Dr. Phillip A. Sharp, a Nobel Laureate who has applied molecular biology expertise to the co-founding of two pharmaceutical companies, addressed a full house at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago last night. With the theme of the conference being "Meeting Global Challenges: Discovery and Innovation," he spoke of the possibilities of science to solve some of the world's most pressing challenges.
However, the success of science, he said, would depend on the convergence of various sciences as well as well as the public and private sectors.
The last two words in the title of this meeting – discovery and innovation – indicate steps by which science impacts on society. There are two other terms that are closely related to innovation: these are entrepreneurship and economy. ... If discovery is to come to the aid of our great global challenges of climate change, poverty and disease, we have no choice but to become much better at linking discovery, invention and entrepreneurship.
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After giving a brief history of the advances in life sciences from the "first revolution," the discovery of the structure of DNA, through the "second revolution," the sequencing of the human genome, he asked, "What is the next revolution in life sciences?"
"Many think it is the convergence of life sciences with physical, computational and engineering sciences," he said.
The promise of convergence is dependent upon continued investment in basic science and translation of the resulting discoveries into innovations. This will not happen without expansion of current public-private partnerships, with the public sector funding more of the basic research and the private sector funding more of the translational activities.
The evening opened with a talk by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He talked about how his city has created five high schools dedicated to science, technology, engineering and math. The high schools partner with corporate sponsors so students can also earn industry certifications when they graduate.
In addition, he said, Chicago plans to add computer science to the high school curriculum while teaching coding starting in elementary school.
Emanuel also talked about collaborations between universities and industry. "I believe the single greatest economic drivers going forward are our universities," he said. "We're recruited 26 major corporations to move the headquarters to Chicago. One reason is that we have great universities ... with talent they couldn't get before."
Other speakers were University of Chicago Provost Dr. Eric D. Isaacs, a physicist and director of Argonne National Laboratory, Dr. Robert Zimmer, President of the University of Chicago who previously serviced as Chairman of the Mathematics Department, Deputy Provost, and VP of Research for Argonne National Laboratory; and Dr. Morton Shapiro, President of Northwestern University and Professor of Economics.
Afterwards, Tom Ruginis, the founder of a local start-up called HappiLabs, said the speakers' emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation gave him "goose bumps on multiple occasions," such as when Dr. Sharp talked about the convergence of disciplines. "In order for us to solve the global problems, they have to all converge, and you need these innovative people to envision how this conversion is going to happen."
Ruginis said his own company helps helping scientists shop smarter, describing it as a "Consumer Reports, Yelp and Expedia for scientific supplies and equipment."
AAAS President Phillip A. Sharp
Dr. Sharp, a noted molecular biologist with a focus on the genetic causes of cancer, shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of "split genes" — the finding that genes could be composed of several separate segments within DNA. His lab now focuses on the therapeutic potential of RNA interference, small RNA molecules that can switch genes on and off. He has co-founded two companies: Biogen (now Biogen Idec) and Alnylam Pharmaceuticals. He received a PhD in chemistry from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine, AAAS, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and a foreign fellow of the Royal Society (UK).
Alison Bert (@AlisonBert) is Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier Connect. She joined Elsevier five years ago from the world of journalism, where she was a business reporter and blogger for The Journal News, a Gannett daily newspaper in New York. In the previous century, she was a classical guitarist on the music faculty of Syracuse University. She received a doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, was a Fulbright Scholar in Spain and performed in the 1986 master class of Andres Segovia.