There were significant achievements at Cop26. Commitments on coal reduction from the biggest polluters. Major promises on greenhouse gas emissions. More climate funding for developing countries. Recognition from global finance leaders, including Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of England, that investing in polluting sectors won’t be profitable in the long run.
It is important that we take heed of those who are going to be living the consequences of steps taken or not taken in the next couple of decades – Greta Thunberg has reset the ground rules.
However, we must ensure that we don’t miss out on opportunities to incentivise innovation. Individual creativity and discovery remain vital to solving global challenges, and science and technology are key to delivering a sustainable future and putting power in people’s hands.
Politicians can’t expect breakthroughs to keep happening without clear action to nurture and energise talent.
This isn’t just about improving research funding. It’s also a question of incentivising groundbreaking innovation, building a platform for lesser-known developments within emerging fields, and establishing role models by celebrating those delivering positive change for people around the world.
I’m part of the judging panel for the VinFuture Prize, a global prize set up last year in Vietnam to pledge $4.5m annually to reward breakthrough scientific research and innovation that improves lives around the world.
This addresses two clear needs around cultivating and nurturing innovation.
First, through driving awareness of breakthroughs in science and technology, we can break down barriers, put a spotlight on new developments and inspire future generations.
We must recognise scientific achievement through special prizes and dedicated awards ceremonies that help promote diversity within the scientific community and widen accessibility for innovators in the sci-tech industries.
Prestigious ceremonies exist, but there aren’t enough that focus explicitly on how science and technology can create a better world for all.
Secondly, we need to do more to encourage scientists from different groups and nationalities to invent and create. Women remain under-represented at many of the world’s most prestigious awards ceremonies, and in the sci-tech sector more broadly. In the UK, women make up just 2 per cent of the Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) workforce. We can’t afford to miss out on female talent in the battle against climate change and other global challenges.
We need to widen access to education and mentoring programmes to ensure that girls in particular, and all young people interested in science, have the confidence and support they need to pursue Stem careers.
Another problem is that scientists from developing countries often don’t receive recognition because their voices are not heard as widely as they deserve to be.
Cultivating and nurturing innovation within developing countries is vital in tackling global challenges. Inequality can be dangerous. The uneven distribution of Covid-19 vaccines across the world, and the consequences for international travel and the economy, show how disparities between rich and poor nations can threaten global security.
Tackling this involves complex economic, institutional and societal factors, but we must ensure that there are structures in place to help talent from less developed countries unlock innovation and benefit their communities.
We need to focus on the future. While we’ve seen great progress, the innovations that will solve global challenges are yet to be developed. We must do everything we can to energise, motivate and inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers who will create them.
Sir Richard Friend is a professor of physics at the University of Cambridge