Let’s face it: nobody really enjoys conferences. In theory, they give spread-out communities a chance to come together and engage in fierce debates and trenchant learning about important issues. But practice doesn’t always match the theory.
Last week in London at the Grand Challenges Annual Meeting, however, it did. Grand Challenges is a set of initiatives from around the world investing in innovation for global health and development. These initiatives support thousands of grantees from more than 100 countries doing cutting-edge work in almost every conceivable topic area, from crop science to menstrual health to personalized medicine and precision public health. In London, 1,200 of these partners from 650 organization in 74 countries spent three days reporting on brand new insights, building new collaborations, and pushing progress on important priorities.
The quality of the science was phenomenal. Along with our partners, we hosted 13 different scientific tracks. I attended a joint session on vaccines and optimizing drug discovery, which included presentations from the cutting edge of life sciences innovation and translational science (Some of my favorites included “From Human Organ-on-Chip Disease Models to Rapid Infection Diagnostics and Vaccines” and “From TCR Sequence to Antigen Discovery.”) In the plenary sessions, we heard from the world’s leading experts on a host of emerging infectious diseases and the crisis of antimicrobial resistance.
I was able to meet with many of our partners who are funding Grand Challenges initiatives around the world, to learn from their experiences and think about how we can promote this approach to generating innovation. I spent a lot of time with the leaders of Wellcome, who co-sponsored the meeting and have been funding Grand Challenges from the very beginning. I also met with a range of other partners, including Christian Brechot, president of Institut Pasteur, and Precious Matsoso, director general of the Department of Health in South Africa. I also had a chance to catch up with our great colleagues at Grand Challenges Canada, USAID, and the European Commission, who are also co-sponsors of the Grand Challenges community.
But the meeting wasn’t just about talking. We were able to advance a shared agenda about some of the key priorities in global health today. One of the things we’re always worried about is funding for basic research. It’s always going on—quietly—in the background, and it’s the foundation upon which big advances are built. However, because it may take years or even decades to see the benefits, basic science is also susceptible to funding cuts in tough times. It was heartening to hear Priti Patel, the UK’s Secretary of State for International Development, announce that her Department would be continuing its significant investments in basic research. One of the reasons it’s important to have broad scientific knowledge is that we never know when we’re going to need immediate solutions to breaking disasters like Ebola or a zika. It was also exciting to hear discussions about new investments in epidemic preparedness for the future.
The beauty of this conference is that it really is building a community that wouldn’t exist without it. With the geographical and disciplinary diversity of the attendees—say, environmental engineers from Mauritius and developmental economists from China—many of them would never run into each other in the normal course of their lives, even though they’re chasing the same goal: a better life for the poorest people in the world. Now that they have run into each other, their chances of achieving this goal has gone up immeasurably.