KAIST 50th Anniversary Summit: “Universities as Engines of Change”

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Thank you, Professor Park, for that kind introduction. It is an honor to join today’s other panelists. And a special thank-you to President Shin for inviting me to be part of this important event. I am delighted to wish KAIST a very happy 50th anniversary!

MIT celebrated its 50th in 1911—It was an incredible moment of hope and promise. MIT came into being at the time of the American Civil War, with just ten faculty members. Fifty years later, it was the largest institution of its kind in the US. Now, KAIST stands at its 50-year milestone, looking toward exciting new frontiers. You have all the world before you, and many paths to explore as you grow, evolve and carry out your mission.

As I think about the future of KAIST, I reflect on the fact that universities have a distinctive responsibility to serve humanity. Unlike many other institutions in society, even as we prepare our students for their immediate futures, universities have a unique capacity to focus on the long term. Technical universities, especially, are also places where innovation and entrepreneurship thrive. And because we connect talented people and focus them together on important problems, the members of our communities are far more effective than they would be alone. I envision three vital roles for technical universities today, as symbolized by three things: an olive tree, an engine and a baseball team. (And I promise, by the end of my remarks, this will all make sense!)

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We all know that in addition to developing the strengths of our students, universities also cultivate knowledge itself, and that includes fundamental research—curiosity-driven research focused on advancing knowledge, rather than producing immediate practical applications. 

At KAIST and MIT, the science and technologies we work on are incredibly complex. And they can be very hard to explain. But when I talk to members of the general public, nothing is more difficult to explain than the importance of fundamental research! In effect, people say, “Shouldn’t you focus on something…more useful?” But of course, in the long run, fundamental research is the most useful thing we do.

Now, here’s the olive tree: If you plant an olive, you can grow an olive tree in a relatively short time. But for that olive tree to bear fruit, it can take years—even decades. For a long time, it is a beautiful tree…that may seem pretty “useless.” And yet there is simply no other way to get olives!

At places like KAIST and MIT, we cultivate research as carefully as one tends an olive tree—and, in the long run, the fruits of our efforts are breakthroughs in science and engineering with the potential to benefit humanity. 

Let me share a timely example. 

Countries around the world are now dealing with many obstacles to a rapid rollout of Covid-19 vaccines. But of course the fact that we have a vaccine at all—actually, multiple effective vaccines, and in record time—is a classic triumph of fundamental research.

One of the vaccines being used in the US is from Moderna, a company with headquarters just steps from MIT. Like the other firms that developed successful vaccines, Moderna has quickly become a household name. To the general public, its mRNA vaccine appeared to be an overnight success. But of course, it was in fact the fruit of decades of careful, deliberate, curiosity-driven research.

The Moderna vaccine can trace its roots back to the 1970s and a professor named Phil Sharp. Later, he would go on to receive the Nobel Prize. But at the time, he was simply a leading member of MIT’s Center for Cancer Research. Professor Sharp and his fundamental research team discovered RNA splicing and revealed the potential of mRNA. Right away, researchers saw that mRNA could be used to make vaccines. But producing one that was both effective and safe proved extremely difficult. Over time, most people just gave up.

But researchers who believed in mRNA’s potential persevered. They overcame one obstacle after another—including the risk that a vaccine would trigger a dangerous immune response. A solution to that problem was found in 2005 by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania. Eventually, after decades of research, the technology arrived at a point where vaccines could be created and tested, for diseases like influenza and the Zika virus. 

So when Covid-19 happened, companies like Moderna were ready.

With the genetic sequence of the virus made publicly available by scientists from China, it took two days for Moderna to create a vaccine that is 94.5 percent effective. Only two days. But, remember the olive tree! More than four decades of research went into building the platform for this incredible achievement.

The current pandemic has made us painfully aware that we can never know what lies around the corner. But I am convinced that a powerful way to prepare for the unknown is to support fundamental research—even when we are not equipped to see what practical good it may yield. 

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Now, to my second proposal for how today’s technical universities can best serve society.

In academic labs around the world, brilliant minds are at work on innovative ideas that do have practical applications, with obvious potential to benefit humanity. But some of the best ideas never make it to the marketplace. Some never make it out of the lab! These are what we call “tough tech” innovations: highly complex, slow to develop and expensive.

In 2016, MIT created an engine to help tough-tech companies move forward. Instead of converting energy into motion, our engine converts bold ideas into marketable technologies. We called this new organization—The Engine! 

The Engine is located just a few blocks from our campus, and it has already supported dozens of early-stage startups working on solutions to difficult, important problems for society. Most of these start-ups are led by researchers from Boston-area universities, including MIT. 

The Engine helps sustain and accelerate their progress by connecting them to long-term capital, specific expertise, specialized equipment and labs, and a network of like-minded entrepreneurs. One start-up is developing fast, accurate Covid-19 tests. Another is working on new software to make public transportation more reliable and efficient. And still another is committed to enabling safe, unlimited, carbon-free power through nuclear fusion…in 10 to 15 years.

From our own experience, and from observing similar projects at other institutions, we know that universities have the power to help move the best ideas rapidly from concept to impact. And I believe we have a responsibility to do so, to help deliver the greatest benefits to society.

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Finally, there is a third way for technical universities to serve the greater good: we can take full advantage of our ability to convene leaders across sectors to work toward a common goal.

This is not much different from building a winning baseball team. 

In baseball, managers and coaches seek to attract players with different strengths and then motivate them to work together for the win. In the same way, universities often have the power to convene leaders in other sectors, from industry to government, and help them combine their strengths and collaborate to drive rapid and meaningful change.

Universities like MIT and KAIST are playing for high stakes, like the sustainability of our civilization in the face of climate change. So let me offer a brand-new example: To build a team to help accelerate progress against climate change, last week we launched the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC).

The Consortium is made up of companies from a range of industries: construction to mining, transportation to textiles, real estate to pharmaceuticals. They have substantial carbon footprints and extensive supply chains. And they are highly motivated to work with MIT, and with each other, to pilot and deploy the solutions necessary to reach their own ambitious decarbonization commitments. 

Our goal: to build a cross-sector “baseball team” that can vastly accelerate the implementation of large-scale, real-world solutions across many sectors, to help meet the global climate emergency, in time to make a meaningful difference.

The global crises we face today are so complex, and so urgent, that we must address them from every possible angle. If universities continue to plant the olive trees of fundamental research, keep the engine of innovation running, and unite and inspire committed global teams to solve the hardest problems, I am confident that we can play a decisive role in creating a better, more sustainable future.