Research 2030

Bye, bye, blue sky? Part 2: A conversation with Andrew Hamilton

April 14, 2020 Elsevier Season 1 Episode 5
Research 2030
Bye, bye, blue sky? Part 2: A conversation with Andrew Hamilton
Show Notes Transcript

This episode was recorded in late February, before the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic and a growing number of nations went on lock-down. However, the relationship between basic and applied research, as explored in this episode, seems even more relevant now in thinking about the future of research and solving world challenges.

Expert, curated information for the research & health community on SARS-CoV-2 (the novel coronavirus) and COVID-19 (the disease) can be found on Elsevier's Novel Coronavirus Information Center.

The world is facing unprecedented challenges. Some argue that blue sky, also known as basic research, is critical – that the serendipitous results it fuels provide the perfect shoulders for giants to stand upon. But, with so much at stake globally right now, is blue sky in danger of looking a little indulgent? Dr. Lesley Thompson, Elsevier Vice President of Academic and Strategic Alliances, continues to explore these questions on Research 2030. In this episode she is joined by President of New York University (NYU), Dr. Andrew Hamilton, who shares his perspective on why blue-sky and applied (mission-driven) research, can and should happily co-exist for the benefit of solving world challenges.

We would like to hear from you. Take this survey to send us your feedback. Now that we are into our 5th episode, we would like to get your input on Research 2030 and find out what drew you to listen and what topics are of interest to you. Click on the link above to take our short, and anonymous, survey. 

Dr. Andrew Hamilton (President of NYU)
Andrew Hamilton was named the 16th president of New York University (NYU) in March 2015. He most recently served as the vice chancellor of Oxford University, the university’s senior officer, after an academic career that took him from Princeton to the University of Pittsburgh, and then to Yale, where he was named provost. Throughout his time in academic leadership positions, he has maintained his scholarly work, including an active research laboratory, and will continue to do so at NYU.

A distinguished chemist and a Fellow of the Royal Society, Dr. Hamilton’s scholarly work lies at the intersection of organic and biologic chemistry. He received his PhD from Cambridge University, his master’s degree from the University of British Columbia, and his undergraduate degree from Exeter University.
Dr. Hamilton also hosts his own podcast, Conversations, which you can enjoy here.

Dr. Lesley Thompson joined Elsevier in 2016 as Director Academic & Government Strategic Alliance in the UK. Previously, she worked for 26 years at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the largest of the UK’s seven research councils. Read more.

Resources: Future-proofing research
In the Research Futures report , Elsevier and Ipsos MORI, one of the world’s largest research agencies, joined forces to understand how trends – from advances in technology and funding pressures to political uncertainty and population shifts – might be fueling the changes we’ll see in the coming decade.

Mancini:   0:00
Hi, I'm Giacomo Mancini and thank you for joining us on Research 2030 today. Before we get to our episode with President, Andrew Hamilton, we first want to let you know that this episode was originally recorded in late February before the W. H. O declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic and a growing number of nations went into lockdown. The relationship between basic and applied research, as explored in this episode seems even more relevant now when thinking about the future of research and solving real challenges.  We would also like to share that expert, curated information for the research and health community on SARS-COV-2, the novel corona virus, and  Covid-19, the disease, can be found and accessed on Elsevier's Novel Corona Virus Information Center. Under the research tab, you'll find the latest early stage and peer reviewed research on Covid-19 from journals, including The Lancet and Cell Press. We have also made more than 21,000 related articles freely accessible on ScienceDirect. You can find the link to the Information Center and our show notes, or by going to And now onto the episode.

Mancini:   1:14
Hi, I'm Giacomo Mancini. Welcome to Research 2030, and Elsevier podcast series in which guests from academia and beyond join us and exploring, debating and challenging the changing research landscape. And welcome to the second of our Bye, bye Blue Sky? episodes. The world is facing unprecedented challenges. Climate change alone has the power to transform our lives in unimaginable ways. With so much at stake, can we really justify Blue Sky studies conducted with no obvious goal in mind? Is it time to stop sinking money into satisfying our thirst for knowledge and get serious about funding practical answers that could save lives and even our planet? Or will it end up being good, old fashioned, human curiosity that delivers the solutions were seeking. Happily, we have Dr Leslie Thompson, Elsevier's Vice President of Academic and Strategic Alliances on hand to help us explore these questions. As you may recall, in the previous episode, she spoke with Professor Lee Cronin, Regis Chair of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow in the UK, who explained why he believes Blue Sky could be the most promising option for securing our future. In this episode, Leslie is joined by New York University President Dr Andrew Hamilton, who shares his motivations for encouraging young faculty to embrace pure research.

Thompson:   2:36
So just thinking about your research, Andrew, because first and foremost you're a researcher. Could you just describe what your research has been on? What motivated you in your research?

Hamilton:   2:48
Leslie. I'm happy to. I've worked in research over the length of a career. And I started my independent career in 1981 so I'm approaching 40 years. Of course, research changes, but I think in essence, I began in the year the whole field of synthetic organic and sucre molecular chemistry focused very much on artificial systems. Artificial recognition, artificial Can Telesis, using design synthetic molecules to achieve some of the remarkable characteristics that we associate with biological molecules like recognition on DK analysis on it was from then that I began to explore. Well, if we if we're speaking to mimic biological systems, why don't we just get in among biological systems? Why don't we think about the use of design and synthesis to modulate biological processes and, of course, that Ben brings us into the world of disease Particular areas where certain aspects, for example, of cells signalling in cancer or a protein aggregation in amyloid diseases on how we might then use synthetic chemistry and molecular design to modulate those processes. And so, in recent years, the last couple of decades, we've really focused on a particular area of biochemistry, which is protein structure on DH, proving protein interactions so important in many, many cellular processes on how can we use synthetic design that in the past was more theoretical? How can we use it then to target protein protein interactions in cancer? How can we use it to target amyloid aggregation in Alzheimer's disease on its being a natural kind of flow from the artificial synthetic on theoretical? Toby very applied in terms of marketing particular diseases on a particular response, at least in model studies in targeting the disease.

Thompson:   5:13
Thank you, and you're clearly still very passionate about the research you're doing Andrew, despite having lots of other responsibilities.

Hamilton:   5:19
Oh, gosh, Now it's about 15 years ago I got swept up into a university administration first that Yale has provoked the minute Oxford. There's Vice Chancellor and then in the last four and a bit years as the president of N Y U. But I always found that really important to keep my research life alive on? I've done that on I Do It for, you know, for two fundamental reasons which I said before one is two is to keep my street cred no. With with university faculty being able to talk in their terms to understand and know the challenges of running a research group, getting research, funding teaching in front of a class of 40 50 students, being able to converse with one's faculty is very important. On the other reason is to keep my sanity because being in university leadership can be a very surreal process sometimes. And it's actually quite valuable to get in the lab, talking with my students and post stocks and colleagues about things that I really enjoy and have a kind of have a rationality to it. I e. Science and research. Whereas dealing with large organisations, particularly large academic organisations, Khun B, often irrational. That's brilliant.

Thompson:   6:51
Thank you, Andrew, if you think about the 40 years that you've spent in research funders and governments love to characterise research in certain ways, are there any in particular words that you would use to characterise your researchers? Itjust bean a journey of it exploration and following questions. You've wanted to look

Hamilton:   7:13
up all of the above, and I think it's like so many others. I was trained in a discipline on DH, vital in my view, the training in the in the Rika, the character of a discipline, in my case. Chemistry, organic chemistry. I studied under Alan Batters Beit at Cambridge and then did my Post doc with Jean Marie Lenin in Strasbourg in the very early 19 eighties. On it was the rigour of those 22 experiences, but also then seeing the potential in Alan batter speeds case organic chemistry, understanding the complexity of bio synthesis. The way in which nature puts complex Mullen John Murray Lens case. It was seeing how one could apply design and synthesis to create phenomena using phenomena that are familiar in biology. I, Ian Inger Marie's case that the Nobel Prize winning work on alkali metal ayan recognition, the crown ethers and krypton on DH seeing the way in which one could apply design and synthesis to create molecules that had never existed on the face of the earth before on DH with in that way, study them and C chemical behaviour that might normally be associated with the complexity of biology or even superior to the biological examples. And so in that regard, training in a fundamental a disciplinary area. But then seeing the potential for cross disciplinary collaboration, applying the core principles of a discipline far beyond its bounds. In the world of material science, in the world of biochemistry in the world of disease come isa exciting part of modern science. And the way in which chemistry, at least it seems to me, has evolved in those 40 years that I've been involved in an independent research.

Thompson:   9:22
So given this interview is about Blue skies research. How would you define Blue Skies research?

Hamilton:   9:29
It's always one of those hard things, like counting the number of angels on a pinhead. You know, I suppose I would define it in research with no obvious outcome going into the research with no obvious application usefulness other than learning more about a particular scientific process of particular biological process. And, you know, let me just say in my life as a university leader, of course I must look far beyond science as well. Yeah, on DH, the nature of what it is to be human. The nature of the human experience on it is in large collections of humans in societies, the study of the social sciences, without any particular knowledge of what the result will be, what the findings will be. Andi, the humanities and I often use the example of, you know, the importance of the humanities to help us understand what it is to be human. It is never more important than when science reaches its limits. And I think of the world of medicine on DH, the remarkable discoveries that have bean made over the last half century. That's great until there is no further treatment. And then the nature of death beyond it is to the humanities, that weaken turn for much insight on DH in many other areas as well. And so blue skies research for me is something that it is vital that we continue our recognition of its important not not just in the sciences, but far beyond us. Well, and what was it? George Porter. I think they're wonderful. George Porter once said that there is no such thing as replied science. Just science that hasn't found a nap with engine. Your

Thompson:   11:31
Yeah, so looking, particularly in the West and the challenges to government funding for research on DH. Some of the challenges facing society do you see it's more difficult now to make the case for Blue Skies research and that breadth of activity as opposed to problem orientated trip mission driven research, You know, in

Hamilton:   11:55
a sense, has always been mission driven research, and that has from the Manhattan Project onwards. We we've had Mission Driven referred to the court in the world of the new of corporate research, whether it's labs or IBM or the pharmaceutical industry, there have bean, all of which in their time have bean very important parts of the research landscape, the research ecosystem then it is quite right and proper that there be highly mission driven, whether it be government funded, whether it be corporate funded. Now I look, for example, in some of the challenges the world faces today, whether it be in climate change and the need for new carbon should technologies on new, new, improved, efficient things of photovoltaic systems. I think about the issue of antibiotic resistance, which is very unlikely to be solved in the corporate setting because of the financial structures involved and will need mission driven Manhattan projects for us to keep a flow of novel antibiotics coming, that kind of thing. I see no lessening of recognition off the place off both a mission driven on DH Blue Skies research. Do I think it's become harder to justify blue skies research in the political context? Yes, of course. And that's something because off the way in which some of the challenges that science society faces have become more clearly visible, it has naturally brought government's attention toe wanting to target resources to those areas. But of course, one of the ways in which we ensure that there is continued recognition of the importance of Blue Squadron definitely showing examples of where solutions are found in the most unexpected of places. And I think science is very good at telling those storeys on. Those will continue whether it's new materials, the perros kites, you know, replacing open in proto rotates, coming from very basic solid state chemistry studies to other areas of scientific discovery.

Thompson:   14:27
So, in your role now is ah, leader both and my youand previously Oxford what do you see your role in ensuring that the faculty and the young people that are engaged in the research endeavour in those institutions, Khun cover the breadth of what they're interested in and can really make a difference to society. How do you nurture that

Hamilton:   14:50
by always encouraging an emphasis on scholarship? And I think for me part of the joy of institutions like Yale, like Oxford like N y U, is that they Actually, you know, being vice chancellor of Oxford is quite an experience that at an institution that's nearly 900 years old, Andi, it reminds one on Yale, is nearly 350 years old in You is nearly 200 years old on DH. The reminder of the ups and rounds of contemporary society are important, but universities have bean in existence for centuries on DH will be in existence for centuries. And one of the reasons that they have retained their core mission in a very rapidly changing world is because they've held fast to certain principles on DH. Some of those principles a fundamental like academic freedom. Others like freedom of speech in teaching and research on DH, also a recognition on embracing off pure scholarship on DH, making that case, too young faculty when they start their careers. I had ah quote when I was vice chancellor of Oxford, of the utterly useless research. That quest at universities but is never useless because it's application. It's important depends upon the perspective from which it is being looked at on DH for me, the embracing of pure scholarship, whether it be in a strong philosophy department, whether it be in a commitment to the classics. Andi archaeology Whether it be a commitment to palaeontology node, finding out what happened with the Dinos, ALS no isn't immediately applicable to the economy of ah small European country off the northwest coast of the continent. But on the other hand, it enriches society. It reminds us what's civilised societies are all about that importance on always emphasising the importance of pure scholarship.

Thompson:   17:18
Thank you. You're clearly in the right place being in the university and rigid.

Hamilton:   17:23
Let me just say you still gotta get funded on DH pure and rarefied, but you've certainly, you know you need less funding in philosophy than you do in in in high energy physics. But you're well that I get funded on DH presenting your work in a way that is compelling toe. Others on DH in certain areas is seen tohave. An application, or at least the future application, cannot be avoided. And so the more money you need, the more likely you're going tohave to justify a potential future benefit or consequence off your research.

Thompson:   18:04
I was a bit surprised. Recently we produced a report looking at the future trends in research research futures. On when we asked researchers around the world where the creative force, the driving forward new knowledge would bay, 27% of respondents thought it would be technology. 42% thought it would be researchers. Where would you put your money if you were looking to the next 10 years? Mnu. Is that technology or researchers? You mean

Hamilton:   18:36
what is it going to be, artificial intelligence that's going to come up

Thompson:   18:39
So the creative force would be technology off one sort of another, maybe artificial intelligence, maybe being able to measure different things. But that would be what drove creative team the research process.

Hamilton:   18:52
Yeah, I guess I don't quite understand the question because technology has always driven, you know, from the wheel from Maya, you know, has alway we didn't know how to cook. Fill its stake until we had fire. No technology has always driven innovation. The pencil wass a piece of rather wonderful analogy using graphene. Let's not rip. Let's not forget on DA It's a rather old piece of technology, but all of the great authors and poets in the world wouldn't have got very far without their pencil on. Now they happen to be using a laptop that's just the glorified pencil for them in the way in which their creativity is developed. And so I I again, I think it's Ah, it's a false question. Sorry to be. We have always used technology to help us express ourselves, and we will continue to do so on. The technology will get evermore complex and advanced. Will we ever reach a point where the scientists disappear on? We have banks of computers coming up with Arnett drug molecules. Maybe one day it's hard to imagine it won't happen one day, but actually not for a very long time. And I think then that places the emphasis on the researchers themselves to to continue to be a leak ahead in terms of the recognition of what macaroons on the way in which it is presented to the world as an important development.

Thompson:   20:33
Thank you. I want to turn finally some data that I've been pondering on and just get your take on it. So it's a well known an established fact that when academics co published internationally, the quality of this research, as measured by citations, rises. It also looks like when they co publish with corporate CE. The quality goes up again. So at noon you, your overall quality of your research has measured by field way too Citation indexes to 0.12 When you publish internationally, that rises to 3.5 But when you co publishers were Corporates, it rises to 6.51 Does that date to surprise you?

Hamilton:   21:21
No, not at all. And I actually think it would be interesting to look at the number when you publish with a collaborator from a different institution within your own country. How much of it is is just having the value ofthe outside perspective on your on the day to day production of your research. Having collaborators who question challenge criticised, we try to create that in the peer review process, of course. But the day today, challenging of data from an outside perspective on I think that's heightened when you have an international collaborator and I can completely understand why tightened even further when you have a corporate collaborator who very often has a very clear set of goals that they seek to reach, or a mission driven purpose in the collaboration there. Also funding it on DH possibly and so want to see something very riel and direct and high quality as a result. Andi, let me just say something about N y u the university that I've bean president off for the last four and a bit years. It's a university that over the past many decades has committed itself to an international profile and I think possibly more than any other university in in the world on international profile. We have major campuses in New York, in Shanghai, on Din Abou Diaby on. We have many campuses in 12 other places around the world, including London, Paris and I won't go through the list. But it is through that international perspective constantly feeding in to the academic process research in particular. But obviously it has a very beneficial effect in teaching us well that you see the Brett off insight increasing on long May that continue. Of course, we're in a slightly strange world right now where some of that is being questioned, really the role of collaborations with China and change universities and train corporate entities on while, of course, it's very important that security and the management of confidential material when it is produced is important. But it would be a very sad day if we lose the value of that cross disciplinary, but also cross border collaboration. That happens when international research groups get together.

Thompson:   24:04
So I think in all of this you are a very strong advocate for cross culture, whatever that might be. Discipline in nations, different backgrounds to really challenge each other's thinking and pushes further and faster on,

Hamilton:   24:19
and also to explore unexplored areas on during. That's part of the the joy of research. I look ATT, chemistry and I'm heading towards the end of my career 40 years ago, chemistry with quite a different place. If we looked at what people were doing the chemistry department, it tended to be a more classical chemistry on DH 40 years before that, even more so Now you look in the chemistry department and you'll find zebrafish. You'll find animal studies going on. You'll find solid state physics being carried out all in a chemistry department because the subject has expanded and the same could be said for neuroscience. The same could be said, the economics or even philosophy on. I do think that new areas to be explored are constantly coming in sight on DH. That is a process that happens even more effectively when we cross borders of discipline on DH. Cross borders in our geographically defined world,

Thompson:   25:28
brilliant and then close it here. Just ask if there's anything else you want to add or say before we close.

Hamilton:   25:34
No, I think I'm I'm I'm good, Leslie. Thank you,

Thompson:   25:38
Britain. Great. Well, that was probably just a pleasure to talk to you.

Mancini:   25:43
It's clear that President Andrew Hamilton sees a future where blue sky and applied research can happily coexist. He believes that learning and exploring just for the joy of it, is what civilizations were built upon. It's what makes us human that to secure blue skies future, it's vital that researchers continue to share storeys about how they found solutions in the most unexpected of places in that he and other university leaders have a role to play in helping young faculty recognise and embrace pure research as they start out on their careers. Crucially, Andrew believes that research is never a relevant. It just depends on the perspective you view it from. That's a statement. Our previous guest on Bye Bye, Blue Sky Professor Lee Cronin, would fully support if you didn't catch Leslie's interview it Lee. It's available now. And don't forget to subscribe to Research 2030 so that you are notified when future episodes are released. Are you interested in learning more about how blue sky might fare in the coming 10 years? It was a key theme in Elsevier's 2019 study, titled Research Futures, Drivers and Scenarios. For the next decade, you can download the report through the U. R L provided in our show notes, and now that we are into our fifth episode, we would like to get your input on research 2030 and find out what drew you to listen and what topics are of interest to you. You can find a link to our short an anonymous survey also in the show notes. And as always, you can reach out to us by email. So let us know how we were doing or ask us questions. Our address is research 2030 at l severe. E l s E v e r dot com Finally, our thanks to Dr Andrew Hamilton for joining us here in research 2030 and to Dr Leslie Thompson for hosting this episode. I'm Jocko Mancini on Thank you for listening.