July 2011

Influencing the future of science


Ways we can help steer the future of science in the right direction. 

How do we shape and own our future? Are there a few simple rules to follow?

What we do know is that in the United States and the other mature economies there is a sense of vulnerability. The security of American citizens is not a given: The inadequacies of national security were uncovered by the terrorist attacks of a decade ago. Now the insidious economic crisis and sluggish recovery are sources of anxiety. There is little comfort in the sense of decline in the U.S. and other mature economies relative to the fast growth of rapidly developing economies. These major events in recent history inevitably color the choices made by recent graduates and the education and science funding decisions made by the state and federal governments. There are multiple urgent priorities that our representatives in Congress need to attend, including drafting a plan for the road ahead. Needless to say, whatever plan ends up being implemented, our future depends on the highest level of education and the best science we can produce. How can we influence this outcome? Here are some things we can do.

"Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” – John F. Kennedy  

Advocate for science 

In their path to progress, rapidly developing economies are investing in science and technology. In the United States, adequate funding for basic research and education in the sciences and arts is critical to promoting our students and young scientists, even during an economic downturn. To make the conscious decision to support science and education, our authorities and our society as a whole need to be aware of what science can deliver to improve our welfare – that science is an endeavor worth supporting. Poll results indicate that an alarmingly large segment of the population does not believe in evolution or object to climate change. These surveys say as much about those polled as they say about the society they are part off. We, as part of a scientific association and as members of communities, have the opportunity to be the voice of support for adequate education funding and sensible education reform, to be sponsors of the love for science and to urge our government to maintain the highest level of funding for science. This is the only way to preserve and develop the true power that lies in the capacity to innovate, to facilitate new discoveries, and to create new industries and services. We can’t be shy about it! We need to be involved and engaged!

Support education and research 

Our students are not only competing with their American peers – they now compete with students from other countries as well. More than ever, our students’ technical skills need to be honed. Beyond elementary school, higher education institutions and research centers of every kind need to support more high-risk, and potentially high-payoff, transformative research. It is imperative that we redefine the metrics and incentives that will direct funding and resources to education.

Communicate and collaborate 

No matter where you are in your career, one of the critical professional skills you need to develop is the art of communication and the capacity to establish fruitful collaborations. For some it comes naturally and easy. But the rest of us have to learn and practice these skills. A recent article in Science (1) indicates that papers describing significant scientific contributions have involved an increasing number of co-authors in the last 50 or so years. This clearly suggests that the ability to communicate and form close collaborations is essential to science.

Accept globalization 

As more universities open campuses abroad, and as large companies employ more people abroad than at home, being able to collaborate across borders is of the utmost importance. The current trend in many companies of using outsourcing as a means to diversify the risk of costly product discovery and development affects more than just manufacturing jobs. The “smart” jobs are subject to the same forces of competition. In principle, any piece of information can be transmitted via the internet, and therefore the work that produces it can be done anywhere in the world.

"The empires of the future are the empires of the mind." – Winston Churchill  

There is little workers can do to counteract the basic economic forces that justify relocating production tasks to locations where costs are lower. However, this type of relocation is less likely for innovation engines, the companies that provide the kind of creative jobs that produce highly novel scientific and technological discoveries. To keep the innovation engines from fleeing overseas, you can develop your talents, hone your skills, and remain hungry for the thrill of being the first to discover something. Use your ingenuity to deliver new products and produce unique information and the best science and technology anywhere. Schools need to teach, mentor and coach students in a way that will help schools and industries to stay at the front of the race to innovate. If talent is to be recruited from abroad, we must allow smart immigrants to come and stay in a friendlier place so that all have the chance to flourish and enjoy the great race to be the best. Even though not everyone wins, we all have the opportunity to be winners.

Finally, as Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science stated in a recent editorial,

… [I]nnovation often comes from nontraditional thinking, and many new ideas will come from new participants in science and engineering who often are less tied to traditional ways. That argues for increasing the diversity of the scientific human resource pool, adding more women, minority, and disabled scientists, as well as researchers from smaller and less-well-known institutions. The benefits of increasing diversity for fostering innovation and economic success have been argued well elsewhere. Both research institutions and funders need to attend more to these sources of novel thinking and may have to refine recruitment, reward, and funding systems accordingly (2).

There is a need for a grass-roots movement and social engagement to bring education, science and technology into focus as key strategic values. As President Obama told school children in Philadelphia, “Life is precious, and part of its beauty lies in its diversity. We shouldn’t be embarrassed by the things that make us different. We should be proud of them. Because it’s the things that make us different that make us who we are. And the strength and character of this country have always come from our ability to recognize ourselves in one another, no matter who we are, or where we come from, what we look like, or what abilities or disabilities we have.”


1. Wuchty, S. et al., (2007) The Increasing Dominance of Teams in Production of Knowledge. Science 316, 1036 – 1039. 
2. Leshner, A. I. (2011) Innovation needs novel thinking. Science 27, 1009.

Nestor O. Concha (nestor.o.concha@gsk.com) is a manager of computational and structural chemistry and a group leader in biomolecular structure at GlaxoSmithKline.

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