Session 1: Productive Refugees, Climate Change, and the Antibiotics Bottleneck

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The 9th Falling Walls Conference got started this morning at its refurbished post-industrial home, the Radialsystem V on the banks of the Spree River.

Alexander Betts of the University of Oxford vociferously challenged the conventional wisdom that refugees are a burden. Noting that just 0.3% of the global population consists of refugees, Betts argues that “this number should be manageable,” and blames “a crisis of politics” rather than real resource limitation. Today, most refugees come from Syria, South Sudan, and Afghanistan; this geographical context means that recipient nations are likewise relatively poor. To provide more opportunities, reduce the strain on any one given nation, and ultimately change the prevailing mentality in the rest of the world, Betts conducted a study in Uganda showing refugees’ substantial economic impacts. Indeed, they create jobs, build businesses, and lead technological adoption. “If we can make the case to businesses, we can create opportunity for refugees,” he says. “We have the talent here, but we need business to embrace that.”

Guus Velders from Utrecht University studies climate change, but he was initially inspired by more celestial subjects. After reading Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Velders saw his home planet in a new light. “I was at a stage where I needed to decide what to do,” he recalls, “and I knew I wanted to be involved in science.” This passion merged with a desire to do something useful – especially for his native Netherlands, susceptible as it is to sea level rise – and now Velders is a leading voice of well-reasoned climate change concern. Taking lessons from the Montreal Protocol, the ozone protecting agreement he helped negotiate, Velders notes the dangers of unintended consequences. The drive to minimize chlorofluorocarbons led to a shift toward hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a move that protected the ozone layer, but exacerbated greenhouse warming. Velders found that HFCs were a real climate change player, and his calculations helped cement the scientific case for a 2016 international agreement banning their future use.

Timothy Walsh. Copyright: Florian Gaertner/ photothek.net/ Falling Walls

Timothy Walsh. Copyright: Florian Gaertner/ photothek.net/ Falling Walls

Timothy Walsh, a medical microbiologist at Cardiff University, sounded a similarly urgent alarm on antibiotic resistance, a threat the United Kingdom has ranked alongside climate change and terrorism. Walsh has extended the search for and treatment of antibiotic resistance beyond the U.S. and the E.U., stressing the importance of the cultural context. “It’s about anthropology as much as it’s about the bacteria responding to the exposure of antibiotics,” he says. Antibiotics are frequently used unnecessarily, and cheap knock-offs can make their way into circulation. To make matters worse, new types of antibiotics are proving very hard to come by; designing them, it turns out, is hard. “Antibiotics are kind of like sports cars,” Walsh says, “the best ones were made in the ’50s and ’60s, and we’ve kind of lost our imagination.” To tackle spreading resistance, Walsh makes the case for a cooperative international effort bolstered by economic incentives. But he’s not so optimistic. “Is it too little too late? I suspect it is, but we still have to try.” Enjoy your coffee break!

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