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Our Future Scientists

Our Future Scientists

A Nobel Laureate, a Blavatnik Award winner, and a major industry scientist chat about what it will take to keep the US science talent pipeline pumping out quality, competitive professionals.

On February 25, the Academy hosted a screening of the new film, Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist (see The hour-long documentary, directed and produced by past NYAS President Richard Rifkind and his wife Carole, an author and filmmaker, takes viewers inside the protein crystallography laboratory of Larry Shapiro at Columbia University and follows the trials and triumphs of three PhD candidates there. After the screening, broadcast journalist Garrick Utley moderated a conversation among Academy members James Watson, Toni Hoover, and Andrey Pisarev to address the question "What does it take to produce the scientists we need to keep America competititve?"

Watson is a molecular biologist and Nobel Laureate known for solving the structure of DNA with Frances Crick. He is chancellor emeritus at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and has authored several books, most recently Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science.

Toni Hoover is Senior Vice President Global Research & Development, and Director of the Groton/New London Laboratories of Pfizer. She received her BA, MA, and PhD degrees in psychology from Harvard University where she trained in experimental psychopathology and neuropsychological assessment.

Andrey Pisarev is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center.

Utley's 40-year journalism career has included posts as news anchor for NBC, ABC, and CNN. What follows is an abridged transcript of their conversation.

GARRICK UTLEY: We want to talk about science, about what's happening or what will be happening to the pipeline. The quality, the quantity of young scientists. How are we going to develop them, nurture them? Where are they going to be coming from? Where is the support for them going to be coming from?

What are you seeing, from your various perspectives, in the younger generation of scientists that are coming through the pipeline, coming into the field? Is this film an accurate reflection of what you are seeing? And what does that mean for the future of the scientific community?

JAMES WATSON: I thought it was a very good film. Today, the main question is whether you can get a job after [you earn your PhD] and, always my worry was, was I bright enough? Would I be able to really solve a problem? I worried whether I would ever have an idea. This was my chief concern, and then I was with people who said that if you don't do anything by 25, your career is over. I was 20, so I had about five years, but crystallography is a pretty scary field because sometimes you just don't get crystals. It's very clear when you've got a result. In many fields you can sort of fudge it, but you can't fudge this one.

GU: When you look at the young scientists coming today, do you see anything different?

JW: My own impression is they are not as bright because the problems are much harder. People are really trying to do much more difficult things and to do them in the face of this unknown competition. When I was there you knew all your competition. Now someone you've never heard of could publish a paper. And, you know, there are 500 graduate students in Beijing solving crystal structures. People are scared for different reasons now than we were. We were scared about whether we would rank with the great people. Now it's much more about "can I get a job?"

TONI HOOVER: In our laboratories we go from individuals who are late baby boomers all the way to millennials, so it is a laboratory of various types of scientists in how they do business, how they engage in scientific pursuits, and what types of questions are they asking. I am extremely hopeful about the types of solutions that we are going to be able to come up with through the constant cross-fertilization of the more experienced scientists with the young scientists. I see them asking different types of questions, and working in different ways, with different methods that increase the diversity of the underlying scientific pursuits that we're embarking upon.

I almost jumped out of my chair last night as I was watching President Obama's first address to Congress, because about three minutes into his address, he said, "The solutions reside in our laboratories and in our universities." And he was speaking to the grave challenges that we face, not only in our country but around the world in that the source of those solutions is going to be in science.

And so I continue to be extremely hopeful about our ability to continue to dream big dreams because of the fact that we have the capabilities. We have the greatest educational institutions in the world that can produce the best scientists in the world and we also have a way to link with science all over the world. So we are doing science in a very different type of way. Science has become a very global kind of pursuit. I believe that our scientists today, all over the world, are capable of climbing new heights because of the way that we continue to evolve the way that we embark upon our scientific pursuits.

GU: I'd like to come back to the title of the film tonight, "Naturally Obsessed." In any field you have to have a certain obsession with what you are doing. Do you see any weakening of this obsession in science? Is the supply going to be there of quality scientists? With the choices in the world or the concern over jobs, as Dr. Watson was saying, is there something changing here or are you confident the human supply is going to be there?

TH: I would submit to you that there are certain types of scientists and scientific competencies that we probably need more of now, and potentially will in the future. I'm not sure if we've identified a way to say, okay, this is where we are going in the future and so we are going to need these types of skill sets and these types of people answering these types of questions.

In the bio-pharmaceutical industry, where we rely upon a great deal of science, collaborations externally as well as within our own walls, you might not be able to fi nd the scientific talent for a specific area. However, what we need to do more of is help to grow the type of scientific talent that we think is required, and that starts very early on. You have to nurture that type of passion very early on. That passion that you saw in Rob didn't just start when he was on that ship in the Navy. I would imagine it started very early on and it had to be nurtured. What are we doing to help build that infrastructure, that foundation where the passion for science is embedded in a much larger pool of students?

GU: Andre, you are of a slightly younger generation, maybe a few years closer to the kind of students we saw in the film tonight. What are you seeing in the talent pool that you are working with or in the students coming through?

ANDREY PISAREV: What do I think about my generation of young scientists? I think that there is enough supply of good educated young scientists, and you will find a lot of smart people leave academic science to go to business. Science is underfinanced. I am trying to find my own position right now and I have not succeeded yet. I have been selected as one of the best young scientists in the tri-state area, so, what can I say about other people? There are a lot of smart people around!

GU: Let's come back and pick up on something that Dr. Watson mentioned: the globalization impact. In the scientific community and workforce, whether it is 10,000 scientists in China studying crystals or what have you, what is going to be the impact of this? What is the impact on the sheer quantity as well as quality of scientific research? And what is the impact on how information is being shared?

TH: We are not building laboratories. We are working much more virtually and linking up with research institutions and leasing laboratory space, for example, in Shanghai. We have laboratories in Sandwich, UK, outside of London, and then we have our major R&D laboratory in Groton/New London, Connecticut. And we have major laboratories in St. Louis and in La Jolla, California. But we are doing a lot more collaboration with academic institutions and not building a lot of new laboratories.

We are a global organization so we go where the science is. We continue to go after the best talent wherever they are in the world, and when we have to, we bring them to our research centers in the US and UK or wherever. I don't know specifically what percentage of our researchers are non-US, because we consider ourselves a global organization and we are in a war for talent with our competitors.

GU: What do you think the Obama administration needs to do to maintain this competitive advantage the United States has long enjoyed, as well as to continue to be the place where people come for training and hopefully stay on? How much of this is a function of money, funding? And how much of this is something in the culture or just the changing nature in the dynamics of the world we live in today? And why don't we start with you Andre. When you talk to the people who are training in the US, and then going back to their home countries, would money solve it?

AP: I'm sure the money is one thing. But not only the money. I can share with you the story of my country. In the time of the Soviet Union, scientists lived as the most prestigious professionals in the country. They had modern salaries. They had very high, very great respect from society. They had support from government and many advantages. And that really stimulates you to work.

The situation in Russia right now [is that] if you are a scientist, people laugh at you because you have a very, very low salary. You cannot support your family. You struggle with your life. You cannot support your kids, your wife, your parents. You have all these obligations. You stop thinking about science at all.

GU: Toni, what do you see happening under the current administration with the people that the President has brought in as his scientific advisors?

TH: He obviously has a scientific advisory board, but I think the most important thing he is doing right now is talking about the fact that science is at the core of solving many of the challenges that we are facing. Also in his speech last night, [President Obama said] that he is "committing to the largest investment in research in history." Well, we obviously have to wait to see how that manifests itself, but just the fact that he's talking about it is encouraging.

You asked, is it a question of money or culture in terms of where we need to go? I think it's a combination. Obviously we need to be supporting the scientific enterprise, the NIH. We also recognize that science with government support can partner with other organizations that can provide sources of funding. That will help to continue to provide possible revenue streams and opportunities for funding research within the academic institutions.

But also, we have to create the sense of respect that Andre talked about in our culture, about the fact that it's cool to be a scientist, and that this is a noble pursuit, and that you can have a huge impact on society. We have a generation of students growing up in our society who are looking to have big impacts on society. And one way that you can have an impact on society is through science.