandable manner. It is just a shame that the headlines and promises made in the press are often misleading or exaggerated, he added.
The remainder of the conference consisted of a mix of diverse plenary sessions, focused parallel sessions, panel discussions, student presentations, and a poster session. The subject of these ranged from new leukaemia treatments that have had extremely positive results, climate-change analysis that identified how we have already dumped enough CO2 to raise the temperature 2oC by 2050, the Indian space program, cooperation and conflict in wasps, biology-inspired dinosaur fossil analysis, big-data analysis at the met office, neural networks, Galois connections, and the future of computing and technology.
The panel session aimed to identify how scientific advice is delivered to politicians and governments across the Commonwealth, and was chaired by the chief scientific advisor to HM Government UK, Sir Mark Walport. It was clear that the consensus on public understanding of science is limited, and ideas to break down the divide between scientist and the public (which includes the politicians) were presented. The discussion also highlighted a mix of opinions as to whether the scientists or the politicians are to blame. It also demonstrated the differences between the developed and developing countries in the Commonwealth with regard to the investment in science and the ability to progress.
Unfortunately, the field of Computer Science was under-represented at the conference. Out of 150 posters presented by students and academics, only five were dedicated to Computer Science and Mathematics. Similarly, there were few references to Computer Science outside the Mathematics and Complex Systems parallel session. Nevertheless, I managed to identify possible collaborations between the RTS group in York and the Physics department in Oxford for computing climate change models using FPGAs. I also made new acquaintances with other PhD students from Africa, Canada, Australia, and the Caribbean, in fields including Chemistry, Health sciences, Astronomy, and Palaeontology.
The conference was deemed a massive success, and plans are already under way for the next Commonwealth Science Conference, which is likely to be held in 2017. A working group will also be set up to address the concerns and issues that have been raised at the conference - for example, how can developed countries help developing countries in their up and coming research? Travel and mentoring grants for delegates (or nominees of delegates) have also been made available to encourage collaborative research inside the Commonwealth.
It was an experience that I will never forget, and I am extremely grateful to Jim Woodcock, Ana Cavalcanti, The Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Royal Society for giving me the opportunity to represent both York and the United Kingdom at such a prestigious event.
You can read Chris' profile at http://commonwealth.royalsociety.org/delegates/GBR/Chris-Marriott-MEng and more about the conference at http://commonwealth.royalsociety.org