Investing in the science of tomorrow

Laboratory equipment
Professor Peter Chen
Professor Peter Chen
How will the landscape of scientific research look in 10 years’ time? Which disciplines will have grown in importance? In which areas will we see the greatest rates of progress? Of course, it is impossible to answer these questions with any degree of certainty. Indeed, it is incredibly difficult to accurately predict how science will change during the course of the next year, let alone the next decade.

Science and technology do not operate in a vacuum. As scientists, we are embedded in, and we have an obligation to, society. Aside from the fact that we want to produce something good, we have to communicate with wider society.
Professor Peter Chen
This is not to say that it would be foolish to try to answer these questions. Indeed, one might argue that it would be foolish not to try. Accurately predicting such outcomes can be of great benefit. Take for example Society in Science – The Branco Weiss Fellowship, an initiative which aims to provide "a platform for exceptionally qualified researchers demonstrating a willingness to engage in a dialogue on relevant social, cultural, political or economic issues across the frontiers of their particular discipline."1 By identifying and supporting talented individuals working across emerging scientific fields, the Fellowship, which was established in 2002 by the late Dr Branco Weiss, aims not only to facilitate progress within those fields but also to introduce social and cultural dimensions into research laboratories.

To find out more about the underlying philosophy of this initiative and the science of tomorrow, I spoke to the programme’s director Professor Peter Chen from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH)…

What were the original aims and objectives of the Branco Weiss Fellowship and have they changed during the course of the programme’s first decade?
Branco Weiss was a Swiss entrepreneur who founded and invested in technically sophisticated knowledge-based companies. He wanted to encourage young people to think outside the box. He felt that education within scientific and technical fields was very important. He had benefited personally from such an education and he had a strong sense of obligation. He therefore established the Fellowship to enable other young people to follow their visions. I don’t think that the Fellowship’s aims and objectives have necessarily changed during its first decade. Instead, I would argue that they have evolved. When Branco Weiss launched the initiative in 2002, he funded it out of his own pocket as a private programme. Before his death in 2010, he transferred the programme to ETH. Of course, as ETH is a technical university, it was important for the Fellowship to have utility in order for us to manage it. I therefore became involved with the Fellowship in order to provide a clear definition of its goals.

Firstly, let me outline some of the things that haven’t changed. We still seek postdoctoral candidates after their PhD but before their first faculty appointment. It also remains the case that candidates can come from, and can go to, any institution in the world. Whilst ETH is a very large university, it is nowhere near large enough to cover every area of interest. Finally, we remain committed to supporting individuals from across the scientific spectrum, including those working within fields such as social sciences and economics.

Nevertheless, we did sharpen the Fellowship’s focus in 2010. Today, Society in Science is not only interested in talent scouting but also in theme scouting. You could say that the job of any great university or institution of learning is to shape the future through the appointments that are made. In principle, you want to pick people and fields that will be important 10 years from now. Of course, this is not a simple task. Frankly, with regard to predicting the future, I don’t care how smart a person is – if somebody could see ten years ahead reliably, they would be making a killing on the stock market. Even so, Society in Science allows us to search for the themes and people that have the potential to become big winners within the scientific arena. It enables us to catch these themes and people at an early stage in their development. Moreover, ETH adds to the programme by actively following and mentoring candidates. My colleagues and I collect information concerning the progress of our fellows.

What is the value of introducing social and cultural dimensions into research laboratories?
Science and technology do not operate in a vacuum. As scientists, we are embedded in, and we have an obligation to, society. Aside from the fact that we want to produce something good, we have to communicate with wider society. Academics need to learn the value of communication early in their careers. They must engage in dialogue both across and outside of their disciplines. Unfortunately, not everybody is good at this. However, we are choosing people who we believe will be leaders in their fields as they grow. As such, potential leaders should be good communicators who are capable of engaging in and leading positive societal discussions.

Do you target individuals who are already accomplished communicators, or do you expect candidates to develop their communication skills across the course of the Fellowship?
I think that we do both. If somebody is completely uncommunicative, they are not going to achieve a Fellowship. They probably wouldn’t have been successful in their research career until now in any case. Many of our candidates are already accomplished communicators, and we try to help them to develop their existing talents in this respect. Talent is not uniformly distributed but it still needs to be developed.

What, in your opinion, are some of the disciplines that will become increasingly important over the course of the next decade?
I will give you three fields that I find very interesting and within which we have fellows. Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) is an area which looks at the relationship between psychology and biochemical pathways. It therefore stretches from the softer, cognitive sciences to hardcore biology and medicine. This is an area that includes an obvious social dimension and it is one which I believe could have a significant impact in years to come. One of our new Fellows, Dr Aoife O’Donovan, plus several of the older Fellows, work in this area.

The second area of research exists within the field of synthetic biology. We have fellows, Dr Chee Meng Tan, for example, who are using components of living systems in order to build artefacts which are essentially machines. Although these are artificial cells, they are not alive; they don’t metabolise and they don’t reproduce. However, they are able to sense their environment and to perform tasks when triggered by specific stimuli. They are biological machines which do their job and then pass away.

The final area of research that I would like to mention lies at the intersection between cognitive science, economics and regulatory law. Dr Adrian Künzler is currently conducting research at Yale Law School and he contends that we are more than purely economic beings. There is more to us than simply how much profit or loss we make. As the motivations of human beings are more complicated than this, our legal and regulatory frameworks have to better understand this motivational structure. As such, Dr Künzler hopes to put together a consistent framework for regulation which recognises the breadth of motivations that influence human beings.


1 ’About us’, Society in Science

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