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Three Questions for George Whitesides

The Harvard chemist talks about the problem of solving problems.
September 3, 2012

Harvard professor George Whitesides has spent his career solving problems in science and industry—he cofounded the pharmaceutical giant Genzyme, and he’s the world’s most cited living chemist. And yet Whitesides often reflects as much on problems that haven’t been solved as on his successes. He recently spoke to Technology Review’s Conor Myhrvold on the challenge of problem solving, and on how better communication between scientists and the general public could help address some of the many problems worth solving.

Technology Review: What’s the problem you have most wanted to solve and haven’t been able to?

Whitesides: There’s an intellectual problem, which is the origin of life. The origin of life has the characteristic that there’s something in there as a chemist, which I just don’t understand. I don’t understand how you go from a system that’s random chemicals to something that becomes, in a sense, a Darwinian set of reactions that are getting more complicated spontaneously. I just don’t understand how that works. So that’s a scientific problem.

There’s a second class of problem, which is how do you do university-based research in a such a way and in such an environment that it eventually gets to be real? And that’s the problem that we’re working on with paper diagnostics (see “TR10: Paper Diagnostics”) and diagnostics for all and the entire low-cost diagnostics area (see “Lab-on-a-Chip Made of Paper” and “Diagnosing Disease with Paper and Tape”). And it’s not that we don’t know how to do it, but we haven’t done it yet. And universities in the United States are incredibly strong, developed industry is incredibly strong, but there’s really a gap between the two. And understanding how to get over that is a separate class of problem, which is important and to which we don’t know the answer.

And then there’s a third class of problem which is local and personal, which is that I’m in the business of teaching. And the question is, how do you find the connection between individual students and what they want to do in such a fashion that they end up being good scientists. What’s necessary to do that?

What problems are being neglected?

I don’t have strong feelings about that. There are so many problems in the world, from the origin of life or why proteins fold and how life works or how the mind works, those are intellectual problems. And then there are problems like, how can you make lots of clean water? And how can you store energy? And how do we get an energy balance for things and how do we deal with the development of an economic base for the developing world? And how do you think about global health? There are so many interesting problems that there’s no shortage of problems of every possible sort.

Often the problems that are least worked on are the problems that have the characteristic that they’re important, but they don’t seem to be something which is the biggest or fastest or most profitable. And if it’s really important but it’s none of the above, then who does it?

So water, for example. The number of people who really work creatively on new sources of water isn’t enormously large for the reason that I don’t think people have very many ideas on how to get fundamentally new sources of water. We sort of think we’ve thought that problem through. I hope that’s not true. But in every area where there’s something that looks like a major change, it’s usually because the field collectively had thought that it had thought about all the answers and had sort of given up, and then somebody came along with a new approach. And we certainly are going to need it for water.

Could there be an incentive structure, besides profitability, that would encourage researchers to address some of these problems?  

You could certainly imagine structures that might do that, but it’s always tricky to predict outcomes because any incentive that you have will be gamed in various ways. Universities are supposedly set up to incentivize, that is to reward, creativity, good teaching, daring—intellectual daring running counter to convention. Corporations are basically set up to, legally, to return. Stockholders put in money, and the corporation is supposed to give back more money.

Is there some way of putting together a structure that would put all of that together and for sure achieve a socially desirable objective—would you even know what a socially desirable objective was once you saw one? I’m not smart enough to be able to answer that question.

But the idea of having people who are taking money being able to explain why they’re doing what they’re doing is not a bad idea. The idea that publically funded science should have some measure of “I’m doing it because, and this is where it might end up being useful,” strikes me as being perfectly reasonable. I think it’ll actually make for better science, too, because it’s very easy in academic science to end up working on projects that are just little extensions of previously known stuff, and that’s sort of a waste of time.

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