The countries of the world have not yet come to a global agreement on limiting the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. While technology will play a crucial role in addressing this grand challenge, how can innovations be developed appropriately in various developmental contexts while meeting the aspirations of humanity. On this program, Nobel Laureate Yuan T. Lee discusses the Future Earth program and shares his thoughts on sustainability and science.
We are the world! 😉
The following is an edited transcript of the interview:
Frank Ling (FL): Could you tell us a little bit about ICSU and the role it plays in science?
Professor Yuan-Tseh Lee (YTL): I’m the immediate past president. The International Council on Science (ICSU) is a very interesting organization. After World War 1, scientists got together and wanted to work together to maintain peace and prosperity. ICSU’s mission is strengthening international science for the benefit of humanity. We have over 121 national members and 31 international scientific societies as members.
In recent years, we have been paying enormous attention to the problem of sustainability. A couple years ago we promoted a major program called Future Earth to see how human society can transform for sustainability. In addition, we work on integrated research on disaster risk and human health in the cities and many other things.
FL: When we last met a few years ago there was a lot of attention in many of these scientific societies about sustainability and global challenges, but in the last 10 years we have seen very slow progress. In the international regime, are you still optimistic we can change things for the better?
YTL: I would not say I am optimistic. But we have certainly have come to a critical time. Politically speaking, it is interesting that 10 years ago when the Kyoto Protocol was promoted, many countries did not sign. But now, when you see climate change and the extreme weather events one after another, people have a different idea now. At the end of this year, there will be COP21 in France. Politically it is now very different: US, China, European Union will all come and engage in serious discussions, so that aspect has changed dramatically. As I said, this year is a critical year with COP21. Whether we come to an agreement or not, we will influence the future of mankind, especially for the young generation. The second thing is that in order to have global agreement, to have some impact in addition to deep decarbonization, we need some money to get international collaborations.
We hope that by 2020, there will be $100 billion coming from developed countries annually to developing countries to maintain sustainable development goals. Earlier this year, I attended the sustainable development summit in India and it was mentioned that the commitment has already reached more than $60 billion each year. Our hope is to reach $100 billion by the end of this year. It looks like this goal is achievable.
FL: The institutions you have worked with mostly are in the public domain. What do you see as the role of the private sector or industries in these sustainability issues?
YTL: It’s very important. When we promoted Future Earth, we integrated all the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program, Human Dimensions Program, World Climate Change Program. We realized we needed co-design and co-creation with public and private and industrial sectors. When I mentioned $60 billion a year, it is not all coming from governments. A large fraction is coming from the private sector.
FL: You mentioned the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program. Part of the thrust is to engage society and to integrate science into decision-making. Until now, there has been a lot of siloing between different fields and also between humanities and the sciences. What do you think are the opportunities to bring these fields together?
YTL: Due the last couple years, there has been more serious engagement. In the International Council of Science, two years ago we accepted as a member the International Association. So social scientists are moving in. This is a good thing. People realize scientists alone cannot solve the problem.
FL: A few years ago, the AAAS or the American Association for the Advancement of Science started a concept known as the Grand Challenges whereby we look at global issues and to solve them from an integrated approach. At the institutional level, what can we do to address these topics better?
YTL: When we talk about the grand challenges, I would say at this moment we have to do deep decarbonization. This is really the number one issue. And in order to achieve deep decarbonization, innovation in energy really needs to be done. The social structure, the behavior will be very important. Politically, this year seems to be moving better. But if I look at the social aspect, I feel we are running a little behind. If I say that the entire human society on Earth is over-developed – and many people agree will agree that we are consuming too much, too much population, and we are changing our environment so fast – then people will agree. But if we say you and I live in over-developed society and we have to change, and we will not be a good example for the people of Africa or India to imitate.
So, if you look at the consumption of cement in China in the last three years, it equals the amount of cement the United States consumed in the last century. If everyone takes the US as the model for development, we can see that many parts of the world are over-developed. Socially, we must ask ourselves what exactly is development. So if you say in America, people use 10 kW per person for electricity on average, my question is do we really need 10 kW? Is 2 kW enough? People say we should organize society in a better way. 2kW might be enough. So, then every country does not need to get 10 kW It’s about using using much less energy, much less material.
In Asia, they are trying to set up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). I think if every country wants to imitate China to set up their infrastructure with so much steel and cement, there is no chance for humanity. That is one aspect we must change.
FL: As you mentioned, technology alone will not be enough to solve these problems. But who will pay for these technologies and how do you deploy them in a fair manner? What are some of the thoughts from scientists of how to work on these in a fair way?
YTL: Developing countries say they have the right to develop and demand technology transfer. But I really worry, for example if every automobile country goes to Africa and corrupts the government. Then, every country will develop an automobile industry and build up the freeway. One out of three will then own a car.
If we want to develop a modern city, how can we make cities more efficient so people can get things done within walking distance? On the other hand if we
Western people tend to think the way they are living that they is in a developed society. Certainly, if you go to Houston or Los Angeles, it is different from San Francisco or a European cities. But how should we develop?
FL: The example of someone moving from a developing to a country like the US, they are probably driven by economic incentives or aspirations for a better life. What are you thoughts on how education can give people a more thoughtful view of the world.
YTL: If we say the world, the Earth, was infinite, then production and consumption to stimulate the economy will be okay. That is the pattern of the past: efficiency coming from the specialization and scale (people flocking to the city). But the Earth is finite, we can not take any more carbon dioxide.
So in the educational system, we should lead everyone to realize we have too many people consuming too many resources. The Earth is overloaded. We really cannot go on like this, we need to change.
So if you make a city with public transportation, subway system, rather than everyone driving a car. Or course in Japan, in Tokyo the subway system is tremendous. On the other hand, it has become so big and people need a lot of energy to move from one spot to another. So that is a question we need to ask about urbanization.
People accept that we need to urbanize. China is moving very fast to move the population to the cities. But when the energy was diffuse, everyone depended on sunshine. Concentrated energy would be needed to run a big city. So we have some questions to answer.
FL: Speaking of cities, one of the driving concepts now is a move toward smart cities, which integrates information technology into every aspect of our lives. Do you think an emphasis on technology is the right way or do we need to think a little bit more than that?
YTL: Well if you look at the development of humankind on Earth, it’s the sunshine, the photosynthesis that brought about life. After the Industrial Revolution, we started to use fossil fuel. We detached from sunshine. We detached from nature. People flocked to the cities because the Industrial Revolution brought scale, specialization, and productivity. But there comes a point when cities will not be productive anymore and now populations are going down. Cities are just not the place to bring up children. We should teach from nature. Every time when I go to countryside, I said, “Gee, when I was young, I grew up in this environment.” These days the environment I live in is a cement block, live like an ant.
FL: We talked about some grand concepts today, but in terms of basic science what are some of fundamental questions we should be addressing to support development issues?
YTL: Well, in scientific issues, I want to separate two things. One thing is scientists care about research to accumulate new knowledge and invent new technologies. And then, society expects that the accumulation of new knowledge and technologies will lead to social production through innovation. So if taxpayer pay money to do research and the end product is not for the elevation of society, then money is not well spent. So there is a cycle from research, accumulation of knowledge and technology, and that has feedback through social production. But the first part, scientists are driven by curiosity and so if you look at astronomy, the field of understanding the universe, black holes, black energy, and all those things, people are very curious to understand. At the same time also, biology is about the phenomenon of life. People are investigating the structure of matter in nano sciences. Scientists are curious to open up new frontiers. Without scientists looking at scientific research and saying we have to do something useful, otherwise spent is not doing something useful. Of course, that usefulness has two aspects. One is you are not doing good science, that you are not getting good scientific results to be useful. People always say new scientific results, new phenomenon, new truths, which will be eventually useful. But because this research cycle becomes shorter and shorter, people expect we spend money to be useful.
20 years ago, when I was president of Academia Sinica, I said if 10% of the people of the people are making these connections, producing resources, then 90% of the scholars would be liberated to do what he wants. Well, now it is sad because everyone is under pressure. In the Institute for Atomic and Molecular Sciences, they are working on condensed matter and immediately they are directed to work on energy conversion or storage. So immediately, they are focused on short-term returns. So I am quite worried in terms of the development of science. People want to results quickly. They want proposals that are fundable or results that are publishable. Gradually, imagination and ideas will lose out. And that, I worry about that very much.
In biology also, people want to work new molecules that are transformative for medicine, and make lots of money. So recently I feel a little bit uncomfortable.
FL: Lastly, do you have some last words for young scientists who are still very curious and want to pursue a career in science or solving these big issues?
YTL: Well, if you look around the different possibilities for your life, I think scientific research is still the most exciting thing and most rewarding you can do in your life because you are always trying to find the truth and you do not compromise on the truth. At the same time, you realize that if you don’t work together, you cannot find good results. In a leadership position, unless you are able to bring the young people up well, you are not going to do good research either. So I think scientific research is the most exciting and most wonderful job. But because of too much pressure to make useful results, to make money, it makes life tougher. The current generation will see that it is not as good as it used to be.
Something regrettable is that people are more and more people are getting into making money. Three, four years ago if you look at the Princeton graduates, 70% end up in Wall Street, and if you look at the Harvard undergraduates, almost 60% went to Wall Street. So, do you really want to train smart people and all the smart people want to make money, and launder money, I don’t think that is really a good thing. Three, fours ago a student told me they want to go to Harvard. I said, “Are you going to end up in Wall Street? If that is the case, I’m not sure that is a good thing.”
FL: Certainly wise words and things to keep in mind for young people out there. Professor Lee, thank you so much for taking the time and talking with me today.
YTL: My pleasure.