No ivory tower: the role of universities in bridging science and society
Speech delivered at IIT, Delhi on March 21 2012
Thank you for the warm welcome. I would also like to thank Professor Gupta from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, who has been instrumental in making it possible for me to speak with you today.
India is a place of superlatives, and that certainly applies to the duration of India’s historical record. The famous Iron Pillar of Delhi that stands just a few kilometres south of here, for instance, has been standing so long that no one knows how old it is. Oxford University is a bit like that iron pillar: no one really knows when Oxford began as a university. And not having a birthday is a matter of no small frustration, because birthdays mean parties - and gifts! But even if we don’t quite know whether we’re 850 or 900 years old, we know that ours is a very ancient university, steeped in tradition and history.
And as much as this can be a great asset, it also tends to fix certain notions in people’s minds. Some people think of Oxford as a place for the British, a place for undergraduates, a place for the humanities. We are proud of our British roots, of the unique undergraduate education we offer, and of our world-leading excellence in the Humanities. But consider:
- Oxford is among the most international of the world’s leading universities: more than 1 in 3 of our students and 2 in 3 of our postgraduates come from abroad.
- Oxford received more applications for postgraduate study than for undergraduate study last year, and our postgraduate student population has grown by more than 75% in the last 15 years.
- Oxford is a modern and dynamic research university - with some of its greatest strengths in the sciences. Our medical school is so successful that if split off from the rest of the university, it would have greater research income than all but four other universities in the UK.
And today I want to celebrate the research university. As an organic chemist, I feel my pulse quicken when I enter a lab. It’s not just that I have fun playing with test tubes. It’s that when I am doing real research - when I’m doing real science - I feel myself part of a grand and important enterprise. It is an enterprise that helps us penetrate the mysteries of the universe. And it is an enterprise that creates enormous practical benefits and helps us to solve our most pressing and intractable problems.
To be sure, a university has other important and noble purposes beyond conducting research. Chief among them is educating future leaders, and the IITs have done a marvellous job of this. It is hard to imagine today’s India without universities like this one. And that is because of the crucial role IIT Delhi and a few others have played in educating generations of brilliant young scientific minds. IIT alums include people like Narayana Murthy of Infosys and Mani Lal-Bhaumik, who invented the laser eye surgery known as Lasik. Rajendra Pawar, who is the chairman and co-founder of NIIT, the computer education company which most of you will know well, is an alumnus of this very campus.
And there are other important goals too. If we are good neighbours locally and good citizens nationally and globally, we can also contribute to our communities in a huge variety of ways, from part-time courses to new course models like e-learning and new ways of making content freely available through the Internet; through providing public access to museums and libraries; and by being good employers. At Oxford we spend a lot of time and money on these things, and I would be happy to talk your ear off about them another time.
But today I want to talk about something that research universities prize very highly: expanding the frontiers of human knowledge. A better understanding of the world around us, of ourselves as humans, and of our culture is worth pursuing for its own sake. The desire for explanations and answers, asking the “whys” and “hows”, is part of what it is to be human. Some of you may have heard Oxford Professor Susan Greenfield talk here at IIT Delhi last year, on the occasion of IIT Delhi’s Golden Jubilee - let me say a belated but heartfelt congratulations for the many accomplishments you have to be proud of over a fabulous first fifty years. Professor Greenfield talked about an area of rapidly expanding knowledge that captures our imagination, in quite a literal sense: the science of the human brain. In the last few decades our understanding has leapt forward in this area. We now understand much more of both the brain’s plasticity—its adaptability—and its vulnerability: to technology, chemical manipulation and disease. Whatever the practical implications of this work, and there are of course many, for me it is more than justified by the exhilaration of self-understanding that it brings.
But although the disinterested pursuit of knowledge is part of the university’s reason for being, it can seem self-indulgent and often attracts criticism from those who see universities as serving social needs. So let’s talk about it: how does basic research meet social needs? How does a new insight made in the laboratory have a practical impact?
I have three things to say on this subject, so let me introduce them and say a bit more about each one in turn.
- First: sometimes the road from research to impact is a very short and direct one, such as when research directly targets pressing human challenges. I will describe a few of these areas. But sometimes the route from insight to impact is longer and less obvious. We often do not know exactly whether, how or when fundamental research will make a practical difference in the world. So it is important to reflect on the long-term fruits of research that is seemingly abstract from the current problems that humanity faces.
- Second: the importance of university research in understanding and solving humanity’s problems will likely be greater in the 21st century than it has ever been before. Our ability to manage the challenges and opportunities before us will depend on scientific progress, and universities must play a leading role in achieving scientific progress.
- And third: universities can play an important role in realising the fruits of research. Universities used to figure that the process of translating knowledge into impact was someone else’s job. Hence the old notion of universities as ivory towers. But whatever truth that notion once held, I will contend that it is outdated: universities today can and should do some very practical things to bring science and society into conversation and collaboration.
I said that sometimes the road from laboratory to impact is short and direct - in these cases, the applicability of research to real-world problems is clear. The pressing problems of poverty and disease are perhaps easier to remember in a country like India, which has lifted hundreds of millions of people from poverty, but still today has more poor people than any other country - one-third of the world’s total. As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said, “Science must grapple with the key challenges facing the country today. These include the pressures of increasing population, greater health risks, changing demographics, degraded natural resources, and dwindling farmlands. We need new science and technologies, new priorities and new paradigms to address these fundamental challenges.”
These urgent and pressing problems are precisely the sort of thing that fundamental scientific research often eventually alleviates in ways far more effective than short-term measures. I think here of research into some of our greatest challenges: how to prevent infection, how to treat cancer, how to reduce the burden of disease, how to prevent the planet from overheating. You would imagine that as the Oxford Vice-Chancellor, I would cite with pride some examples of Oxford’s research accomplishments in these areas, and indeed I will. But this is a much broader story, of course, one in which India, and its best institutions such as IIT-Delhi, play an increasingly central role.
I’ll start with preventing infection. It’s easy to forget how dangerous bacterial infections used to be. But until the development of penicillin, we had no effective antibiotic - and therefore no effective defense against the infections that set in with disease or injury. In the late 1930s in Oxford, a remarkable international team came together to develop penicillin - the original wonder drug. It included the Australian Nobel laureate Howard Walter Florey, the German Nobel laureate Ernst Chain and the English biochemist Norman Heatley.
Today Oxford academics are still working on our most pressing medical challenges, and some of that work is happening in collaboration with India. Dr. Raghib Ali, who is here today, runs the Oxford side of INDOX: a network of 12 leading cancer centres across India, including the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, which we visited this morning. Previously seen as primarily a rich country problem, cancer is rapidly becoming a major killer in India. INDOX is studying the lifestyle factors that influence the risk of cancer on a scale never before achieved in India - tens of thousands of participants. Does vegetarianism or the use of particular spices used in Indian cooking have a beneficial effect? Is the practice of chewing tobacco or the increasing adoption of Western lifestyles in urban areas having a detrimental effect?
It is not hard to see how medical research translates into positive impact. But basic research in the other natural sciences and mathematics has also translated, over time, into enormous benefits for mankind. This point will be obvious to most of you in the audience today, but it bears repeating, because governments and corporations are under ever-increasing pressure to produce short-term results. This means that funding for all but the most applied research is also under pressure. But basic research is an outstanding long-term investment. Today’s insights find application tomorrow in wholly unexpected ways. Who could have imagined, back in the early 20th century, that the imponderables of quantum mechanics would help us to develop the semiconductor, which would revolutionize our ability to solve complex problems and to communicate with each other across great distances? Or from my own field, organic chemistry, an example of how the same field can produce a problem and then solve it. Our ability to manipulate organic molecules helped to develop plastic explosives. But today sophisticated technology allows us to detect the materials in plastic explosives, for instance in airport security screening procedures, and thereby to prevent harm.
One of the reasons I am delighted to be here today is that IIT Delhi is also doing so much to apply new insights to solve critical real-world problems. Professor M. Balakrishnan and Professor P.V.M. Rao and their teams are working on smart canes for the visually impaired. These ingenious devices use ultrasonic sensors to detect obstacles above the ground - those a blind person is likely to miss when using a traditional cane. Last summer this work received a big grant from the Wellcome Trust, which also happens to be one of the largest funders of research at Oxford.
As I said, my second point is that I expect university research in the sciences to be a fundamental force shaping the 21st century. Of course, scientific advances have long been a key driver of humanity’s progress. The industrial revolution, built on the back of technical innovation, lifted millions out of poverty (though it and the urbanisation it produces continue to cause some rather grim conditions for many). In the 21st century, however, we are seeing several trends that are increasing the importance of scientific research, and of universities in doing it.
I see two reasons why this is a particularly important time to promote scientific research. The first is the good side: recent scientific advances have opened up new avenues to address longstanding challenges. Stem cells may dramatically alter the way we treat diseases like cancer and Parkinson’s. Nanotechnology, which allows us to manipulate materials on the atomic and molecular level, is already yielding new commercial products and has the potential to produce a wide array of innovations. Last year, for example, Oxford scientists found that a new way of splitting layered materials like graphite into sheets of material just one atom thick could lead to revolutionary new electronic and energy storage technologies.
The second reason why science is more important today than ever is less encouraging. It is because the greatest threat we face - climate change - will require science to play a leading role. The warnings are all-too-familiar: rising temperatures are projected to disrupt agricultural production, exacerbate extreme weather patterns, and potentially swamp low-lying coastal areas where billions of people live. Our knowledge of how much the climate is warming is underpinned by measurement techniques developed by Professors John Houghton and Fred Taylor of Oxford’s Department of Physics in the 1970s. Pioneering the technique of infrared sensing of the atmosphere, they placed instruments on six Earth-sensing satellites and a similar number of planetary probes. The resulting data has provided continuous temperature information and proved crucial in understanding the role greenhouse gases play in climate change.
But if science helps us to understand the problem, it must also help us to overcome it. For example, we will need technological advances that enable us to derive energy more efficiently from renewable sources. To that end, Oxford engineers have developed a new design of lightweight electrical motor. Weighing less than 25 pounds, it still delivers very high torque. Less weight means that less energy is required. And high torque means that it has the potential for wide application: to the car industry, to aerospace and to manufacturing.
So scientific research will be crucial to the course of the 21st century. Why will universities increasingly be the places where it will happen?
The main reason is that more universities are churning out excellent research. Governments and the private sector in countries ranging from China to Brazil to Germany - and here in India! - are recognising the value that research universities can bring to a society. They are investing more than they have before, and setting high aspirations. The result is that we see more universities achieving research excellence, and that means that we have more capacity to produce new insights. It also creates a healthy pressure on the world’s existing world-class institutions to get better and to do more, or to risk losing out to emerging competitors. The increasingly competitive playing field of global higher education makes everyone better.1
I come, then, to my third main point: it is not enough to universities to hire scientists to work on our pressing problems, give them the research funding they need and get out of their way. I also believe that universities need to do more to bring scientific research and learning into dialogue with those who shape business and policy. So how do we go about creating better linkages between research and application? I want to highlight three crucial links: first, connecting science with business; second, connecting science with other disciplines; and third, connecting science with public policy.
In the long run, improvements in technology (broadly defined) drive long run economic growth in developed economies and for the world economy as a whole. However, scientific advances do not directly translate into technology. It is vital that there is a successful connection between science and business that fosters the successful application and commercialisation of ideas generated in the university sector. The success of this connection must be cultivated. Isis Innovation, a subsidiary of the University of Oxford, provides the sort of bridge between science and business that enables researchers to turn their work into products that people can use. Isis supports researchers with good ideas for commercialisation by providing expertise they may lack - how to raise finance, how to manage intellectual property, and so on. Isis has spawned 65 companies since 2000, collectively attracting over £300 million of investment. As a result, Oxford files more patents than any other UK higher education institution.
I’ll give you an example. Recall the lightweight, high-torque electrical motor I mentioned before. The Oxford researchers behind it, led by Malcolm McCulloch, launched a new spinout company, YASA Motors, with the backing of Isis Innovation. The YASA-750 engine is already being used in a handful of different high performance electric cars. And their latest offering, the YASA-400 has recently been put on the market, more powerful and even lighter.
Of course, Oxford is hardly the only one to seek to develop and capture the value of connecting research and business. Here at IIT Delhi, for twenty years you have had a wonderful annual event called Tryst. What makes Tryst special - apart from its fabulous slogan: Geekier than Thou - is that it sits at the junction of science and entrepreneurialism. Dozens of companies are involved as sponsors and exhibitors, and it’s a fun way for students to see how their classroom learning is related to revolutionary new products - such as in this year’s robotics theme.
It is also important to connect science with other disciplines. Connections between scientists in different fields is important because it brings fresh ways of looking at problems and plays a crucial role in channelling theoretical achievements into advances that can affect the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. But connections with disciplines beyond the traditional sciences are particularly crucial in maximising the impact of scientific research, and making sure that the impact is a positive one. Scientists need to interact with philosophers to work through the ethical implications, and with social scientists to work out how ordinary people making decisions in their everyday lives could limit the potential benefits of a break through, for example due to incomplete behavioural take up.
What are we doing about it at Oxford? For centuries we have promoted interdisciplinary thinking through its college system, bringing academics and students across disciplines together in the shared accommodation, dining and communal areas that colleges provide. These foster a great deal of informal contact. However, we have made some more formal and very successful arrangements in recent years with the establishment of the Oxford Martin School in 2005. The Martin School, which tackles the greatest challenges facing us in the 21st century - from health to technology, from climate change to migration - only funds research projects that are interdisciplinary in nature and undertaken by an interdisciplinary team of researchers. It represents a new way of organising within the university to bring diverse perspectives to bear on our most pressing problems.
Finally, it is important to connect science with public policy. Scientists would like to see their research have a wider impact and governments around the world are increasingly keen to make evidence-based policy. So there is willingness on both sides, but how do we make it happen? First there is the challenge of communication. Scientists must be willing to translate their findings into something that an intelligent layperson can understand and act upon. And non-scientists need to learn to speak the language of science if not fluently, then at least conversationally. Second, we must educate our leaders to be intelligent consumers of scientific research. They don’t need to be experts but they do need to be comfortable with the basic concepts and methods so they can make informed policy decisions. At Oxford, we are making science a core component of our new school of government, the first major school of government in Europe, called the Blavatnik School. In 2012, the Blavatnik School will open its doors in Oxford to the first cohort of students for an intensive Masters in Public Policy programme. And what a class it will be! Offer letters are just going out to students from Afghanistan, Australia, China, Germany, Israel, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, the United States, Yemen, and many more. This internationalism will be one hallmark of the new school. Another will be its seamless combination of theory and practice, with real-life modules sprinkled throughout the curriculum. And the third will be interdisciplinarity. For the first time, science policy will be a core component of a public policy programme rather than an unpopular optional extra.
So let me just briefly conclude. I have argued today that scientific research undertaken by universities has and will continue to have enormous positive effects on the world. Indeed, in the 21st century, I expect those effects to be greater than ever. But I will close with a warning: no university will be able to do it alone. Collaboration and mobility too will be defining features of world-class universities in the 21st century. We are already seeing it: the proportion of academic papers with co-authors from more than one country has increased by almost half in the last fifteen. The number of students enrolled in universities abroad is up more than 75 percent. And the number on short-term study abroad programmes has exploded.
This is part of why I am here: to say to you, let’s work together. Students, come to Oxford for postgraduate study. You can get started today by talking with representatives from our Graduate Admissions office after this talk. Researchers, think about partnering with colleagues at Oxford. And leaders of IIT Delhi, let’s think about how we can work together to do even better what we care about most: providing an outstanding education, and undertaking groundbreaking research. Thank you very much, and I would be delighted to answer any questions.
1 It also seems likely that proportionally less top-quality scientific research will be undertaken outside of universities. One hundred or more years ago, a driven individual with a little free time and a little money could set up his or her own laboratory or workshop. Brilliant theorists like Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, and Marie and Pierre Curie did their best work outside universities. Now a greater proportion of research requires a high degree of professional specialisation that can best be achieved by academics without other commitments, and a lot of expensive equipment and other resources that can usually only be amassed by large institutions. Fifty years ago, government and corporate research groups played a central role. Bell Labs and Xerox PARC undertook well-funded basic research and generated loads of new insights. These private sector research groups have largely disappeared. And governments have become more the funders than the producers of research as government research agencies have shrunk. As a result, universities have become the main source of scientific insight. They are augmented, I hasten to add, by other research institutions such as the Max Planck Institutes in Germany and specialised research groups funded by private foundations, such as America’s Gates Foundation.