Big Science, Small World

Letter from the Director

Big Science, Small World

by Alan Saltiel  

Mary Sue Coleman Director of the Life Sciences Institute

In past issues I have talked about "Big Science" and the tools needed to make it thrive. Perhaps the most important of these, especially evident at the LSI, is talent. We have so far brought to the Institute 20 talented researchers and their groups, spanning disciplines and bridging interests to flex a more powerful scientific muscle than might be found in a single academic silo. We hope that collaboration among these hundreds of capable and diverse researchers will help us solve problems faster and with more ingenuity.

Excellence in science requires free scientific inquiry, best accomplished when we attract superstars from around the world. This issue of our newsletter highlights the importance of diversity, derived mainly from the international component of our scientific mission

Of our 20 faculty, half were born abroad or are first generation Americans. There are more than 50 postdoctoral fellows working in our laboratories, over half of whom are from other countries, including China, Japan, Taiwan, Pakistan, Australia, Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, India, Ukraine, Sweden and many others. Scientific knowledge is best built by embracing a varied collection of minds, diversity of experience, and interaction of cultures and traditions. Throughout our history, we Americans have invited and welcomed talented international stars and promising students to work in our labs, conduct research, attend university, and invigorate our ranks. We have managed to attract the best scientific minds because they are eager to pursue the rich environment of opportunities the US provides. After all, almost all of us are here because we or someone in our families felt similarly.

My own experiences have been deeply affected by networking and interacting with individuals from all over the world. I grew up in a multicultural and multilingual environment, enriched by the melting pot into which my immigrant grandparents entered. Luckily for me (and thousands of other American scientists with similar backgrounds), my grandparents were able and of a mind to emigrate, in the process of escaping the Nazi horrors in Europe. During my postdoctoral years with Pedro Cuatrecasas, I worked with the most diverse collection of people (and characters!) imaginable. Over half of the students and fellows in my own lab came from abroad, all seeking their own opportunities for freedom of inquiry and expression. Is this diversity of backgrounds, viewpoints and training important to scientific success? You bet!

But science is turbulent, even without the politically charged climate in our post 9-11 world. And that has added degrees of difficulty to the scientific enterprise. The immigration restrictions and tightening of controls in awarding visas have increased the burdens for students and researchers coming from abroad. Hindering the world’s most talented people from participating in our endeavors will only cause further deterioration of our educational systems and economic base, weaken our scientific infrastructure, and block what might be the most important chance we have to promote international understanding and harmony.

Sadly, at the same time the number of American science students is dwindling. Our students are not as motivated or interested in math and science as they were as 25 or 50 years ago. The restrictive funding environment in which we find ourselves is not making matters easier. The president has proposed a training program for teachers of math and science in acknowledgement of this problem; but frankly this is simply not enough to stem the tide of stagnation for creating new science scholars.

Together, this has all the makings of an impending crisis for American science, a crisis we will no doubt feel in Ann Arbor, like everywhere else. What can we do to head this off? Each of us can push our legislators to ease immigration restrictions and open our borders to students and future scientific leaders that will enrich our world, and in the process, replicate a tradition that is the very basis of American success. We can remind our political and business leaders how important it is to maintain funding for the research enterprise; not just from the NIH, but also the private sector, where that support is at present woefully inadequate, especially considering the benefits this sector derives from academic research. Finally, we can fulfill our roles as educators, infecting young people with the enthusiasm for discovery and new ideas, and looking for new scientists among underrepresented groups.

At the LSI, we are doing a small part by building formal collaborations with institutions in Israel and China for student and scholar exchanges, attacking scientific problems through multinational collaboration. On my trips to China and Israel last year, I met many students eager for exposure to the "new" multidisciplinary science and excited about crossing the boundaries that separate the scientific disciplines. We hope to expand these programs and perhaps establish others.

The history of scientific inquiry is one of challenging dogma with a certain amount of disrespect for the old ways, a method of practice that is in many ways distinctly American. Some of our best proponents of this approach have been immigrants, who came here precisely to do what was not possible in their place of birth. Let’s bring together the power of ALL the best minds to solve scientific problems of great importance.

 Spring 2006