New York Scientific Leadership
From Dream to Reality
When he was a teenager growing up in Brooklyn, his parents and teachers recognized that he had unusual talents in math and science. Lacking money, they sent him to the renowned public magnet school, Stuyvesant, which, in those days, was just east of 2nd Avenue on Stuyvesant Square. Because he was tall and gangly, he made first-string center of the not-very-competitive school basketball team. And that was his dream. As he plied the subway back and forth from Brooklyn each day, he didn't dream of getting into Harvard or MIT, of winning a Nobel Prize, of saving humanity from a dreaded disease; he just wanted to sink a game-winner as time ran out on the scoreboard clock.
One eventful day, this Brooklyn boy found himself up against another local Brooklyn student with the same dream. But that boy was shockingly tall, nearly a foot taller, and he dominated the game from the first buzzer. Then came a bizarrely astute taunt from his opponent: "What're you gonna do now, Einstein?"
It was more than 40 years before the two met again, and I was the fortunate witness. It was at a Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Gala at the Mandarin Oriental. The truly tall boy—originally from Power Memorial High—was by now well-known for the longest winning streak in college basketball, six MVPs in the pros, and, now, to his pleasure, his philanthropy in support of Parkinson's research. His name had been Lou Alcindor when the boys first met. But now the world knows him as Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
The other boy—who was too small to head to the pros—had gone on not to Harvard, but to Columbia. And he had certainly exceeded the expectations of his parents and his teachers. Richard Axel approached Kareem to remind him of their previous meeting—as two skinny kids on the basketball court. Now here they were, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine and a man known as one of the greatest basketball players of all time, and it seemed safe to say, each had achieved his dreams.
New York has always been a place for dreamers. It has been the embodiment of what the Dutch tried to inculcate in their most international and democratic nation of the 17th century: opportunity. And from its earliest days, New York has been the embodiment of what America wants to believe it can be at its best.
In November, the Academy debuted a special publication devoted to the transformation of New York that has taken place in the first decade of the new millennium. We invite you to access this publication online. As every reader will see from the cover story in this issue and the associated online publication, in the face of some of the most daunting challenges ever to confront a city—9/11, the worst financial implosion since the Great Depression, a devastating hurricane— New York's institutions are flourishing as never before—and they are particularly flourishing in the realm of science and technology.
Universities and academic medical centers are on fire with novel ideas to overcome outdated traditions of disciplinary silos and seniority and create Big Dreams that will not merely transform their campuses but meaningfully contribute to the world through research and development.
Similarly our companies—large and small—are taking the boldest steps imaginable to reinvent themselves so that they can better address the global challenges of health and education, of poverty reduction, of urban growth and sustainability.
A third factor: the most generous benefactors on the planet. We in New York have always been blessed by this. Edison and Bell saved the journal Science from bankruptcy. Andrew Carnegie gave a million dollars to the five principal engineering associations so they could come together in New York to create synergies that would make our city the world's hub of engineering. And today, science-focused philanthropy is even more inventive, more exciting—with philanthropists focused on transformational giving.
This too is the decade of institutions built to overcome the old zero-sum game, dog-eat-dog mentality that held us back for so long. There is collaboration not only amongst individual institutions, but also on the part of established organizations to create entirely new institutions that are not about ownership, but about results.
And last but not least, our own New York Academy of Sciences, which changed the culture in its own unique way. First, we created a home for 15,000 scientists who come annually from all of our institutions (academic and industry) to meet, to be mentored, to exchange ideas, and to build joint projects. Second, we broadcasted our collective strength to the world on the Internet and in print so that scientists and students the world over started to see the unmatched scale and power of New York in the biomedical sciences. Then we assembled—at the request of others—global public-private partnerships in cutting-edge areas like Alzheimer's disease, nutrition, smart cities, and more. These activities attracted leaders of governments across the globe to want to partner with New York as a center of gravity in a world full of questions and challenges that only science and technology can answer.
But key to it all is the quality of young people trying to come to our city to achieve their dreams... and ours. The dream of New York as the science capital of the world is not merely achievable. As the articles in the rest of the special publication demonstrate, the dream is becoming reality as we come together. I close with one more story:
In 2011, I was invited to participate in China's version of the World Economic Forum on Hainan Island. My guide was a Chinese student who had adopted the American name Lily. On the last day of the event, as she was escorting me to a meeting with the man who would become the next Premier of China, she said: "I will be in New York in September." When I asked why, she answered with great excitement: "I have been accepted to study at NYU." I congratulated her and asked whether she had applied to other schools as well. "Yes," she said with special pride: "And I got into all of them: Duke, Boston College, the University of Toronto." I was impressed: "So why did you choose NYU?" Her eyes lit up:
"New York: It's where dreams are made."
President & CEO