Cherry Murray: With High Stakes for Human Society, New Research Approaches Are Paramount

At the 2014 William D. Carey Lecture, the Harvard dean said global challenges such as climate change have put the world at a tipping point, and she called for new and more effective types of applied research that closely connect to curiosity-driven basic research.
Cherry A. Murray | AAAS/Robert Beets

Faced with global challenges such as climate change, population growth concentrated increasingly in megacities, financial crises, and emerging infectious diseases, human society is at a tipping point in the next half century and must find new ways of solving problems.

That was the dire but not altogether pessimistic message from Cherry A. Murray, dean of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science, in the 2014 William D. Carey Lecture on 1 May at the AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy.

"On the scale of the universe time, it's a short blip but it's very intense," Murray said of the impending transition. "It's like no other time in the history of the human race."

"Because of these huge changes that are happening, how the U.S. funds and does research, both basic and applied, needs to change," Murray said.  And some institutions may need to change as well, she said.

The federal government needs to maintain its role as the primary supporter of basic research in the United States, Murray said. There also must be new and more effective types of applied research that closely connect to basic research, she said. And the humanities and social sciences must play a role in crafting solutions to big problems.

There will be no easy fixes, given the decline in federal R&D as a percentage of Gross National Product (GNP) from about 1.5% in the 1960s to about 0.7% now, Murray said. Industry, with a focus on quarterly earnings and short-term goals, also has reduced its efforts on basic research that is pursued without regard to immediate application.

She mentioned the declining role of Bell Laboratories as a powerful player in the nation's basic research output. Researchers working at Bell Labs are credited with the development of radio astronomy, the transistor, molecular epitaxy, and the charge-coupled device, among other advances, and seven Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work completed there.

Murray, who joined Bell Labs in 1978 and eventually became senior vice president for physical sciences and wireless research at parent company Lucent Technologies, noted that fundamental research, applied science, engineering, and marketing of new products once were vertically integrated at Bells Labs in a complex, interconnected cycle that was the envy of the world.

"We have lost that," Murray said, and it important for the United States to build similar research ecosystems in which curiosity-driven science helps breed new technologies to confront global challenges. One area of concern: a forecast doubling in global energy consumption as the world's population reaches 9 billion by about 2050.

Either there will be an optimistic future in which "somebody, hopefully us, develops technologies that will help [those in] the developing world get their energy," Murray said. "It will be very good for our economy as well. Or we could have major economic disruptions and warfare. It is all up to us."

Other challenges are just as daunting. Climate change could bring significant sea level rise by the end of the century, the heat-trapping carbon dioxide gas now being pumped into the atmosphere can persist for 10,000 years, and oceans are acidifying as they absorb the gas. Vulnerability to drought is increasing — including ongoing droughts in Australia and the western United States — and storms will intensify as ocean waters warm, Murray said.

With the challenges continuing to grow and become more complex, Murray said, new research approaches and new institutional arrangements may provide some answers. She cited a 2009 report, "A New Biology for the 21st Century," by a panel of the National Academy of Sciences. It said research in cutting-edge biology now requires an integration of physical sciences, mathematics, engineering, computer science, chemistry, and other disciplines as well as biology. That can lead to a deeper understanding of biology at the molecular and genomic levels and, in turn, produce solutions to problems involving health, environment, energy, and food production, Murray said.

She also cited "Arise 2," a report last year from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which said research is at an "inflection point" in which scientists no longer will work in guild-like, ultra-specialized disciplines but must be able to master "all hands" approaches that use the strengths of "transdisciplinary" science.  "It is the dismantling of disciplinary boundaries, rather than ad hoc collaborations, that could transform the scientific enterprise and deliver the potential to address previously intractable problems," said the report. (Murray served on the committee that wrote the report.)

Murray cited several examples of institutions that are trying new approaches to solve problems, including the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences. The institute, which describes its mission as "to stimulate innovative life science to keep us healthy, sustain our environment and grow the economy," has been addressing on challenges in molecular biology using the techniques of physics, chemistry, and computer sciences. The faculty members are from the University of California, Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and UC San Francisco, among them two Nobel laureates and 41 members of the National Academies. The institute also involves partners from private sector start-up companies in the Bay Area and large established firms as well.

Murray, who served as deputy director and principal associate director for science and technology at the Department of Energy's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory before going to Harvard, also praised efforts underway within the Energy Department to do cross-disciplinary, cross-sector research. She noted the formation of research "hubs" that have been tacking issues such as how to speed up the renewal of the nation's energy infrastructure. Historically, she said, the cycle for replacing power sources and distribution methods with newer technologies has taken about 50 years.

"We need a faster turnover," she said. And "if the U.S. is a leader in innovating energy technology, we can export that to the developing world," Murray said. "This is a perfect thing to be working on."

She also mentioned projects at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory using multidisciplinary teams to improve the software for managing nuclear power plants and at Argonne National Laboratory to improve the efficiency and lower the cost of new battery technologies. Each project pulls together diverse teams of researchers from national labs, academia and industry for five years at a funding level of $25 million per year, Murray said, with the possibility of a five year extension if the work is paying off.

For the largest, most complex problems, such as climate change, Murray said, there needs to be integration of much more than transdisciplinary science and technology, Murray said. The arts, humanities and social sciences also must play a role in helping to guide wise decision making and proper assessment of solvable problems.

There also must be new approaches in education to give students the abilities and skills to work across disciplines and tackle large, complex global problems, Murray said. her school at Harvard stresses rigorous engineering, entrepreneurship and innovation, and creativity and design.

"Technology will be important, but you need more," Murray said. She told the story of one of her Harvard students who was distributing mosquito nets in Africa to help prevent malaria. The nets were white, a color the populace associated with death. They refused to use the nets. "He learned that the hard way, that you actually have to understand the society in order to get technology adoption," Murray said.

On the grander scale of adapting to global climate change, humans also are at the heart of the matter, Murray said. They must be able to adopt new sources of food, adapt to weather variation, conserve more resources, and much more, she said. That will require a societal, cultural change more than a technological one, she said, "and we need to understand how to do that in the most effective way without having wars break out on Earth."

The William D. Carey Lecture was established in 1987 in honor of Bill Carey upon his retirement as Executive Officer of the AAAS. The lectureship recognizes individuals who in their own way exemplify Carey's leadership in articulating public policy issues engendered by the application of science and technology.