A postcard from Davos: what role for research at this gathering of global opinion leaders?

Research Publishing
By: Magdalena Skipper, Thu Apr 4 2019

Author: Magdalena Skipper

Editor in Chief, Nature

Last month, I was invited - for the first time - to attend the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos.


My first impressions of Davos? Dazzling, overwhelming, unexpected, thought-provoking, incredibly busy and much, much more… After all, where else would one have the opportunity to lunch with the King of Belgium, a Nobel Prize winner and a University Chancellor all at the same table, and then listen to David Attenborough being interviewed by Prince William closely followed by the first international address by Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil?

This year’s theme was Globalization 4.0: shaping a global architecture in the age of the fourth industrial revolution. Sustainability, food security, tackling inequality, global health and gender equality feature prominently on the agenda. Klaus Schwab emphasised that Globalization 4.0 needs to be human-focused, more inclusive, sustainable and value-focused.

The meeting opened with a session embracing social justice among other issues. As part of a conversation with Co-Chairs, selected from among WEF Community of Global Shapers, we heard from Mohammed Hassan Mohamud, a refugee advocate from Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya, established in 1992, to which Mohammed would return at the end of the meeting in Davos. “You consider ethics of AI and machines but how ethical are refugee camps?” he challenged the audience. “While you consider your lofty ideas and goals this week consider the refugees; nobody wants us”. While the world’s eyes are on the latest crisis, long-term refugees are forgotten.

How can anyone imagine solutions to the problems the world is facing and which occupy everyone here at Davos without the benefits of research and technology?

Famous for hosting the World Economic Forum annual meeting, Davos - the city - also plays host to a number of important research and education institutes and considers itself a ‘science city’. From my perspective, there’s still more to do to involve and integrate science, research and evidence-based policy thinking into the WEF conference itself. After all, how can anyone imagine solutions to the problems the world is facing and which occupy everyone here at Davos without the benefits of research and technology? That said, Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of WEF, in his opening remarks stressed the importance of the participation of scientists and other experts in the annual meeting.

My colleague Mariette DiChristina, Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American, who has attended Davos for almost a decade, recalls the days when there was barely a scientist in the room - so things have certainly improved. But there is more to do.

I moderated panels on research ethics and on the future of science and technology in society as well as a participation-focused session on healthy longevity. And I attended sessions related to all manner of disciplines: biotechnology, mental health, precision medicine, AI, research culture, an interview on the science of psychedelics (entirely theoretical!), and a discussion between Bill Gates and Susan Desmond-Hellmann about the role of investors in supporting global health efforts. One of the key messages I took away from this conversation was that private investments can never replace commitment from governments.

One of the key tasks, I believe, of organisations like Springer Nature is to disseminate and share the research that can be used to make a difference in the world. 

And so, what role for research? As I have said, the voice of the scientific community - while present - could certainly be heard more loudly at Davos. It’s crucial that policy-making is informed by evidence - the best available, most up-to-date research, be that data gathered in a lab or the wider world, evaluation of evidence from a global research studies, or from citizen science projects. The annual meeting in Davos presents a wonderful opportunity to build a community of people who understand this and take it back into their day-to-day world, running organisations - and in some cases countries. I hope to see more and more evidence that it is the case.

One of the key tasks, I believe, of organisations like Springer Nature - through the journals and books we publish, including the Nature Research journals as well as Scientific American and Spektrum der Wissenschaft, is to disseminate and share the research that can be used to make a difference in the world. That’s why we developed the Grand Challenges programme to highlight interdisciplinary research and why we’ll be doing more to bring together diverse groups of people to share ideas of how research can be applied practically to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges.

When we consider today’s challenges for the world we would do well to keep in mind how young the world’s population is today. Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum, when setting the scene for this year’s meeting in Davos, reminded us half of the world population is under 27. It is in everyone’s interest that we listen to young people. In the context of research, innovation and discovery, we at Springer Nature recognise the important role that early career researchers play in creating future breakthroughs.

It is vital to listen to the researchers of today, helping them share their research widely, and so help create solutions for a more sustainable future. Important contributions to research comes from many and varied sources: whether that’s the potential impact of early career researchers (recognised by the new Nature Research Award for Driving Global Impact in the brain sciences); the potential for greater involvement of patients in peer review; or making research freely accessible from refugee camps (via Research4Life). The wider the contributions, the stronger the potential impacts of research in the real world.


Author: Magdalena Skipper

Editor in Chief, Nature

Magdalena is a geneticist by training and has considerable editorial and publishing experience: having started in Nature Publishing Group in 2001, she was Chief Editor of Nature Reviews Genetics, Senior Editor for genetics and genomics at Nature, and more recently Executive Editor for the Nature Partner Journals. Before joining Nature as Editor in Chief she was Editor in Chief of Nature Communications. She studied sex determination at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK, and Notch signalling in the vertebrate gut epithelium at the ICRF Laboratories (CRUK today), London. She is passionate about mentorship, transparent science and positive research culture. She has a keen interest in innovation in science publishing.