Conference: ESOF 2016

ESOF2016The EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF), a biennial conference showcasing European efforts on science’s grandest problems, was this year hosted in Manchester. The city was chosen based on its long history of scientific advancement, from Rutherford’s proton discovery to the more recent isolation of graphene. I had never been to the ESOF series before, but the University promoted the programme and the topics looked diverse and interesting. Here I give a short overview of my experience.

The conference was held from 23rd to 27th July, almost one month after Britain had voted to leave the European Union, and this topic was mentioned on many agendas. In fact, a whole session was devoted to how scientific collaboration could continue post-Brexit. The majority of the scientific community felt the European Union benefited them, and the vote to leave cause concern for funding opportunities and international collaboration. Whether scientists did enough to get across how much we benefitted from the EU was discussed in this session, with the conclusion that it had not been portrayed strongly enough. Communicating the impact of science to the public is becoming increasingly important and there are important lessons to learn from the vote to leave the EU.

Looking towards the future, the panel highlighted three main proposals for success post-Brexit: after leaving the EU there would be an 850-million-pound shortfall in research funding that the treasury should fill; companies currently spend 1.7% on research and development, this should be 3 %; and finally that the movement of scientists should still be kept fluid. Like most Brexit issues the details are unclear and we will have to wait and see what happens in the coming months.

Another problem crossing international borders is doping in sports. At the time, news reports were highlighting the state-sponsored suppression of positive doping test results in athletes, and this brought some real interest to this topic. Talking here was Arne Ljungqvist, Olympic champion and ex-head of WADA, overviewing the challenges faced with by anti-doping. He gave a historical perspective about how doping is seen to be against the spirit of the Olympics, and also outlined the modern challenges faced with banned substances being found in many innocuous products.

It is not just Olympic athletes taking performance enhancing drugs, and later speakers highlighted how their use had permeated through society. Now the attraction of these drugs for amateur athletes and image-conscious young people has become a public health risk. They focused, again, on how it is important for scientists to communicate to the public what is known to be harmful about these drugs to improve the public health issue.

A later session discussed the overuse of another kind of drugs: antibiotics. Here the focus was on antibiotic resistance.  This is where over time, bacteria become resistant to the antibiotics we use to treat them through a simple mechanism. To remove a bacterial infection from someone, they can take antibiotics that kill the vast majority of the bacteria in the body. These simple medicines have saved millions of lives and simple infections are now rarely fatal. However, a tiny fraction of the bacteria are genetically resistant to the antibiotic and survive the treatment. These resistant bacteria could then grow into the strain that causes the next infection. This time the antibiotic will not work because of the bacteria’s inherited resistance. This in itself is not a huge problem, as we have tens of different antibiotics that can be used. But the more we use, the more resistant the bacteria become. Eventually we reach strains that cannot be treated with any of the antibiotics we possess. This is a worrying concern and would lead to a world where simple infections can kill.

In the session we learned that there are two prongs to tackle this problem. The first is to reduce antibiotic use to hinder the development of resistance. This means only using antibiotics when essential: for example not using them to improve growth rates in cattle, and only using them in humans to treat bacterial infections. How do we tackle some misinformation about antibiotics so people don’t ask for them to treat any illness? The second is to develop a new array of antibiotics.  Drug development is profit driven, and because antibiotics do not yield large profits they have remained undeveloped for 30 years. This is starting to change now as the issue begins to attract research funding. There was a reassuring showcase of drug development that could help this problem before it gets to the lethal stages.

Our scientific work is generating increasingly more information, both in volume and complexity. One main theme that spanned the whole of ESOF 2016 was this: how can we effectively get this information across for public benefit? How can we inform people that antibiotics are not helping most illnesses and that a resistance is developing which will have serious consequences? Or how can we convince them that leaving the EU will likely have a detrimental impact on scientific research in this country? Or that taking substances for image and sport performance improvements can lead to serious health consequences? There were many other questions like this, and as the science gets more complicated the feeling is that the scientist-public gap is widening. Narrowing this gap is a priority for all researchers if our science is to make the difference. Conferences like ESOF help in highlighting these issues, and allowing scientists to work together and share ideas on these things.


  • Watch videos of the sessions on YouTube: