The Last Word

The Last Word

The Third Century: A Vision for the New York Academy of Sciences

As befits a Bicentennial Year, the New York Academy of Sciences, staff, Board of Governors and Membership have spent the months since our 200th birthday last January 29, celebrating our distinguished past along with our relatively recent renaissance. But what's in store for us as we enter our Third Century? Can we do justice to the past and present commitments of the incredible network of supporters we have developed over the decades? Think of Darwin, Pasteur, Thomas Jefferson, Bell and Edison, Margaret Meade, Lord Kelvin, Louis Pasteur and Barbara McClintock. Or think of the 100-plus Nobel Laureates; the scores of industry, academic and government leaders; and the generous philanthropists and over 1000 institutional partners who have supported us. What could they expect of us in the next 10 decades?

The previous pages are a mosaic of the hopes and dreams of Academy Members contemplating where science and technology can take our planet and how to improve education in the decades to come. But what about the future of our Academy itself? In this essay, I will propose an aspirational vision — one that I hope you will find to be not only inspiring but achievable. And all of it hinges on two principles.

First, that social networking is increasing the potential of global collaborations exponentially by complementing the traditional methods of face-to-face interaction. And that means that we can now build upon the incredible network we have already developed and fashion a Million Member, globally active social network that will employ science and technology to address the greatest challenges facing our planet and its citizens. And, second, that the impact of this network will prove exponentially more effective at solving problems because it will enable collective action on a heretofore unimagined scale.

A Global Vision

Much of what is possible will be built on the foundation of what can be achieved in the next two decades. So I will focus on the Academy's potential in the year 2030.

2030 has become an iconic year. Based on a consensus of 193 nations, 17 "Sustainable Development Goals" (SDGs) will be pursued over the next dozen years and, by 2030, we hope the world as we know it will be transformed for the better.

Extreme poverty will be banished from the earth, except perhaps in remaining conflict zones or pariah states. Hunger and malnutrition will largely be scourges of the past thanks to a doubling of agriculture achieved through sustainable uses of energy, water and so forth. And with regard to health and wellness, epidemics won't become pandemics, and there will be dramatic reductions in maternal and infant mortality. And that's just for starters. (Read the full SDG list.)

Now, even if you haven't been following this ambitious playbook closely, I think you will agree that these 17 SDGs embody the most ambitious detailed vision of a better planet ever proposed by humankind. And perhaps for that reason you may feel some skepticism concerning the likelihood that these ideals can be achieved. But perhaps you haven't noticed the extraordinary progress made over the last two decades through the power of collective action:

  • Extreme poverty was cut in half empowering a billion people to join the world economy.
  • Deaths from malaria were reduced by up to 70 percent.
  • Maternal mortality was reduced by almost 50 percent.
  • And millions more children — especially girls — are graduating from primary schools with the next target being universal graduation from secondary schools.

How did all this happen? Visionary macro-economic planning, improved policy adoption, savvy investments, public-private partnerships in extraordinary numbers and — particularly warming to our hearts — innovations in science and technology.

In a world where the daily news is often horrific, the Sustainable Development Goals are expanding on the surprising success of their precursors, the Millennium Development Goals. And nothing is more inspiring than the stories of the institutions and individuals who are coming together to help achieve these goals through collective action.

An Academy Vision

So, collective action has become the key to my vision of what the New York Academy of Sciences can achieve in its Third Century. Without fanfare — perhaps even without notice — collective action has been at the heart of many of the Academy's greatest and most promising new initiatives during the last decade.

To cite some examples, our Science Alliance for Graduate Students and Postdocs in the New York area overcame what had been previously nearly a zero-sum-game ethos among competing academic institutions. Today, young scientists from across the New York Tri-State region come together on a regular basis for career mentoring and special frontiers-of-science inspiration and collaborative opportunities. Because of the Science Alliance programs, tens of thousands of young scientists are engaging in collective action.

The synergistic effect of that landmark project in New York was soon recognized by the world-class universities of London — King's, Imperial and University College, London (UCL). They commissioned the Academy to help them overcome natural competitiveness, and after we organized and held three landmark conferences on cutting-edge topics — combining the best of King's, Imperial and UCL and demonstrating the power of working together — a sea change took place in cooperation among not only the London-based universities, but even among long-time archrivals Oxford and Cambridge.

Gradually, world political and business leaders, seeing concrete results from such activities, began to take notice. The Academy was invited to develop collective-action-fostering initiatives in Mexico City, Russia, Qatar and Malaysia. PepsiCo, realizing the potential of the Academy's neutrality to innovate, invited us to develop a publicprivate partnership that, with the crucial collaboration of the Mortimer D. Sackler Foundation, enabled the World Health Organization to create its first-ever prioritized road map of interventions desperately needed by 2 billion under- and over-nourished people on our planet — an unprecedented public–private partnership.

From that success, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer asked the Academy to organize an international Alzheimer's initiative. This led to a landmark summit that brought together, for the first time, Alzheimer's governmental policy leaders from the United States, Canada, the European Union and Japan. Among other things, the summit provided critical precursors of transformational activities now being funded by the G7 that are advancing Alzheimer's research.

All of these extraordinary efforts by the individual and institutional Members of your Academy resulted in perhaps its greatest honor and challenge. In January 2016, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asked the Academy to catalyze the private sector in innovative partnerships to help the UN agencies achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

No wonder that the New York Academy of Sciences has become devoted to the notion of collective action in the sciences and technology. For its first 190 years, the Academy was primarily a convener and a disseminator of knowledge discussed at scientific conferences. Among the thousands of conferences and tens of thousands of scientists who have participated in our convenings and publications over the last 200 years, we can be particularly proud of holding the first-ever meetings on antibiotics, asbestos hazards, women in science, AIDS and SARS, to name a few. Indeed, much scientific progress has emerged from Academy ventures through serendipitous collisions of outstanding talents at our many meetings and conferences, and insights gleaned from papers published in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Those accomplishments notwithstanding, in the last decade, the Academy's Board, staff and Membership have begun to realize an even grander vision: to catalyze change by incentivizing competing institutions and individuals — as well as those normally unknown to one another because of the silos in our society — to work together in unparalleled collective efforts.

The immediate impact has been twofold: First, we can take great pride in driving significant social change. Second, we have discovered that the participants involved in these collective action initiatives are finding inspiration and a sense of fulfillment in volunteering to make a difference.

Once upon a time, professionals joined organizations (like ours) to improve their career prospects or, even, to get discounts on services! Today's professionals, in contrast, seem to want to spend their spare time volunteering for NGOs that give them opportunities to make a real difference.

So imagine the attraction of the Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science, or the Academy's work in early childhood development, or our newest initiative to enable the private sector to engage in the grand challenges of the planet. Young scientists and engineers — and especially secondary school students — are expressing a passion for the Academy and what it can accomplish.

Scaling to a Million

What can the Academy hope for as its Third Century initiatives develop? When I left the editorship of Science to take the leadership helm of the Academy in November 2002, there were about 200 Student Members, and the majority of Members were well past their early careers. Today, roughly 40 percent of our 20,000 Members are post-docs, PhD students and gifted high school students. They are the Academy's future, and the planet's lifeline.

Thanks to the generosity of the Blavatnik Family Foundation — and more recently the Takeda Foundation and Japan's relatively new Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED) — we are now developing a pipeline of the world's most promising young scientists and engineers, who will not only be the innovators of the future but serve as role models and mentors, inspiring the generations behind them.

I have already alluded to our 8,000-strong network of post-graduates. But for the science and technology students coming up behind them — the undergraduates of promise who desperately need mentoring — we have initiated the Next Scholars Program. This initiative matches collegiate woman with a female mentor from academia or industry to support the development of professional skills that will position them for future leadership roles.

As the Next Scholars kicks off recruitment, and our population reaches 600 self-identified female undergraduates and their mentors, by 2030, we see undergraduate women from other global regions as well as students with STEM majors from other historically underrepresented groups joining the program. At scale, we'll have created a continuous pipeline of mentoring to our most engaged STEM students from their early high school years through their graduate school and career.

And taking one more step back into the pipeline of tomorrow's innovators, I arrive at what could prove to be the most significant initiative developed by the New York Academy of Sciences: the Global STEM Alliance.

You no doubt have read about it before, so I will only summarize the highlights of this extraordinary opportunity to make a meaningful difference in the world by noting first that the GSA was inspired by inspirational Nobel Laureate and previous Academy President Joshua Lederberg. As a junior in high school with extraordinary science potential, Josh had been honored by the Academy by being inducted into the Junior Academy. In conversation with me, he claimed that this early honor confirmed his lifelong mission to use science to make a difference.

The Junior Academy provides uniquely inspiring experiences for the world's most gifted students who meet on a social network we created called LaunchPad. They quickly get to know one another across geographies — children from every continent interacting with one another around scientific topics. And they gain access to hundreds of experts willing to act as their advisors and mentors.

This unprecedented social network encourages the students to self-assemble into multinational teams to tackle an SDG related challenge and attempt to create a commercially feasible solution. To get a sense of the inspirational power of this activity, consider these two examples:

AquaeVitae Team (four students from the U.S., Macedonia, U.K. and India):
By combining nanotechnology and other water filtering methods, AquaeVitae aims to distribute its filters worldwide to people lacking access to potable water.

Go-Deck Team (four students from the U.S., Singapore and Tanzania):
Go-Deck, an off-the-grid cooling solution made from landfill bound materials, provides a reduction in temperature and humidity control during the transportation and storage of produce via the use of evaporation technology. Considering the uniqueness, power and potential scale of the Junior Academy, it will come as no surprise that over 300 corporate and academic partners in 100 countries now support it with scores more joining annually.

So What Does All This Mean for the Third Century of the New York Academy of Sciences?

Because there is no practical limit to the number of professional scientists and engineers who would gladly serve as experts and mentors, and because the costs of expanding the social network are hundreds of times less than what would have traditionally been required through the sponsorship of face-to-face meetings — not to mention ongoing collaborations — the true power of the Junior Academy initiative will be established when we have shown that 1 million of our Junior Academy Students mature into the innovators of tomorrow and, importantly, remain with us as Members of the Academy.

All of this would not be possible if it were not for the Academy's incredibly talented staff who develop and manage our awards programs, scores of great conferences, seminars and workshops, and Annals (the longest continuously published scientific journal in the United States), not to mention the relatively new team building the Global STEM Alliance and special after-school programs that inspire middle school children in underserved schools around the world. By creating a Million-Member network of engaged scientists and engineers we can prove the power of collective action.

I hope you find this vision worthy of continued support and — in particular — participation. And as our Third Century gets underway, if you haven't already been engaged in our current activities — or if you have ideas about new initiatives — please write me an email. Tell me your passions and become another crucial Member of the Million Member Club a.k.a. "the World's Smartest Network™."

Ellis Rubinstein
President & CEO
erubinstein@nyas.org