Scientific collaboration key to solving global challenges like climate change: DPM Heng

DPM Heng Swee Keat noted that "new discoveries and innovations have enabled sustainable human development at a reduced cost to the environment". PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - A strong spirit of collaboration will not only see the world through the Covid-19 pandemic, but will also be crucial in solving other global challenges like climate change, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Monday (Jan 17).

Addressing young scientists at a virtual summit, he cited how thousands of scientists had contributed to the climate field after American scientist Eunice Foote discovered the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide in 1856 and made a conjecture on how it could influence global temperatures.

He said: "Today, with this body of knowledge, we are able to robustly model the effects of climate change. In other related fields, scientists have made clean energy sources more viable - from solar to wind, and increasingly, hydrogen."

"New discoveries and innovations have enabled sustainable human development at a reduced cost to the environment," added DPM Heng in a pre-recorded opening address at the 2022 Global Young Scientists Summit (GYSS), which is held virtually this year.

The annual summit, which runs from Monday until Friday and is hosted by the National Research Foundation (NRF), will feature 21 eminent scientists and Nobel laureates and engage over 800 young researchers from 40 countries.

The summit, which marks its 10th anniversary this year, was also attended by former president and GYSS patron, Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam. He had decided to organise a forum for global young scientists to gather in Singapore after his visit to the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 2010 when he was NRF chairman. The Lindau meetings, established in 1951, bring together Nobel laureates and young scientists for a science conference.

Dr Tan also received a special anniversary publication that showcased the summit's 10-year history and achievements - such as having hosted nearly 4,000 participants from over 40 countries.

In his opening speech, Mr Heng, who is NRF's current chairman, said that the path from research discovery to implementation at scale is often a multi-year, if not, a multi-decade journey.

He added: "This requires not just working in global partnerships, but also deep commitment and sustained investment."

Citing the example of Newater and Singapore's journey towards water sustainability, Mr Heng said the country had initially explored the idea of water recycling in the 1970s, but it was only until much later that the technology became commercially viable, thanks to scientific discoveries in various parts of the world.

To create Newater, used water is purified using advanced membrane technologies and UV disinfection, so that it becomes safe for drinking.

Today, membrane technologies are widely used for water reclamation in many cities including Singapore, with there being five Newater plants in the city-state to date.

"Having benefited from global scientific advancements, Singapore will continue contributing our tech expertise and operational knowledge to strengthen water sustainability in cities in the region and beyond," said Mr Heng.

Workers inspecting the reverse osmosis trains at the Newater plant in Changi on Jan 16, 2017. DPM Heng Swee Keat cited Newater as an example of how Singapore benefited from global scientific advancements. PHOTO: ST FILE

He added that Covid-19 breakthroughs, such as having safe and effective vaccines, and antiviral drugs to treat the disease, were only possible because scientists worked together across institutions and borders, and in partnership with the private sector, government agencies and international organisations like the World Health Organisation.

The summit will feature 20 plenary lectures and six panel discussions which will be broadcast live on the NRF YouTube channel. Topics include next-generation power grids, ethics and governance in artificial intelligence, preparing for the next pandemic, the convergence of neuroscience and computer science, and whether scientific research has fundamentally changed.

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NRF chief executive Low Teck Seng said the summit’s progress to its 10th year is a testament to how much Singapore has achieved in the last decade, adding that the GYSS is a recognised event in the science and technology community. 

“Science continues to be exciting and engaging... We must believe that science will allow us to see our way through despite all the issues that we’ll face,” he added, citing how the Covid-19 pandemic has put science right in the centre, as did the provision of solutions.

The three focus areas for research in the next three years would be RNA technologies, following the use of mRNA technology in Covid-19 vaccines; quantum computing, which is growing in importance as the world looks to a more secure environment for communications; and hydrogen as a renewable energy source.

“If you look towards the future, there’s so much new science to be done in the production of hydrogen storage, in the transport of hydrogen, for example,” said Professor Low.

One of the speakers attending the summit this year is Professor Stuart Parkin, who is known for developing the technology behind cloud computing - known as spintronics - which allows for a thousandfold increase in storage capacity.

DPM Heng Swee Keat (left) speaking with scientist Stuart Parkin at the Global Young Scientists Summit on Jan 17, 2022.

For his work, he was awarded the Millennium Technology Prize in 2014 - the tech equivalent of the Nobel prize.

Prof Parkin, who is attending the summit for the fifth time, said: “For me, it’s a very exciting time because we’re at the end of the era of using silicon trips, and so we have to do something new. There are two possibilities, one is quantum computing... and the other is a field of research called neuromorphic computing, where we try to be inspired by biology because our brain is basically a million times more energy-efficient than our computing systems today. 

“So there is a huge opportunity to create new types of computing systems (that are) constructed in different ways.”

His advice to young researchers? “Think differently and not follow the perceived wisdom. You have to come up with new ideas and be incredibly creative.”

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