Association Affairs

AAAS annual meeting demonstrates the critical value of global scientific collaboration

Science  25 Mar 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6280, pp. 1408-1409
DOI: 10.1126/science.351.6280.1408

Geri Richmond and Hashemite University molecular biologist Rana Dajani spoke after Richmond's AAAS presidential address to open the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting.

PHOTO: BOSTON ATLANTIC PHOTOGRAPHY

Some of the most intriguing news at the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting focused on the tiny: a miniscule cosmic ripple born 1.5 billion years ago, and a millimeters-long mosquito responsible for an emerging health crisis. But the science behind these discoveries is huge in scope and in importance, reflecting the ongoing achievement of international research teams addressing complex challenges in science and society.

NIAID Director Anthony Fauci proposed new Zika funding.

PHOTO: BOSTON ATLANTIC PHOTOGRAPHY

Efforts to track the spread of Zika virus in the Americas, and the landmark discovery of gravitational waves, both demonstrate the power and potential—and the need—for global collaborations between scientists, speakers emphasized at the 11 to 15 February event, held in Washington, DC.

In particular, scientists in developing countries must work as equal partners with their counterparts in developed countries to solve border-crossing challenges like climate change and virus outbreaks, said outgoing AAAS President Geri Richmond in her address at the start of the meeting.

The best science happens, Richmond said, “when everyone is at the table and has an equal voice, when creativity flows with different perspectives from different countries, different institutions, and different backgrounds.”

The increasingly global nature of science became clear to Christopher Dye in 2015 when he walked into an Ebola response team meeting in Monrovia, Liberia. “I counted 12 nationalities in the room,” said Dye, director of strategy in the Office of the Director General at the World Health Organization. “These were people who had never worked together, and never met each other before. They came from very diverse backgrounds, and yet they worked together immediately.”

“And if you want to think about Zika virus—because that's what worries us at the moment—will Zika be a story of global science engagement and global engagement in other forms?” Dye asked in his AAAS plenary address.

Dye joined a panel of public health experts who spoke at the meeting on the troubling increase in Zika virus infections and associated neurological disorders such as microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome in Central and South America. After the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Zika outbreak a public health emergency of international concern on 1 February, teams of international researchers have traveled to the region to clarify the connections between the virus and the disorders, and to look for ways to prevent Zika's spread. Panel speakers said the first results from these studies, including a report from Brazil on children with microcephaly, are expected in April.

In a AAAS news briefing, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Anthony Fauci noted that President Barack Obama has asked the U.S. Congress for a $1.8 billion budget supplement to fight the virus outbreak, which would include funding to the National Institutes of Health to help develop a Zika vaccine.

Hands-on experiments are encouraged at AAAS's annual Family Science Days. This year's event drew more than 3000 children and their families.

PHOTO: BOSTON ATLANTIC PHOTOGRAPHY

Speakers at the meeting also said that challenges such as food shocks associated with the extreme-weather effects of climate change require a coordinated international response. There is a growing likelihood of a weather-driven food shock, where major harvests of a staple crop such as soy, maize, wheat, or rice fail and significantly drive up the crop's price on the global market, warned Tim Benton of the United Kingdom's Global Food Security Program. The global food trade network can potentially amplify the risks of weather-driven food shocks, hitting hardest in poor and import-dependent countries such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, he said.

Benton and his colleagues have been working with government leaders and policy-makers around the world to address and manage food shock risks. “We ask, ‘Are you prepared for the consequences?’ And typically the answer is ‘No,’” he said. “Governments are listening, but they aren't engaged as much as we would like them to be.”

The researchers called for an international plan of action to make the food system more resilient, such as adopting contingency plans to store key crops or divert certain crops from biofuel use when demand reaches a critical level. Biotechnology used to develop drought-resistant crops, better agricultural practices such as crop rotation, and more sustainable use of resources can also help agriculture adapt to extreme weather, they said.

In other sessions throughout the meeting, scientists emphasized how their international collaborations have led to productive diplomatic relationships between countries. In one such gathering, key researchers with the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) talked about how their center will nourish both technological expertise and understanding among people with diverse religions and political systems in the region.

Synchrotron particle accelerators such as SESAME produce electromagnetic radiation that can be useful in probing the structures of complex proteins, identifying the chemicals in a new drug, or developing materials that capture pollutants. SESAME's current members include Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority, and Turkey. More than a dozen nations, including the United States, act as advisors to the project.

“The first news is that it exists at all,” said Chris Llewellyn-Smith, a former director-general of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Llewellyn-Smith is president of the international council that is leading the SESAME project. “I believe I am correct in saying that I chair the only body in the world outside of the United Nations that has representatives of Iran and Israel in the same room.”

When it begins operations later this year, SESAME will join a growing number of other “megascience projects” dotting the globe, including those involved in the blockbuster discovery of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO project.

The existence of gravitational waves—ripples in the fabric of spacetime—were predicted 100 years ago by Albert Einstein, who thought that the effect would be too small to ever detect. At a special session convened at the AAAS meeting, Gabriela González, a professor of physics at Louisiana State University and spokesperson for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, described how a massive international effort by more than 1000 scientists from 16 countries finally observed the signature of a gravitational wave as it brushed over Earth. The LIGO collaboration is poised to expand globally, González said, with the VIRGO detector in Italy and the KAGRA detector in Japan now under construction. A few days after the historic LIGO announcement, the cabinet of Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi gave approval to a new detection facility called LIGO-India.

The 182nd AAAS meeting drew nearly 10,000 attendees from 60 countries to participate in research presentations, career workshops, and special events such as Family Science Days. At that event, more than 3000 children and adults had a chance to engage with dozens of scientists and explore 30 interactive science exhibits. The meeting also included four “edit-a-thons” to encourage attendees to edit and create scientific content for the website Wikipedia, as well as discussions at the forum website Reddit, where scientists attending the meeting fielded the public's questions on robots, neutrinos, and addiction.

  • * With reporting by Andrea Korte, Earl Lane, Jean Mendoza, and Juan David Romero

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