During a discussion by a panel chaired by Professor Arnoud de Mayer, President of Singapore Management University at the Global Young Scientists Summit organized by the National Research Foundation of Singapore and held in Singapore from 18th to 23rd January there were several interesting insights into scientific research and impacts of big data. The Panel’s agenda was discussions on Turning Insights into Innovation. Nobel Laureate Aaron Ciechanover and Michael Levitt, Shafi Goldwasser, winner of Turing Award and Michael Gratzel, winner of Millenium Technology Prize in 2010, constituted members of the panel.
These eminent scientists expressed their opinion that instead of focusing on finding solutions to problems, as happens in government or institution funded research, they would achieve more success if they addressed issues that gave them intellectual excitement. Government funded research organizations expect immediate results and commercialization of research outcomes, which, in turn, drives scientists to work in a specific avenue. In contrast, the discovery of ubiquitin mediated protein degradation by Professor Ciechanover was the result of his curiosity into the mechanism used in cells to degrade and recycle proteins. Professor Ciechanover stated that his finding was not the result of focusing on drugs or a solution of a disease but only came about due to his interest in the biological aspect. This led to greater awareness about ubiquitin’s role in neurodegenerative diseases and cancer. This finding underscores Professor Levitt’s statement that governments can get more return if scientists are given freedom to explore their thoughts. He added that if governments persisted in getting scientists to follow a narrowly defined path, then brilliant scientists would leave the country in search of better opportunities elsewhere.
One of the key topics of discussion was the rise of big data, its availability and impact on nature and practice of science. Ciechanover compared it to throwing bait into the ocean of data and hoping to catch worthwhile fish. He said that despite it being easier to carry out non-hypotheses driven research, big data will not alter the way of scientific thought processes and that there will be a balance with big data helping but not driving innovative research. Professor Goldwasser underlined this thought by stating that big data does present chances for innovation but does not change the scenario. Professor Gatzel, developer of dye sensitized solar cells, said that originality in thought is the key to academic research that can then be translated to commercial purposes.
The Panel concluded that governments must find a median between commercial research and an environment that fosters innovative research. Michael Levitt was of the opinion that commercial licensing of new research outcomes nips many upcoming technologies.