Commencement speech given at The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, California, May 19 2017

In Support of Science and Marshmallows

By Gerald Chan

When Pete Schultz asked me to join the board of Calibr and then Scripps, I was surprised since I did not have a deep nor a long prior relationship with the Institute. Personally, I was of the mindset of getting off some boards rather than getting on more boards. If you knew Pete, you would know he does not take no for an answer. I was on the receiving end of his nonstop badgering until I was beaten into submission.

But there must be a higher reason for what I do with my life than to get Pete Schultz off my back. If the work that Pete had asked me to be part of was of little value to science, I probably could have marshalled enough resolve to resist his advance. That line of reasoning, however, was plainly not applicable as I had no doubt in my mind that Scripps is one of the premier research institutions in the world. It is a crown jewel of American science. If we care about science in America, we must care about the research institutions where some of the best science is done.

Over the last couple of decades, I have extensively visited scientific research institutions from around the world. I note in particular the efforts by the Asian countries to build their scientific research capacity. Aiming to do world-class science in a nascent research institute no longer seems foolhardily ambitious. Some newly affluent countries, just as in earlier times newly affluent regions in this country, were unsparing in throwing money at this effort. Slowly but surely, they are chipping away at America’s commanding lead in science which has been part and parcel to the post-WWII world order. If we are to make America great again, let us never forget what made America great in the first place.

It was WWII that changed the landscape of science in this country. The momentous migration of scientists from Nazi Germany to the West prior to the outbreak of war was followed toward the end of the war by a new architecture of America’s scientific enterprise designed by Vannevar Bush at the request of President Roosevelt. Bush invoked the frontier in America’s history to codified the support of science as a legitimate function of government. In the conduct of science, he conceptualized science as being divided into pure research done in universities and applied research done in industry. Pure research is to generate knowledge for the sake of knowledge and applied research is to use knowledge so generated to produce tangible benefits for society.

Vannevar Bush’s placing pure research in series with applied research rather than in opposition was a major conceptual breakthrough. The original words of Bush in his report, Science the Endless Frontier, left no ambiguity about his conception. I cite but three quotes here.

Basic research leads to new knowledge. It provides scientific capital. It creates the fund from which the practical applications of knowledge is drawn.

Today it is truer than ever that basic research is the pacemaker for technological progress.

The simplest and most direct way in which the Government can strengthen industrial research is to support basic research and to develop scientific talent.

With respect to biomedical research, Bush was no less unequivocal.

It is wholly possible that progress in the treatment of cardiovascular disease, renal disease, cancer, and similar refractory diseases will be made as a result of fundamental discoveries in subjects unrelated to those diseases, and perhaps entirely unexpected by the investigator.

History has proven Bush right even though the task of finding a good equilibrium between basic and applied research has never ceased to be a challenging one. The immediate years post-WWII saw a massive flourishing of basic research, so much so that there was a disdain for applied research in certain circles. Life science in UC Berkeley, under the leadership of Wendell Stanley, epitomized this sentiment. People from the medical school were not welcome to come across the Bay to collaborate as their experiments were deemed to be contaminated by “the MD spirit.” Choh Hao Li who purified the first four hormones ever done in history was shunned in Berkeley because his work was deemed too applied and too repetitive. Such a tension lingered even to the days when I was a graduate student. If a graduating PhD student in my days told his advisor that he was going to industry rather than staying in academia, he would likely be met with disappointment, displeasure and disapproval from his advisor.

Today we think it laughable that scientists should think this way. I point out this chapter of history to illustrate that every age has its zeitgeist which shapes social values and molds human behavior. Scientists are not immune.

We find ourselves today with the opposite zeitgeist in force. Having tasted a bounty of benefits from science, society has grown ever more impatient in demanding more benefits. Science is now expected to manufacture benefits for society. The politicians are all too ready to join in the populist refrain — if more benefits are not forthcoming in short order, it is because too much funding has been diverted to basic research and not enough resources given to translation. Lost in this assertion is the fact that the benefits we are enjoying today flowed from the basic research of yesteryears, some of which, for sure, were thought to be totally useless. To starve basic research today, therefore, is to rob future generations of the benefits that science would bestow on them. It is one form of the present generation mortgaging the future and leaving the liability to posterity. Is it not right that in our evaluation of public finance, there should be a moral dimension which measures responsible behavior by the standard of an inter-generational accounting?

If my words sounded jeremiad, I am all too aware that few prophets are ever heeded. Prophets are all too feeble to change the course of history. Political realism dictates that research institutions today must develop additional funding sources besides the government. Bypassing the government and appealing directly to the public is one avenue. For this, the scientific community must do a better job of communicating to the public the import of supporting science. Instead of only speaking to fellow scientists in professional meetings and publishing papers in academic journals, there is an urgent need for scientists who can speak to the public about science, rouse their interest in science and evoke in them a commitment to science. We need public intellectuals who can make science relevant to the public. We also need activists who will make science an indispensable ingredient in the nation’s public life. The story of how we came to understand HIV and devise therapeutic interventions is a brilliant chapter of popular activism that moved science forward.

Equally, the import of supporting basic science must be communicated more effectively to the philanthropic sector. It is understandable that philanthropists are most often motivated by their desire to alleviate human suffering. Against this humanitarian impulse, the impact of supporting science seems too distant and too contingent. Yes, science is slow, for there is no shortcut to the promised land. To the philanthropists in search of immediate impact, I invite them to recall the Stanford marshmallow experiment on delayed gratification. You can either have one marshmallow now, or be rewarded with two marshmallows if you wait. Forty years since this experiment was first published, the longitudinal data show that the children who were able to wait had better life outcomes in terms of SAT score, educational attainment, and not surprisingly, body mass index. Science is slow, but science has the power to turn one marshmallow, not into two, but into thousands or millions of marshmallows.

I’d like to finish with a historical vignette to illustrate the leverage possible with science. Modern medicine was made possible by modern life science which in turn had its genesis when the field of biology turned from its naturalist tradition to studying the chemical basis of life. The study of life turned from taxonomic classification and at best, phenomenological observation to mechanistic elucidation articulated in the vocabulary of chemistry and physics. This pivot took place gradually over two decades from the 1930s to the 1950s. The driving force behind this pivot was the Rockefeller Foundation. In fact, the term “molecular biology” was coined in 1938 by Warren Weaver, the Rockefeller Foundation’s head of its natural science division, to describe the Foundation’s new funding initiative. Between 1932 and 1959, the Foundation allocated $25 million to the molecular biology program. Thomas Hunt Morgan, Max Delbrück, George Beadle, Renato Dulbecco, Linus Pauling etc., were all supported by this program. Its funding produced fifteen Nobel laureates and forever changed how we understand life. This money could have gone to feeding many poor people around the world and that would have been laudable. I think we are all grateful that this money went into funding science. Millions of people have shared in the delayed gratification. We are still eating marshmallows from that funding scheme so long ago.

And now to the graduates, today is your day of marshmallows payoff. You and your loved ones made sacrifices to bring your education to this milestone. Whether you continue in academia or in industry, science is beckoning you to continue to explore its endless frontier. Whatever you do, I know you will be using the power of science to multiply marshmallows for the world. I welcome you to the company of scientists with heartfelt congratulations.

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