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Phillip S. Sharp: Science Must Move Beyond Discovery to Meet Global Challenges

CHICAGO—Scientists discover, engineers invent and entrepreneurs innovate. That is the classical view of how science impacts society, said AAAS President Phillip A. Sharp, but it is an idea that has outlived its usefulness.

In his address at the start of the 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting, the 1993 Nobel Prize winner urged scientists to bring these elements together to address mounting global crises.

“If discovery is to come to the aid of our great global challenges of climate change, poverty and disease,” Sharp said, “we have no choice but to become much better at linking discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship.”

“In the past we have simply assumed these stages would evolve,” he added,” but a major theme of this AAAS Annual meeting is to consider those linkages more closely.”

Sharp, an Institute Professor at the Koch Institute of Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that these links are beginning to grow in places like California, Chicago and his own Kendall Square in Cambridge, where universities, biotechnology and information technology companies and venture capital firms form a productive cluster.

One-third of MIT alumni now start companies within ten years of leaving campus, he noted. “In many cases, these start-ups have an integration of skills that greatly accelerate innovation” by combining discovery, invention and entrepreneurship.

Sharp has co-founded two companies: Biogen (now Biogen Idec) and Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, building on his continuing research into the therapeutic potential of RNA interference, which involves small RNA molecules that can switch genes on and off. In his address, he outlined advances within the life sciences that have spurred innovation, from the 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA, to the biotechnology boom of the 1970s, to the ”vast storehouse” of genetic sequences accumulating in the 21st century.

Sharp and others now believe that a convergence between biological, physical, computational and engineering sciences “is the blueprint for future innovations.” In a 2009 U.S. National Academy of Science report, Sharp and his co-authors described how convergence could contribute solutions to global food, energy and healthcare challenges.

News, AM14 Prez address, Rahm, 14 Feb 2014

AAAS President Phillip A. Sharp and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel at the 2014 AAAS Annual Meeting | Atlantic Photography

Solutions are critical, he said, especially with the rise of a new middle class in underdeveloped countries. Their “demand for an increasing standard of living is a given with which we must wrestle.”

Sharp said that some people in the developed world question whether advancing technology will lead to a better future, since innovation drove the economic growth that contributed to global climate change.

“But I am more convinced than ever that the only avenue to a better future is continued advancements in science that are wisely applied to society,” he concluded. “Science-based innovation is tied to the problem, but it is central to the solution.”

In remarks before Sharp’s speech, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke about the city’s own efforts to integrate discovery and entrepreneurship, including five new science-focused high schools that have been “adopted” by companies such as IBM and Microsoft. Graduates who complete their six-year degrees are offered jobs by their sponsor company, Emanuel said, which “ties the education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to a future where they can see employment.”