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Harvard's incomparable Venky
Some of America’s most distinguished leaders in academia, science, and technology gathered at Harvard September 19 and 20 to celebrate the 75th birthday of renowned Harvard scientist Venkatesh "Venky" Narayanamurti—and to discuss the future of innovation in America.
Venky is the Benjamin Peirce Professor of Technology and Public Policy at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Professor of Physics, and director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He was also the founding dean of Harvard SEAS.
Toasters paid tribute to Venky as both an exemplary scientist and friend.
“There are only a few people in the world known by one name. There’s Napoleon, there’s Madonna, there’s Bono … and then there’s Venky,” joked Harvard President Drew Faust, praising his charisma, clarity of vision, and warmth.
Former CIA Director John Deutsch called Venky the “David Ortiz of science and technology,” since he’s a consistent long-ball hitter in many arenas.
Venky Narayanamurti with White House science adviser John Holdren.
White House science adviser John Holdren put Venky’s career into sharp—and comic—relief with a slide of figures about his life. Publications: 240. Boards and committees: 104. Age: 75. Job titles: 13 .Science academy memberships: 6. Grandchildren: 6. Deanships: 4. Children: 3. Wives: 1.
Amid the birthday tributes, four panels and more than a dozen experts considered a theme that underscored Venky’s own life work: “Inventing the Future to Address Societal Challenges.”
In the first session, Cherry Murray, Nancy Andrews, and Neal Lane discussed ways to reverse America’s declining investments in scientific research. Noting that the US has slipped to 10th in terms of R&D as a percentage of GDP, the panel called on the federal government to restore lost funding to rejuvenate the innovation economy. The erosion of basic research, the experts explained, weakens the foundation on which the whole innovation chain is built: no research, no iPhone.
The second panel explored the history of the legendary Bell Labs and discussed whether a Bell Labs 2.0 would be a good model for incubating 21st-century innovation. Arun Majumdar, Danielle Fong, Federico Capasso, and Julia M. Phillips noted that innovation flourished at Bell Labs due to a unique confluence of mission, culture, and leadership. Even the cafeteria—located in the middle and welcoming all colleagues with its round tables—promoted a healthy cross-pollination of ideas. Replicating the favorable formula of “funding, focus, and freedom” that made Bell Labs such a desirable home for scientists will require substantial reforms in interdepartmental university collaboration, national laboratories, and fresh engagement with the private sector.
The third panel featured George Whitesides, Robert J. Birgeneau, and John Deutch discussing the university of the future and its role in catalyzing game-changing research. The panel noted that public universities—which educate 2.7 million undergraduates each year and nearly twice as many low-income students as their private counterparts—play a vital role in equalizing opportunity in America. Yet public universities are struggling to adapt to an era of dramatic declines in state funding. This very challenge, however, could spur needed reform in staffing, organization and promotion that re-energizes universities as a hotbed for the innovation economy.
The final panel addressed how policymakers and researchers can better tackle grand challenges on a global scale. William C. Clark, Susan Hockfield, and Granger Morgan covered the waterfront of pressing issues, from overpopulation and disease to environmental degradation and energy transformation. While the panel was enthusiastic about the potential dividends arising from the convergence of biology and the physical sciences, they warned that a deeper cultural shift away from short-term thinking was needed to tackle fundamental drivers of these grand challenges.
For all the serious topics panelists covered, the two-day affair reflected the cheerful nature of its guest of honor. As Belfer Center Director Graham Allison put it: “You cannot see [him] without smiling.”