A Conversation with Charles M. Vest: Moderator, 2010 Kavli Prize Science Forum

(Originally published August, 2010)

THE 2010 KAVLI PRIZE SCIENCE FORUM will bring together some of the most influential science policy figures in the world to discuss “The Role of International Cooperation in Science.” (Read more about the 2010 Kavli Prize Science Forum.)  Moderating the event will be Charles M. Vest, former president of MIT and now president of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering.

 

CHarles M. Vest

Charles M. Vest

Charles M. Vest is President of the National Academy of Engineering and President Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As president of MIT, he was active in science, technology, and innovation policy; building partnerships among academia, government and industry; and championing open, global scientific communication, travel, and the sharing of intellectual resources. In 2006, he was awarded the National Medal of Technology by US President George W. Bush. Continue 

 

In an interview ahead of the inaugural forum, Vest discusses the goals of this year’s Forum and why international cooperation gets to the heart of some of the most basic issues facing the world’s growing network of scientists. “In isolation, even great scientists don’t produce really great science.” He also provides insight into his own views on the struggle to balance international cooperation and competition in science, the most promising areas for cooperation, and the challenges and roadblocks ahead. “It is in everyone’s best interest if science proceeds cooperatively, efficiently, and effectively by engaging more people around the world.”

A Conversation with Charles M. Vest - August 2, 2010

THE KAVLI FOUNDATION: Let’s start with the topic of international cooperation in science, and why it is to be the centerpiece of the 2010 Kavli Prize Science Forum?

CHARLES M. VEST: Historically, science has always been an international undertaking, and cooperation was generally easy to come by in a somewhat simpler world when science was focused entirely on fundamental questions that did not necessarily have near-term consequences and economic importance. Today, I think there are two reasons, in particular, why we should explore international cooperation in science. First is that many undertakings are simply too large and expensive, especially in terms of experimental infrastructure, for any one country or any one institution to take on. Second and more fundamentally important is that science today must help our world face some of the really large challenges – challenges associated with skyrocketing population, climate change, energy, sustainability, food, health care, and security. By definition, these challenges require different perspectives and actions from different parts of the world; and they are things that we truly need to solve jointly.

TKF: Climate change sounds like it will be part of the program, if only because it is the subject of John Holdren’s address. What other topics --population, global hunger, disease, sustainability and so forth – will you also raise?

CV: I believe that the two keynote speakers will bring up the two key dimensions. First, Dr. Holdren will be addressing climate change, which is in some ways the ultimate global challenge, and, secondly, Dr. Ernst-Ludwig Winnaker will be talking about issues around funding and organization of science. So I think we’ll set up the discussion well. But through the questions I pose, I will encourage the panel to address some of these other challenges as well as climate change.

"The key here is truly open and enthusiastic scientific communication. The more people with differing perspectives who work and interact on a problem, the higher the likelihood that innovative new approaches will emerge."

TKF: Where do you think you will find consensus at the Forum, and where do you think you will see the most difference of opinion that might be irreconcilable?

CV: This is only guesswork, obviously, but I think there will be consensus in principle that the community has to work together to face these big challenges and to do large-scale science. Where it may break down is around issues of funding, possibly around issues of intellectual property, and possibly around the question of whether the desires of scientists to undertake global approaches will be pursued by their own governments and businesses that have to assist in this cooperation.

TKF: On the question of funding in particular, what kind of disagreements are out there now and might come up at the Forum?

CV: Every country today seems to be consciously setting some degree of priorities for science funding. But I don’t know whether these priorities will be congruent with each other around the world. In the clearly “hot” areas today -- the edges of biology research, new fields like synthetic biology and so forth -- there will probably be a lot of agreement. But whether they will agree in sufficient detail to promote joint programs, I don’t know.

TKF: It sounds like this is about priorities – funding priorities – and that the science community may have a different sense of the priorities from those of governments and the private funding sources.

CV: That’s correct. It’s always a possibility, because one of the fundamental challenges of science policy in any society is that the governments want an understanding of what the ultimate application of the work is and how it will benefit the society they are charged with supporting. However, particularly in fundamental areas of inquiry, science is really driven by the passion, curiosity and intellectual commitment of individuals. Frankly, particularly in the upcoming generation, policy and passion don’t always coincide with each other.

TKF: And this is a very relevant topic to the Kavli Prize Science Forum because The Kavli Foundation’s focus is on basic science, on pioneering science essentially. The Foundation sees part of its mission as that of filling the gap often left by government or other private funding.

CV: Absolutely. That is the beauty of the mission of the Foundation as Fred [Kavli] has conceived it from Day One. It is to find some of the very best people and very best groups in the world and support them to do what they, not somebody else, think is important. But the second part of the foundation’s work is evident in this Forum. Through a variety of mechanisms, the Foundation seeks to enhance communication among scientists around the world. The more we stay in open communication, the more that basic mission will be supported. The beauty of what Fred is accomplishing is letting people follow their dreams and their informed scientific intuitions on what they think is important.

TKF: Are you satisfied by the satisfied by the state of international cooperation today, or do you see areas for improvement?

CV: A couple of things are happening simultaneously. The first is very good news for humankind: the investment in research and the quality of higher education in science and engineering around the world are increasing and becoming much more uniformly distributed. There are going to be many more players, many more people well supported across North America, across Asia, and across Europe. That’s the good news. And we are all increasingly integrated through the use of the Internet and the World Wide Web. But we also see a different driving force, national pride. Each country, each region, each university wants to be the best. This sets up a competition that sometimes rejects cooperation. I think this tension between competition and cooperation in a world in which the investment in science is increasingly more uniform than it was just 20 or 30 years ago is really a key theme of our time and one of the things I hope will be explored in this Forum.

"I think it is in everyone’s best interest if science proceeds cooperatively, efficiently, and effectively by engaging more people around the world. It’s in the United States’ best interest, it’s in Norway’s best interest, and it’s in Singapore’s best interest for the sea of scientific knowledge and cooperation to rise. All ships then rise together."

TKF: In what research areas do you think cooperation today falls short?

CV: It’s difficult to point to a specific research area, but for example one certainly can see that China is very rapidly developing its own space program, including putting human beings in space at a time that activity is getting less emphasis in the U.S. I don’t see a lot of cooperation in areas like that.

Here’s another example of how cooperation may be falling short, especially compared to the past. Back in the 90s, when the World Wide Web was first developing as a concept, MIT decided to make an offer to attract Tim Berners-Lee, who as you know literally invented the Web -- one person, one idea – to come from Europe to the U.S. and to be housed at MIT to work on the formation of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). W3C would maintain Web standards and protocols, and attract the necessary funding from around the world. We went over and we talked to the European Commission in Brussels, and they were very enthused about this. They not only encouraged Tim to move to MIT with their blessing, they sent a substantial amount of funding along to help start the project. And here in the U.S. we had help from the Department of Defense and from the White House. The whole thing was done on a global basis -- no profit-making motive, no intellectual properties coming out -- just doing something good on a globally cooperative basis. I’m suspicious that if we were starting to do something like that in 2010, it would be infinitely more difficult.

TKF: Why is that?

CV: I’m not sure Europe would say, “Great, we’ll send him to the to the U.S., and by the way here’s some start-up funding.” I’m not sure we would now be able to establish the Web as kind a public good, with no profit-making motives. I just think that the tone would be more bureaucratic less cooperative. I hope I’m not overly pessimistic. But that example is in the back of my mind.

TKF: Why would the tone have changed?

CV: I think today there would be big debates in both Europe and the U.S. as to whether this belonged in the private sector or to the government. I think today most people capable of working on such a project would want to get at least some of it into the profit-making domain, and I just don’t know whether people would have cooperated as easily. It’s nothing I can prove, just an intuition.

TKF: If there has been a real shift in attitude toward less cooperation, as you suggest, will it get in the way of research on the global challenges you mentioned earlier?

CV: I think that’s very likely and it is something about which we can elicit views from this panel. But, I also think there are counter forces to this – for example, we learned through the experience with SARS and H1N1 flu, that open global scientific communication is absolutely essential. I think we learned lessons about such health-related science that will lead to increased global cooperation. But in the case of scientific and engineering research on important technologies and markets, I’m not quite so sure.

TKF: But wouldn’t the logic of global environmental issues such as climate change lead people towards greater cooperation?

CV: The logic leads to that. Whether that will be the reality, I don’t know. But that’s one reason I’m glad that climate change is the topic that Dr. Holdren has chosen for his address. It will be interesting to hear what other people say about in response. And of course we do have examples like the work of the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change). But the way this issue is viewed politically in different counties, as you know, is quite varied. We’ve seen foot-dragging to this point in the United States, and places like China have been really clear up front about how they think developing nations’ responsibilities differ from those of highly developed nations. Sustainability concepts have been taken seriously in Europe for a long time and they are much more deeply ingrained than in other nations. I think this is a great area [for examination at the Forum] – where the three big areas of Asia, Europe and the U.S. and North America have tended to look at it very differently. I hope we can get a little discussion of that going.

"Every country today seems to be consciously setting some degree of priorities for science funding. But I don’t know whether these priorities will be congruent with each other around the world."

TKF: What about the benefits of cooperation that go beyond simply meeting costs or pooling resources just to get things done? How might cooperation change the nature of the science or the attitudes of scientists in a positive way?

CV: The key here is truly open and enthusiastic scientific communication. The more people with differing perspectives who work and interact on a problem, the higher the likelihood that innovative new approaches will emerge. The openness of communication, particularly making use of the Web and Internet in real time, is one of the big pluses of what’s going on in science and technology today.

TKF: What do you see in the way of benefits beyond science? To give one example, scientists themselves have been described as a sort of avenue of communication between cultures, between nations; they sometimes can have contacts maybe even diplomats can’t have.

CV: Historically the open culture of science has been enormously important – for instance in the people-to-people dialogue and background channels during the Cold War. Such dialog and interchange will continue to be very, very important. I think this is one of the glories of science culture. But let me give you a slightly bigger picture. Governments support science in general because they believe that, in due course, it’s going to improve quality of life and benefit their societies when knowledge becomes applied and technology leads to commercial products and services or military devices. That’s the primary reason most governments support science. It may not be the primary reason young people go into science, but, at the end of the day, governments are looking for results and advantages. But I think it is in everyone’s best interest if science proceeds cooperatively, efficiently, and effectively by engaging more people around the world. It’s in the United States’ best interest, it’s in Norway’s best interest, and it’s in Singapore’s best interest for the sea of scientific knowledge and cooperation to rise. All ships then rise together. I think at the end of the day that’s a very basic message.

TKF: How would you describe the right balance between cooperation and competition?

CV: I would like to see cooperation be by far the larger component. I also would like it to be enabled and enhanced by continuing – or let me say, by sustaining and enhancing – global scientific communication in the first order, and secondly by actual people-to-people collaboration and cooperation. At the same time, I note that China, for example, is driving very hard because they believe they should have several of the world’s great universities; I think this kind of competitive spirit is good and productive in the end. We need both competition and cooperation. But if you could have only one, it should be cooperation. I do think competition and the spirit of national pride and so forth can be exerted in a positive way. But if it degenerates into, “We don’t want you to know our secrets, we’re going to do things ourselves, we’re going to be the best in the world,” that is bad. This was proven by the experience of the Soviet Union that in isolation even great scientists don’t produce really great science.

TKF: To sum up that point, you’re saying that competition in the context of openness is a good thing. Everyone trying to burnish their reputations by producing the best science, but it is science that is shared.

CV: Yes. That summarizes it very nicely.