Laura Neuhaus is reporting on the science-oriented sessions from the World Economic Forum in Davos. This is her first report for Scientific American.
How much can the shine from a scientist’s shoes belie the size of her research budget?
If you pay attention to the footwear of the panelists from the "Science Update" session today at the World Economic Forum, you might find a correlation. The owner of the most modest shoes, a casual black leather hiking boot was Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the Director-General of CERN. Given the scope of his project, he has the smallest budget of the group at $1 billion. The wearer of the shiny, daint-shoelaced oxfords? Ray Johnson, the Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer from Lockheed Martin, whose company enjoys a budget of $45 billion.
After the moderator of the panel, Philip Campbell, editor in chief of Nature magazine (U.K.), opened with this statistic, the audience appreciated a bit of comic relief when Heuer light-heartedly suggested that he’ll pass out a collection box for donations.
All of the panelists, which in addition to Heuer and Johnson included Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (USA), Christopher Viehbacjer, CEO of Sanofi-Aventis (France), and Andrew Maynard, Director of the Risk Science Center at the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, all agreed on one thing: there can be no separation or prioritization between basic science and applied science.
Heuer argued that both scientific practices formed an unbreakable virtuous circle: basic science is the ultimate driver of innovation, and applied science drives research. He used the example of the candle and the web as technologies that were invented in the spirit of basic science – pure research – and that didn’t have an immediately practical purpose.
When asked where he saw CERN in 2 years, he replied he was an eternal optimist – increasingly so in the last few years with CERN working smoothly. The physicist playfully quoted Shakespeare -- "to be or not to be" -- when it comes to resolving the mystery of the Higgs boson particle.*
Francis Collins echoed Heuer uniting vision of science, but sees his biggest challenge to bridge the gap between the discoveries in labs and treatments in clinics. His solution is to "de-risk" new targets, or to make it more economically viable for the private sector to investigate newly discovered known causes of disease. To accomplish this, he’s infusing academic labs with cutting-edge technologies to enable a broader and deeper understanding of new targets. He sees building capacity for research as a key objective for health care – both nationally and internationally. He noted the NIH’s Medical Education Partnership Initiative, which trains over 140,000 health care professionals in sub-Saharan Africa as a prime example of capacity-building. But the bigger benefit for developing countries is that their scientists will be trained in how to do research. Perhaps aware of the public nature of his institution, he made a point to say that every $1 spent by NIH generates $2.21 in additional economic output within a year.
Viehbacjer, representing big pharma, sees the role of pharmaceuticals as the slow, huge giant who holds the secret keys to the marketplace. On the most altruistic level, he suggested that big pharma’s role is simple: it’s responsible for taking science and applying it to people’s health. On an unusually pessimistic note, he shared that big companies don’t like disruptive thinking, so rely on a network of collaboration and open innovation. He simplified the process down to competitive advantages. Big pharma needs biotech start-ups for new ideas, and the start-ups to bring their idea to the marketplace. It probably doesn’t hurt that their share price usually goes up when they sign an agreement with a major pharmaceutical company. In closing, he mused that extraterrestrial life was an exciting proposition, but hoped they had health insurance.
Ray Johnson of Lockheed Martin believes in a Star Trek-esque future. He envisions computers that we can ask virtually anything – but with a twist. These computers will be situationally aware and pushed to you when you need them. His main departure with the rest of the panel was to highlight the bureaucratic method of ranking innovation Lockheed employs. Borrowing from NASA’s "Technology Readiness Ratings," which rank how advanced the technology research is, he described the "Innovation Readiness Rankings" which purports to measure the degree of the company’s capability to take a technology to market.
The challenger to the group, Maynard, asked the panel to name areas where science wasn’t working. Namely, where good science wasn’t translating into good products.
The panelists were unanimous: scientific research needed to be more free. Collins stated it was a scandal that taxpayer research wasn’t available to the public, and noted that scientific organizations have loosened up and feel more comfortable acknowledging the need to share information. Despite the over-reliance on IP, it was pointed out that as developed countries perform more sophisticated R&D, they are increasingly interested in patents. Academia was blamed for encouraging an over-specialization of scientists into disciplines. These silos are detrimental to where the real R&D is happening at the interface of disciplines. The scientists also held academia responsible for tying up too many patents. On one hand the university presidents and tech transfer offices were worried about filing as many patents as possible, yet they are blind to the fact that their own research departments are having their own problems accessing patent-protected findings.
Where does that leave the science agenda for 2011? Ready for a lot more transparency and intra-institution collaboration.
Photo: Davos on the drive in, by Laura Neuhaus.
About the Author: Laura Neuhaus is a history of science masters student at Harvard University. She researches the culture and practices of computer programming in India. Laura examines how governments and companies attempt to transplant the tech culture of Silicon Valley for economic and social gain. She's also interested in how the general public engages with science, and daydreams about building exploratoriums around the planet. She has lived in India, Hong Kong and Mexico, and tweets at @promethea
*Correction (1/27/11): This sentence was edited after posting to correct a misidentification of the Higgs boson.