HKUST-THE Asia Universities Summit

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Collaborate to innovate

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 July, 2016, 5:20pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 July, 2016, 5:24pm

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Increased collaboration between universities in Asia with their counterparts in other parts of the world would be invaluable for sharing knowledge and skills, and drawing on different perspectives to solve shared problems, according to the president of the world's number one ranked higher education institute.

Speaking at the Asia Universities Summit, jointly presented by The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) and Times Higher Education, Prof Thomas F Rosenbaum, President of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) highlighted a number of reasons why collaboration between universities produces strategic advantages. “There is a strong line of reasoning for multilateral collaboration to innovate and tap into skills and resources to solve problems that affect all of mankind,” noted Rosenbaum who added that given the rapid advances in research and investment into higher education in Asia, especially in places such as Hong Kong, the motivation for collaboration becomes even stronger.

Describing his vision for the 21st century, the theme of his presentation, Rosenbaum said he believed collaborative research across borders and disciplines brought about important scientific breakthroughs and innovations, as well as addressing social issues and driving economic development and productivity.

Highlighting the benefits of collaboration, Rosenbaum gave the example of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project, which on 14 September 2015 detected gravitational waves that passed through earth, predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916 as a consequence of his general theory of relativity, that gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space and time produced by violent events such as the collision of two black holes. “Here was an event that took place 1.3 billion years ago, that required, ingenuity, patience and lots of cooperation,” Rosenbaum explained to the audience the LIGO project was funded by the National Science Foundation of the United States, conceived, built, and operated by Caltech and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but also involved thousands of scientists and higher education institutions from around the world. “It was a crazy idea, first spoken about at Caltech more than forty years ago that measuring gravitational-waves could be possible, and because of the commitment to tackling a big challenge, it has been achieved,” said Rosenbaum.

Rosenbaum also suggested that with determination and commitment, there is no reason why the Caltech-type education model could not be replicated in Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia.  “The financing is perhaps the easiest, while the challenge is to ensure students have an intense research learning experience in a culture that inspires them to want to investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology and become creative members of society,” said Rosenbaum.

He explained to the audience he was including HKUST president Prof Tony F Chan, who  received his Bachelor of Science and Master’s degrees in Engineering from Caltech and fellow summit speaker  Secretary for Innovation and Technology, Mr Nicholas W Yang, who received his Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and Applied Mathematics from Caltech when he said that one of the things that Caltech does best is preparing people to go out to take on positions of leadership and ask the big and important questions.

Holding the number one spot in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the past five years, Caltech is home to approximately 300 professorial faculties, about 600 research scholars and about 2,000 students. “Because of our size, we can take advantage of the interactions between people who are unrestricted by science and engineering disciplinary boundaries,” explained Rosenbaum.

With a mission to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education, Rosenbaum stressed the goal is to find the right balance to focus resources and energy on problems that are considered the most important. He said this meant that Caltech was obliged to be interdisciplinary in its mode of operation. “There is a lot of cross-fertilisation and people do a lot of talking with each other about the areas they are working on,” Rosenbaum said. When it comes to hiring faculty, Rosenbaum said the Institution did its selecting carefully and then provided its people with everything they needed to succeed.

During Caltech’s 125-year history, there has been 57 recipients of the US National Medal of Science and 32 Nobel laureates among its faculty and alumni including Theodore Von Kármán who developed the principles that made jet flight possible, Linus Pauling who determined the nature of the chemical bond, and Charles Richter who created a logarithmic scale for the magnitude of earthquakes. Richard Feynman, considered one of the most original thinkers of the 20th century, also spent the better part of his preeminent career at Caltech.

Earlier this year, Caltech biochemical engineer Frances H Arnold became the first female to be awarded the 2016 Millennium Technology Prize in recognition of her discoveries that launched the field of ‘directed evolution’, which mimics natural evolution to create new and better proteins in the laboratory.