Science, Innovation, and the Prospect of Social Networking

Science, Innovation, and the Prospect of Social Networking

A U.S. State Department delegation to Russia expands the Academy's global connections.

How fitting a coincidence! Editor Adrienne Burke was busily conducting this issue's interviews on the future of scientific knowledge dissemination, and your Academy President found himself in an immersion course given by some of the world's most illustrious experts in the new tools of connectivity.

Imagine seven days' exposure to the thinking of the leaders of eBay, Twitter, Cisco Systems, Howcast, EDventure, the Social Gaming Network, and Mozilla! Surprisingly, this experience didn't take place in Silicon Valley or even Silicon Alley, but in mid-winter in Moscow and Novosibirsk, Siberia!

I'll return later to the etiology of this trip and how science transcends borders, cuts through politics, and brings the world's people together. But first I'll connect my trip to the subject of this issue's important cover story: the future of information exchange.

If you're over 40, you might not know of half the companies I mentioned. I'm well past 40, as Academy members know, so I too was on rocky ground. The week was humbling, but it was also truly inspiring.

Only a decade ago, I was at the cutting-edge of science communications. As Editor of Science, I partnered with the visionary neuroscientist Floyd Bloom, the journal's scientist editor-in-chief, to move the publication online ahead of just about everyone else (for the record, the Journal of Biological Chemistry was first in life sciences to go online).

With Science's talented staff, we pioneered well beyond our core product, creating the first global career-mentoring website for young scientists, innovative web-based "knowledge environments" in the science of aging and signal transduction, and the first daily science news site.

At The New York Academy of Sciences, I am proud of the opportunity I have had since 2003 to lead the team that created our transformational eBriefings as well as our now mainstream webinars and podcasts.

But all of this is apparently just the infancy of innovation in information and communication technologies (ICT). I say this because of what I saw in Novosibirsk in February. Outside, it was 15 degrees Celsius below zero. Inside, the atmosphere was electric. A score or two of young Russian entrepreneurs, university students, bloggers, and other new media types had gathered to absorb practical tips for realizing their dreams from a group of ICT heroes they never guessed they would have the chance to meet. Excited as they were to connect with this small group of young Russians, American tech gurus are irrepressibly ambitious. Why have an exchange with 20 or 30 people when you can engage hundreds or thousands?

Imagine seven days' exposure to the thinking of the leaders of eBay, Twitter, Cisco Systems, Howcast, EDventure, the Social Gaming Network, and Mozilla.

The Russians hadn't planned on broadcasting the meeting by Web or telephone; few outside Novosibirsk were aware the meeting was taking place. To my fellow travelers, this was a trivial challenge. No video camera? Shervin Pishevar, CEO of the Social Gaming Network, borrowed an iPhone from actor and Katalyst Media founder and CEO Ashton Kutcher (bet you didn't know Kutcher studied engineering in college and is a bit of a techie at heart). Video capabilities but no way to broadcast? Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and chairman of Squared, could live-stream Shervin's video and audio feeds.

Our Russian hosts scrambled up a computer that would project incoming Twitter messages on a wall, and lo and behold we were tweeting.

Here's the astonishing part: With absolutely no forewarning to anyone—no marketing, no P.R.—we were joined in that room for our hour-long Russian-American exchange by several thousand individuals all over the world, with numerous germane questions about the ingredients of innovation and how Russia might unlock its extraordinary talent.

I could provide many more examples of the potential of new media and ICT as I heard it discussed during a week in Russia. But in this short column, I will leave Academy Members with a different thought.

Your Academy was honored in February to participate in a high-level delegation to Russia. Organized by the U.S. State Department and the National Security Council, the visit was designed to "strengthen and broaden the ties between the United States and Russia," and its etiology was unusual: the outgrowth of a "broad dialogue launched by the Bilateral Presidential Commission created by Presidents Obama and Medvedev in July 2009."

The next issue of this magazine will reach you in autumn. By then I hope to have more to tell about some of the very exciting projects that will connect our Academy members and Russia's best scientists and engineers. In the meantime, I hope you can see from the single anecdote I've offered that, thanks to science and technology, what started as a government-to-government effort to draw closer, evolved almost immediately into a people-to-people partnership that leaped beyond even the borders of our host country. Just one of the great reasons we love science: It has no borders and it links us all to one another.

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Ellis Rubinstein
President & CEO