In an age of uncertainty, there is inarguably a need for a cool and, above all, rational approach to addressing the manifold issues faced by humanity. Here, Ulrich Betz of science and technology company Merck outlines the background to next year’s Curious Future Insight conference: “solving the challenges of today and enabling the dreams of a better tomorrow”.
It was a remarkable moment back in 2018 when Merck, a vibrant science and technology company, celebrated its 350th anniversary. At the Curious2018 – Future Insight Conference in July 2018, Merck announced a new research prize comprising up to €1 million per year, which is planned to be awarded for the next 35 years to honour and enable groundbreaking research in areas of high need for humanity, such as health, nutrition and energy. And on that day, a Tuesday, 17 July 2018, it was announced that the theme of the first prize was in a high-need area called “pandemic preparedness”. Who would have known that only 17 months later, a coronavirus would jump species barriers and form the worst pandemic that humanity has experienced since the flu pandemic a hundred years earlier, in 1918. The Curious2018 – Future Insight Conference (Springer, ISBN 3030160602) also featured a panel discussion on the topic of pandemic preparedness that further highlighted the urgent need to progress research in this area. It assembled more than 1,300 international participants and top speakers, including many Nobel laureates, and covered many topics from health, life sciences, material sciences and digitalisation to new ways of working together.
For its 350th anniversary, Merck clearly showed what it stands for. Science is at the heart of everything we do at Merck. It drives the discoveries we make and the technologies we create – from advancing genome editing technologies and discovering unique ways to treat the most challenging diseases to enabling the intelligence of devices. As a leading science and technology company, we draw on our unique scientific expertise to develop breakthroughs that enrich people’s lives.
Our approach to technology paves the way for discovering and scaling the most exciting technologies. The majority of our innovations come from our healthcare, life science and electronics business sectors, with approximately 7,800 scientists and researchers collaborating for our company. Complementary to our business sectors, we also create and foster an innovation ecosystem, bolstering our overall innovative power across emerging tech areas.
We believe that scientific exploration and collaboration are key to technological advances that benefit us all. Annually, Merck offers the Merck Research Grants to stimulate innovative research in challenging areas of future importance. For more information, please visit http://researchgrants.merckgroup.com (for the world, excluding the US and Canada) and at http://researchgrants.emdgroup.com (for the US and Canada).
We also drive innovation and back entrepreneurs through equity investments and hands-on support in fields that could impact our current and future business. M Ventures, the strategic, corporate venture-capital arm of Merck, invests in innovative technologies and products that have the potential to significantly impact the company’s core business areas. Since its inception in 2009, M Ventures has established itself as a major corporate venture fund, focusing on investments in the fields of biopharma, life science tools and technologies, semiconductor and display technologies, and deep-tech and sustainability. Always on the lookout for cutting-edge technologies, M Ventures invests in approximately 10 new companies per year. These investments range from early-stage deals to later-stage investments.
In addition, Merck offers one of the most renowned programmes aiming to support talented young people in the development of new, fresh ideas, advancing them with the help of professionals to a full project plan and thus win the €20k Merck Innovation Cup with their teams. Participation in the programme can ultimately result in project implementation funded by Merck and a permanent employment position. Applications can be made at http://innovationcup.merckgroup.com (for the world excluding the US and Canada) and at http://innovationcup.emdgroup.com (for the US and Canada).
Merck will continue to honour and enable innovative research with its Future Insight Prize. In 2020, it was in the area of antimicrobial resistance, and in 2021 it is going to be in the area of food – looking closer at the science and technology needed to secure the nutrition of a growing world population. The laureate for this year will be announced at the 2021 Future Insight Days, which will take place online from 12-14 July 2021. Participation is open to all those interested around the world. You can register free of charge at http://curiousfutureinsight.com. The Future Insight Days will also feature the awarding of the Nature Spinoff prize (https://www.nature.com/nature/awards/spinoffprize) and the Johann Anton Merck Award (https://www.merckgroup.com/en/research/grants-and-awards/johann-anton-merck-award.html), along with several stimulating keynote presentations and panel discussions.
For July 2022, the big science flagship conference Curious Future Insight is planned again, this time as a hybrid event allowing for on-site and online participation. The motto of the event will be “United by science for a better tomorrow”. The conference will bring together renowned scientists and accomplished entrepreneurs to present their work, discuss the future of science and technology, and work together to solve the challenges of today and enable the dreams of a better tomorrow. Abstracts for presentation can now be submitted at http://curious2022.com. Tickets are available at the site, too. The event is supported by several co-sponsors and has developed into a global endeavour to support science and technology. All innovative organisations are cordially invited to apply to become a partner of the event. Many Nobel laureates have already agreed to speak, along with some one hundred additional speakers in total.
In the remainder of this article, let me add some personal opinion and thoughts that manifested themselves over the last couple of years of thinking diligently on the matter of innovation – particularly coming back to the global COVID-19 pandemic, which is not yet over. The story of the coronavirus pandemic in relation to science and technology holds light and shadow. On the one hand, it clearly showed that progress was not as fast as required to protect humanity in a densely populated world. At the beginning of the pandemic, the pictures from 1918 and 2019 looked almost identical, including the countermeasures taken, such as face masks and social distancing – 100 years without any progress? But then it turned into a triumph of science, technology and innovation with a new-technology mRNA vaccination entering the race and leading to the best-performing vaccine in clinical studies, with advantages over older but more validated vaccination technologies. It is also a clear story emphasising the innovation potential of Germany, with two German biotech companies, BioNTech (together with its US development partner Pfizer) and CureVac, pioneering this field, along with Moderna in the US. The scientific groundwork had been done earlier by scientists relentlessly pursuing advances in this field, despite many drawbacks and negative feedback, believing in the way forward and deserving all honour and applause for this grand achievement – scientists such as Ingmar Hoerr, Drew Weissman and Katalin Kariko.
The latter has recently also signed the Darmstadt Science Declaration, a global call to all nations, societies and organisations to invest more resources in the advancement of science and technology for the benefit of humanity. Everybody is cordially invited to join this call and to sign the declaration at http://make-science-not-war.org (Angewandte Chemie International Edition 2018, 57, 2-4).
And additional challenges are on the horizon, such as, for example, those regularly analysed and published by the World Economic Forum in its World Risk Report. Threats that need attention in my personal opinion are bioterrorism (inspired by the coronavirus pandemic), accidental nuclear war (more widespread availability of nuclear weapons all around the world), cyber-threats (a big hack damaging large parts of the digital networks all around the world is not beyond the bounds of possibility), climate change (already well publicised, but not yet sufficiently acted upon), geomagnetic disruption (a reversal of the magnetic north and south pole are overdue, looking at history records), a solar flare potentially wiping out computer memories all around the world (it has happened in pre-digital times and could happen any day again), disruption of the global ecosystems due to increased pollution (e.g., microplastics), a return of the financial crisis and, last but not least, a global food crisis with rising costs of food, including all the associated problems of starvation, malnutrition, political instability and global migration on a large scale. With the current state of science and technology, these problems cannot be sufficiently solved and we need more resources and more-efficient advances towards new technologies enabled by new scientific discoveries, and it needs to happen quickly, as drastically laid down in “The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update” (ISBN-10: 193149858X).
Needless to say, science and technology alone will not solve the problems, as acceptance and global distribution are important issues. In addition, science itself is neutral and can be used for good and bad. That is why it always needs to be accompanied by a strong code of ethics and clear moral values, such as truth and love and courage and liberty, as also reflected in the Merck values: integrity, achievement, respect, courage, transparency and responsibility.
Along with the challenges and global problems described above, also come tremendous opportunities for a bright future. The advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning are breathtaking, progress in quantum computing leading to ever-more-powerful electronic brains, new therapeutic options with gene and cell therapy, the molecular understanding of the ageing process opening new avenues for medicine to increase life expectancy, advancements in synthetic biology, the understanding of the effects of the microbiome, as well as impressive advances in fusion technology and robotics, and a revival of space travel.
As Carl Sagan once put it, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” Science is one of the noblest endeavours of humankind, exploring with curiosity the world and striving for truth, and there are still many unsolved questions of science, such as, for example: How does the human brain work? Is the brain a computer or an antenna? What is consciousness? Will there be a singularity with AI? Will we find a stable super-heavy element? What is dark matter and dark energy? Will there be a universal theory of everything, combining quantum mechanics and relativity? What does quantum entanglement mean for our understanding of reality? Are we alone in the universe? How did it all start? How will it all end?
Then it must be clear that there are limits to science, areas that lie beyond its methodology. We cannot research, for example, the most important question in life: Why do we live and what should we do? These answers need to come from somewhere else and we need to find the respective answers to these questions ourselves.
This is an invitation to join the global movement for a bright future – United by Science (http://unitedby.science).
Sign-up for a free ticket for the 2021 Future Insight Days at http://curiousfutureinsight.org
About the Author
Ulrich A.K. Betz, Vice President of Innovation Merck, is responsible for innovation management and strategic academic collaborations at Merck. He is an accomplished R&D manager with >20 years of experience in the pharmaceutical and chemical industry, including positions in the President’s Office Merck Biopharma and positions reporting directly to the Heads of Research and Development at Bayer and Merck. In his current role for example he designed and implemented the Merck Innovation Cup, the Curious-Future Insight Conference, the Merck Future Insight Prize, the Darmstadt Science Declaration, the idea competition innospire and the BioMed X Outcubator.