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Reflecting On My First Year at the New York Academy of Sciences

A letter to our global community from Academy President and CEO Nicholas Dirks

Published June 28, 2021

By Nicholas B. Dirks

Reflecting On My First Year at the New York Academy of Sciences

This month marks the first anniversary of my joining the New York Academy of Sciences, as President and CEO.

I think we can all agree that 2020 has been a singular year -- a year during which we witnessed the power of science to help us develop solutions for some of our greatest challenges.  It was also a year when we experienced the extraordinary importance of the Academy.  As we now begin to look forward to life beyond the pandemic, I’d like to share with you highlights of the Academy’s contributions, as well as plans for future growth.

With a commitment worthy of the space race, the scientific community collaborated across institutions and borders to develop COVID-19 vaccines at record speed.  We saw for the first time the use of new scientific understandings of mRNA to develop two highly effective vaccines.  Our Academy team played an important role through the sharing of crucial information about this effort, convening nearly 40 programs covering various aspects of the pandemic -- many of which were free of charge. We were especially privileged to welcome Dr. Anthony Fauci as keynote speaker at the “Quest for a Vaccine” conference at which  leading scientists presented new clinical trial data on over a dozen vaccines including those from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson. The program drew journalists from the Associated Press, USA Today, the Washington Post, CNBC, and New Scientist, with articles reaching more than a thousand news outlets around the world.

Like every other non-profit, the challenges of the past year had a major impact on our revenue streams, but with a tremendous staff effort, and support from sponsors, donors, and Members, I’m pleased to say we managed to end our year with a balanced budget, a major accomplishment.

This was made even more significant as we re-invented our business model to provide an all-virtual format, maintaining our unparalleled reputation as a source of world-class conferences. When we resume our in-person events in 2022 with their important networking components, we will continue to offer a full complement of virtual options for all our Members and participants worldwide.

A fundamental part of our mission is the development of the next generation of scientists and to support early career researchers. Our Global STEM Alliance team connected over 18,000 students with more than 450,000 hours of programming.  In addition, over 1,000 new students from 75 countries joined our Junior Academy bringing the total to over 4,000 students from 103 countries, in addition to 1,000 students from 78 countries in 1,000 Girls 1,000 Futures.  We provided educators with crucial training in best practices, as well as mentoring and online after school programs for underserved communities in and around New York City. For early career scientists, our Science Alliance program provided uninterrupted career development and networking opportunities.

The Academy was also able to maintain its recognition programs for rising stars in science. We hosted virtual celebrations honoring achievements in chemistry, neurology, genetics, astronomy, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, computer science, materials science, nanotechnology, and engineering through the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists and Innovators in Science programs.

Now that the pandemic is gradually coming under control it is critical that we not neglect the urgent need to address other global challenges, from climate change to the relationship of inequality to health outcomes.  And, as part of that commitment, the Academy continues to produce critical programs on nutrition, food safety and security, AI, machine learning and, crucially, the development of a framework for more sustainable infrastructure architecture.

We plan to expand all these programs in addition to commencing exciting new activities.  An important new commission is the International Science Reserve (ISR) Study Project in partnership with IBM in the fall of 2021.  This extraordinary initiative will bring together limited and specialized resources from across the globe – from public bodies and industry, academia, and individuals – to build collaborative solutions to complex urgent global challenges such as the current pandemic. In doing so, the ISR will help prepare for, and respond to, the next global crisis in an open-source model that supports our vision of “Scientists Without Borders”. The New York Academy of Sciences is uniquely placed to leverage its historic position as an international hub of scientists to coordinate the human, hardware, data, and software resources needed to mobilize scientific expertise for the public good. More details will follow in the months to come.

I take great pride in these accomplishments as any CEO would – but part of my mission is to expand the Academy’s impact. And we are pleased to welcome nine new members to our distinguished Board of Governors, who, with their collective business experience and scientific commitment, will help us achieve this goal:

  • Natarajan Chandrasekaran, Chairman of the Board, Tata Sons
  • Dario Gil, Senior Vice President and Director of IBM Research
  • Aida Habtezion, Chief Medical Officer and Head of Worldwide Medical & Safety, Pfizer Inc
  • Reid Hoffman, Co-Founder LinkedIn, Partner Greylock Partners
  • Martin Nesbitt, Co-CEO of The Vistria Group, LLC
  • Jaclyn Safier, Chief Executive Officer, Prometheus Real Estate Group, Inc.
  • Sanford (Sandy) I. Weill, Chairman Emeritus Citigroup and CEO of Casa Rosa Ventures
  • Ravi Kumar S., President, Infosys Ltd.
  • Kirsten Davies, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Security Officer, Estee Lauder Companies

As with any society, the New York Academy of Sciences exists because of you -- our community of Members, patrons, partners, donors and volunteers, and I am happy to report that our global network remains strong.

But as much as we have been able to provide essential opportunities for the scientific community to convene and share crucial knowledge, we have also seen science itself come under attack.  These attacks create mistrust and misinformation, damaging not just the cause of science in general but also the capacity of science to help us improve our health and our world.  This is why the work of the Academy is more important than ever, and why I am asking you to continue your support to help advance scientific research, education and policy–by renewing your Membership, sending a donation, or volunteering your time.

In the months to come I hope to meet many of you in person at events, meetings, and other gatherings.  That I can make that statement is thanks to the tireless work of hundreds of thousands of scientists who have been working on vaccines and treatments for COVID-19.  If there is a silver lining to the pandemic, it is that it has reminded us of the crucial importance of science.  Here at the New York Academy of Sciences, I am proud to be part of our extraordinary network of talented, passionate individuals who believe in the power and the future of science.