The Braemar Summit was first hosted in 2021, to bring together policy makers, entrepreneurs and scientists for three days of lectures, talks and serendipitous conversation. The Summit is organised by Sarah Sands, journalist and Board Director of Hawthorn Advisors, and Roger Highfield, Science Director at the Museum Group.
This year, Braemar Summit 2022: The Future & Exploration was held at the Fife Arms Hotel in the Scottish village of Braemar from Tuesday 13 – Thursday 15 September 2022.
Wednesday 14 September tackled the themes of ‘Exploration, Shackleton and Space’ and ‘Geopolitics, Energy and Environment’, and speakers included pioneering astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the now Chancellor of the Exchequer Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt, Minister of State for Asia, Energy, Climate and Environment Zac Goldsmith, President and Chief Executive Officer of Virgin Galactic Michael Colglazier, and Anabel Kindersley, co-owner of Neal's Yard Remedies.
Thursday 15 September saw the themes of ‘The Brain and Consciousness’ and ‘Science and Creativity’ discussed, with speakers including former Prime Minister David Cameron, internationally acclaimed neuroscientists Professor Giovanna Mallucci and Anil Seth, Nobel Prize winning Mathematician Sir Roger Penrose, multi award winning designer Thomas Heatherwick, world leading documentary film maker Anthony Geffen, Chief Executive of the Behavioural Insights Team David Halpern, as well as University of Oxford physicist Professor Sonia Antoranz Contera.
Today, Professor Vladyslav Vyazovskiy reflects on the conversations and overall experience of Braemar 2022.
Braemar: the best exploration... by Vladyslav Vyazovskiy, Professor of Sleep Physiology
Attending the Braemar Summit 2022 on “Future and exploration” was among the best explorations I ever had, and unlike any other meeting I attended before. I was lucky to be invited to this “by invitation only” conference, thanks to my interest in neurobiology and applications of sleep and hibernation. These subjects were uniquely fitted the main theme of the Braemar summit 2022 “Future and exploration”, where neuroscience and space travel were among the main topics discussed.
Strangely, I found myself quite comfortable mingling among true pioneers and leaders in their respective fields, who would enthusiastically share their ideas and were equally keen to listen. On the first evening, I was asked to raise a toast to science – which I did in English and my native language of Ukrainian. The meeting was happening at rather poignant time and place for the topic of the present and future of humanity - in the world that was changed after the invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022 and in the location of a picturesque Scottish village, Braemar, just a short drive from Balmoral Castle where Queen Elizabeth II died just a couple of days before the Summit.
During the two days of the Summit, we progressed from diving into the microscopic world of genes and neural circuits in the brain, which give rise to consciousness and define who we are, to remote expanses of the Universe, where extra-terrestrial life possibly lurks on planets, which may forever remain beyond our reach, and where new rules of the physical world are still awaiting to be discovered. What is clear is that advancing knowledge is impossible unless funding agencies and governments supporting research take us, scientists, into account, as the key “tool” in this endeavour. Struggling for career progression, balancing research with other demands, is neither easy nor fair. This was the key message in the opening remarks of a renowned astronomer Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who I had the pleasure of introducing at the dinner after my toast.
The future of research funding is also gloomy, but fortunately the problem is well recognised, as new initiatives are launched, such as the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) – an independent science funding body, which aims to find talents and fund new transformational research. At the first dinner, I sat next to the chairman of ARIA, an investor and entrepreneur Matt Clifford, who gave a brief introduction into the initiative. Of course, I could not miss the opportunity and did my best to make him interested in sleep and hibernation, as areas worth being funded.
Events like Braemar Summit often help to connect with colleagues living and working literally next door, and this is how I met Sonia Antoranz Contera, a biological physicist from Oxford, who is also greatly interested in philosophy, literature, architecture and science communication. I hugely enjoyed our discussion – from consciousness and the choice of materials for brain electrodes to Taoism and teachings of Leo Tolstoy and Nikolai Fyodorov (who was among the first to predict the possibility of human space travel).
Early next morning, myself and Sonia were the first in the restaurant for breakfast, which was quickly filling up with other participants - even a luxury hotel room does not spare you from the “first night effect” – the phenomenon when you do not sleep well in a new place. We continued the discussion where we left it last night, and soon were joined by Owase Jeelani - the renowned neurosurgeon - who shared with us the story of his life and how he became a surgeon. Incidentally, his TED talk titled “Lies, biases, and predictions” – both provocative and stimulating, was just released while we were at the meeting, and I immediately shared it with my medical students at Hertford College.
The first session of the meeting was a fascinating discussion between Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Lord Rees, also an astronomer and a former president of the Royal Society, who shared stories from their professional life, and raised far-reaching questions, such as whether life exists elsewhere in the Universe, and whether a new species of humans might evolve. Then Mike Mongo took the stage - another remarkable individual, with a huge charisma (which was helped by wearing upside down blue glasses), Mike is a teacher and an author of “The Astronaut Instruction Manual”. He ended his presentation by sharing advice he gives to his students: “Do what you love, with who you love and help others”.
Live demonstration of a jet suit was a highlight! It was a chilly early afternoon, and we all gathered on a village green, with spectacular view on Scottish hills surrounding Braemar, and Sam Rogers, the creator of the suit, made a few circles around with a big smile on his face. He was explaining how his jet suit can be used to fly quickly to the site of emergencies to enable providing care to stabilise patients, while paramedics are on the route. I was absolutely fascinated by how humans who did not evolve to fly can learn this, and as a neuroscientist, I could not help thinking about what happens in the brain when you fly. Without doubt, Sam Rogers will be in high demand as a research subject for some of my colleagues in Oxford, who are working on brain mechanisms of navigation!
The former Prime Minister David Cameron, now the president of Alzheimer's Research UK, arrived in the evening of that day, and I had a chance to be introduced to him. We had a brief chat about Ukraine, Alzheimer’s disease and sleep, of course, as an important window into brain health. His presentation on ”conquering dementia” next morning focused on the need to discover a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, which is still beyond our reach. Exciting research in this area is in progress, as was explained by another panellist – Giovanna Malucci from Altos labs. I could not help thinking that we may need a radically different approach to tackle dementia, or similar “global” problems, where innovative solutions are necessary. I thought that by definition, what is truly novel cannot be “planned” or “predicted”, which is often expected by funders when they allocate money for research. Who will fund something that does not exist yet even in our imagination?
The discussion at the following session was on the topic of neuroscience of consciousness. Following the conversation with Sir Roger Penrose - an author of the intriguing, but controversial, quantum theory of consciousness, moderated by the Science Museum Director Roger Highland, three neuroscientists took the stage – Anil Seth, Owase Jeelani and Richard Frackowiak. Anil Seth gave an illuminating overview of the current state of the art on the science of consciousness. Being esoteric until very recently, it is now a legitimate subject of study. Anil’s view, explained in his recent book “Being you” (which I ordered immediately after his presentation) is that to be conscious, as to be alive, requires the brain to build and maintain predictive models of the world. Our brain does not like surprises!
The following presentations were equally fascinating – especially breath-taking excursions into the world of virtual reality by Anthony Heffen - that further push boundaries of what is really out there and what exists in our imagination only. I find it especially interesting how virtual reality can be used to help people, whose connection with the world is altered in ways we cannot fully comprehend, such as patients with autism.
All in all, the Braemar Summit was an exceptional meeting. It provided a unique platform for exchanging knowledge and ideas, making new contacts, building bridges between disciplines and discovering something new. But additionally, it reminded us how precious and fragile our world is, and that it is our responsibility to safeguard the future of life on Earth. On the last evening, I bumped into Doug Gurr, the Chairman of the board of trustees of the British Heart Foundation and current President of the Natural History Museum, and we talked about the vast collections and unique specimens they have in their possession. He told me about a nest of some obscure bird, now extinct, which he held in his hands, knowing that this is the last nest remaining in museum collections from a bird that no longer exists, and I must say I had to work hard to control my emotions."