Bruce Alberts: How China and U.S. Can Tap Innovation Power of Young Scientists

Science Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts talks about the latest advances in protein research at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Biophysics in Beijing
[Photos by Catherine Matacic]

With global science moving toward dramatic new understanding of the nature and workings of life, today’s science students and young scientists should expand from narrow disciplines and isolated research to see the challenges in new ways and collaborate on discoveries, Science Editor in Chief Bruce Alberts said at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

In a lecture to staff and university students at the Academy’s Institute of Biophysics in Beijing, Alberts urged the governments of both China and the United States to support more effective forms of science education and to create research opportunities for young scientists. And he urged science students and young scientists to think big: Be creative in defining important research questions. Move beyond research fields that are already crowded. Take risks.

“Go after mysteries,” he said. “If we don’t understand something that seems fundamental... you’re really going to learn something important when you figure it out.”

The results of such work can be transformative both for science and society, he said. “The fundamental reason for the explosive growth of science is that 100 units of knowledge can be combined in 100 more ways than 10 units of knowledge. The more knowledge we have, the more new knowledge we can generate—that’s how science advances.”

Alberts, the former president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, spoke to the Institute of Biophysics and students from Peking University and Tsinghua University. The lecture was one stop on a 12-day visit to China from 2-13 September that featured an array of high-level meetings with leading Chinese scientists, engineers, scholars, and policymakers and visits to top S&T institutes and laboratories. Also in his delegation were Richard Stone, the Asia news editor for Science, and Catherine Matacic, associate editor for AAAS’s EurekAlert! Chinese science news service.

Alberts met with Chinese Minister of Science and Technology Wan Gang; the president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Lu Yongxiang; and Chinese Health Minister Chen Zhu. He visited the Academy’s Center for Space Science and Applied Research, China’s lead research center for geospace weather and the Chinese Mars Exploration Program, as well as the Shanghai Institute of Neuroscience. He addressed more than 200 researchers and graduate students at the Shanghai Institute of Biological Sciences. And he attended the three-day World Economic Forum in Dalian.

Alberts presents the latest copy of Science to Fudan University Chancellor Qin Shaode

Matacic’s 16-day itinerary featured talks and meetings with top universities, research labs, journalist organizations and other producers of S&T news in China. She met with science journalists in Beijing and Hong Kong and attended the taping of a Shanghai-based news talk show. She also visited Fudan University in Shanghai; the University of Hong Kong; Hong Kong University of Science & Technology; Hong Kong Baptist University; and the University of Macau.

“Each time I return to China, I'm struck by the eagerness with which institutions pursue international cooperation,” Matacic said after the visit had ended. “But this time I was also struck by the eagerness with which they are starting to embrace communication as a means of advancing science—at the universities, at the national research labs, and at the academies. I know that AAAS and EurekAlert! are committed to working with our Chinese colleagues on this front, and I have no doubt that China will continue on its path of pursuing excellence in all areas of science, from discovery to dissemination.”

AAAS first sent a delegation to China in 1979, and in recent years, the relationship between the association and Chinese S&T leaders has blossomed into an ongoing exchange. Top officials from AAAS and Chinese science and technology organizations signed a series of agreements in 2007 to collaborate on publishing and education projects and to seek future engagement in fields that could range from ethics and sustainable development to public engagement.

Alberts served two terms as president of the National Academy of Sciences, from 1993 to 2005, and became editor in chief of Science in 2008. He is well-known for his work in biochemistry and molecular biology, and in particular, for his extensive study of the protein complexes that allow chromosomes to be replicated. He spent 10 years on the faculty of Princeton University, beginning in 1966, and then moved to the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, where he later became chair.

Alberts has long been committed to the improvement of science education, dedicating much of his time to science education initiatives. He is one of the original authors of “The Molecular Biology of the Cell,” a leading textbook whose 5th edition was published in 2007. A second textbook, Essential Cell Biology (2009), presents this subject matter for a wider audience.

His passion for science education, interdisciplinary research, and international science cooperation were evident throughout his 3 September talk at the Institute of Biophysics.

Alberts surveyed the challenges and frustrations of his own Ph.D. research into DNA replication, and the difficult lessons he learned before deciding that all of his future research had to involve questions that would substantively advance science and understanding. Those experiences clearly have shaped his views on a range of issues, from the best mindset for young researchers to the best structure for a 21st century lab.

Science—and humanity—appear to be on the cusp on dramatic insights about how life works, Alberts said. Studies of the human genome have progressed rapidly; with a matter of years, personalized medicine will make possible individual, gene-based therapies that were unimaginable a generation ago.

Other insights could come from the exploration of Mars, he told he audience. The late Francis Crick, who with James Watson discovered double-helical structure DNA, hypothesized that life on Earth could have been seeded from life on Mars, where, eons ago, the climate for life may have been more hospitable than the climate on Earth. Now, Alberts said, it is increasingly feasible to test the hypothesis with research.

“I am extremely excited about going to Mars and digging up the ground and seeing what’s there,” he said. “I don’t want to send humans to Mars—I think that’s a waste of money. But I do want, now that we know there’s water on Mars—a lot of water—to drill below the surface and bring back samples and see if there’s, for example, an RNA world there.

“I hope I’ll live long enough to see if we find something that’s really interesting.”

But to achieve a comprehensive understanding of life, Alberts said, we have understand the workings of ordinary cells here on earth—and there’s still a great deal to learn.

“We now know that the chemistry of life is incredibly complex—by far the most sophisticated chemistry known,” he said. “Many of the most interesting attributes of life are from what are known as emergent properties—properties that stem from very complicated networks of chemical interactions whose consequences cannot be deciphered from the details of a few individual parts alone.”

“Protein machines”—the molecular machines that create essential to the life of every cell—present a fertile area for future research, he said. And future progress could be driven by the development of an inventory of molecules that interact in a cell and the structure of those molecules.

Even given the amazing discoveries of recent years, he said, “it will probably take most of the century to gain a true understanding of how cells and organisms work.”

This enterprise—Alberts called it a “voyage of discovery”—requires scientists whose minds and spirits are devoted to the work, and policymakers in universities and government who understand how to shape and support a climate of innovation.

It’s inescapable, he said, that math, physics, chemistry and other fields will be critically important in achieving new biological insights. Students who read broadly, who study and network broadly, give themselves the chance to glean groundbreaking understanding of the workings of a cell that might not be available to a specialist.

Like their pioneering colleagues of eras past, today’s young researchers will have to embrace risk. The possibility of failure is inherent, Alberts acknowledged, but that outcome should be seen as a learning opportunity, not as a defeat. And it means a willingness to defy the pressures of scholarly conformity.

“You still can find areas, many areas, where there’s nobody doing the work that needs to be done,” he said. “So it takes a lot of thought and effort not to just follow the inertial path of your own training.”

That’s where policymakers come in. Both the United States and China need to do much to support the work of young scientists, and to enhance the climate of innovation in each nation and globally, Alberts suggested.

Students from Peking University and Tsingua University listen as Alberts urges them to “go after mysteries.”

The effort should start with early childhood education, and continue into college and graduate studies. “We need to give students a sense of the wonders of life,” he said. “In the United States, I’m afraid that... science education has been too driven by examinations focused on facts—key terms. We’ve gotten away from teaching young people what science is and letting them participate in active science learning.”

As students grow up and develop into young scientists, they should seek to study and work in a network of highly interactive, laboratories, each composed of perhaps a dozen people and led by an accomplished researcher.

“The labs should be clustered and embedded in a cooperative culture in which techniques and equipment are freely shared. Our reward systems must change to strongly favor risk- taking and originality,” he continued.

“We must design programs and buildings to encourage a random collision of people and ideas. You can tell productive labs by the way they’re structured. Labs in the U.S. where you come in the morning and you go back to your corner and you don’t come out ‘til the end of the day—and you don’t bump into anybody—that’s not going to be a productive laboratory. You have to have people bumping into each other all the time.”

In Alberts view, that same model could extend worldwide—scientists from China and the United States—and every continent—would always be “bumping into each other.” It would be cross-pollination on a global scale, with different perspectives and approaches driving the progress of science and bringing great benefits to humanity.

Work to unlock the mysteries of cell biology and chemistry present an excellent opportunity to employ that model. “To expand the frontiers of our understanding, we want a lot of talented people to work in a cooperative environment,” he said. “There’s a great adventure waiting for young people, a great opportunity. It would be wonderful if we could work on defining a few projects that are really important for understanding biology that China and U.S. could cooperate on together.”

Other projects and other fields could profit from international science collaboration. And, he said, that could lead to a more overarching benefit: “By creating much stronger bonds between scientists across the world, we can both improve science and create more stability for international peace and goodwill.”