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Lindau09: Scientists in society

More than 600 delegates arrived yesterday in the quaint German town of Lindau on Lake Constance for this year’s meeting of Nobel Laureates.

Most of the delegates are students who have been selected by a panel to participate in the event, where they will have a unique opportunity to interact with some of the greatest scientific minds on the planet.

I’m here with a team from Nature, and a film crew, who are making a series of short films on this year’s meeting, which is dedicated to chemistry. A sizeable proportion of the programme is on climate change and sustainability (which is just as well given that I left chemistry behind as a second year undergraduate to pursue earth sciences), so one of our films will focus on those issues, specifically on the role of scientists in informing policy.

After arriving on Saturday we had the tough job of selecting the young researchers who will participate in the films this year. For the film on climate change, that meant choosing just 3 finalists out of the several dozen applicants. It slightly felt like being an ‘X factor’ judge, but luckily we were all in agreement on the final call.

As well as discussing science itself, many of the young researchers see the Lindau meeting as an opportunity to learn about what it takes to be a great scientist and to discuss the broader role of scientists in society.

In the opening ceremony on Sunday afternoon, Kapil Sibal, Indian Minister for Human Resource Development, who has just been admitted to the Honorary Senate of the Lindau Foundation, said that scientists must stay above politics and not be constrained by history. Science and technology are “value neutral”, but “can used for good or bad”, said Sibal. He urged the next generation of scientists to think carefully about the applications of their work and to whether it can be used for the good of society.

With climate change and sustainability featuring heavily on the programme, that’s something of a theme here.I’m now sitting in a garden with Laureate Sir Harry Kroto, who is deep in conversation with two young scientists about the ethics of nanotechnology, and the responsibility of science in communicating their work to a wider audience. Kroto, who received the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, is also the founder of the Vega Science Trust, a broadcasting platform for scientists to communicate to students, teachers and the public.

We started filming the climate documentary today. I’ll be back with an update tomorrow after we’ve met with some of the Laureates.

Olive Heffernan


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