Progress and Preeminence—or Not

A month earlier, IUP Physics Department Chair and University Professor Devki Talwar was an honored guest scientist in Allahabad, India (home of his alma mater, Allahabad University), at the First Science Conclave with Nobel Laureates and Eminent Scientists, sponsored by the Indian Institute of Information Technology. An IUP faculty member for nearly two decades, he answered questions posed by IUP Magazine. Photo: Keith Boyer

Why was this conclave historic?

The conclave was attended by more than a thousand students, teachers, research scholars, engineers, and technologists from India and abroad. It provided a rare opportunity for the “best young talents” across India to interact one-on-one with six Nobel laureates and eminent scientists from around the world. The scientific program of the conclave comprised interdisciplinary platforms, discussions, lectures, seminars, and popular talks presented by the Nobel laureates, as well as by eminent scientists. It reflected current scientific topics and dealt with new developments in different fields. This unique format provided a forum and opportunities for the exchange of knowledge.

What does such a gathering mean for the U.S.?

The number of bright students opting for science as a career in the U.S is on the decline. If this trend continues, the U.S. will lose its supremacy in the science and technology fields. These fields are closely linked aspects in the progress of humankind—their study, development, and research have helped us gain knowledge about the complexities of nature. The advancements of science and technology in the twentieth century provided great impetus and paved the path to many brilliant inventions, ranging from computers to telecommunications to space explorations to household appliances to medicine. Many of these proved essential for the overall advancement of humankind.

In the last seven decades, the U.S. has played a dominant role in the development of science and technology. In 2006, the National Research Council reported that the U.S. is slipping in its leadership. Many nations around the world (especially India and China) now believe there is no way that the U.S. will retain its dominance in technological leadership.

What factors will dictate dominance?

In the current global society, there are several countries that have the chance to compete and gain the economic edge over the U.S. One of the critical factors that will shape benefits of the economic rewards to any nation will be determined by the involvement of that nation’s vast number of talented science graduates and by the strong, visionary, national, and academic leadership of that country.

What specifically might other countries be doing?

The government of India has recently promised to increase science and technology budgets to 2 percent of the gross domestic product and will place its highest emphasis on making a career in science attractive to young students—especially those from rural India. It was in this context that the IIIT, Allahabad, organized the December conclave, which was a great success. It provided a great deal of inspiration and motivation to students, along with a boost to India’s ongoing efforts to enrich science and technology education, research, and development.

In photos you brought back from the conclave, Indian science students seemed to react to Nobel laureates as though they were rock stars. Would this not be the case in the U.S.?

There is no doubt that in the U.S. we have a lot of young bright and talented students.

What we need is to attract some of them early on to the right path, teach them the right kind of science, develop in them the right attitude, inspire and keep them motivated, and make sure they do not lose their creativity. Partnerships among families, school districts, community organizations, businesses, and universities are necessary to fulfill this vision of science education. In college, we have the obligation to engage students in meaningful research projects— this improves students’ likelihoods to pursue higher degrees, such as the M.S. and Ph.D.

Do you observe a certain lack of sizzle in U.S. science education?

Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once said that “an experiment is the highest court of appeal in science. A science experiment,” he said, “really implies the need for abundant curiosity, free and wild thinking, considerable time and patience, the necessary paraphernalia, and on top of all, no fear of going wrong or breaking equipment or wasting material.” It’s unfortunate that in the U.S., many of us teaching in schools and colleges are shying away from conducting complex science experiments. It’s partly because of the lack of time, equipment, and money, but most important are the worries about running afoul of health and safety regulations and engendering lawsuits.

These are some of the reasons why many of the science teachers in schools and colleges avoid the hullabaloo of experiments. They conduct a few practical classes and do demonstrations to stay safely within the prescribed time limits. The fun is obviously taken out of science, and innovation and creativity are shown the door.

What did you present at the conclave?

I presented two one-hour talks covering my research on “Novel Infrared Detectors” and also gave a popular talk on “Nanotechnology: Its Impact on Medicine for Curing Cancer.” Interestingly, the British chemist Professor Harold Kroto, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize with American physicist Professor Richard Smalley (who died in 2005) for discovering “Carbon Nano Fullerene,” was in the audience at the conclave along with five other Nobel laureates.

The highlight of my talk, applauded by the audience, was a video presentation about John Kanzius of Erie and his most exciting recent invention for treating cancer-infected animals. Mr. Kanzius, who died in February 2009 at the age of sixty-four, had no professional degrees and held only a technical certificate from the former Allegheny Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. Before retiring, he owned Jet Broadcasting, Inc., which operated radio and television stations. John never pondered a cancer treatment until he himself was diagnosed, six years ago, with b-cell leukemia.

As a patient at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Mr. Kanzius witnessed the ill effects chemotherapy and radiation had on him and his fellow patients (including Professor Richard Smalley), as well as on many young kids. A few months later, he used his expertise in radio waves and his own savings of $200,000 to invent a “radio frequency machine” that used carbon nanoparticles given to him by Professor Smalley.

Dr. Steven Curley, professor in Surgical Oncology at M.D. Anderson, and Dr. David Geller, codirector of the UPMC Liver Cancer Center in Pittsburgh, are excited about the Kanzius cancer therapy. They both believe that John’s cancer treatment is going to be one of the greatest recent innovations and are waiting for approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to use John’s machine in cancer therapy on humans. The encouraging preliminary results on animals have given many humans hope; unfortunately, the inventor himself was never able to benefit from his invention as a curative cancer treatment.

Clearly, we have the talent, determination, and the will for invention. With proper training, support, and guidance we can restore the U.S. as a world leader in science and technology.

For five consecutive years, federal investment in science and technology has fallen, stalling endeavor and leading to despondency among America’s scientists. Clearly, President Obama realizes that the nations that succeed in the highly competitive world economy are those that foster technological advances and nurture intellectual strength. In universities, we must expect similar vision and commitment for science education from our academic leaders.