Ours to reason why: a reflection on GYSS 2014@one-north

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My area of research often strikes me as very detached from application – I work in basic research, studying the fundamental physics of electrons interacting with metals. Recently, I attended the Global Young Scientists Summit 2014 (GYSS 2014@one-north) in Singapore. On my way to Singapore, two questions were at the forefront of my mind: What are good reasons for doing scientific research, particularly basic research? And is new research or new technology truly valuable for solving the problems facing us today?

I hoped GYSS 2014, a meeting of eminent scientists (e.g., Nobel Prize winners, Fields Medalists) and some 350 young scientists (e.g., PhD students, post-docs, and early-career scientists from industry, government agencies, and the academy) would offer new insight into why we do research (and why we fund research) in the sciences.

GYSS 2014 is the second meeting of its kind, held this year on the campus of the Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Modeled on the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, the National Research Foundation of Singapore organises GYSS. The week-long event consists of plenary lectures and panel discussions by senior scientists, smaller group sessions with the plenary speakers and site visits to various institutions and science-related endeavours in Singapore such as the National University of Singapore (NUS), the Building and Construction Authority’s Zero Energy Building, and the Gardens by the Bay [pictured].

As explained by the President of Singapore Dr Tony Tan in his remarks at the closing ceremony of GYSS 2014, GYSS is part of Singapore’s long-term strategy for investing in science and technology, a tremendous commitment at a time when many other governments are restricting research funding. The institutional origins of the invited young scientists suggest a particular connection to existing relationships – universities like Cambridge, MIT, Hebrew University, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and ETH Zurich were well represented and are collaborators on the CREATE project [Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise].

The motives behind GYSS are likely multifold as NUS faculty encouraged GYSS participants to apply for post-doctoral and faculty positions in Singapore (joining hundreds of applicants per position at these ‘Top 100’ universities). To my mind, GYSS serves to put Singapore on the map for young scientists both for career options in the immediate future and for developing collaborations and the general prestige of Singapore as a leader in science and technology. GYSS certainly enhances relationships between young scientists and Singapore, but to what extent did GYSS 2014 accomplish its goals, captured in the keywords “Excite | Engage | Enable”?

A better world?

The theme for GYSS 2014 was given as “Advancing Science, Creating Technologies for a Better World”. During the first few plenaries, this began to make me bristle as it appeared that the implicit moral justification for scientific research was not going to be deconstructed. The theme suggests a direct connection between science and technology and emphasises that these will without a doubt yield a “Better World”. Basic research does not always or at least does not immediately create technologies and often existing and new technologies do more harm than good.

These nuances became apparent during the week, but were never stated outright. Several of the speakers repeated platitudes in messages offered to attendees: “Follow your heart” and “Dare to take risks”. Is that really enough to be successful or to do good work? Is this new information for young scientists?

In his opening plenary, the Nobel prize-winning biologist Aaron Ciechanover suggested obesity is a behavioural issue by showing a photo of an obese woman eating a large cake by herself. To me, this suggested an incredibly narrow box from which he considered his remedies for global health. Scientific and medical research cannot stand in isolation from social science on this issue.

A strong argument for developing existing technologies rather than creating new ones was offered by biochemist and Nobel Laureate Hartmut Michel. In his lecture, he refuted the logic of biofuels and offered a vision for large-scale implementation of current solar energy technology in a Desertec-type approach. US chemist and another Nobel Laureate Robert Grubbs also offered a critical approach in suggesting uncertainty about the ultimate benefit of industrial use of his renowned catalyst in biofuel refining.

Yet at no point during the conference was there an explicit acknowledgement that science and technology might be separate and/or separable in terms of their moral justifications. During a panel discussion, one student asked about the potential negative impacts of selling a start-up to a large tech company, but the student was met by a resounding answer from the speakers that sale of a start-up was the mark of success and should only be met with a glass of Champagne. Another conference participant later suggested that perhaps these speakers were simply from a different time and that their insights might be complemented well by advice from mid-career scientists facing today’s research and funding environment.

Truth

Several of the speakers whose work comprised basic research did present answers to my original question: Science is about truth. Science is about curiosity. Basic research is not-yet-applied research. Or as one speaker quoted testimony to the US Congress justifying funding for the Fermilab particle accelerator, science is part of our culture.

I am ultimately left with mixed feelings. I feel that my motivation for doing research has been revitalised, but GYSS contributed to this effect only passively. I am not convinced that the massive carbon footprint associated with participants flying to Singapore sufficiently balanced the intellectual return for participants.

At the same time, from considering the speakers’ narratives, I have renewed appreciation for the long time-scale and necessary patience, determination and vision required to do novel research. I am energised by the broad sweep of the many areas of science on display at GYSS 2014, giving real shape to research possibilities beyond the comfortable corner of my own training. I am also personally keenly aware of a need to make conscious and active choices about the applications of my research and moral justifications for the work I do. And I believe in the pursuit of these and many other questions through research and about research.

*Sean Collins [2012] is doing a PhD in Materials Science at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on studying the optical properties of metal nanoparticles using high energy electron beams.

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