Commencement speech given at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, November 18 2016

A Culture of Science

By Gerald Chan

I am honored to be awarded a degree in business. People get their degrees in business first and then go into business. I got into business thirty years ago and am only now getting my first degree in business. It goes to show that being out of sequence is OK. There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all in how we go about life. I encourage you graduates to be bold and write your own scripts for your lives, remembering that where there is a will, there is a way.

I am only now getting my first degree in business because my earned degrees are all in science and engineering. When I was young, it never occurred to me that I would end up in business. I did well in every subject in high school and I was interested in everything. There was a current in Chinese society then that the best and brightest students went into science. I too was swept along by that current. To no small extent, my generation was inspired by C.N. Yang and T.D. Lee winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957. Harking back to modern Chinese history, science and patriotism had become intertwined in early twentieth century. Mr. Science, together with Mr. Democracy, became the figurative embodiment of the spirit of the May Fourth Movement of 1919. Science was to reform the Chinese people so that they could overthrow foreign domination and save their nation. Herbert Spencer’s theory of Social Darwinism, a concept borrowed from science, added to the sense of exigency that the Chinese people as a nation was facing extinction by operation of survival of the fittest. Less than half a century from such a nadir in Chinese history, these two Chinese physicists, ages 35 and 30, burst on the world scene at the pinnacle of science. They created a new sense of possibility for the Chinese people never found in Chinese history. The inspiration to study science was powerful beyond words.

There were other instances in world history when science was prominent in a nation’s public life. The same year of 1957 saw America gripped by fear as the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik into space. In the tension characteristic of the Cold War era, the American people thought that the fate of their nation hung on the balance of the Space Race and that they had better catch up technologically to the Soviets. The result was a whole generation of Americans motivated to study science and engineering and copious government funding for supporting scientific research.

On a lighter note, there were also times in history when science became the source of hope for people. During the Great Depression of 1930’s America, the science fiction genre of literature achieved wide popularity. Science was co-opted to legitimize fantasy when fantasy was the only place where hope could be found. As bizarre as some of its futuristic constructs were, science fiction transported people from the bleak sights of the present to utopian visions of a better tomorrow.

Fast forward to the present. Science no longer commands the same veneration nor the spell that once captured society’s imagination. When was the last time you heard a child say, “When I grow up, I want to become a scientist?” It is most ironic that at a time when the potential of science to improve the human condition has never been greater, our society’s engagement with science is ever so diminished. Science is now viewed as abstruse and esoteric, understandable by a few and irrelevant to the many. With the exception of China making bold commitments to supporting science, governments everywhere are cutting science budgets. It is as if science is a luxury that society can splurge on when times are good and cut back when budgets are tight. While it is true that science cannot solve all the problems facing mankind, we would do well to recognize that some of the most perilous problems we face today can only be solved by advancing science.

Twenty-five years ago, your elders had the foresight to found this University in the belief that in the twenty-first century, science and technology would have an important place in Hong Kong’s society. I have no doubt that they faced naysayers, as did I, who thought that finance and property, trading and retail would suffice to sustain Hong Kong indefinitely into the future. While circumstances in the intervening years have already proven the naysayers wrong, the burden is nevertheless still on our shoulder to continue the unfinished work of the founders of this University, that is, to inject science and technology into the culture of Hong Kong and to build an institution of higher learning with a culture of science and technology where the young people of Hong Kong can be so educated. If Hong Kong is to have an economy that is in keeping with the times and competitive in today’s world, science and technology are the indispensable foundation. To build such an economy that is vibrant and sustainable, we must begin by building a culture of science.

A culture is a set of values that are widely shared and deeply entrenched in a community. Imperceptible yet irresistible, culture is like an undertow at sea that sweeps along anyone that comes close to it. I have long maintained that culture is a most powerful determinant of people’s behaviors and choices, and so it is with a city’s culture. If Hong Kong only had a culture of commerce and entertainment, our young people will only know to pursue money and leisure. Today, my appeal to the HKUST community – the University Council, the professors, staff and students – is that you take the lead to build a culture of science in Hong Kong.

Rather than being a secluded cloister, Clear Water Bay should become the epicenter of science and technology in this city. This campus should be viewed by the young people of Hong Kong as a Mecca of science where they can come and be inspired by science and inducted into the study of science and engineering. Several years ago, I visited a research institute of the Austrian Academy of Science in Vienna. Designed into the institute’s new building is a laboratory for school teachers to bring their students to learn how to work with recombinant DNA. How wonderful it would be if students as young as junior high school age can be inspired by extracting DNA from cells and sequencing it. Or, as the world’s largest manufacturer of non-military drones is a spin-out from HKUST, how wonderful it would be if young schoolchildren can come here and be inspired by aerodynamics, navigation and flight control. Acculturation always starts with the young. If Hong Kong is to have a culture of science, engaging the young people is imperative.

It is also my entreaty to you that such outreach work by the University be open to all young people from Hong Kong regardless of their backgrounds. A culture is not built by exclusion of others by a few, but by inclusion of the many. I have no doubt that there are brilliant science students in the top high schools in Hong Kong. I also have no doubt that there are latent scientific talents even in the seemingly unlikely schools. I have a friend who grew up in a small village in Scotland. When he applied to his future mentor for a PhD course, she said she had never taken a PhD student from such a poor undergraduate school. Eventually she relented and that young man is today a senior lecturer of cell biology in one of UK’s leading universities. Perhaps the ceiling of achievement does not originate in the minds of the young people, but in society’s predetermined expectations for them.

Albert Einstein once said that the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, but imagination. For us who are part of the scientific community of Hong Kong, and I consider myself a part of it by virtue of my distant roots here, we have a monumental task before us. It is the task of recapturing the imagination of the young people of Hong Kong for science. We have no illusion that they will all become practicing scientists – that is not possible – but we want science to have a place in their dreams as they imagine their future. Whatever profession they choose to go into, we want them to have an enduring interest in science and a lifelong engagement with science. Knowing that the young people today are inundated with stimuli, options and temptations, we must show them science as an engaging and even more compelling alternative. Our task is to inspire them, to captivate them, to nurture them and to guide them. This task would not be easy even if the cultural terrain in Hong Kong were a level playing field; I suspect it is more the case that we are starting from a disadvantaged position in an unleavened playing field. We must do more and we must work harder to outcompete the other forces that are also vying for the imagination of the young people of Hong Kong.

At the graduation convocation of Morningside College, Chinese University of Hong Kong that I attended yesterday, a young graduate in physics gave the student’s address. He spoke most movingly about his inner struggles early in his undergraduate years as he arrived at the decision to pursue his newfound interest in physics and to become a research scientist, knowing full well that this journey is long and the outcome uncertain. When his peers are married and paying off their mortgages, he will still be a post-doc with nary a job prospect. He spoke movingly of his fears and at times, despair and of his eventually finding the courage to define his own goals in life and to run the race at his own pace. He said that it is OK even to step off the race for a while if one has become too weary. Defeatist as they may sound, his words were not words of nihilism, but of courage to live his life and commitment to reach his goals. Before me was a young man who had counted the cost and is committed to becoming a scientist. Young people like him deserve our support and we must not fail them.

I also want to recognize the science teachers in Hong Kong’s secondary schools. Having watched for many years the Hang Lung Mathematics Competition for high school students, I know how dedicated the high school teachers are and the amazing quality of their scholarship. The universities of Hong Kong should strengthen, enrich and complement their good work. In the 1950s and 1960s, the secondary schools of Hong Kong educated two future Nobel laureates in Physics – Charles Kao and Daniel Tsui, a future winner of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics – Kam-Biu Luk, a future Fields medalist – Shing-Tung Yau, and a future recipient of the Wolf Prize in Chemistry – Ching W. Tang. I don’t know if there is another city in Asia that can make a comparable claim. There is no telling how many future laureates there may be in our midst if only they are nurtured, guided and supported from their youth.

And now to the graduates, you are the reason we are gathered here today. I welcome you to the company of the learned. I recognize your hard work that brought you to this day. I also recognize your families that supported you. For our guests from abroad, I like to point out that two-thirds of the graduates of this University are the first generation in their families to receive higher education. I consider this enablement of social mobility one of the greatest achievements of Hong Kong. These parents are a powerful example of those who work hard and make sacrifices so that their children may have a better future. They are an inspiration to us; their lives affirm the words in the Psalms, “Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.” To the graduates and their families, I share in your joy today and I send you all my best wishes.

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