A record crowd of nearly 800 turned out for the May 28 event, which more than lived up to its billing. As promised, the colloquy featured the commencement honorandsPeter Orszag, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget; Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium; and Harold Varmus, M.D., co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and their views on “Re-Igniting the Innovation Economy: Science and Technology.”
But President Shirley Ann Jackson also steered the conversation over more varied terrain, covering topics as diverse as healthcare reform, the Gulf oil spill, and each panelist’s path to discovery. As a result, the audience was treated to a rare glimpse into the passions and thought processes of some of the nation’s leading pioneers and public servants.
President Jackson introduced the honorands to the audience at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center and set the stage for a discussion marked by spirited, yet good-natured exchanges.
“We are at a crossroads where decisions and investments that we make today must lay the foundation for global economic strength and leadership,” she said. She noted the unique role each honorand has played in “helping to advance us to where we are today as a society,” and emphasized the need to identify ways to remove barriers and create new opportunities to “power our economy and, importantly, uplift society as a whole.”
Tyson, a recipient of the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal and champion of increased science literacy for the general public, spoke about the need to attract students to the sciences by offering “the grandest vision you can lay in front of them.” As an example, he cited NASA’s mission to advance the space frontier.
“When you know we’re advancing a space frontier, it changes the zeitgeist of your culture, and you start dreaming about tomorrow … about how different things could be based on the discoveries that are unfolding,” Tyson said.
Although they hail from different disciplines, the honorands agreed that breakthroughs whether in economics policy or in cancer researchtypically are the result of collaboration and cross-pollination.
Orszag, the youngest member of President Obama’s cabinet, pointed to the realization that the “pure math” approach to economics was “not the most insightful perspective. ... It needed to be combined with psychology and sociology in this new field of behavioral economics, where there have been major advances in understanding and application of public policy,” he said.
Varmus, who received the Nobel Prize in 1989 for his pioneering studies of the genetic basis of cancer, radiated enthusiasm as he spoke of the progress since then in cancer research the genetic understanding that has given rise to more effective treatments. “In at least some cases, we can give a drug to a person for a lifetime,” Varmus said.
At the same time, he acknowledged the challenges of balancing investment in research with the need to contain healthcare costs. Turning to Orszag, Varmus said, “We’ll work with the OMB and the economists and Medicare providers to try to figure out how to pay for all this, but when you can really save lives, you’ve got to do the research that brings you there.”
Langer also appealed for continued public and private investment in research. A prolific inventor and the most cited engineer in history, Langer said that investing in basic research “is one of the most important things that the government can do.” He credited universities and start-up companies with translating research breakthroughs from the laboratory to the marketplace.
The discussion underscored the promise of science and technology and the challenge of realizing that promise in light of current economic, ethical, and social issues. Orszag expressed concerns about an “explosion in the differential in life expectancy in the United States by socioeconomic status.” He warned of increased social tension in the future “if diseases are solved for a small subset of the population and not others.”
Jackson took the issue a step further, stressing its global impact. “That differential also exists between a society like ours that is basically a wealthy one and the developing world,” she said.
“Science is done in one language, by people who have common points of view. It has, in general, been a unifier,” Varmus said. He noted recent trips, by science envoys to the Middle East, North Africa, and Indonesia, saying, “This is an important thing for all of us to be thinking about as a way to harmonize the world through science and technology.”
The Colloquy was recorded and can be viewed at www.rpi.edu/about/colloquy/2010/index.html.
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