Scientific remedies: it’s time to up the dose

Last week, I spent some time attending the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. As Director-General of CERN, I have a standing invitation and it’s one that I have regularly taken up. I go there to promote the science agenda to leaders from all areas of society. Over the years, there’s no doubt that science has moved up the agenda, but there’s still a considerable way to go.


The first time I went, I gave a presentation about physics and spent the rest of my time learning how Davos works. It did not take long to figure out that such presentations are essentially there to entertain the participants, and that the main purpose of Davos is meeting people and networking. It’s an opportunity to take the world’s pulse – and, if the pulse indicates that a remedy is required, to inject a little scientific medicine.

My message at Davos has evolved from sharing the excitement of the quest for knowledge to pointing out the necessity of basic science in the global economy, and, this year, the need for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education if the next round of UN development goals are to stand any chance of being achieved (see the Forum Blog). These are messages that are starting to gain traction, and of course I’m not the only one promoting them. Last week, for example, there was a very interesting discussion on the digital agenda that chimed perfectly with the messages that CERN wishes to spread.

The principal talking point, unsurprisingly, was the world economy, with the Swiss franc-euro exchange rate being much discussed. The economy is so interlinked that this has wide ramifications in both the public and private sectors, with consequences that are difficult to predict.

Clearly, a large drop in the value of the euro and other currencies relative to the Swiss Franc has a significant influence on CERN, with many of our Member States being in the Eurozone and our budget being measured in Swiss francs. As a consequence, the CERN Management has communicated immediately to the Member States that it will soon present a plan of action that will allow CERN to function as normal.

Returning to Davos, the medicine of science, unfortunately, has no quick fix to questions of economy. Our remedies are long term. They are based on the provision of basic science to drive innovation, and on the development of STEM education to provide both scientists and a scientifically literate society. Based on the pulse of Davos this year, we need to up the dose.

Rolf Heuer