Report by Aisling Irwin - ABSW member and EUSJA grant recipient

Earlier this month, courtesy of an EUSJA grant, I zipped over to Berlin to attend the Falling Walls 2017 conference. Though it seems unheard of in Britain, it has prestige elsewhere. Scientific luminaries from around the world jet in to address an audience of high-calibre delegates (who have paid a high-calibre fee to hear them). Mindful of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the speakers predict the next “wall that will fall” as a result of their spectacular progress in subjects ranging from Artificial Intelligence to diagnosis of disease.

The talks were, as promised, energising stuff. Despite their eminence, each speaker was given, TED-like, just 15 minutes to deliver an account of their life’s work and this was then followed by a “marketplace” in the foyer. Here, we found speakers perched in “stalls” and we were free to wander around them posing questions or just listening to the grilling from the crowd (a radio-headphone system for each delegate allowed each conversation to rise above the cacophony).
This was not an event at which to hear of unpublished science: more a summary of the state of the art and some future-gazing. In fact the two most depressing talks (on ocean plastic and antibiotic resistance), didn’t really fit the bill as they both conjured up huge walls that showed no sign of cracks. But the press operation was pretty slick and most of the speakers could be pulled out for interview.

Jennifer Lavers makes a point about rubbish in her draining account of ocean plastic
Jennifer Lavers makes a point about rubbish in her draining account of ocean plastic

The European journalist grant-recipients also got to visit some of Berlin’s interesting new digital institutions, and meet their chiefs. We were also invited to Falling Walls Lab: an exhausting -- and baffling – side competition held the day before the main conference, in which 100 young scientists from around the world touted their inventions. Each had three minutes and -- yes – for suckers who wanted to hear them all that broadly meant a full day in an auditorium. 

I went to quite a chunk of it, hoping to hear about the next big thing, and found myself comparing speaking dustbins with novel cancer diagnostics, and rain guards for rubber tappers with a YouTube channel. I was not convinced I was witnessing the international cream of young scientific talent. In some cases I was sure I’d heard the idea before; in others it turned out the presenter was an undergraduate with a small role in a project whose mastermind was elsewhere.

 Doubtless Falling Walls Lab will mature – this side event is only in its second year – and undoubtedly the students themselves found it an exhilarating experience and made links that could prove deeply useful. A parallel competition for start-ups (Falling Walls Venture) was probably more fruitful for journalists.

I would recommend the trip to any freelancer looking for an ideas-blast and some mingling with world-class thinkers and young scientists, as well as science journalists from across Europe. The grant covers only accommodation (and, in practice, most of the food) but I managed to find dirt-cheap flights, and researched a separate feature once the conference had ended. So I was laughing.

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