Fundamental research critical for Convergence 2.0, where biology meets engineering, to solve 21st-century challenges: Dr Susan Hockfield
In the late 18th century, economist and scholar Thomas Malthus observed that the rate of population growth was faster than the rate of increase in agricultural productivity. This would have resulted in food shortage and imminent disaster for Europe. At the time, the Malthusian theory was proved wrong, thanks to the practice of crop rotation, which made agriculture more productive, and the discovery of guano-filled islands, which led to a vibrant trade in fertilisers.
“If we have to defeat Malthus again today, one of the strategies is to start with the future we're living in today. If we can understand how we got to today's future, perhaps we can understand how to get to tomorrow's future,” said Dr Susan Hockfield, President Emerita of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, while delivering the keynote address at the inaugural session of the Bio Track at the Bengaluru Tech Summit 2020.
Dr Hockfield, the first woman and the first biologist to be appointed as the president of the MIT, began her address on a mixed note of optimism and caution, saying even with technological advances, the future looked a little bleak.
“The world’s population will rise from seven-and-a-half billion to almost 10 billion by 2050. I’m sharing three challenges why one might not be entirely optimistic about the future. In healthcare, we need to think about increased access, increased accuracy, and reduced cost — so that more people have access to cutting-edge healthcare technology. In the energy domain, the demand is expected to double by 2050. We are already not doing a good job of providing the energy we need in a sustainable manner. The third challenge is water and food sufficiency, and security. Today, we don't have enough of either to support our current population.”
According to her, these challenges can be met by Convergence 2.0, or the convergence of biology with engineering.
Cross-talk between disciplines amplifies progress
Tracing back the origin of the digital revolution to the study of physics in the 19th century, Dr Hockfield said the subsequent convergence of physics with engineering gave rise to the electronics industry and the computer and information technology industries.
“Out of the electronics industry we got vacuum tubes, transistors, television sets, broadcast radio and a number of new technologies that transformed the 20th century. So, it's a story of discovery which has led to industrial products, which has fuelled economic and jobs growth. We use these technologies every day of our lives and can hardly imagine life without them,” she said.
According to Dr Hockfield, the first revolution in the field of biology was in the form of molecular biology. “There was a small army of scientists who developed an understanding of the components of heredity, a parts list of DNA. This made an amazing difference and helped us understand what genes give rise to diseases, and start to design therapeutics that targeted those specific genes. The power of molecular biology was vastly amplified by the second revolution — genomics — which partnered these first steps in molecular biology with computation.”
She added that today, this cross-talk between biology, genomics and computation, along with other components of engineering, amplifies Convergence 2.0.
Referring to the progress in this space, she said it took 10 years and anywhere between $50-$100 million to sequence the first human genome. Today, by contrast, it costs less than $1,000 to sequence the genome, and scientists can do it in just six minutes.
“The progress in computation, along with the progress in molecular biology has really transformed the world. We now have a parts list for the biological world, much like the parts list for the physical world we had at the beginning of the 20th century, and it's being put to use,“ she said.
The making of a third revolution
The third revolution, Dr Hockfield said, would come in the form of the convergence between biology and engineering, and for this to happen, countries across the world would need to realise the importance of investing in fundamental research.
“Take China, which has understood very clearly the importance of investing in fundamental research for building state-of-the-art technology and a state-of-the-art economy. It is a global competition now, and I think all the countries that can participate should be participating at full throttle. To compete in this world, we need sustained investments in basic research and they have to be federal, as companies can't afford to spend money that way,” she added.
She said that convergence opportunities and the opportunities from crossing disciplines are vast and essentially untapped. “With the right funding, they can turn footpaths into super highways of collaboration across disciplines and across institutions. I think that we need to be investing a lot more in innovation. I think that people who are willing to put their own money at risk for new kinds of technologies should be rewarded for it.” She added that partnerships between academia and industry needed to take place at an accelerated pace.
Dr Hockfield signed off by saying, “Convergence 2.0 is good for just about everything. We can use nature's genius to build the technologies for the 21st century, if we get our heads around it. But it's not going to happen by accident. It's going to happen by deliberate planning, and by pioneers who are bold in picking up these possibilities, and inventing the technologies, and the products of the future.”