The New York Academy of Science

Partnering for Progress

By Ellis Rubinstein*

Scientists and engineers the world over know that science progresses through collaboration. Throughout recent history, under the most difficult of political circumstances, scientists and engineers have managed to reach out to one another to advance science for human benefit. But despite centuries of evidence that investigator-to-investigator partnering brings synergies of effort, research institutions have been more apt to compete than to collaborate. Until recently.

Who would have thought a mere decade ago that American universities, including the elite among them, would be building hospitals and entire campuses in the Middle East and Asia? Who would have imagined that European universities would be working with investment banks and sovereign wealth funds to develop bio-parks in China and the Gulf?

To cite one unusual example, John Sexton, President of New York University, is trying to pioneer in the creation of a global university. He wants the future students of NYU to be able to take advanced degrees on any continent. The New York in NYU would be no more than iconic for students choosing to learn from NYU faculty in Abu Dhabi, where he is creating a 3000-student campus, and perhaps in Paris, Buenos Aires, Beijing, or elsewhere.

To Sexton, a distinguishing characteristic of the 21st century will be a fierce competition between urban centers to be the world’s leading “Idea Capital.” Whereas in the 1920s and 1930s, Paris could attract the best and brightest because of its extraordinary population of brilliant artists and writers, Sexton believes this century’s “great attractors” will be the scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs working together to serve society.

But to achieve scale, urban centers will have to find a way to entice the proud and competitive institutions in their midst to work together, to build centers of excellence and to create environments as attractive as Paris was in 1925. And yet, since when do institutions work together?

Enter the New York Academy of Sciences as enabler.

First, the Urban Partnerships

Beginning five years ago, the New York Academy of Sciences transformed the “science scene” in New York in four ways. The Academy:

  1. Engendered communities of interest in the frontiers of science and technology. Some of the fields include systems biology, neurodegenerative diseases, RNAi, chemical biology, imaging, predictive toxicology, soft condensed matter, green buildings, sustainable energy and even quantitative finance. By building these communities, the Academy has synergized the talent among historically isolated institutions in several ways: by developing program committees peopled by the leading researchers at a minimum of five or so different universities and academic medical centers; by ensuring that the program committees would not merely invite brilliant scientists to provide review talks but would identify and feature the most exciting young scientists at seminars throughout the year; and by disseminating these talks globally. This initiative has also conveyed a novel message about New York: when the best researchers from New Haven to Cold Spring Harbor to Princeton come together, sparks fly.
  2. Organized an unprecedented system for mentoring the greater metro area’s Ph.D. students and post-docs. This program, the Science Alliance, is a consortium of universities, teaching hospitals, and independent research facilities in the New York City metro area and around the world that have formed a partnership with the Academy. The Alliance provides unparalleled career and professional development mentoring for students and postdocs in the sciences and engineering through a series of live events and a dedicated web portal. In addition, the Science Alliance gives students and postdocs the opportunity to network with their peers across institutions and with key leaders in both industry and academia.
  3. Bridged academia and industry. Too often, as we all know, the worlds of academic and corporate research do not meet. Less so in engineering but frequently in the sciences, conferences by professional societies are heavily weighted to academia, and industry networks with itself at events organized by for-profit conveners. But the Academy makes a point of inviting the best researchers of industry to join program committees, and the leaders of corporate research have sponsored participation by thousands of their scientists during the last several years.
  4. Bridged science and the arts, science and architecture, and science and finance. For many decades, the New York Academy of Sciences has held unusual cross-sectoral conferences to bring together professionals from diverse disciplines who might have reason to care about science. In the last few years, the Academy has held a series of events featuring many of the world leading architects now interested in new materials and green engineering, artists inspired by science, and investment bankers often trained initially in math and physics who now employ algorithms to make investment decisions.

Imagine the value to a community of scores of events of such a cross-disciplinary, inter-institutional, and cross-sectional nature! And imagine the power of an urban region that can display globally the full richness of its talent across science, technology and the professions that – in a post-industrial knowledge-based economy – need to interact with them! These characteristics of the Academy’s New York-based programs have not gone unnoticed elsewhere.

Then, the Global Partnerships

The Academy has had international affiliates since its beginnings nearly 200 years ago when scientists from many places beyond our borders became members, a connection that still exists today. And it has long partnered with other organizations and institutions to sponsor conferences and other gatherings around the world. The nature of Academy partnerships, however, has recently taken on new dimensions as we refine and expand our ability to develop collaborations that provide the infrastructures that help catalyze innovation and progress. Three recent examples:

  1. Last December, the Academy kick-started a bold coalition of some of the great universities in southeastern England. For the first time in memory, Imperial College London, King’s College London, and University College London joined together under our banner to organize and hold a landmark conference on brain imaging. Spurred on by the Academy and partners GlaxoSmithKline and Britain’s Royal Institution, the trio also announced the practical beginnings of southeast England’s GMEC – the Global Medical Excellence Cluster – an unprecedented effort to harness and synergize the scientific strengths of the “London Three,” plus Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Some months before he retired as Prime Minister, Tony Blair told the presidents of the five universities that the UK would not be able to compete successfully with the likes of Boston, the Bay Area, and New York if its institutions didn’t work together to achieve scale of excellence in science and technology. Now, The New York Academy of Sciences has been invited to help the institutions work together once again, co-organizing the first of future collaborative events for the “Big Five” in biomarkers.
  2. In February, the Academy inaugurated an alliance with the visionary new mayor of Mexico City, Mercelo Ebrard, who has set a goal of shifting his city’s economy from a manufacturing to a knowledge-based one. The Academy has agreed to help advise Mexico City—the second largest metropolitan area in the world—on the best practices for fostering innovation and science- and technology-based economic development. A first step in that direction will be the creation of a Science & Innovation Week in Mexico City this coming September. We will bring together leaders from the academy, industry, and government with local and international experts. The event will officially launch the mayor’s program and help define the areas of science and technology in which Mexico City has strengths and which also directly benefit its citizens. We will be working on other activities as well to bring together key stakeholders that can positively impact this effort.
  3. In May, the Academy launches perhaps one of its most ambitious and exciting initiatives ever: Scientists Without BordersSM. This new program aims to mobilize and coordinate science-based efforts to improve health care, foster agricultural progress, promote environmental well being, and devise energy solutions in the developing world. The underlying concept is that synergies of enormous benefit to the poor and ill can be attained if the many institutions often operating in isolation know about one another…and if scientists and engineers can match their skills and passion with the needs of organizations operating in developing countries. The cornerstone of Scientists Without BordersSM is a database consolidating key information about scientists and organizations from disparate specialties and locations so that users of the program’s Web portal will be able to match needs with resources and find out who is doing what, where. An elite Advisory Council—a who’s who of the global health world—has been formed, and a score of leading companies, foundations, and organizations have signed on as supporters. And in the first six weeks after the Scientists Without BordersSM Web site was opened to registration by potential partners, over 500 individuals, 50 project leaders, and 80 organizations working on issues of poverty formally joined the program.

Science and engineering have always been the most global of enterprises. The New York Academy of Sciences has – for 191 years – been the only global Academy. Even in the 19th century, this was so. Darwin and Pasteur were members along with the leading lights of America, including Presidents Jefferson and Monroe, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and hundreds of leading scientists and engineers. Today, we are blessed with more than 25,000 members in 140 countries and a President’s Council with not only 26 Nobel Laureates but the heads of multinational corporations and national science agencies throughout the world. But the special challenge of the Academy is to deserve our memberships by having a positive impact on science around the globe. We hope that as you learn more about the “new” New York Academy of Sciences, you will come to agree that the initiatives described above have special value. Join us. Participate.

* Ellis Rubinstein is President of the New York Academy of Sciences.