On Thursday 1 December, we hosted our first in-person For Thought event since 2019. For Thought, the British Science Association’s (BSA) thought leadership programme for senior professionals in science, business, policy and civil society, provides a platform for cross-sector discussions on the most pressing challenges of the day.

This year’s theme, Collaboration in an uncertain world, enabled speakers and attendees to reflect on a year of international conflict, economic instability and the continued fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. The programme for the day was split into three panel discussions and networking sessions:

  • Chapter 1: Solutions for driving transparent and measurable progress towards Net Zero
  • Chapter 2: Collaboration, integrity, and diplomacy in an uncertain world
  • Chapter 3: Navigating the new online environment (the metaverse)

Find out more about the For Thought programme and speakers

So, what did our speakers have to say about collaboration through the lenses of dependable (or not) net zero policies, trust in the scientific process, and the immersive internet of tomorrow?

Chapter 1: Solutions for driving transparent and measurable progress towards Net Zero

Devyani Vaishampayan, CEO of the HR Tech Partnership, said that boards can play a key role in driving organisations’ efforts towards net zero. They must think about more than just profit and loss, and initiate a corporate-led cultural shift. They should gain the buy-in of their employees by setting an example and setting the vision for a responsible future. Evie Aspinall, Senior Researcher at the British Foreign Policy Group agreed that businesses have a huge role to play, citing that 64% of Gen Z want their future employers to demonstrate sound environmental policies.

Treating consumers as citizens and focusing on issues they can personally relate to and envisage the impact of – such as health – could better influence behaviour change and build support for climate policy, suggested Jane Burston, Executive Director at the Clean Air Fund. This, she said, has the potential to lead to more effective and collective action towards a truly sustainable and equitable future.

Our speakers all acknowledged that across the world, we are seeing societies becoming more inward-looking and more nationalist, especially evident when developed countries hoarded COVID-19 vaccines. They all agreed, however, that reaching net zero is a collective pursuit. In order to avoid climate disaster, actors in the field must actively reach out to and authentically involve communities, young people, governments, businesses and others areas of society.

Chapter 2: Collaboration, integrity, and diplomacy in an uncertain world

Rosa Furneaux, Health Investigative Reporter at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism drew attention to the inequalities that persist as the international community tackles global health challenges. This was evident in the approach to managing HIV in the 1980s and 1990s, and repeated with COVID-19. Rosa asked the other speakers and audience, can we truly use the development of a vaccine as an example of good global collaboration if, in some developing countries, only a quarter of people have had a single dose?

Andrew George, co-Chair of the Committee on Research Integrity and Ritu Dhand, Chief Scientific Officer at Springer Nature agreed that science must do more to support the public in understanding the complexities of the scientific process. Ritu reminded us that science isn't a collection of facts, but a constantly evolving body of knowledge. Working towards shifting this perspective is imperative in increasing trust in science, and preventing distrust when advice or guidelines change.

Because of the pandemic, said Anne Johnson, President of the Academy of Medical Science, the public is exposed to more scientific ideas than ever before. This is positive, in the sense that the general public has the opportunity to discuss science, develop opinions and innovate. But, in order to promote healthy discussions and prevent mis- and disinformation, scientists need to continue working closely, and alongside, communicators. This collaboration of scientists with communicators, journalists and decisionmakers in the media is essential for the flow of accurate and trusted knowledge.

Chapter 3: Navigating the new online environment (the metaverse)

Firstly, Nicola Millard, Principal Innovation Partner at BT set out the problem. All of the big tech players are developing their own versions of a ‘metaverse’. This, however, does not bode well for users. The metaverse is supposed to be an interconnected, interactive and immersive online space, not the separate entities that are being built which users need different credentials to access.

Baroness Beeban Kidron, campaigner and Chair of 5 Rights, explained that the online ‘world’ is the only area in which we're expected, as individuals, to be responsible for our own safety. Therefore, as a society, we need to reach a consensus on how to regulate the new digital environment in a way that doesn't exclude or harm some more than others. Baroness Kidron mentioned her campaign work, asserting that we must take safeguarding of children online seriously – we can’t just give them tools to protect themselves and leave them to it. Big tech is putting the onus on young people, but a framework is needed to create a safe, healthy environment for the next generation.

We also explored the weaponization of big data and algorithms by governments and election campaigns. Barrister & Author of The Digital Republic, Jamie Susskind, urged us to consider our current views of big tech leaders, privacy and how we use AI. Again, in this uncertain time where nascent technologies are being developed and trickle into our lives, society must come together to understand the impact on democracy, and thus ascertain how to protect our freedoms in the future.

Collaboration from a Ukrainian lens

Though Dr Alina Nychuk, a Ukrainian researcher specialising in Ukraine-Russia-EU relations, was unable to attend For Thought in person, she gave up some time to share her insights on the Russian invasion of her home country with Sir David Lidington (Former Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster). Alina described the catastrophic impact on science and academia, and the irreparable damage to relationships between Ukraine and its hostile neighbours.

Social, political and economic instability have plagued 2022. Sadly, Ukrainians are amongst those who have suffered the greatest losses.

So, how can science and innovation shape society’s response to complex challenges, from net zero to public health and the metaverse?

1. Reaching out

Those in the science sector must be active in making connections with other areas of society – the public, company boards, communities – to ensure research and innovation is trustworthy and inclusive.

Engaging with different communities provides insights into people’s concerns and what they value. This will not only help in coming up with solutions to future societal issues; these perspectives will ultimately help in implementing the solutions effectively by gaining people's trust and buy-in from the start.

2. Setting out what’s (potentially) to come

Science can do even more to help the general population reach a consensus on the direction of, and regulating, future technologies. Providing information, in an accessible way, to help the public in understanding how the world of tomorrow could look (advancement of nascent technologies, unknown health threats, etc) helps us to foresee issues and start thinking of ways to mitigate them, in policy, law and our everyday lives.

For (the next) thought

We’re looking to host another For Thought event in 2023, this time outside of London.

If you or your organisation would be interested in partnering with us to make this happen, we want to hear from you. We’ll work with you to curate a programme specifically for an audience of senior leaders in science, business, policy and civil society.

Previous partners include EY, Diageo, and the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy.

A huge thank you to our Major Partner in 2022, NERC (the Natural Environment Research Council).

Want to find out more about becoming a For Thought partner?

Visit the For Thought website