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Land of new ideas

A conference and competition in Germany promote innovative proposals from other countries

Forum held during breaks at the Berlin conference

Kay Herschelmann / FWFForum held during breaks at the Berlin conferenceKay Herschelmann / FWF

from Berlin*

On November 8 and 9, 2015, scientists, politicians, and business executives gathered in Berlin for an international competition and conference, both testaments to the fact that Germany—among the  world’s foremost producers of science and technology—is expanding its role and promoting innovative efforts of other countries to help resolve problems that affect the world as a whole.  The gatherings, organized by Falling Walls, a foundation established in 2009 with support from the German Ministry of Education and Research, coincide with the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall to emphasize the necessity of breaking down the barriers that stand in the way of science.  Little Sun, a portable solar lamp sponsored by the foundation, shows that this goal can be achieved.  Created by artist Olafur Eliasson and engineer Frederick Ottesen, the sunflower-shaped lamp is now being used by 200,000 Africans without access to electricity.  Other barriers, however, are proving more resistant.  A conference attendee from Bangladesh pointed to gender differences, for example, and the obstacle they pose to development in poorer countries.

The November meetings in Berlin helped mold “the future vision of Europe” on a foundation of international cooperation, explained Minister of Education and Research Johanna Wanka at the opening session of the conference.  By giving creative researchers (in the presence of business executives and government representatives) a voice, the competition and conference could be integrated with other efforts to strengthen the sciences in Germany supporting international cooperation agreements with research institutions, and  incentives for U.S.-based German scientists to return to their country.  With the support of Chancellor Angela Merkel, a physicist by training, investment in sciences and innovation has increased steadily, from approximately €9 billion (R$35 billion) in 2005 to €14.4 billion (R$57 billion) in 2013.  The Research and Innovation Pact has promoted incentives for university reform, the creation of new research centers, and development of collaborative projects with private companies.

“I am an example of the internationalization of German science,” claims Marcos Lana, an agronomist from the state of Santa Catarina, now at the Leibniz Center for Agricultural Landscape Research in Müncheberg, where he has been since 2009.  In collaboration with the Brazilian Center for Ethanol Technology (CBTE) in Campinas, Lana now coordinates a project on subsistence agriculture in a semiarid interior region of Tanzania.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989: inspirations for science

GERARD MALIE / AFPThe fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989: inspirations for scienceGERARD MALIE / AFP

Lana was one of four Brazilians among the 100 finalists to present their work at the fifth edition of the Falling Walls Lab competition.  Participants had only three minutes to present their projects and convince the jury that they were working on something truly relevant.  A great diversity of research was presented.  A researcher from Israel demonstrated a technique for detecting the risk of autism in one-month-old infants through their response to sound stimuli, while another involved a prototype of a water filter to be used in shantytowns in India.  Some projects were of a more conceptual nature, such as the use of artificial muscles, or nanocompounds for detoxifying drug addicts.  Voicing the difficulty faced by most of the innovators that had gathered for the event, Joshua Lee of the University of Alberta, after demonstrating his gene-repair technique, explained that he was “looking for financing.”

The evening began with a presentation of the jury’s selection of the three best innovative ideas by researchers and students up to age 35, from 40 countries.  These included a device for early detection of risk of premature birth during gestation developed at the Zurich Polytechnic School, a technique for detecting prostate cancer metastasis devised at the University of Alberta, and a method for producing hydrogen through a chemical reaction of water and aluminum developed at Israel’s Technion Institute of Technology.

On the following day, the Falling Walls Conference brought together senior scientists and business executives to address topics of global importance.  Before an audience of 700 people, Saskia Sassen, a sociology professor at Columbia University in New York, spoke about transformations underway in the world’s great cities caused by migration and the gentrification of neighborhoods previously occupied by the poor who now reside in peripheral areas.  In an informal exchange where the speakers explained their ideas in forum discussions between the official presentations, Sassen raised the following question: “What if the waves of refugee migrations represent more than just a temporary phenomenon, and mark the beginning of a new historical stage where land is lost because of war, the expansion of agriculture, or desertification?”

Approaching the stage, June Andrews, professor at the University of Stirling in the UK, asked, “Who wants to live to age 90?”  Seeing a number of hands raised, Andrews informed the audience that half of all people age 90 or more suffers from dementia, a condition marked by the gradual decline of physical and mental abilities.  She then argued for practical and urgent measures to help those with dementia—those who, according to her, “find themselves in a place they don’t recognize, or can’t understand what people are saying.”

Physicist Andrea Accomazzo, one of the directors of the European Space Agency, remarked that Rosetta, the European space probe that landed on a comet in November 2015 after a 10-year voyage, might have marked the beginning of a new era of space exploration.  “We might have to leave this planet someday,” she suggested.  Accomazzo is not alone in this way of thinking.  Just the day before, a Chinese researcher, one of the Falling Walls Lab finalists, had proposed initiatives to create an artificial environment for human habitation on the moon, where plants would provide the necessary oxygen for life.

* The reporter traveled to attend the conference at the invitation of the Falling Walls Foundation