The World Laureates Association (WLA) is an initiative of a Shanghai businessman, Wang Hou, and several Nobel laureates, and as I understand, is supported by the municipality of Shanghai. I was fortunate to be present at the second annual meeting in late October in Shanghai. There were about 72 laureates present at the meeting, including over 50 Nobelists and winners of the Wolf, Lasker, Fields, and Turing awards, as well as MacArthur fellows. This meeting was an incredible “crash course” on the frontier of science, with excellent presentations by the laureates and young scientists.
What’s going on at the frontier?
One of my takeaways from this meeting is that life must exist outside of our planet. In the last few years, scientists have discovered thousands of new planets, each of which is different, but some of which have conditions that could be hospitable to life. Finding these planets, numerous lightyears away. is an incredible achievement combining innovative theory, observation, and technology. Recalling telescope was invented less than 600 years ago, we’ve gone from believing the Sun rotated around the Earth to realizing that we live in a small planet in an ever-expanding universe. It seems space exploration has become a realistic part of the scientific and technological agenda. It probably won’t be in my lifetime, but if human civilization survives, we may be able to meet other creatures.
While meeting with aliens is more likely to be in the far future, our discussion suggested that within the next 20 years, we are likely to start solving two mysteries. One is the mystery of dark matter and the other is the mystery of the “dark box” that is our brain. I was astonished to learn that only recently scientists realized most of the universe contains dark matter, and now have started to learn its properties. Additionally, our capacity to develop advanced computers, monitoring hardware, and sophisticated software will allow us to better understand the supercomputer that is the human brain. Moreover, medical researchers seem to be more confident that in the next 20 years they will be able to solve many of the mysteries of the flu and cancer. Science will continue to eliminate disease and increase human life expectancy (but we still need to address climate change and be able to live in peace with one another). But the future may hold many surprises. Life science and information technology may expand human capabilities, which challenges us to develop ethical principles to guide the utilization of knowledge and technology. This reminds us of the importance of affirming constructive interactions between the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.
Major issues in Economics and Technology
I participated in a panel on economics directed to students and a general audience. We learned from Prof. Thomas Sargent that a unique feature of economics, compared to other sciences like astronomy, is that while scientists predict future outcomes from observing past events, in economics, agents need to predict future behaviors of other agents in order to inform their own activities. Understanding the mutual interaction among economic agents is crucial for better analysis of the economy. Some of my students wonder about whether behavioral economics has made traditional economics obsolete. Behavioral economics identifies patterns of behavior that are not consistent with the standard assumptions of profit-maximization or self-interest more broadly. However, Prof. Robert Aumann suggested that decision-makers operate under uncertainty and decide on basic strategies to address various situations. These strategies are selected to maximize self-interest of agents on average, but they may fail in some cases. These are situations that are identified by behavioral economists. Behavioral economics helps to sharpen and improve the predictions of standard economics in these frameworks.
The audience was very curious about the future of work and well-being. Sir Christopher Pissarides actually suggested that recent history shows that new innovations that replace jobs generate new jobs, while also improving standards of living. While automation and new technologies may displace jobs, the new era will produce new opportunities. The challenge today is to develop government and private systems that will help people adapt and take advantage of new opportunities. I spoke about the education-industrial complex, where academic research discoveries are advanced frequently by private entrepreneurs who create supply chains that spur the development of new products and markets. We need to understand better the evolution of supply chains and the importance of market power and free enterprise in generating new industries. We have to improve policies regulating anti-competitive behavior by established firms. The presentations and discussion made it clear that science, technology, and commerce are linked today, and effective management of science is one contributor to economic growth.
An underlying question in this workshop was what makes good science. We heard many perspectives, but several common themes. One was the importance of academic freedom and the ability of scientists (since well before Copernicus and his fellow revolutionary Galileo) to pursue unconventional ideas. Research is an adaptive process, and when scientists follow the most reasonable path rather than a strategy dictated from above, they are likely to obtain the best results.We heard that science sometimes occurs when people with peripheral vision notice unusual phenomena. For example, Fleming discovered penicillin after seeing that mold growing on a contaminated plate destroyed the bacteria.
Another theme is the beneficial interdependence between different branches of science. Improved understanding of chemistry and physics improves the understanding of biology, better technologies provide new data that leads to discoveries, and advancing mathematics and computer algorithms generate new tools to move science forward. Furthermore there is also symbiosis between big science projects (traveling to Mars) and “small science,” conducted by scientists on their benches. Researchers who develop theories at their desks provide ideas provide ideas for big science projects, and the findings of these projects inspire small science. Countries that want to increase their scientific productivity should potentially invest in some major initiatives, but supporting many independent scientists to pursue their own goals and instincts is essential for sustaining the process of discovery.
A third theme is that peer-reviews and evaluation by fellow scientists of new research discoveries allow the identification of new viable theories and separate the wheat from the chaff. There is a tendency to reward scientists based only on numbers of citations or being able to publish in top journals. This formulaic tendency is dangerous, and cannot replace evaluation by peers based on assessment of publications’ intrinsic quality.
A fourth theme was that science is international and provides global public goods. Major big projects have become too expensive for one country and require the sharing of finance, research effort, and derived knowledge.The audience wondered why there haven’t been many Chinese Nobelists given the huge current investment in science. One answer is that there is generally a significant time lag between discovery and reward, and most prestigious prizes are given to work from decades ago that has withstood the test of time. Therefore, as China and other countries continue invest in scientific enterprise, it is likely to see more recognition in term of awards in the near future. The laureates, all veterans of the “Long March” of post-WWII science, has recognized that China has now become a vital ally in this great human endeavor. It’s only reasonable to expect them to share the rewards as we pursue new horizons together.
This spirit of cooperation was everywhere evident in from the wonderful hospitality of our hosts, including excellent facilities, food, and outstanding support staff. Our meeting closed with another reminder of China’s dramatic progress, an amazing night time tour of the Shanghai skyline. I visited the same place 10 years ago, barely recognizable from a visit 20 years ago, and just as startling today. Seeing the potential of determined commitments to innovation and progress, both among my colleagues and hosts, I look forward to the future.