Hope for Our Future

Hope for Our Future

Identifying leaders of tomorrow in diverse scientific disciplines.

Where else but at the Academy can you be introduced at once to a dozen brilliant young scientists from seven disciplines—neuroscience, organometallic chemistry, quantitative immunology, climatology, computer science, astrophysics, and "open atomic and molecular systems"—hailing from seven countries—the U.S., China, India, Russia, Israel, Hungary, and the Czech Republic?

In a world too often limited by invisible boundaries that separate us by discipline, sector, and nationality, I find it thrilling to peruse the biographies of this year's extraordinary finalists in the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists. I think you will too.

While most scientific prizes are targeted to leaders in a single field (and often to renowned individuals who have made discoveries decades in the past), the Academy's Blavatnik Awards are devoted to identifying leaders of tomorrow in any and all scientific disciplines.

The task of comparing accomplishments across fields is daunting. This year it was the job of 40 uniquely qualified judges: leading scientists, engineers, and mathematicians who can speak to the special nature of accomplishments in their own domains and, at the same time, rise above their parochial interests and measure accomplishments across disciplinary boundaries. They debated fiercely as they narrowed a list of about 30 semifinalists—25 percent of all entrants—to the dozen finalists. Selection of the award winners from that group was even more contentious.

The names of the awardees will be first revealed at the Academy's 6th annual Science & the City Gala on November 16 in New York City. But I can tell you that if you take a few minutes to read about the work of the 12 finalists, you will regard all of them as winners.

I personally am deeply disturbed by the evolution of a postdoctoral system that prevents some of our most creative minds from running their own labs until they are in their 40s. I am even more concerned about the disproportionate commitment, in the U.S. and elsewhere, of national funding resources primarily to the "superstars" of science—to individuals who are often in their sixth or seventh decade of life—that leaves far fewer resources available to young, up-and-coming scientists. This unbalanced distribution of scarce resources impedes the creativity of the most vital among us. I can only wonder how individuals like Francis Crick and Jim Watson, Josh Lederberg and Richard Feynman would have fared in today's science culture.

Academy Governor Len Blavatnik didn't want to create yet another prize honoring people everyone already knows. And he wanted to use his prize—initially, at least—to convey to the world at large that the tri-state area's universities and academic medical centers offer a scale of talent that is unmatched.

If you look at the Blavatnik Finalists across the first three years of the prize, you will see that Len's vision has been confirmed. And this year you will see something else: brilliance can be found in institutions not immediately identified with cutting-edge research.

I was particularly pleased that this year's outstanding judges recognized the work of Ben Oppenheimer. Leading a team of even younger people studying a proto planetary disk comprised of dust orbiting a star, Ben is one of the first researchers in the world to see, in real time, the process of a solar system forming.

This is "cool." But what is even cooler to me is that Ben works at the American Museum of Natural History. Ben's was a first nomination for the AMNH, and he becomes the museum's first finalist. His nomination reminds us that great research is done not only inside universities and academic medical centers, but also in museums, companies, government labs, and research institutions run by national academies.

Progress in science and technology takes place because of the incredible diversity of institutions, disciplines, and individuals engaged in research. As I noted at the outset, we rarely see the beauty of this diversity. Many of us work in silos—meeting fellow biologists, fellow inorganic chemists, and so on. But the New York Academy of Sciences specializes in building bridges—across disciplines, between academia and industry, from science to finance, and from science to art. With the help of visionaries like Len Blavatnik, we get to specialize in identifying the most exciting people who will be famous one day but who haven't been "discovered" yet.

Our capacity to build bridges and identify young stars has contributed greatly to the resurgence of the New York Academy of Sciences as it sits on the brink of entering its third century in existence. I find it thrilling to see this year's dozen exemplars of our special commitment.

Ellis Rubinstein