Innovation Needs Sustained Government Support, Says Susan Hockfield

Susan Hockfield kicked off the 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas, fielding questions from journalists gathered for the five-day event. | Professional Images Photography

A virus genetically engineered to build battery components is one example of how 21st century innovation will be driven by the convergence of scientific disciplines, said AAAS President Susan Hockfield at a 2018 AAAS Annual Meeting press breakfast.

These creative solutions are desperately needed, she said, as the global population is expected to reach 9.5 billion people by 2050. From health care to clean water, Hockfield noted, “The way we are currently providing ourselves with all the necessities of life is insufficient to meet the challenges of that size population.”

This year’s Annual Meeting, the first to be held in Austin, Texas, has a strong global component, said AAAS CEO Rush Holt. More than half of the scientific sessions have international participants, and meeting attendees come from 47 countries.

At the breakfast for international reporters, Hockfield said U.S. federal funding is necessary to support basic research “as the fundamental building block of all innovations,” particularly research without clear applications at its start. At the moment, she noted, this funding has been “insufficient and uncertain.”

“The question for every country is, ‘are we investing in the kind of education, research and policy that will encourage the kind of innovation that will save us from the terror of nine and a half billion people?’” she said.

Many U.S. science advisory positions remain unfilled in the Trump administration, and Hockfield said “our current government has not celebrated or appreciated the role of science.”

“Bottom line, I think it is terrifying that our government is operating without the advice of scientists,” she said.

At the same time, she noted, the membership of AAAS “has been booming, and many of the new members tell us that the reason that they joined is to be part of advocacy” on behalf of science.

“One of the roles that AAAS has taken on very seriously is amplifying those voices,” she said, “so that hopefully we will be able to impact our government as they decide how they are going to make their decisions and bring science into the equation.”

Hockfield is a professor of neuroscience at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she served as university president from 2004 to 2012. She will deliver the AAAS President’s Address Wednesday evening 6 p.m. Central Standard Time, an address that will be livestreamed.