Science, society need ‘grand challenges’ more than ever, LTU speaker says

SOUTHFIELD—Give scientists a challenge and they’re likely to solve it–and that usually winds up improving the human condition.

Issuing “grand challenges” in a wide variety of scientific disciplines has a distinguished history going back more centuries, and often as not leads to major advances, according to Tuesday night’s speaker at Lawrence Technological University’s annual Walker L. Cisler Lecture.

Gilbert Omenn. University of Michigan photo.

Gilbert Omenn, Shapiro distinguished professor at the University of Michigan and director of UM’s Center for Computational Medicine, covered advances in sciences from physics to astronomy to space exploration to mental health to the social sciences to chemistry to environmental sciences. But he concentrated much of his hour-long talk on the life sciences.

“The 20th Century is often called the century of physics,” he said. “The 21st is the century of biology.”

Beginning with the decoding of the human genome in 2001, prizes and competitions have produced gigantic advances in genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics, and data science. That’s leading, Omenn said, to “P4 medicine”—medical care that is predictive, personalized, preventive, and participatory.

And yet we still have to get past people not taking advantage of the science we’ve known for a long time.

“We spend a lot of money to learn new things people can do to improve their health, but we have known things that improve health for decades that people aren’t following,” Omenn said. “Half the people who have high blood pressure don’t know it, and half of those who do know it don’t take their medicine.” Similarly, there are marvelous (and expensive) technologies to restart the human heart, but the most effective way to avoid those problems is cutting cholesterol, and improving diet and exercise habits—and, in the event of a cardiac arrest, plain old CPR.

Omenn said climate science is another “gigantic challenge” of the current age, with huge needs in everything from sustainable chemistry to cutting carbon emissions to dealing with fresh water availability and sea level rise. And he said the companies and institutions causing many climate problems aren’t forced to pay for their fair share of the remediation.

Challenges to the scientific community from federal research agencies, the United Nations, and private foundations, have led to major advances in reducing poverty, improving health and longevity, as well as in social science concerns such as promoting racial and gender equality. Examples include the X Prize competitions for 100-mpg cars and reusable spaceraft. Challenges date all the way back to England’s 1714 Longitude Act, searching for a way ships could determine their longitude, not just their latitude, using the primitive technology of the day. The competition was won by a clockmaker, not a scientist.

“Science performs best when it challenges conventional ideas,” he said. “Challenges organize work to accelerate toward major goals. They help tackle important problems related to energy, health, education, the environment, and national security. They help create the industries and jobs of the future.”

Omenn also advocated for major increases in federal funding for basic research, and for more interdisciplinary research between scientific and engineering disciplines.

In the question and answer session that followed Omenn’s talk, he said people often misinterpret scientific disagreement as a lack of knowledge or conviction, especially in an era of alleged experts on social media.

“People have a sense scientists are holding back or are wishy-washy,” he said. “You saw this early on in the pandemic, when we really didn’t know what was going on. The second problem is that you have people wilfully misinterpreting information.”

Omenn praised LTU for requiring many of its students to complete a research project on the Grand Challenges of the National Academy of Engineering. The project must be multidisciplinary, encourage entrepreneurship and multiculturalism, and exhibit a social consciousness of serving society.

Omenn’s research is focused on proteogenomics and bioinformatics of cancers. He has led the global Human Proteome Project for a decade. He previously worked on biochemical genetics of the brain, cancer prevention, health promotion, and disease prevention for older adults, and science and health policy. Omenn is author of more than 600 publications and has written or edited numerous books.

Omenn was a White House Fellow at the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Associate Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Office of Management and Budget, and President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He chaired the Presidential-Congressional Commission on Risk Assessment and Risk Management in the 1990s. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a fellow of the American College of Physicians and the AAAS. He earned a Bachelor of Arts from Princeton, a M.D. from Harvard, and a PhD in genetics from the University of Washington.

LTU’s annual Walker L. Cisler Lecture is dedicated to the improvement of science education, and is generously supported by the Holley Foundation in Cisler’s memory.

Well known for his leadership of the Detroit Edison Co. from 1954 to 1971, Walker L. Cisler, 1897-1994, enjoyed a career that spanned a lifetime of personal, professional, civic, and business accomplishments. As an international ambassador for the American electric utility industry, he worked closely with heads of state both here and abroad. As a tireless, dedicated humanitarian, he strived to improve the quality of life for people everywhere. Included in his resume: the rebuilding of the electric grid across Europe after World War II.

Lawrence Technological University,, is a private university founded in 1932 that offers nearly 100 programs through the doctoral level in its Colleges of Architecture and Design, Arts and Sciences, Business and Information Technology, and Engineering. PayScale lists Lawrence Tech among the nation’s top 11 percent of universities for the salaries of its graduates, and U.S. News and World Report lists it in the top tier of best Midwestern universities. Students benefit from small class sizes and a real-world, hands-on, “theory and practice” education with an emphasis on leadership. Activities on Lawrence Tech’s 107-acre campus include more than 60 student organizations and NAIA varsity sports.

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