Introductory Address to the First IAS General Meeting
(November 13th 2018)
Welcome to the first general meeting of Hong Kong Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in CityU. In this introductory statement, I would like first to recall the message that I have addressed to the CityU community when I have accepted to Chair IAS. I will then broaden this message by saying a few words about the intellectual environment of IAS, by describing the problems we, scientists, are facing in today’s world and by discussing what IAS can do to help solving these problems. This second part reflects my personal thoughts and could be an introduction to stimulating discussions between the fellows of IAS.
This university is committed to educate the leaders and managers who will contribute to shape the future of our world. To achieve this ambitious goal, it needs to offer to its students the best possible teaching and training. IAS in CityU intends to broaden the scope of the courses delivered by its regular faculty. IAS invites as fellows internationally recognized leaders who do their research and teach in areas not always covered by the regular syllabus of the various departments of the University. The IAS fellows are given the opportunity to pursue curiosity-driven research and to present the results of their studies to a diverse audience of students, postdocs and researchers coming from CityU and other universities of Hong Kong and Greater China.
The IAS fellows work in a wide spectrum of disciplines including mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, both in their fundamental and applied aspects. By the courses, the workshops and seminars it organizes, IAS has the ambition to convey the excitement of research to the academic world and beyond, to the society at large, through public lectures. It is indeed more than ever essential to spread the values of scientific knowledge, at a time when humanity faces many challenges that only science can solve.
When inaugurating IAS a couple of years ago, the CityU management had in mind the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study whose goal is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Like its famous model, IAS wants to be a place of specialized research, but also to provide an atmosphere open to intellectual exchange across disciplinary fields. Like the other institutes founded in the world to follow the Princeton model, IAS does not charge tuitions and does not deliver grades and diplomas, nor does it have large laboratories. It operates in symbiosis with its founding University and constitutes so to speak the window of CityU opened to the world.
It has been a honour for me to become an IAS fellow three years ago and its Chairman this year. I am particularly pleased of this appointment because I am coming from an institution, the Collège de France in Paris, which shares many of IAS values. One cannot say however that the Collège de France has been created to follow the Princeton’s example. It has indeed been founded in 1530, four hundred years before its American counterpart and will celebrate soon its half-millennium. Its latin motto is “Docet Omnia” which means “It teaches everything”. It carries forward the spiritual and intellectual values of the Renaissance, the same values which are supported by the Princeton Institute and the other institutions following its model throughout the world. The IAS of CityU has its place in this consortium of excellence. I am proud to be its Chairman and I am looking forward to participating in many exciting events sponsored by IAS in the years to come.
I referred above to the Renaissance as the time when the first institutions promoting the values of rational thinking and of the scientific method were created. We are also the heirs of the Enlightenment of the Seventeenth and Eighteen’s century, during which great philosophical ideas, the concepts of human rights and the rules of the modern economy have been elaborated. These values, concepts and principles have, in various forms, accompanied the development of the industrial revolution and the modern market system we are living in nowadays. These ideas have been born in Europe and then propagated towards the West in America and towards the East, notably to China. This country, adopting the laws of the global economy, has over the last few decades made gigantic progresses in science, technology and industry, bringing a large fraction of its population to the standards of living of the richest countries in the world. We are here in Hong Kong, a privileged place which has witnessed closely this fast development. Its history, mixing the influences from the West and the East, makes Hong Kong an ideal place to blend the values of the enlightenment with the Chinese traditional values and spirit of entrepreneurship. The IAS, because it brings to Hong Kong renown scholars coming from all parts of the world, must play an important role to promote this fruitful mixing of ideas to serve not only Hong Kong and China but beyond, the humanity as a whole.
The challenges which mankind faces in the near future are daunting. The climate change and the fast extinction of species which dramatically affects the planet’s biodiversity have been studied and precisely documented by scientists warning us that urgent action is needed to avoid a pending catastrophe in the decades to come. At the same time the world population keeps increasing at a quick pace, putting an ever heavier burden on the planet resources. A fast reduction of our dependency on fossil carbonated fuels accompanied by an overall reduction of our energy consumption is urgently required. New sources of abundant quality food must be found through a drastic improvement of agricultural methods. Access to clean water by depollution and desalinization has to be developed. Health issues are no less pressing with recurrent epidemics and resistance to antibiotics spreading out, at the same time that a large fraction of the world population still needs access to basic medical services.
These problems are complex and their solution often faces a deep contradiction. Economic growth seems to be the solution advocated by political leaders all over the world. As common wisdom goes, growth will produce more riches and the money thus generated will allow us to spend what is needed to alleviate poverty, to suppress famines, to extend health services and so on. This is the theory that the market is always right and, if left alone, will solve everything. But the fact is that an exponential economical growth will at the same time exhaust the planet and accelerate the destruction of our environment, thus increasing many problems instead of solving them.
To avoid this fundamental contradiction, we now need a new form of Enlightenment recognizing that the resources of the earth are limited and that the human rights cannot be sustained without protecting at the same time the planet’s rights. This new Enlightenment must also recognize that the main wealth of all nations is not their natural resources, which are unequally distributed and fast extinguishing, but the human brain resources which are abundant in all countries, potentially equally distributed and still largely underexploited. This means that education at all levels should be developed and made available to all. At the elementary level, it should instil the values of rational thinking, as opposed to irrational beliefs. In middle school and high school, it should teach the values of science and humanities to develop critical and imaginative minds, and at the University level, it should train the generation of scientists and humanists we need to meet the challenges I have just mentioned. In this new Enlightenment world, teachers should be valued as highly, if not even more highly than engineers, because they have to deal with the most valuable resources we have, the brains of our young people which are more precious than the materials that the engineers are dealing with.
In the new Enlightenment societies, basic science motivated by mere curiosity is essential because the technical solutions to our problems will come from technologies which most often, will emerge in a serendipitous way from basic discoveries. We all have a lot of examples in mind. The modern electronic and optical devices which have so profoundly changed our lives come from the understanding of quantum physics, which started as a purely intellectual and curiosity driven quest for finding out the laws of nature at a microscopic scale. Similarly, big therapeutic advances have come from blue sky discoveries made in biology and biogenetics by researchers who were curiosity driven and had no ideas of direct applications in mind. This will certainly go on in the future, in all fields, and the multidisciplinary character of IAS is a big asset to push science in the right direction.
Let me give only two examples which illustrate the importance of the kind of multidisciplinary approaches that IAS can help developing in Hong Kong. We need alternative sources of renewable non polluting energy. Solar cells, batteries storing electricity, wind mills are being developed for that. These devices require new materials. But material research is heavily energy consuming by itself. It does not help if the energy required to create the new energy producing devices is larger than or of the order of the energy they will eventually produce. Currently, 28% of our total energy consumption goes into material production, a quantity of the same order of magnitude as the energy we use for transportation. But we could do much better and Nature gives us clues for that. Natural materials with extraordinary mechanical properties such as spider web threads or sea animal shells are produced at low temperatures with very limited energy. To emulate these processes, biologically inspired chemistry, “chimie douce” as it is called in French or “soft chemistry”, is now developing very fast. This new kind of material science might help reducing our overall energy consumption and provide new devices for the production of renewable energy. It requires a collaborative research involving chemists, biologists and material scientists, fields which are all represented in IAS.
The other example I will take is artificial intelligence (AI). This new branch of computer science is based on the availability of high power computers able to store huge amounts of data of all kinds and to process these data with the help of multi layered learning algorithms. AI constitutes a huge advance in the digital revolution. AI machines now beat humans in all kind of games and will soon replace them in a wide spectrum of activities, such as car and truck driving or translation between languages, to take only a few examples. If quantum computers come of age, applying their capacities to AI problems might increase further the power of artificial intelligence and help solve complex problems such as synthesizing new materials with novel physical or chemical properties, or designing new molecules acting as drugs against specific diseases or else finding optimal ways to distribute electricity in complex grids. So called smart cities could be administrated with the help of AI methods, saving resources and improving the living conditions of large populations. To develop AI research, a multi-disciplinary approach is again required, with inputs coming from physicists, mathematicians and computer analysts, not to mention neuroscientists and psychologists who will have to study how artificial and human intelligence could coexist harmoniously in the future. The fellows of IAS have the wide expertise required to discuss these issues and to help CityU to develop research in this very important domain.
Finally, I think that IAS fellows can also play an important role at a moral and ethical level. Whatever our field is, we all know that good scientific research requires time and trust. Researchers, especially the young ones, should be given time to establish their research and freedom to choose their subject of investigation. Their work should be evaluated qualitatively, by analysing it in depth, over a reasonably long period of time and not merely quantitatively by counting the number of papers published each year. These papers should be as accurate as possible to make the reproduction of the results possible and of course no false or exaggerated claims should be made, not to mention plain cheating or plagiarism. This goes without saying, but in a world where competition is often taking precedence over collaboration, it is good to recall these fundamental rules of good behaviour, which are obeyed best in an institutional environment which values quality over quantity. In my own research, I have had to live through years of struggles and failures before getting important results. If I had been obliged to publish quickly and abundantly during these years, I would have been distracted form my track and I am sure that I would not have achieved what I have done. By describing and discussing their own research and sharing their experience with young scientists as well as by advising the management of CityU, the fellows of IAS have the duty of asserting the values of trust and patience against the often prevailing views that research should deliver results fast and be measured by the number of papers published in high citation index journals.
In summary, I think that IAS in CityU has an exhilarating role to play to promote the values of science in Hong Kong and greater China. I know that most of us are very busy and that we can only come here for a limited amount of time each year. But I think that this time will be very valuable if we use it to interact with the students, researchers and management of CityU, keeping in mind the ideas and the goals I have just exposed.
Chairman of IAS