Weekend of Research 2021 focuses on major global challenges

  • May 15, 2021
Weekend of Research 2021 focuses on major global challenges

Gates Cambridge Scholars from a range of disciplines took part in a Weekend of Research focused on democracy, the environment and technology.

Thirteen Gates Cambridge Scholars at the annual Gates Cambridge Weekend of Research in early May took part in panel discussions on the environment and migration, global justice and democracy and Artificial Intelligence and technology.

The subjects covered ranged from legacies of oppression and revolution in Myanmar to a call to radically scale down gold mining. The event was organised by Jeanne-Rose Arn [2019], internal officer of the Gates Cambridge Scholars’ Council, and Alex Kong [2016], co-chair of the Gates Cambridge Alumni Association, and each panel discussion was followed by a Q & A with scholars.

The keynote was given by Henry Peter, professor of law at the University of Geneva and director of its Centre for Philanthropy. He said that that, in order to tackle some of the key challenges facing the world effectively, there was a need to narrow the focus on the two overriding ones: environmental issues and growing social inequalities. These are global, urgent issues that, if not dealt with, could lead to implosion and they are issues that require systemic changes, said Professor Peter. He spoke, for instance, of the need to reset the economy and make it circular, lean, clean and inclusive. He said previous ideas need to be challenged. “We need to rethink everything,” stated Professor Peter. He spoke too of the need for a multidisciplinary approach and gave the example of work being done on pro-social behaviour with neuroscientists, psychologists, economists and others into how tax incentives might foster this.

He added that in order to do this research there has to be a shift away from the constant emphasis on measurable impact. “The impact obsession has to be abandoned,” he said. “Universities need to have the luxury to think totally out of the box without any need for any immediate quantifiable output,” he stated, adding that system disruption is not compatible with having an immediate, tangible impact.

Professor Peter questioned whether states could bring the kind of global systemic change required. A territorial approach is not the answer to global challenges, he said. Private sector companies could, however, overcome the limits of nation states by being more agile, acting more quickly and taking the risks that states cannot afford to take, said Professor Peter. He spoke of an OECD multidisciplinary project which found that states have more to gain than lose by involving the private sector in initiatives for the common good. Corporates could not ignore social and environmental issues, he said, and were increasingly expected to behave in a socially responsible manner by their customers, by the public and by their stakeholders. “Social expectations form a new normative law which is more powerful, global and immediate than any state law,” said Professor Peter.

Environment and migration

His keynote was followed by a panel on the environment and migration. Anna Guasco [2019] said the stories we tell about the environment matter, as does how we tell them. She spoke of the narrative that we – as humans – are all to blame for climate change and the commonplace notion that humans destroy nature. The term Anthropocene, for instance, suggests a template that humans are the main agents of the Earth’s destruction, said Guasco. Yet it is not true to suggest that all humans have affected climate change equally.  “These universal ‘we’s’ lump together those most responsible and those least responsible and most affected,” she said. Instead, we need to move beyond a binary of human vs nature and tell better Anthropocene stories that suggest more positive, more just environmental futures.

Andre Holzer [2016] explained the work of the freshwater monitoring initiative PuntSeq which he co-founded. He outlined the growing global water crisis, citing statistics which suggest that by 2025 half the world will be living in water-stressed areas. This affects not just the global South, he said. PuntSeq came about after research showed a strong link between fresh water in the Cambridge area and infections. Holzer and colleagues were critical of the fact that traditional microbiological analysis did not provide a detailed picture of the pathogens present in fresh water and their ability to infect people. DNA sequencing has required expensive, large scale equipment, but PuntSeq has created a simple, low-cost, portable framework for doing the sequencing as part of an environmental assessment of fresh water. Thanks to their recent publication, this technology is now available for citizens around the globe to monitor the bacterial composition of local water sources. Holzer said he hopes the method and sampling framework will improve local environmental water testing, democratise science and help to secure clean water for everyone.

Stephen Lezak [2019] asked whether we need gold mining and said it contributes to 0.3% of global greenhouse gas emissions [greater than all of intraeuropean aviation], uses up a lot of water and occasionally displaces people from their land and leads to vast ecosystem destruction. Furthermore, its impact is worsening as much of the world’s easily accessible gold has been mined, meaning extraction is harder and involves more toxic chemicals. Lezak and colleagues modelled what might happen if gold mining was stopped. They focused on the relatively small percentage of gold – 8% – that is used for industrial purposes, as opposed to aesthetic or investment applications. “Invested gold does very little for humanity,” said Lezak, adding that mining gold for investment purposes may not be justifiable based on its environmental impact. Recycled gold could be used instead for these purposes, thereby reducing the demand for mined gold, he said. Lezak added that if gold mining were to stop the value of above-ground gold stocks would increase. He suggested that mining firms and institutional investors might begin to divest from gold, although he said that the process of transitioning away from gold mining should be done responsibly and gradually.

Onon Bayasgalan [2019] spoke of her work in Mongolia with a fashion company, a mining company and a conservation organisation. She spoke of the impact on Mongolia of climate change [desertification has affected a quarter of the country] and pasture degradation as a result of overgrazing and mismanagement. Traditional ways of dealing with this through short-term projects based on pasture management plans had not worked, she said. Herders were being forced into the cities due to the struggles of droughts, resource competition and bad winters. Many face unemployment issues and live in poverty in the city. On top of that, the sudden influx of ex-herders into urban centres has led to an infrastructure problems, meaning newcomers have had to live in a yurt district on the outskirts of the city. Since yurt districts are mostly reliant on coal for heating purposes, this creates immense air pollution and public health issues.

The fashion industry wanted to make cashmere production more sustainable through working with herder cooperatives. However, this required individual herders to change their mindset and behaviour, which takes time. Cutting out the middlemen in the cashmere business disrupted the supply chain and upset the Chinese who were willing to sabotage any such efforts. There was no silver bullet, said Bayasgalan, adding that any impact of sustainable policies would not be immediate and would be clouded by the increasing effect of ongoing climate change, but she outlined some ways in which progress could be made, for instance, through rearranging agricultural subsidies to support sustainable farming.

Global justice, democracy, AI and technology

The following day the sessions were on global justice and democracy and Artificial Intelligence and technology. Alicia Stevens [2017] spoke about her research on several sites of Burmese cultural heritage and the way they reflect the country’s political liminality as it moves between periods of oppression and revolution. Her talk set the events of February 2021 when the Burmese military staged a coup d’état in the context of Burmese political history and its long-running legacy of political transition and uncertainty from the colonial era to the present day.

Dr Njoki Wamai [2012] spoke about the need to decolonise the international criminal court, given its idea of justice is based on a Eurocentric model which is not truly international and excludes other perspectives. Anna Forringer-Beal [2017] argued that learning from past examples of anti-trafficking and immigration policy can better inform today’s approaches to ending modern slavery in the UK; David Matyas [2020] questioned how we can widen the legal definitions of humanitarian aid to offer rich alternative visions and contribute to further-reaching, more locally relevant and just forms of assistance; and Dr Leor Zmigrod [2016] spoke of her research into the neurocognitive traits that underpin ideological extremism and dogmatism.

The last panel was on Artificial Intelligence and Technology included William McCorkindale [2019] on the consequences of flawed data and algorithm design and how leading machine learning researchers are attempting to mitigate these issues to create fairer Artificial Intelligence; Jascha Achterberg [2019] spoke about how brains and machines learn differently and his research into creating artificial networks that grow more like real brains do; Alina Utrata [2020] spoke of how technology corporations are impacting the state and our understanding of the public/private role, from Amazon’s cloud computing arm to Facebook’s private police force to Airbnb’s housing arbitration; Colleen Limegrover [2018] discussed the ethical implications of lab-grown brains used to understand more about neurodegenerative diseases; and Lieutenant Zac Dannelly [2016], currently a Cyber Warfare Engineer within the US Navy, spoke about how to avoid data fatigue when integrating data science into large organisations.

*Picture credit: Brocken Inaglory and Wikimedia commons.

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