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A Conversation on the Urgency of Science With IBM’s Dario Gil, Newly Selected National Science Board Member

May 20, 2020

Dr. Dario Gil, the Director of IBM Research, is passionate about the role science can play in helping society take on our biggest challenges. He believes that whether it is to combat pandemics or...

Dr. Dario Gil, the Director of IBM Research, is passionate about the role science can play in helping society take on our biggest challenges. He believes that whether it is to combat pandemics or global climate change, clear-eyed scientific thinking and the urgency with which we mobilize power and resources based on what science tells us, will determine the well-being and prosperity of billions of people the world over. Gil has recently been selected as a member of the National Science Board and from this new position, he plans to push for the infusion of scientific thinking into both existing and new institutions.

The National Science Board is the governing body of the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency created in 1950 to advise Congress and the executive branch on national policies for the promotion of research and education in science and engineering. Members of the board are selected on the basis of eminence in their fields and records of distinguished service.

Of the 25-member National Science Board, most of whom come from university, government or nonprofit research organizations, Gil is but one of two professionals from the corporate sector—an acknowledgment of the emphasis IBM places on basic and applied scientific research.

Within IBM, Gil, who has a doctorate in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT, oversees a global organization with more than 3,000 researchers in 19 locations on six continents. An advocate of collaborative research—and proponent of a Science Readiness Reserve to mobilize when needed—Gil also co-chairs the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, a pioneering industrial-academic laboratory with a portfolio of more than 50 projects focused on advancing fundamental AI research to the broad benefit of industry and society.

Watch Dario Gil discuss the urgency of science


Here is an edited conversation between Gil and members of the IBM News Room:


Congratulations on being named to the National Science Board. What does this mean to you, and what do you hope to accomplish?

Being appointed to the National Science Board is an honor and a privilege. It’s an opportunity to work with an extraordinary organization and to advocate for the success of science and technology in the United States.

But the impact goes beyond the U.S., of course. Progress in science makes a huge difference to the world—as the global effort to confront and curb the COVID-19 pandemic is making clear. And we as the human community have other big challenges that science and technology can help us address, like climate change.

There’s an opportunity right now to leverage advances that we are seeing in the world of data—in the world of high performance computing, in the world of artificial intelligence and in the world of quantum computing—to see how the convergence of those fields will usher in a new era of accelerated scientific discovery.

You’ll be one of only two corporate members on the Board. What does tell us about IBM’s standing as a research organization?

A core mission of the National Science Board is to support and advocate for basic research. It’s fair to say that the mission of basic research historically has been carried out within universities and national laboratories.

IBM Research has long been in the mission of pursuing fundamental scientific work. We’ve had a research division for 75 years. We’re a perennial leader in receiving U.S. patents. Six IBMers have won Nobel Prizes for their work. IBM is one of the few institutions in the corporate sector that has advocated for, and continues to perform, that kind of research. So, I'm delighted to be able to join the science board on behalf of IBM and help bring our skills and expertise to such a prestigious and influential organization.

In recent years, it has sometimes seemed that some members of the public distrust science or want to deny its findings. Do you find that discouraging?

One of the charters of the National Science Board is to periodically create indicators that can help Congress make decisions around science. One of its public survey questions is about what professions the respondent admires. What’s really remarkable is that in the United States, “scientist” is the second most admired or respected profession after the military. So, we really do have a foundation of broad support for the importance of science and scientists. The public has a broad appreciation for the importance of science and what it's meant over many decades to our success as a nation.

Having said that, I really believe that the role of scientists and the scientific method is something that should be not only celebrated but used more broadly throughout our society. That is one of the things we've got to advocate for.

You’ve proposed creating a Science Readiness Reserve to give science a more direct role in society and public policy. Could you elaborate?

Creating a Science Readiness Reserve is an idea that we have put forth with Avi Loeb, a professor at Harvard. The thought is that in the midst of crisis—in this case, COVID-19—it's an opportunity to develop potentially new institutions to address problems when we’re faced with an emergency. The National Science Foundation and the National Science Board, for example, were established in the aftermath of World War II. The charter was to mobilize the scientific community in the context of peacetime, not in the context of war. And yet, the idea of a Science Readiness Reserve does draw from a military context—using periods of calm to prepare for future emergencies we may need to confront. There's also the notion of professionals on active duty, supplemented by a standing army of reserves that you can mobilize when needed.

How could we do that with scientific researchers across a broad range of disciplines? Perhaps in times of calm we can prepare for crises with low probability but potentially huge impact—like the next pandemic, the emergence of antibiotic resistance emergence or the drastic consequences of global warming.

We’ve already seen a potential model for this approach in the recent creation of the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium. This is a public-private partnership, where we have mobilized the supercomputing capacity of the United States in the search for new treatments and ultimately a vaccine for the coronavirus. We’re tapping a capacity that resides in universities, in the private sector and in the national labs—and we're coordinating them creatively in the context of an emergency.

You were a founder of the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium. Is that a good model for how the Science Readiness Reserve could work?

Yes. The consortium, as a response to the pandemic, can provide an example of collaboration across a broad variety of institutions.

It includes companies that are normally competitors in the private sector—like IBM, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and HP and others—along with the federal government in the form of institutions like NASA and the different national laboratories under the Department of Energy, as well as many universities. Without any large contracts or grants, these organizations have come together to share resources, expedite the scientific proposals submitted and match them to the best resources.

The consortium can be a role model—in the creativity and the speed with which it was launched and the way that it's being managed through a collaborative fashion. We're focused on the outcome, which is to make a difference against the pandemic. That’s what unites us and lets us set aside all the other typical constraints. And it’s an example of what’s possible when there is a will, when there's leadership and the desire to do things differently.

IBM, of course, is a for-profit company. How do you assure IBM’s CEO, board and shareholders that collaborating with industry competitors in efforts like the Science Readiness Reserve can be good for IBM’s business?

When we collaborate across industry, there are different reasons why different participants may choose to come together. Sometimes it's economic opportunity. We've done that very successfully, for example, in the field of semiconductors, where the cost of developing the technology was so prohibitive that it made sense to engage in pre-competitive consortia-like models. All of us would co-invest to create the base technology, and then everybody could go out and specialize and compete on their own. But there was a layer of sharing investment that made sense.

Look at the world of open source as an example. Our acquisition of Red Hat is illustrative of what can be achieved by mobilizing millions of developers and making open source contributions, and then making enterprise-robust solutions as a consequence of doing that. So, I think that this is just the way of the future, to innovate through collaboration and partnership.

And if you look at an institution like IBM, we serve many stakeholders. We serve our shareholders, our employees, our communities in which we operate. So we have to make progress across all of those dimensions.

We cannot be successful as an institution if our society is not successful. It's so apparent in the context of a pandemic, that without a collaborative approach to problem-solving, it is not possible to have a vibrant economy and have vibrant institutions within it.

Sometimes you collaborate out of economic necessity, sometimes you do it because of a crisis. What both have in common is the power of joining forces—of bringing communities together, accelerating scientific discovery and creating value for the benefit of all.

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