When Arizona State University first was named host of the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, the world’s largest general scientific gathering, little did it know it would be amid the worst stretch of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
But in the spirit of ASU’s resilience, the nation’s scientific leadership forged through the pandemic with a virtual meeting that showcased the best of scientific innovation and renewed optimism for the future.
ASU was well represented at the AAAS meeting, held from Feb. 8-11, with a showcase of more than 50 virtual tours, live chats, scientific sessions, student presentations and poster sessions, and special plenary sessions by world scientific leaders.
WATCH: ASU presentations from this year's AAAS annual meeting
The theme for AAAS 2021 was “Understanding Dynamic Ecosystems.” From the environments that we inhabit to the social systems in which we live and work, we are all embedded in a variety of ecosystems. Finding ways of maintaining the stable balance of these ecosystems in the face of rapidly changing circumstances is critical for our advancement.
Our COVID times
With the pandemic still front and center on the world stage, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, provided an update on COVID-19, now more than a year into the pandemic, which he characterized as “a most extraordinary unfolding of a previously unknown disease.”
The unfolding were cases of a new pneumonia in Wuhan, China, and Chinese officials putting on a public database in January the sequence of a novel coronavirus, whose symptoms came to be known as COVID-19.
“This had never been seen before in the human species,” Fauci said. “From that week in January 2020 to today, literally, as of yesterday (Feb. 7, 2021), we have experienced in a little over a year now, the most extraordinary pandemic of a respiratory disease in the last 102 years, since the infamous pandemic of 1918, with 106 million cases of recorded disease, with over 2.3 million deaths worldwide.
“The United States of America, a rich and highly developed country, was hit harder than any other country on Earth, with almost 27 million cases, and again, as of yesterday, over 460,000 deaths.”
In the spring, summer and late fall, the U.S. experienced three surges, with the last surge alone accounting for 50% of all deaths. But with an unprecedented development time, new hope emerged with safe, new vaccines to prevent COVID-19, and millions are now vaccinated; yet the virus continues to fight back by evolving new variants.
In response to COVID-19, society has also been forced to evolve like never before. Every sector of society has been profoundly affected by the pandemic, including higher education.
ASU President Michael Crow outlined for the AAAS audience how ASU has sped up development of a new prototype for universities.
“Evolution is a fundamental process biologically, sociologically and organizationally, for everything that we know, and it impacts us in the university sector and research sector, just like everyone else, but in slightly different ways,” Crow said.
This model is the public service university, evolving from an earlier concept of use-inspired research that defined the first decade of Crow’s New American University initiative to now, a new wave, HIBAR (highly integrative, basic and responsive research) research enterprise. ASU is part of a new HIBAR university research alliance.
“What’s occurring is the emergence of a new wave, what we are calling the fifth wave, the emergence of highly scalable, highly egalitarian institutions which have fundamental discovery, research discovery and HIBAR as a core element in this next step of evolution," Crow said.
Crow mentioned the new ASU Global Futures Laboratory, led by Peter Schlosser, as an exemplar of this approach.
“Think of it as a medical school for the Earth,” Crow said.
Not only has ASU become more accessible, but a great world research university in the process. Recently, it was ranked by the National Science Foundation as the sixth highest university in annual research expenditures and one of the fastest growing public research universities in the nation.
Crow emphasized that ASU as a national service university is not meant to replace other outstanding institutions. Rather, ASU is a different kind of institution.
“This is not a football game," he said. "We are involved in the broadening of human knowledge. And so, it’s not just competition; we should have variation of approach, a variation of disciplines. We need to set different aspirations for each university. We have to find a way to accept different kinds of institutions. If we really want to expand human potential, if we really want to expand engaging everyone, then the last thing we need, are in fact, universities that are similar.”
Future of research
Long-time head of ASU research and former executive vice president of ASU’s Knowledge Enterprise Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan took the helm of the National Science Foundation as its 15th president earlier in the summer of 2020. The AAAS meeting was a chance for him to virtually reconnect with ASU while sharing his outlook and optimism for the future of U.S. research.
“2020 was a year of enormous disruption, but conferences like this are critical,” Panchanathan said. “They are how we make new professional connections, and share ideas, and we come away with new energy and enthusiasm for our work."
He mentioned three main factors challenging the future of research at speed and at scale:
- A period of intense global competion.
- The missing millions (young students and people capable of succeeding in STEM careers, but who are not making their way into the STEM community).
- Strong bipartisan support for the scientific community to accomplish more than ever before.
Panchanathan mentioned the three pillars for the future of NSF science, which were strongly influenced by his time spent at ASU:
- Advancing the frontiers of research into the future.
- Ensuring accessibility and inclusivity.
- Securing global leadership.
“The foundation for all these pillars is partnerships,” Panchanathan said. “We are looking at not only how NSF can create partnerships, but also how we can foster environments where partnerships thrive because they are powerful ways to scale-up research.”
Society faces broad challenges. Besides COVID-19, Panchanathan mentioned the future of artificial intelligence, the quantum research revolution, building resilience frameworks to pandemics and natural hazards, biotechnology and the global economy, and education and scaling knowledge platforms so that learners can grow and learn everywhere as key themes.
The key questions are how to design systems and policies for meaningful impact on improving well-being, improve the efficiency of systems we use every day, and how science can strengthen our communities.
“We want these technologies to benefit everyone,” Panchanathan said.
ASU's Knowledge Enterprise
Finally, ASU’s new executive vice president of Knowledge Enterprise, Sally Morton, outlined the current issues facing science, including STEM education and workforce diversity.
“The challenge of science diversity is real, and numbers tell the story,” Morton said, adding that of the 603 Nobel laureates, only 57 have been women.
“Diversity makes science stronger, and so we need to meet learners where they are through lifelong learning and make sure access to education is available to all who want it, to include rather than exclude,” she said.
Morton emphasized the pandemic has made it increasingly important to link science research to social outcomes.
“The pandemic has put the work of science on full display,” she said.
On the final day of the conference, which coincided with the annual celebration day of women in science, Morton concluded on a hopeful note for our COVID times with a quote from Marie Curie, the first female Nobel laureate:
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”