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Geneva Science and Diplomacy foundation reveals its next steps

( Image: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay )

A Swiss government-backed foundation launched last year to explore the next big breakthroughs in science has moved into its next stage of development after unveiling research on which it wants to build new projects. 

The Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA) on Thursday revealed a list of 68 global leading scientists that it has collaborated with to produce the first 10 in-depth reports on topics ranging from advanced artificial intelligence and genome editing to decarbonisation and computational diplomacy.

They will meet virtually today with 17 high-level diplomats and policymakers, whose names were also revealed on Thursday, to come up with proposals as to how to apply those scientific ideas outlined in the research papers, to emerging challenges.

Collaborating alongside the scientists, its “Diplomacy Forum”, chaired by the former director-general of the United Nations office in Geneva, Michael Møller, includes a line-up of well-known figures including Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and civil society representatives including astronaut and XPRIZE Foundation CEO Anousheh Ansari.

Where science meets diplomacy. GESDA was launched in February 2019 by Switzerland’s department of foreign affairs and Geneva authorities to bring science and diplomacy together while at the same time positioning Geneva as a hub for science multilateralism. It was given a budget of CHF 3.6m for its three-year pilot phase.

Its nine-member board is chaired by former Nestle chief executive Peter Brabeck-Letmathe and its vice-chairman is Patrick Aebischer, the former president of EPFL. Other members include former Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey and Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the UK’s Wellcome Trust.

By bringing different communities together, Brabeck-Letmathe said its aim was to “anticipate advances in frontier scientific work” being done in laboratories around the world “and to develop around them new initiatives, projects and solutions for humanity” .

Over the past year, scientists enlisted by GESDA have been scouting for cutting-edge research in four key areas: quantum revolution and Advanced AI; human augmentation; eco-regeneration & geoengineering; and science & diplomacy.

“After diving deep into science publications and probing discussions with worldwide experts, they produced ten in-depth reports on these critical topics suggesting what breakthroughs could be anticipated in 5, 10 and 25 years,” said Joël Mesot, co-chair of the “Academic Forum” of scientists and president of ETHZ.

What next? With almost two years passed since it was founded, GESDA has been a slow project in the making. But with 10 “in-depth anticipatory reports” now written and an impressive roster of names on board, all the attention will be on what the foundation and its members will do with the information they have gathered.

Møller said the goal of the talks today will be to “build a common understanding of what cutting-edge science and technologies can bring” and then “develop ideas for new global solutions, initiatives or institutions to accompany and foster agreement on how these science advances might help tackle those challenges.”

The plan is then to create “dedicated taskforces”  that will shape these solutions during 2021. These could take the form of individual development projects, governance, for example, new conventions or standards related to science. Or they may decide to set up a new institution, for example a research centre for science policy.

“From a pure science point of view, long-term anticipation – at 25 years – is an amazing task that we do not do often enough, or almost avoid in our daily work,” said Olaf Blanke, holder of the Bertarelli Foundation chair in cognitive neuroprosthetics at EPFL and author of one of the research briefs on Memory enhancement, said, adding:

“However, it is conceptually and scientifically interesting, extremely important, but also very difficult, or should I say impossible? In my opinion, it is completely lacking in science today and should be a new field of academia. Some topics will have dramatic changes.”

Mami Mizutori, a member of the Diplomacy Forum and special representative of the UN Secretary General for Disaster Risk Reduction, said:

“Anticipation is very important, but how do we find the best way to govern it so that it takes the global community to a place where we should be going? We should come to a good outcome on solutions; we can talk a lot about challenges (and opportunities), but in the end, we want to know how to solve them.”