Despatches from the Frontiers of Science (I)

Just don’t ask me what day it is. I know I arrived in Perth, WA, yesterday afternoon, and have been fully involved in this Frontiers of Science meeting ever since, but I’m damned if I know if it’s Sunday, Monday, or Saturday just now. But I know it’s been really really good, in a way that standard scientific conferences can’t match, so I thought I’d share with you a bit of the magic. So, FoS meetings work like this (and avid readers – if indeed such a species exists -will note certain similarities with the NESTA Crucible programme I wrote about last (or this??) week):

The Frontiers of Science programme is a prestigious series of international meetings for outstanding early career scientists, initiated by the US National Academy of Sciences in 1989, and which has since been adopted by the Royal Society and a number of other prestigious national science academies… These multidisciplinary meetings aim to bring together future leaders in science to discuss the latest advances in their fields, and to learn about cutting edge research in other disciplines in a format that is designed to encourage informal networking and discussion, and to explore opportunities for collaboration.

The exciting thing about this particular meeting (apart, that is, from the sound of the Indian Ocean that I can hear from my hotel balcony) is that, for the first time, it is themed – glorying, no less, in the title of Frontiers of Marine Science. What this means in practice is that all of us here, from microbiologists to global climatologists, start with a certain vocabulary in common. So, as an ecologist, I may know nothing about the physics of eddies or the chemistry of carbonates, but at least I know what they are, and how they might impact the ecological communities that I study. For an interdisciplinary enterprise, such shared language is both vital and unusual.

Take today, for example – the first full day of the meeting, we’ve already had sessions on the feasibility of geoengineering solutions to climate change, the significance of symbioses (for example, between sponges and bacteria, or between animal and plant in corals), and the importance for global climate models of small-scale water turbulence, involving biologists, physicists, mathematicians, and geologists. But underlying themes are already emerging. The desire to understand the carbon cycle, for example, or the pervasive effect of climate change (in all its many guises – including temperature rises and pH declines) on every facet of the natural world.

We still have two days left to get to the bottom of these issues, with discussions of ecology, physics and geology to come. What’s great, though, is the chances offered to formulate plans of action in the bar at the end of the day. Until you’ve listened to someone with an entirely different training to your own talk about the kinds of problems that really interest you, it’s impossible to see what insight a physicist, say, may be able to offer an ecologist. But it’s almost certain that insight will arrive, if you get the right people together. Within the next few days, I expect to be blogging on various far-reaching solutions to the crises in marine ecosystems (to my previous plea to restore the great whale populations, you can already add, for e.g., re-planting seagrass beds for carbon sequestration, fisheries replenishment, and coastal defence).

To those sceptics among you who might suggest that my optimism is fuelled by the excellent Western Australian wine that has been forced upon me since arriving, I would concede that you may have a point. But – I have seldom felt more inspired than when attending these kinds of multidisciplinary meetings; it can’t all be put down to the grape, and getting the right people in a room, talking about science, policy, and solutions, is a tremendously valuable process.