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Panelists at USC/AAAS/Science Event Offer Guarded Optimism on U.S. Innovation
Leading science thinkers and futurists gathered in Los Angeles recently for a conference organized by the University of Southern California (USC), AAAS and the journal Science on the challenges confronting the U.S. culture of innovation in the 21st century. It was conceived last year during the 125th anniversaries both of USC and of Science and gained momentum from the growing concern that declining science literacy, slipping federal investment in R&D, and other factors are jeopardizing U.S. leadership in an increasingly competitive world.
USC President Steven B. Sample and AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner set the tone for the event on 11 April in their opening remarks. "We cannot take for granted the continuation of America's technological and scientific leadership," Sample warned, adding that success in research hinges more and more on collaboration across disciplines and national boundaries. "Many universities talk about interdisciplinary teaching and research, but very few actually practice it," he said.
The nation should worry less about its primacy and more about losing its prominence, a threat that is coming as much from home as abroad, said Leshner. "I'm not concerned about preeminence but rather U.S. eminence in science and technology, and whether we are doing the right things to guarantee we will stay among the very best." He identified three major stresses on the U.S. scientific community: a constraining regulatory environment, increased tension between science and society as exemplified by attempts to teach religion in science classrooms, and declining federal support for research and development.
The first panel focused on the prospects for stem cell research and career prospects for young scientists in the United States. Peter Donovan, co-director of the stem cell program at the University of California-Irvine, expressed optimism about stem cell research in the United States, though he added the nation ignores at its own peril the enormous investment of other countries. "We're still in the game and there is a lot of good science in this country," Donovan said. "Stem cell research promises to revolutionize how medicine is carried out." He predicted that research will eventually lead to therapeutic drugs tailored to the unique biology of each individual.
Donald B. Kohn, director of the Gene, Immune and Stem Cell Therapy Program at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, gave a local perspective on funding and regulatory constraints, sounding an alarm about cash-strapped academic medical centers. The shift by the federal government to "big science and big programs" is shrinking the dollars available for the kind of numerous, small clinical trials that are best conducted at academic centers and are key to refining the science.
Stem cell pioneer Martin Pera, now director of the USC Center for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, urged the audience not to take a parochial view about global competition. Embryonic stem cell research will lead to a new understanding of human biology, potentially leading to the ability to test drugs on systems instead of animals or patients. "To progress, this entire field will require a global effort on the scale of the Genome Project," he said. "I do not believe that any laboratory, study, region or country will totally dominate the field but rather collaborative efforts will be required to solve these problems in a timely fashion."
All speakers agreed that the California initiative holds great promise for advancing embryonic stem cell research and already has served as the impetus for other states to create similar initiatives.
During the afternoon discussion, "China and India: New Challengers or Partners," Andrew Viterbi, co-founder of Qualcomm, offered remarks from the viewpoint of a "technologist and educator." He described the United States, China and India as secular democracies with much diversity and a culture of meritocracy. "Our meritocracy, though, is suffering," he said. "We've never had as great a gap between rich and poor."
He also lamented "unenlightened" federal policy that is diminishing the country's appeal to talented immigrants who are attracted to the nation's robust research environment, adding that the immigration bill now in Congress makes no mention of them. "America has a secret unfair ability to absorb immigrant populations and give them the same opportunities as the native population," he said.
"No one can displace the United States," said Mangalam Srinivasan, a fellow of Harvard University and former adviser to Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. "Its research centers are many and its diversity is huge." She noted that the future of science innovation is "all about cooperation" among nations, and felt the United States had nothing to fear from India, pointing to the many similarities between the two nations, including a diverse culture, a reservoir of human resources and talent, a Western-modeled government and the use of democratic capitalization.
War-racked and poor in 1949, China is emerging as a global superpower today. International banking adviser Robert Lawrence Kuhn analyzed the role that China's leadership has assigned to science and technology in the country's rise to power: Basic research in core areas is necessary to drive innovation; manufacturing will eventually be outsourced to other countries with cheaper labor so the value-added nature of products must be elevated; and science and technology are a major factor in a national sense of pride.
Kuhn pointed out that China's ruling Politburo Standing Committee is now composed of a new generation of younger men, all of whom are engineers, in contrast to the U.S. Congress, the majority of which is made up of lawyers.
The closing discussion, led by Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews," pushed the limits of the panel's knowledge, from the biological and social sciences to education and technology to the environment, to help reveal the answers to questions such as: What can science do to solve the planet's environmental and other problems? Why is the United States a leader in the communications field yet falling behind in others? Since science needs the patronage of government and industry, what can scientists do to influence policy-makers?
Nobel Laureate George Olah and Sycamore Networks co-founder Gururaj Deshpande agreed that technology is a balance between promise and peril, and were optimistic about science's ability to solve problems. Olah turned to the sun as a boundless and safe supply of energy for the world and the best hope for sustainable development. Deshpande added that true innovators must be connected to problems in order to solve them more quickly.
Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil noted the potential of genetics, nanotechnology and robotics to empower a bioterrorist to create a weapon more dangerous than a nuclear bomb. However, he assured the audience that tools to mitigate harm and a rapid response system can be developed.
Judith Jackson Fossett, USC associate professor of English and American studies, challenged the panel to consider "the diversity of the next generation of college students" who will taught increasingly by white faculty. She said her most important issue is ensuring that scientific priorities reflect the needs of a diverse society and everyone has access to technology.
Silicon Valley guru John Seely Brown saw the lack of scientific literacy in the United States as a barrier to helping society deal with the ideological issues posed by innovation. However, he also observed a hopeful trend among college students who are organizing to solve problems in the wake of recent natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina.
Video of the conference is available on the Web.
For speaker biographies and other information on the event, click here.
1 May 2006