Roundtable debrief

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In fall 2013 the Institute was pleased to host the second half of its 2013-2013 International Research Roundtables. The Roundtable program allows scholars from UBC, Canada and the international community to advance excellence in knowledge development in an interdisciplinary environment. The themes or topics must be broad-ranging. International Research Roundtables are aimed at fostering excellence in research, and serving as a catalyst for collaborative research between international scholars and UBC scholars.


Ocean Acidification: Global implications for the marine environment
Principal Investigator: Dr. Christopher Harley, Department of Zoology, UBC.
October 21-25, 2013

Why bring scholars together to discuss ocean acidification?

Ocean acidification was only identified as an ecological threat within the past decade or so. In that time, marine ecologists have felt a growing queasiness in the pits of their stomachs as they have realized that there are chemical changes associated with ocean acidification– unprecedented in many millions of years– and that these abiotic changes affect everything from growth and development, to feeding rates and species interactions, and even evolutionary processes and biodiversity. However, the ways in which these changes will play out outside of controlled laboratory settings are extremely poorly understood. The ecology of ocean acidification is thus a major research priority, and bringing together scholars that tackle different aspects of this issue is a good way to synthesize what we already know, share approaches and techniques and develop research priorities for the next 10 years.

Dr. Christopher Harley, Principal Investigator for the Ocean Acidification International Research Roundtable.

What were the key issues discussed?

At our workshop, participants discussed recent and ongoing research into the ecological effects of ocean acidification. Topics ranged from fine scale physiological processes to the behaviour and performance of individual organisms and ecosystem-scale effects in places where carbon dioxide naturally bubbles into the oceans at volcanic vents. The main issues that we focused on were: aligning ocean acidification research with existing ecological paradigms to enable more rapid advances; and developing effective local strategies for managers and conservation biologists to use given that we can’t reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the near term.

What were the outcomes of the Roundtable and next steps moving forward, if any?

We are in the process of writing three papers based on our discussions. The first is a synthesis paper that places ocean acidification ecology into the wider context of ecological theory. The second is an opinion piece aimed at highlighting the importance of species interactions, especially when considering species like corals and mussels that provide habitat for other species but are vulnerable to acidification. The third paper is targeted at an applied audience, and suggests ways to make local populations and ecosystems more robust in the face of the global threat of ocean acidification.

How did the Roundtable and its participants benefit from an interdisciplinary approach?

The Ocean Acidification Roundtable was interdisciplinary at two levels. Within our group, we had scientist with different backgrounds, from different continents, using different tools and techniques to tackle different aspects of one big problem. Combining this expertise allowed us to gain a much more holistic understanding of the problem, and also helped to identify major information gaps and research priorities. We also benefitted from our interactions with the other two concurrent Roundtables, Time and Life in the Universe and We Are Our Brains. Those discussions forced us to take a step back and consider why our topic is important and why people should care; these considerations are often lost in today’s increasingly narrow and specialized scientific culture.


Dr. Graca Rocha, of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, speaks during a public event for the Time and Life in the Universe International Research Roundtable.

Time and Life in the Universe
Principal Investigators: Dr. Harvey Richer, Department of Physics and Astronomy, UBC; and Dr. Douglas Scott, Department of Physics and Astronomy, UBC.
October 21-25, 2013

Why bring scholars together to explore the evolution of the Universe and how it came to establish conditions appropriate to harbour life?

There are several very big questions that different sorts of astrophysicists discuss.  Yet, even within this single discipline there are issues that are rarely discussed together. The Roundtable format gave us an opportunity to bring together scholars who usually spend their time thinking about either the nature of the whole Universe, or the origin of biological organisms in that Universe. This allowed us to explore many aspects of the ideas of "Time" and "Life" in the Universe. Participants from several related fields were included – astronomy, physics, geology, mathematics, biology, philosophy, and even archaeology – and had terrific fun exploring these topics.

What were the key issues discussed?

There was a great deal covered for a single week. With lively interruptions and audience participation, participants gave overviews of the standard cosmological picture, the age of the Universe, the nature of physical reality, the role of structure in the Universe, the formation and evolution of stars, astrophysical estimates for ages, the origin and development of planets, current information on exo-planets, the possible emergence of life– and discussed how these things might all tie together. Participants included theorists, observers and experimentalists, and  there were always several approaches represented for each individual sub-topic. Many participants described the workshop as the most open and dynamic they had ever attended.

What were the outcomes of the Roundtable and next steps moving forward, if any?

We discovered that there are many more connections between these ideas than we had even originally thought. The issue of timescales is obvious – it took life on Earth billions of years to evolve, while at the same time the age of the entire Universe is less than an order of magnitude larger. A fundamental issue for the Cosmos is whether it has special properties because of life, i.e. we wouldn't be here asking the question in a universe hostile to life. Thinking about the statistics of the life is complicated by the fact that we only know (at least so far) about one kind of biology, and this is similar to the limitations in considering "one universe."  These and related issues were explored deeply at our meeting. What became clear is that we are merely scraping the surface, and that it would be useful to develop a much more ambitious format for these discussions in future.

How did the Roundtable and its participants benefit from an interdisciplinary approach?

Our Roundtable may have seemed to be one of the least interdisciplinary that the Peter Wall Institute has hosted, since it was organized by two astrophysicists, and on topics that are central to modern astrophysics. In fact we think it may have been the most interdisciplinary yet! The topics were large, which allowed us to gather together scholars from many related disciplines – and to place them in an unfettered environment where they could have the sorts of discussions that are not usually possible in a very focused conference.

Generally, the TIME and LIFE people were not colleagues and often had not even heard of those in the other group. Nevertheless, by the end of the meeting, they were talking to each other as if they had been lifelong collaborators. This, for me, was the real highlight of the Roundtable.


We Are Our Brains
Principal Investigators: Dr. Peter Reiner, National Core for Neuroethics, Department of Psychiatry, UBC.
October 23-25, 2013

Why bring scholars together to discuss our brains and neurocentric thinking?

Neurocentric thinking has been growing markedly in recent years– not just in the world of academe but also in the perception of the public. The objective of bringing this group of scholars together was to take measure of the ways in which this development is beneficial and the ways in which it may have unhappy– and unintended – consequences.

What were the key issues discussed?

Given that there was a collection of academics at the table, there was as much discussion about the issue of whether the primary claims of the neurocentrics are true as there was of its societal implications. Some of the issues that came up touched on the impact of this way of thinking on the concept of responsibility, most especially in law, but more generally in the way we think about our fellow humans. After all, if everything we do is governed by a (bio)mechanical brain, just how can we hold people responsible for their actions?

What were the outcomes of the Roundtable and any next steps moving forward?

One of the objectives of the Roundtable was to foster public outreach, and this process is already very much in evidence. Not only did we have a very successful public event at the conclusion of the Roundtable, but we have been releasing YouTube videos of each of the presentations, available to all.

How did the Roundtable and its participants benefit from an interdisciplinary approach?

When neuroscientists have to talk to political scientists, when philosophers have to talk to journalism professors, when legal scholars have to talk to dancers, a great deal of benefit accrues. It seemed that everyone came away from the meeting with new insights, with a fresh perspective on their own discipline. That’s the point of interdisciplinarity, and it was very much in evidence at We Are Our Brains.


Deliberations on the ethical implications of Antipsychotics in children
Principal Investigators: Dr. Nina Di Pietro, Senior Research Fellow, National Core for Neuroethics, UBC; and Dr. Judy Illes, Director, National Core for Neuroethics; Professor, Division of Neurology, Canada Research Chair in Neuroethics, UBC
September 19-20, 2013

Why bring scholars together to discuss antipsychotic medications in children?

Off-label prescriptions for antipsychotic medications in Canadian children and youth have skyrocketed in the past 10 years. Most common off-label uses are for the treatment of mood and behavioural disorder; conditions for which there is minimal evidence for the efficacy of antipsychotics. While antipsychotic medications may offer benefits to youth with these conditions, they are considered to be off-label in that they have not been approved for these indications in this population. Moreover, these medications are associated with a range of serious adverse health effects such as extrapyramidal symptoms (which involve motor control), hyperprolactinaemia, weight gain and metabolic abnormalities. To begin to address safety concerns and set research priorities, we need to identify the potential reasons underlying the increase in antipsychotic use and the ethical implications of potentially inappropriate prescribing practices.

What were the key issues discussed?

Speakers presented the working group with data on trends in the use of antipsychotics for children in Canada, data on adverse events and efficacy, concepts in pediatric research ethics, and Canadian initiatives for drug safety monitoring and research. Group deliberations focused on identifying the potential social, economic, and political factors that have led to the steady increase in off-label antipsychotic prescription rates.

What were the outcomes of the Roundtable and any next steps moving forward?

We identified several key research priorities:

  1. Continued investigation of basic drug mechanisms and risks for adverse drug reactions;
  2. Continued research on biomarker development for improving diagnosis of mood disorders in children and determining risks for adverse reactions;
  3. Development of guidelines for when to initiate and terminate antipsychotic treatment in children and youth;
  4. Investigation of stakeholder perspectives (e.g., physicians, parents) to identify motivations for starting off-label antipsychotic treatment;
  5. Development of strategies to improve the availability, accessibility, affordability and implementation of non-pharmacological therapies;
  6. Development of methods to promote the integration of research findings and evidence into health care policy and clinical practice to encourage appropriate use of antipsychotics in young people; and
  7. Ethical, social, political and legal strategy development to move from off-evidence to an “on-evidence” framework for prescribing antipsychotics to children and youth.

How did the Roundtable and its participants benefit from an interdisciplinary approach?

Our working group consisted of clinicians and researchers with expertise in a variety of disciplines including pediatric ethics, neurology, epidemiology, pharmacology, child psychiatry, and policy to give voice to a wide variety of perspectives regarding the burgeoning off-label use of antipsychotics in children and youth. This interdisciplinary approach allowed for a well-rounded discussion of the complex societal, cultural, economic, and political pressures that have contributed to the rise in off-label antipsychotic use and led to the identification of solutions and research priorities across these various sectors.