“Conversations” Focused on the Next Big Things in Science, Engineering, and Healthcare

2015 PC AM - Chris Michel, Bruce Levine, Nadia Drake

Organized as a series of “Conversations,” this year’s Annual Meeting provided attendees with a front row seat to frontiers in science, engineering, and healthcare.  The conversations, each lead by one of the Presidents or Bruce Darling, focused on three areas—immune-oncology; the rapid advances in natural language processing; and, astronomy (including dark matter) and fusion.  In addition the implications of, and solutions for, the steadily declining funds available for “risky” basic research were fully explored.  Immediately following the meeting, Gary Wolf, CEO of Quantified Self Labs and Co-Founder of the QS Movement, hosted a reception for the executives of nine of the leading “Quantified Self” companies and Circle members.  Joining Circle members in this meeting were members of the Academies’ Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy (COSEPUP), one of the most senior committees at the Academies.  Highlights of the meeting are provided below.

Dinner Speaker
Cyber Threats and Defenses in time of ‘The Interview’ and ISIS

Ambassador R. James Woolsey, Jr., Former Director Central Intelligence Agency; Chairman, Foundation for the Defense of Democracy 

2015 AM PC - Jim WoolseyOn Monday evening, the Presidents’ Circle welcomed Jim Woolsey, the former director of the CIA, to speak about some current issues at the interface of technology and geopolitics. Although he promised an upbeat discussion, the topics of modern oil cartels and electromagnetic pulse attacks were more on the cautionary than uplifting side. He stressed the need to reinforce and strengthen our current grid infrastructure to reduce vulnerabilities and increase the nation’s resiliency.

The Presidents’ Forum

Ralph J. Cicerone, President, National Academy of Sciences
C. D. Mote, President, National Academy of Engineering
Victor J. Dzau, President, Institute of Medicine

The Presidents kicked off the meeting on Tuesday with a discussion of significant events in science, engineering, and medicine that the nation has faced over the past year and will face in the coming year, and how the Academies are working to address those challenges.

Ralph Cicerone, Dan Mote, Victor Dzau - Presidents' Forum.  (2015 Presidents' Circle Annual Meeting)

Ralph Cicerone illustrated the work of the Academies through some important new studies. He talked about the recently released two-report set on the deliberate intervention in the climate system to counter climate change. Cicerone mentioned two reports from COSEPUP. The first is an upcoming report to be titled “Science Integrity” that is an update of a 1992 report, Responsible Science: Ensuring the Integrity of the Research Process. The new report provides guidance to research managers, funders, institutional leaders, researchers, and compliance officers. A second title from COSEPUP, The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited, released in December 2014 and updating an earlier report, explores how the postdoctoral system has changed in the past decade and considers how well current practices prepare the next generation of independent researchers.

Dan Mote talked President's Circle Meeting 3/24/15about the need to inspire young people to take up engineering by thinking about where the needs are. That’s exactly what the NAE did in 2009 with its Grand Challenges for Engineering, which identified 14 priority challenge areas for engineering. Mote said the program has been a “tectonic shift” in moving engineering in a direction the world needs it to go. For example, a high school in North Carolina has aligned its entire curriculum on the Grand Challenges and in a letter of commitment presented to President Barack Obama on March 22nd, 122 U.S. engineering schools pledged to graduate a minimum of 20 students per year specializing in the Grand Challenges.

Victor Dzau emphasized the importance of selecting projects that will make a difference and reflect the thinking of the public and private sector. Dzau talked about his “Listening Tours” in select cities across the nation to gather input on what is important to people. He pointed to the recently released report Dying in America as an example of something that is really making a difference on issues around aging, disease, and health equity. He said that IOM, like the NAE, is going through a process of what he called “grand priorities.” One priority that has emerged is how to mobilize international dollars and build a reserve to increase resilience in the public health sphere. As an example, Dzau pointed to the ability to rapidly and fully address outbreaks of Ebola in countries where there are almost no public health organizations as well as shortages of health professionals, diagnostics, supplies, and facilities. IOM is beginning to work with World Health Organization executive director Margaret Chan to discuss how to move forward with the framework and is convening a group of experts to set up a series of four workshops.

Special Session
The Election and New Congress: The Issues Going Forward

James E. Jensen, Executive Director, Office of Congressional and Governmental Affairs

President's Circle Meeting 3/24/15Jim Jensen, who has run the Academies’ Congressional and Governmental Affairs Office for 20 years, provided a brief overview of the 114th Congress and what the new landscape means to the Academies. Jensen noted that there have been several important departures and that turnover is increasing. In the new Congress, 74 members are in their first year and 240 have been there only since 2009. Thus, the Academies need to avoid relying on just a few people in Congress to tend to the “care and feeding” of science. Instead, different strategies are needed to think more broadly and to connect with a larger stable of people who understand and care about not just what the Academies provide, but also science’s role in America in general. Jensen said the good news is that both sides of the aisle really want to know what the literature says, so it’s more important than ever to studiously avoid partisan politics.

Conversation #1: Research Support in America: Current Realities and Opportunities

Panelists:Moderated by: C. D. Mote, President, National Academy of Engineering

  • Norman Augustine, Retired Chairman & CEO, Lockheed Martin Corporation
  • Robert Conn, President and CEO, The Kavli Foundation
  • Richard A. Meserve, President Emeritus, Carnegie Institution; Senior of Counsel, Covington & Burling

President's Circle Meeting 3/24/15Dan Mote provided some of the changing statistics of the research landscape, notably the (inflation–adjusted) decline in federal funding for research. He mentioned that the ratio of federal to industrial funding for research and development in the United Stated peaked in 1962 at approximately two federal dollars to every dollar invested by industry—and that was during a time of some of the great industrial research centers such as Bell Labs. Now that same ratio is only 40 cents of federal spending for every industrial dollar of research and development, and “industry tends to focus on the ‘D’ in R&D.” Other countries are increasing their national commitments to research and creating new funds to increase their talent bases. China has initiated a $1-billion fund to invest in companies abroad–for example, in the Bay Area or in Cambridge–if they can’t bring the people to China, then they are trying to bring China to the people. Singapore created a $1-billion fund to educate 1,000 people to earn Ph.D.s abroad and return to Singapore to start businesses.

Norm Augustine said that in the past 10 years, we’ve made a lot of progress explaining why research is important but that the public still doesn’t fully understand the impact of research on their daily lives.   However, studies show that up to 85% of growth in GDP has its roots in advancement in science and technology. In the past century, life expectancy has gone from 49 years to 79 years; the Apple products used by many were possible because of federally funded science. Sadly though, our funding for research as a fraction of GDP has fallen from 1st to 7th place. Augustine thinks many factors are to blame for the lack of understanding of research. One problem is an emphasis at higher education and research institutions toward publishing in a top-tier journal, rather than applying research to benefit the country.

2015 PC AM - Bob Conn, Kavli FoundationRobert Conn made two points about current research and funding realities: (1) we’ve been eating our research “seed corn” since at least 2007; and (2) we have extraordinarily educated and gifted people and are creating billionaires at an unprecedented rate. The question for Conn is: what will the newly rich do with their money? He talked about the American culture of giving back, beginning with the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and others in the early 20th century and continuing to the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge of 2010. Most of the money in basic research goes to our great research universities and to our extraordinary number of nonprofit research organizations, such as the Salk Institute. Conn’s hope is that half of the new wealth will be reinvested in science. Conn noted, however, that although philanthropy is important, it can’t replace the government role.

Dick Meserve said that about 90% of R&D today is financed by industry and government, but that the support for R&D as a percentage of GDP has declined. Also, the ro2015 PC AM - Nancy Conrad, Percy Pierre, and Lee McIntire - conversations continuele of the federal government and industry has flipped: 2/3 of research funding used to come from government and 1/3 from industry, but now at least 2/3 of research funding is from industry. Because market forces are focused on short-term returns, most of industry dollars are going to development, not basic research. The federal government’s discretionary budget is approximately 1/3 of the total, about 70-80% of which is defense, and only about 3% is R&D. On the upside, unlike 20 or 30 years ago, most of those in Congress today understand the value of basic research. They can see the payoff in the economy and that it’s in the national interest. Additionally, Meserve pointed out that with a university in every state, there are a lot of angles from which to keep the pressure on and make the case more powerfully than we’ve done before.

Conversation #2: Revolutions in Medicine

Moderated by: Victor J. Dzau, President, Institute of Medicine


  • José Baselga, Physician-in-Chief and Chief Medical Officer, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
  • Bruce Levine, Barbara and Edward Netter Professor in Cancer Gene Therapy, University of Pennsylvania
  • Herbert Pardes, Executive Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees, NewYork- Presbyterian Hospital

Victor Dzau said that forty years ago, Nixon declared a “war on cancer.” We know now that there are many mutations thaPresident's Circle Meeting 3/24/15t cause cancer, and even the same cancers are different. Many of us think of surgery or chemotherapy in the treatment of cancer, both of which are blunt tools. With greater understanding of biological systems, we’ve taken a great step forward with immunotherapy. But is it really a breakthrough, and what can we expect?

José Baselga talked about success stories for cancers with known mutations. For example, ten years ago the survival of breast cancer patients was less than 2 years; today, 90% of these patients are being cured. What was daunting until recently is that there are cancers that have thousands of mutations—for example melanoma, lung cancers, bladder cancers—especially those with environmental origins. This is where immunotherapy comes in. The T-cells are great killers, and they have memory. They can be engineered to attack a specific cancer cell and will continue to do so for life. Response rates are great: 80% of cancers do NOT come back. In the last few months, scientists across the country are beginning to find out which of the mutations are predictive of responses to the new immunotherapies so that we can design intelligent therapies.

Bruce Levine said the breakthrough is in using the person’s own cells to treat the cancer. Cancer shuts off the “on switch” in T-cells so that the immune system can’t do its job. However, T-cells can be re-educated and re-targeted. Doctors deliver the genetic material that integrates into the genome of the T-cell, which then becomes specific for targeting against the tumor. This therapy was developed in the late 80s and early 90s. Levine showed an excellent video of a T-cell binding with a tumor cell, as well as a series of photographs of a girl with leukemia who had tumors in 70% of her body. The child is shown at the time of infusion and then two years later, free of cancer, and later standing with President Obama. Levine said his group has treated three patients with chronic leukemia who had not responded to any other therapy. They found that between 3 ½ and 8 pounds of President's Circle Meeting 3/24/15tumor were killed. Levine pointed out that there are logistical issues, including how you develop, manufacture, regulate, and market this therapy.

Herbert Pardes said we should send more patients to accompany scientists when talking to Congress: their testimonies elicit a response on a personal level. There’s a tendency by some to give short shrift to advanced medical treatment, which is why he emphasizes these personal stories. His hope is that we see some turnaround in the attitude toward medical research. Pardes also said that among the various illnesses, he thinks the one thing that gets less attention is psychiatric care—which is catastrophic. One option is to integrate it with primary care.

Lunch Speaker
Jay Walker, TEDMED

Circle member Jay Walker is the curator of TEDMED and Chairman of Walker Digital.  He was twice named as one of the most influential business leaders of the Internet age.  He is a member of the Academies’ Science, Technology and Economic Policy (STEP) Board.    

2015 AM PC - Jay WalkerJay Walker said he was in a seat “to hear what the future might sound like before it shows up,” and he’s heard about the risk of those changes, which are terrifying.  He listed 10 super forces, all of which had the capacity to be extraordinarily positive—but they are also wild cards. The super forces include the bio-sensor revolution, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, robotics, and a global middle class.  His talk focused on the positive side of the future and things we might do to mitigate risks.

The upside of these super forces is that we could end hunger, want, and illiteracy.  The downside is that as our technology becomes more complex, humans become more vulnerable.  For example, there are more pathogens now that we consume 150 billion pounds of meat per year.  It was a failure of imagination to not see how 9-11 unfolded.

Walker talked about coordination problems in the Ebola problem.  There are not enough beds or mechanisms to handle a 10,000-person influx. Pandemics have to be stopped fast, before they reach a tipping point, but what we’re really trying to stop is paralysis and panic. A critical part of resiliency of society is bringing the public to the table in a way the average citizen can understand.

2015 PC AM - Heather Berlin adds to the conversationWalker thinks society has done little to build the network that can meet these wildcards and that civil society should act now to get ready for the problems that are coming.  He mentioned how government is at a big disadvantage, because a large part of the public doesn’t trust the government. He argues that the scientific community should become a trusted voice with the capacity to put up information quickly.  It would be funded privately.

Conversation 3: Revolutions in Machine Understanding of Unstructured Data

Moderated by: Bruce Darling, Executive Officer, NAS and NRC


  • Christopher D. Manning, Professor of Computer Science and Linguistics, Stanford University
  • Slav Petrov, Staff Research Scientist, Google
  • Shivon Zilis, Venture Capitalist, Bloomberg Beta

Dick Foster introduces the Research Support in America panel - Dick Meserve, Norm Augustine, Bob Conn, and Dan Mote.  (2015 Presidents' Circle Annual Meeting)

Bruce Darling talked about how human memory can be supplemented by magnetic storage, brainpower by computers, and eyesight by robots. Now computers are entering the province of language. The Associated Press produces 3,000 financial reports per quarter without any human intervention. The LA Times uses an algorithm called Quakebot that turns data from seismic instruments into narrative stories. Another firm said it produced 1 billion news articles with no human intervention. The question is: what changes are coming as computers do more work for us?

Christopher Manning discussed how language has helped humans develop and some of the new ways computers are interfacing with large-scale literature sources. Manning showed a slide about the Paleo DeepDive, which contains data about different rock formations, which paleontologists match up to their findings. Computers can now do this matching better than human beings; the accuracy of the volunteers is now 84%, whereas computer accuracy is now 94%.

Slav Petrov talked about the many ways that Google has used computers to do our thinking and said that many have become natural to us. Examples are spam filters and search. He said Google is continuing to use Google translations, an app that is in use but needs improvement, especially in certain languages. He said his job at Google is to figure out how to ask questions to build a system that can smartly combine information in useful ways. The newer “Google Now” app knows about your upcoming trip, which train you are on, when you have to leave to catch the train, and what maps you will need when you arrive.2015 PC AM - Slav Petrov, Google, on the Revolutions in Machine Understanding of Unstructured Data Panel

Shivon Zilis gave examples of how text data interface applications are altering her life as a venture capitalist, using as an example meeting with an entrepreneur about self-driving cars. First, she uses Google search tools that aggregate search items into one big visual of all the conversations about self-driving cars. Within 10 minutes, she gets an idea of the competitive landscape and become “expertish.” To set up her 40-50 meetings per week, Zilis uses her computer assistant “Clara,” an app that can read her emails to figure out timing and other details and is already preprogramed to understand all her needs and preferences. She estimates that Clara takes about 40-50% of the workload of setting appointments. To get to the meeting, she uses on online NY car company that transports people from point A to point B. To deal with dreaded conference calls where so much is often lost after the call, she uses an app that provides a transcript and a prioritized list of follow-up actions.

Conversation 4: Revolution in Physics: 2014-2019

Moderated by: Ralph J. Cicerone, President, National Academy of Sciences


  • Robert P. Kirshner, Clowes Professor of Science, Harvard University
  • John C. Mather, Senior Project Scientist, James Webb Space Telescope
  • Ajay Royan, Managing General Partner, Mithril Capital Management
  • Michael Turner, Rauner Distinguished Service Professor, Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, The University of Chicago

Ralph Cicerone teed up this session featuring some of the world’s most prominent physicists talking about the latest advances in physics, astronomy, dark matter, and fusion.

2015 AM PC - John MatherJohn Mather is the Senior Project Scientist on the James Webb Space Telescope—a large infrared telescope set to launch in 2018 that will be the world’s premier observatory, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. Mather said he recently got a request from Congress asking whether the new telescope could help us understand the reason for matter and antimatter. He told them no, but commented that it is good to see that science is getting through! Mather said the telescope will help answer questions about the possibility of life in other solar systems. “It could be that life is rare and people are even rarer,” he said. He also said the telescope will help us “see” about 2 to 3 times closer to the big bang. It will also help us examine the “pimples” in the universe—hot and cold spots mostly made of dark matter—that could help unlock other secrets of the universe.

Michael Turner talked about advances that could help us answer some of the big remaining puzzles of physics. One is related to gravity, the weakest of the four forces mapped out in Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which just had its 100th birthday. Turner said gravitational waves are ripples produced by the most cataclysmic forces in the universe, such as the colliding of black holes. Looking for them would require detecting a distortion of 100th of the size of an atom. Turner said the detectors that could find something that small would provide an entirely new way to understand the universe. Turner also talked about dark matter, which makes up a large fraction of the universe, but we don’t yet know what it is. He said that it might be possible to produce dark matter particles in the large Hadron collider. He also talked about the importance of giant magentoresistance research, which is a quantum mechanical effect discovered in 1987. It showed that when you place certain materials in a magnetic field, their resistance can change significantly. It enabled mass data storage and answered a very old physics puzzle, all because someone was passionate about understanding it.President's Circle Meeting 3/24/15

Ajay Royan talked about the obstacles to taking full advantage of advances in physics as a venture capitalist. He said you really can’t bet on exploratory stuff. He also talked about difficulties in measuring the value of advances in physics. He said that energy is the most interesting sector to him, particularly nuclear fission and fusion. One of his main projects is a company called Helia that is doing “fusion in a garage” near a strip mall in Redmond, Washington. Helia is trying to combine the stability of steady magnetic fusion with pulsed magnetic fusion using solid state electronics. He talked about the speed of making this more economical: in 2000, the cost of producing fusion energy was $500/joule and today its $2 per joule. Helia is producing the energy at 14 cents per joule, ordering most of the parts needed for their reactor from AliBaba. They’ve reached this point with only $20 million in investments from Royan and his partners. Royan said, “History suggests Oracles get killed—so we have to be careful. But it is possible as private investors to move things along.”

Bob Kirshner said that he had come down from Boston—where there is a lot of dirty snow still around—and it made him think about a former professor, Fred Wipple, who would say “a comet is like a dirty snowball.” He said it was easy to wonder if this was correct until we had the tools to see whether it’s true. He showe2015 PC AM Jay Walker. Jack Rowe, and Dick Foster share a laugh during a break.  (2015 Presidents' Circle Annual Meeting)d an image from the Rosetta spacecraft, and yes, a comet does look like a dirty snowball! He showed an image of Ceres, an asteroid that looks like a planet. He said that this is the year that a spacecraft flies past Pluto so we can learn more about it.

The Hubble space telescope has been running for 25 years and has helped us a lot, but it’s time will end soon. He talked about one use of Hubble to “stare at nowhere” for 100 hours of time so you could see changes over time, for example, measuring the trajectories of a supernova. This work showed that the expansion of the universe is not slowing down due to gravity, which means there has to be something else pushing it outward.

Quantified Self: Challenges for Science, Engineering and Medicine

Gary Wolf, Founder, QS Labs

Gary Wolf, co-founder of Quantified Self, explained the emerging cultural interests in using apps and biometrics to manage personal health.  Wolf described QS as very personal computing.  Operating in more than 30 countries, there was a QS meeting most days last year.  At these meetings, people are asked three questPresident's Circle Meeting 3/24/15ions – what did you do, how did you do it, and what did you learn.  The consequences of this movement are potentially significant, Wolf explained, using examples of range of different health apps and sensors that are already under development or use by individuals and companies across the world.   By making this data available to science, it will lower the cost of getting data.  For example, Stanford recently had 10,000 people sign up in just 24-hours for a cardiovascular study that will utilize the recently released ResearchKit platforPresident's Circle Meeting 3/24/15m which will help collect human data and make it available to scientists. Wolf emphasized the crucial role of science leadership in advocating for equity in data access to broaden participation in research and discovery.  During the reception that followed, people had hands-on experiences with the nine Quantified Self / Bottoms Up Science exhibitors that joined us.

Dinner Speaker
Were Darwin Alive Today… Would he Write the Same Book?

Juan Enriquez, Managing Director, Excel Venture Management

Circle member Juan Enriquez is the Managing Director of Excel Venture Management. He is a member of the Academies’ Division on Earth and Life Studies Committee.  

President's Circle Meeting 3/24/15On Tuesday evening, we welcomed futurist, venture capitalist, and popular TED-contributor Juan Enriquez to speak about his new book, Evolving Ourselves: How Unnatural Selection and Non-Random Mutation are Changing Life on Earth. In his talk, Enriquez proposed that human decisions and technology, particularly the use of new techniques in biotechnology (e.g. genome editing), are fundamentally altering the trajectory and outcomes of evolutionary processes.

Charles Darwin discovered that life evolves according to two principles: natural selection and random mutation. But what if we dropped Darwin right in the middle of Trafalgar Square today? He would likely notice that, in just 150 years, humans had become much bigger, taller and weaker. The question Enriquez posed is that, upon observing such rapid human evolution, would Darwin have written the same book?

For 4 billion years, DNA guided what lived and died on this planet. DNA was the code and there were no options for getting around it. Today, however, Enriquez thinks that human beings are running about half of the show.  That is, for about half the land mass on Earth two new principles are in operation:  unnatural selection and un-random mutation.   Agriculture, rapid urbanization, domestication of animals, and domestication of people all contribute to unnatural selection.  For example, it is very rare now for humans to be “naturally selected” by a shark or mountain lion attack, and such an attack today is national news.  Similarly, we are no longer naturally selected by the weather events such as hurricanes, because forecasts have improved greatly.2015 PC AM - Ajay Royan, Dan Mote, Carol Cicerone

But it’s not unnatural selection that turns Darwin on his head, Enriquez said. The thing that truly turns Darwin on his head is non-random mutation.  “When Berg, Boyer, and Cohen figured out how to rewrite the gene code, that was a really big deal,” Juan said.  Now, instead of playing casino genetics, humans have an instrument to alter the course of life.  As gene editing continues to advance, we’ve collapsed an evolutionary system that takes thousands of years into a nonrandom process that takes weeks or months.  The new editing technique known as CRISPR allows for a very directed process of gene editing that is scaring a lot of people.  As we take control of evolution, there will be consequences, both good and bad.