Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Oktoberfest for Scientists: Previewing the Berlin Grand Challenges Meeting

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October 12, 2018

Every Fall, the Gates Foundation publishes a report with 17 line charts that track progress on key health and development indicators like the global poverty rate. These charts project what is likely to happen through 2030, but because the future is always uncertain, they include a range of possible outcomes. A red area represents what might happen if we do worse and a green area represents what could happen if we do better.

Just three weeks after the launch of our report, we are pleased to welcome 1,500 people from 57 countries to our Grand Challenges annual meeting, which is dedicated to trying to make our brand-new charts wrong.

We say this because the point of the Grand Challenges program is to promote innovation that breaks through old notions of what is achievable. Based on past trends, according to our chart, the absolute best-case scenario for tuberculosis incidence in 2030 is 108 new cases per 100,000 people. But a new tuberculosis drug, to take one example, would launch us on a different trajectory. (That’s why one of the 12 scientific tracks during the meeting is "Optimizing Drug Discovery and Translation.") In fact, we won't be happy with 108 in 2030, because it'll mean that we won't have had any ideas or tools better than the ones we already have. We can beat the best case—and beat it by a lot—by researching and developing techniques and technologies that weren't part of our scenario planning in the first place.

The Grand Challenges community includes dozens of funding partners and thousands of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and activists who are hard at work inventing these new solutions. We are eager to welcome you all to Berlin on October 16-18 to find out what you’ve learned in the past year, to debate the issues keeping us all up at night, and to brainstorm the next big ideas.

We're not sure why it took us so long to host the meeting in Berlin. Germ theory, cell theory, name your favorite theory: most of the work we're doing now is based on German science going back more than 100 years. But it's not all Koch and Schwann and the history books. Going back just three years, Germany put antimicrobial resistance - one of our main topics at this year's meeting - on the global agenda during its presidency of the G7. Moreover, Germany is currently the second largest aid donor in the world, behind only the United States, which gives a much lower percentage of its GDP.

In short, Germany combines the technical skill to research and develop cutting-edge solutions with a sophisticated understanding of why investing in the poorest people matters. Our foundation already has many important partnerships with German advocates and innovators, and we look forward to strengthening our existing relationships while building many new ones. That is why the Gates Foundation is not just co-hosting the Grand Challenges meeting in Berlin (with our partners) but just opened a new permanent office there.

The Grand Challenges meeting is, at its core, a scientific gathering. Most of our time is spent in rigorous science sessions that run along 12 different tracks. This year, those include, to take a few examples, a track each on crop, drug, and vaccine research, two tracks devoted to cutting-edge surveillance systems, and two policy-oriented tracks (one on health systems strengthening and one on strengthening R&D on the African continent).

We'll also come together in plenary sessions that feature the world's leading policymakers and scientists discussing the most urgent topics in development (such as antimicrobial resistance) and exploring the role that innovation will play in addressing them. We don't want to spoil the surprise, but this year's list of speakers is extraordinary.

When Grand Challenges started, we and our partners knew we were making exciting grants to brilliant scientists. We didn't have a clue we were building a massive global community of innovators with dozens of partners. We look forward to seeing you all in Berlin. Prost!

 
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