Susan Hockfield, former president of MIT and professor of neuroscience
Robert Armstrong: From MIT, this is the Energy Initiative. I’m Robert Armstrong. Welcome to the podcast. Today we’re talking to Susan Hockfield, former president of MIT and author of the book, The Age of Living Machines. Susan, welcome to the show.
Susan Hockfield: It’s great to be here, Bob.
RA: Susan, it’s a pleasure to have you with us. You and I go back a long time. You founded the MIT Energy Initiative back in the late 2000s—2007, I believe, we got our official start. I started at the beginning as deputy director of MITEI and then when Ernie Moniz was the original director, went off to Washington as secretary of energy in 2013, I took over as director. I’d like to talk to you about your background a little bit. But before that, I’d like to jump into the topic of today’s session, which is the new book you’ve written on the convergence of biology and engineering. It’s a really interesting topic and idea. But I want to start with a question about the one of the characters in the story, Thomas Robert Malthus, who as I understand it, was a late 18th century English cleric. Tell us a little bit about the role of an English cleric from that era in an age of living machines.
SH: It’s a great question, Bob. As they say, history may not repeat itself but it rhymes, and it certainly rhymes with Malthus. The Reverend Malthus wrote an essay on the principle of population and explained the dire situation that England and Western Europe was in, unbeknownst to most people in 1798. The rate of population growth was faster than the rate of growth in agricultural productivity. He did a very interesting demographic analysis where he discovered that this happens again and again through history, and it always ends badly. When these two rates get out of sync, it always ends the same way: war, famine, pestilence, epidemics, and the population gets adjusted by these quite unsavory means back to a size that agriculture can support. He was sounding a warning cry, “The end is near.” He had certain, shall we say, views about how to control population other than allowing this kind of standard cycle to play itself out. I won’t go into those. It ended up that while the demography was right, he was wrong about that moment in history. Because while he predicted that the rate of agricultural productivity would be insufficient to feed the people, he was ignorant of two very important technologies. There may have been others. These were agricultural technologies that were going to change the pace of food production. The first was for field crop rotation, which allowed farmers to use the crop of acres they had much more productively. The second was a brilliant new technology that was discovered by those voyagers, those seafarers, who were sailing the seas of the world. You’ll remember you learned about this in fourth grade as I did. Of course, we learned in our social studies books that they were looking for jewels and gold and tea and tobacco and all kinds of exotic things. They were looking for those exotic things, but what they found as they sailed the seas of the world, were islands that of course were uninhabited by people but densely inhabited by birds. Many of these islands actually couldn’t reveal their rocky base because they were covered in bird guano. As a chemical engineer, you’ll know what bird guano is really good for. It’s full of nitrogen. It’s a great fertilizer. So many of those seafarers that we have read about were actually bringing back bird guano—bird poop—and established a fantastic trade in fertilizer. Between the fertilizer and the new ways of using their crops, agricultural productivity soared and disaster was averted. This idea that we face these challenges as a civilization, as a world population, which we do today, and that it’s all going to end in tears, or worse, is not necessarily true. Time and again, human civilization has gotten out of a Malthusian dilemma of their day, like the one we have today—and I’ll talk about that in a second—through new technologies. Right now, we have just over seven and a half billion people on the planet. It’s anticipated that there will be close to 10 billion by 2050. Already, we’re not doing so well at feeding our population, at providing clean water for our population, providing energy in a sustainable way for our population, or providing the health and the health care that our people need. How the heck are we going to onboard another couple of billion people and not end up in the Malthusian dilemma of war, pestilence, epidemics? I’m a very, very strong believer in the role of technology in averting these otherwise cyclical disasters. The technology of the 21st century that I think will be as transformative as the technologies of the 20th century. The technologies of the 21st century are emerging very rapidly out of a convergence of biology with engineering that promise technologies that will provide the resources that we need in a sustainable way.
RA: When you became president of MIT, you had two major themes that you announced in your inaugural speech. One of those was convergence of life, science, and engineering. Another was energy, which you conveyed as bringing all of MIT’s disciplines together to address this global energy challenge. One of the things I found fascinating about your book was the way that you wove the story around people, people’s stories. One of the interesting people that started the book, again in the early chapters, was Angela Belcher, a professor of biological engineering. Could you tell us a little bit about Angela Belcher, why you picked her for this story, and what has she done that’s really caught your attention?
SH: Each of the chapters in the book takes on a different one of these big challenges. The first chapter is about energy, of course. By the way, I have to offer one minor correction. You introduced me by saying that I founded the Energy Initiative. Oh, no. You and Ernie founded the Energy Initiative along with a small army of faculty and students who gathered around this idea that MIT could do more, should be doing more, to change the energy equation for the world. Among the most spectacular gatherings of people and ideas that I’ve ever seen in my life. I give all credit to you and Ernie for founding and bringing everyone together. So, energy became a passion of mine. One of the things I learned very early on in my energy journey at MIT was that the rate limiting technology for the alternative energies that we love—wind and solar—actually is not the methodologies for collecting energy from land or collecting energy from the sun. Although we’re doing that with greater and greater efficiency and more and more economically. The rate limiting technology is energy storage. Because sometimes the wind doesn’t blow, sometimes the sun doesn’t shine, and our energy needs don’t go away when the sources of those energies are not with us. Energy storage is the rate limiting technology and energy storage means batteries. It’s very interesting because in the first 200 years after Volta invented the first battery, batteries were mostly the same. When I got to MIT and started talking to people who worked in energy storage, I discovered, much to my astonishment, a couple of dozen entirely new battery technologies, new energy storage technologies, that all the world was saying, “We don’t know any better way to store energy than we have been doing for the last 200 years.” It was really inspiring. Angela Belcher was one of the battery pioneers that I got to know. I thought it was important that the book is written for a general audience, not for the scientists and engineers who are deeply immersed in these kinds of issues. There are a lot of people out there who want to know what we do, are desperate to understand whether there is hope or not for a sustainable future for energy or health care or for water. They have a very hard time finding their way into the worlds that we inhabit. One way to tell stories is to tell the stories of the people who actually are developing these technologies. It was so fun for me because in digging in to each of the technologies that are profiled… I could only talk about one or two for each of the topics. I learned so much about the people. Their histories would have brought them to the kinds of work that they did. What mysterious twists and turns of fate had gotten them to actually develop the technologies that they did. For some of them, the difficulties in actually scaling up from something that works in the lab to something that might work in the marketplace. At MIT it was very hard to choose a battery technology because there were so many, but I did decide on Angie’s. Angie captures the theme of the book, which could otherwise be described as nature’s genius. One of the people I interviewed for the book said, “We could bust our brains trying to design a better way to filter water. Why don’t we just use nature’s genius? Nature filters water all the time. Why don’t we just use that?” Angie had the same kind of view of the power of nature. She went to school at UC Santa Barbara and used to walk the beach. She loved walking the beach. I love walking the beach too, but I do it with less purpose than Angie did. The thing she loved about walking the beach was the abalone shell. When she does it, she holds an abalone shell up in the air and she said, “This is a remarkable feat of engineering.” The abalone shell is strong, it’s lightweight, it resists the incursions that would otherwise capture sea snails that make the shells. When the sea snail dies, the shell disintegrates into its components. The abalone builds the seashells simply out of the components that it’s living in, in the ocean. When the shell disintegrates, it doesn’t contaminate its world. It provides the elements for the next sea snail or the sea creature to build its shell. Angie was puzzled. She said, “If abalone can build the technologies they need without polluting their world, why can’t we build the technologies we need without polluting our world?” Angie has turned to all kinds of biological organisms to ask them to build the technologies that we need. One of the examples that I offer in the book is her virus-based batteries. She asked a question about viruses. Viruses’ job is to organize organic material. Viruses will bind to the cells in your lungs and give you a respiratory infection. But they’re not designed to bind to the kinds of things that we need to build batteries. Angie set about trying to persuade viruses to evolve batteries, to manipulate viruses to bind to the inorganic materials of batteries, the metals. She developed—using a lab strain of virus, the M13 virus—she developed a number of variants that can organize the materials of batteries. She has one strain of virus that will build an anode and another strain of virus that will build a cathode and she builds batteries that don’t really look like much because she packages them in coin cell casing so they look just like the coin cell batteries that you’d buy that would have the standard kind of components. The most important thing is that standard battery manufacturing technology today is really unsustainable. We imagine that batteries are going to be our solution, not the way they’re built today. Battery fabrication requires enormous energy consumption and results in a lot of toxic byproducts. This is not sustainable. Angie’s viruses build batteries at room temperature and without toxic byproducts. Much like the abalone builds and gets rid of its shell. The batteries, these virus-based batteries that Angie has built, have the same charged density as state-of-the-art lithium ion batteries. They can go through as many charge, discharge, and recharge cycles as state-of-the-art lithium batteries. And as I said, they make their batteries in a more sustainable way. But Angie is one of these minds that is never rest. I came back from one of my book talks with a question that someone had raised. She said to me, “But we’re not making lithium ion batteries anymore in the lab. The batteries we’re making now are made without lithium and without cobalt.” Which, of course, you and I both know, that is the next challenge in really having sustainable energy, which is batteries that are made sustainably and are not using precious metals for which the supply will be exhausted or become very expensive.
RA: That’s a really interesting introduction into how you can use biology and engineering together to tackle a really important problem in the energy space. Namely, how do you make renewables like wind and solar dispatchable through use of storage? Energy also ties, of course, to water and to food. We need a lot of energy to grow today’s crops. That’s a really important human need. We need energy to purify water, another big challenge we face globally. We also need a lot of water for energy production. You weave that into the book in a really interesting way. I wonder if we could talk a little bit about examples from water and from food, which are clearly big problems and ones that these new approaches through biology look quite promising for.
SH: The water problem is fascinating. We’ve been, as humans, we’ve been purifying water for as long as the historical record reveals. There’s a drawing from some Egyptian tomb, about 1500 BC, showing water purification through filtration. I think Socrates talked about distillation. We have these two methods that we’ve been using for literally thousands of years. Distillation and filtration. They work. They’re really inefficient. Distillation takes a lot of heat. We have to put a lot of energy in to get clean water out the other side. And filtration, as a chemical engineer, one of the big areas of research and technical development in chemical engineering has been building filters for water. We’re not that good at it. It’s still very, very hard work. In “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, “Water, water everywhere, but nary a drop to drink.” We have this increasingly difficult problem. Already there are cities around the world and people who don’t have access to clean water. One of the things that I highlight in these stories about the people and the project is how much serendipity is involved. To fast forward to the point of the water chapter, is that we filter water all the time. All of our cells regulate the intake and outtake of water. Once people understood that cells conveyed material into them and out of them through particular protein pores called channels, they thought, “Of course, there must be a water channel.” They looked for it for a couple decades and couldn’t find one. They said, “Fine, water goes through the cell membrane, just by diffusion.” Quite by accident, a marvelous hematologist, Peter Agre, was looking for a red blood cell protein. It’s a protein that causes Rh disease, which clinically isn’t such a problem, at least not in the developed world because we have ways of mitigating the effects of Rh disease. No one knew what the RH protein was, so he went in search of it. He purified a lot of red blood cells and cut their membranes, got the proteins out of them, and purified what he thought was the Rh protein. When he went to test it, he discovered he hadn’t gotten the Rh protein at all, but something entirely different that he couldn’t identify. Now, when you’re in the lab in that situation, you know what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to go back and do it again and do it again. Do it until you get the protein you want. But Peter is a really interesting man. He just couldn’t get this protein out of his mind. He was talking to a colleague about it and his colleague said, “I wonder if you purified the water channel.” Peter said, “That can’t be. It doesn’t exist.” He said, “Maybe so.” He couldn’t get that out of his mind and so he moved his whole lab. Rather than doing what he was supposed to be doing—studying a blood protein, he was hematologist, right?—to figuring out what he had discovered. End of the story, of course, he had found the water channel, which he named aquaporin. Beautiful name. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for that amazing discovery. He and his lab opened all kinds of new technical avenues to explain what the water channel was and how it worked. It’s a beautiful, beautiful little machine. A biophysicist, who at that time was in Chicago, saw the paper, read the paper that Peter and his colleagues had written about the atomic structure of the water channel. This biophysicist had an amazing idea. He said, “If our cells use that protein to filter water, maybe we could use it to purify water.” He now has a company called Aquaporin A/S outside of Copenhagen. I visited them. They have water filters that are built using the aquaporin protein. He’s the one who said, “I could bust my brain trying to figure out what structure to build to purify water, but we’ll just use nature’s genius.” Aquaporin water filters are in homes in Asia already, as home-based water filtration. Their ambition is to scale up to commercial, big scale commercial use. They’re much more efficient than our standard water filters. Of course, scale up, as you know well, is tough. Whether they can scale up bio processing manufacturing technology to prepare the amount of desalinated water that we need has yet to be seen. But there’s a lot of promise. Maybe the first really new water filtration technology that’s out there. Very promising, very exciting.
RA: Scaling up is a really interesting challenge, as you mentioned. That’s one where the engineers get together with scientists to figure out, how can we make these water purifiers in large quantities? Another area where scale up is critically important is food. Clearly, as population grows, in order for us to meet food needs with the land we have available, we’re going to have to increase productivity. You tell really interesting stories of how genetic modification of foods can come to the aid there in providing more productivity from the land we have. Can you tell us a little bit about that story?
SH: This is a fascinating story and probably TMI, it was the most different story from anything I had experience with. I learned a lot. That was one of the fun things about writing the book, is how much I learned. I went out to the Danforth Plant Science Center outside of St. Louis to visit them. One of the places where new plant technologies are developed. Jim Carrington, who’s the director out there, told me that with the predicted population growth—and not just the numbers but also increased affluence, we would hope—it was anticipated that if we use just our current food production technologies, we would need landmass, additional landmass, to farm additional landmass, the size of South America and Africa combined. Well, that’s just not happening. So again, this is a Malthusian dilemma unless we can find some technology that will help us get out of it. The other thing I learned is how astonishingly more productive our agricultural land is today than it’s ever been. Corn production, I think, in the early part of the 20th century was 50 bushels an acre. It’s now 150 bushels an acre. A lot of it through genetic engineering. A lot of it through better farm practices. We’re better at conserving water, we’re better at moderating the use of fertilizers. All of these good things. An ear of corn that you and I buy during the summer today looks a lot different from the ear of corn our mothers brought back from the farmers market when we were kids. This is all really interesting. If you can identify a particular gene that can make a crop pest-resistant or resist an herbicide, that’s all well and good. But what we’re really interested in at the end of the day is not gene A, gene B, gene C by itself. We’re interested in how all of these genes interplay. We’ve made progress in identifying individual genes but it’s low work. The best tool for finding new variants is actually going back to the gene pool and looking at phenotype. Phenotype is the expression of the genotype. It’s, does your corn have yellow kernels or white kernels? Is it sweet? Is it bitter? Does it ripen rapidly or ripen slowly? Our ancestors used cultivation techniques, picking the best products of a current crop season to plant the next year and selecting the best ones and planting the next year. The natural variation in genome for plant is vast, vast, and has all kinds of possibilities for making better crops paired with our more directed gene editing technologies. But the problem with a phenotype approach is you end up with thousands of plants that you’ve got to follow and you’ve got to follow them from when you put them in the ground to when they start to sprout, you’ve got to follow them in drought or in excess water, you’ve got to follow them with pesticides. It’s a very long process and we’re just not that good at keeping track of all of those individual features by ourselves. But this is where computation comes to the fore. Out of the Danforth Plant Science Center and is a very, very big collaboration well beyond the Danforth. There are new ways of phenotyping crops. You can plant a gigantic field of crops and monitor, each essentially different from the next, monitor their history in terms of what the parents were of that particular seed, that particular plant, follow them through the growing season to find the plants that actually produce the product that you want. It’s hard work but there’s a treasure trove of possibility within the world’s genome. The computational tools that we have at hand now are incredibly powerful. Being able to not just monitor a plant from when it starts to when it finishes, but to watch the leaf size, the leaf color, and how a particular plant responds to all of the variation that it will encounter through its life.
RA: It was interesting in the book to read about not just the computation but the mechanical engineering. These automated, almost factories, for growing new types of plants and following them under different conditions, and then moving out into the field and using drone technology with sophisticated new camera technology to follow how they’re behaving. What’s the expressed phenotype in these new species? You really hammer the point, I think very appropriately, of all the different disciplines that have to be brought together to make progress in that important area. A place where freshwater needs, for food needs, is particularly acute is in the developing world. One of your initiatives at MIT was the Tata Center. I don’t know if you recall the Center that you started through discussions with Ratan Tata on how do we take all of this interesting science and technology we have at a place like MIT, but bring that to bear on developing countries like India, like many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, how can we do that in a way that respects the particular difficulties, price points, policies, human resources, and so on there. I don’t know if you were very aware as you wrote the book about this interesting parallel between the Tata Center and what it does in the developing countries, but many of these same things come up there in energy, water, food, health. I’d be interested in your thoughts on that.
SH: Again, Bob, you’re giving me more credit than I’m due. I certainly have the fondest memories of the development of the Tata Center, starting with our relationship with Ratan Tata, just an inspirational figure. One of the reasons I love that particular part of MIT so much, is a caricature of people who translate their discoveries into products for the market places. This kind of cartoon view that people are in it for the money and they only want to develop their products if they can make a million dollars. That is just so wrong. Because the passion for our faculty and our students and our alumni, for making a difference for people in the most abject circumstances, not the people in the best circumstances, always came through. You’ve seen our small army of students who every summer pack up their backpack and head off to some part of the developing world to work with them. To figure out how to solve the pressing problems that consigned them and their children to lives of poverty. It’s so inspirational to have the Tata Center providing the possibility that MIT know-how and MIT students and faculty might be able to solve some of these incredibly pressing problems. In the food chapter, I mention the cassava virus program also out of the Danforth. I have to tell you, it just it makes me tear up every time I think about it, because there are subsistence crops that we’ve never heard of. You and I have never eaten cassava. Or maybe you have, I haven’t. But the poorest people in the world survive on cassava. It’s a crop that grows in water-poor circumstances. It’s not a great crop but it provides most of the nutrients for most of the poorest people in the world. And yet there’s a virus that is going to take out cassava, much like the papaya virus was going to decimate papaya around the world. A number of scientists and engineers have developed a variant of cassava that resists this virus and will save the lives of millions of people. And yet it’s a genetically modified organism, a GMO. There are people who are so opposed to GMO that they have provided unbelievable resistance to getting this lifesaving crop into the countries and to the people who need it. That, for me, was such an important story to tell. How we have saved millions and millions of people by the polio vaccine. When you count the ways that technology has not just saved the day but saved lives and brought people out of abject poverty to a place where their possibilities are much greater than they would otherwise have been. So, bravo for the Tata Center. You get all the credit for that. I remember being in Delhi with you, or Mumbai, I think, with you.
RA: Well, you get the credit for that one, I think. For getting that started, like so many other things. Let me go to the title of the book. I find the title interesting, a really captivating way to point to what you’re looking at here with biology and engineering. How did it come to you to call this The Age of Living Machines?
SH: Like many things, certainly in my life, I rarely take credit. A lot of ideas come together and it becomes kind of a crazy quilt. I wanted to call the book Nature’s Genius once I heard that from Peter Holme Jensen at Aquaporin. But my publisher and my agent said, “No one’s going to have any idea what you mean.” I said, “But they’ll read the book and understand it.” They said, “They’re not going to read the book and understand it.” It was an idea that came out of many, many conversations. Truth be told, it’s not entirely accurate. But the cartoon of the title is that the technologies of the 20th century, the digital technologies that have changed our lives so dramatically, our cell phones, our computers, you name it, every little widget we have, are built with physics. Our technologies have been built with physics. They came out of discoveries around 1900 of what the parts list of physics was. J. J. Thomson discovered the electron in 1897. I’m making a long story short, but engineers picked up those electrons, or the idea of those electrons, and started the electronics industry. There wasn’t an electronics industry in 1900. The parts list of physics gave rise to the electronics industry and then its successors, the computer information industries, changed lives dramatically. Biology didn’t have a parts list then but now it does. Starting about 1945, 1950. Physicists turned biologists started to develop this parts list for biology. Now we have technologies that are built with the biology parts list. Using the aquaporin protein to make a water filter. That’s a great example of the age of living machines. Now, truth be told, those proteins aren’t living but they were produced by living things. Angie’s batteries, produced with viruses. The viruses aren’t living in the batteries. The idea is to use the intelligence of biology, nature’s genius, to build things. We have new materials. I met someone recently who was actually, just yesterday, whose father graduated from MIT in metallurgy. Metallurgy was the happening place in the earlier part of the 20th century. Because figuring out all the kinds of different metals that could make new kinds of alloys to do all kinds of important things that we needed done. That was very important. Now, as you know, our materials science and engineering department doesn’t just do metals. There’s a lot of biology in there because those engineers have figured out that they can pick the product of living things, whether it’s genes or proteins or lipid rafts. Any number of products of living things can be used to build technologies of tomorrow. That’s what it’s about, the age of living machines, in a sense. However, as you say, as you see, it’s a little bit of a shortcut.
RA: But a great captivating title for the book.
SH: Thank you. I’m glad you think so.
RA: When I first saw the title and first saw the book, I thought, “Susan Hockfield is the perfect person to write this book.” Given your research interests before you came to MIT and your work on bringing faculties from all parts of the Institute together on important problems. But as I read your book, I was fascinated by the story of you as a young child. I thought you were a budding young engineer then because you were taking things apart and putting them back together. Do you want to say something about what got you excited about this and what young people that they might learn from your experience?
SH: It’s very funny that you said you thought I was on the way to being an engineer based on my early experience of taking everything apart. I thought everyone did that. Only I came to learn that not everyone left a trail of bits behind them as they walked through life. One of our educational challenges is that very, very few school children are exposed to engineering. You learn physics, you learn biology, you learn science, you learn math, but you don’t learn engineering. It’s a shame because engineering is science and action. I think we could probably attract more people into this marvelous way of inventing the future if we did use engineering in the curriculum early on. I didn’t know really anything about engineering until I became dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences at Yale. We didn’t have a dean of the faculty so I had oversight of the science and engineering departments in the faculty of arts and sciences. I remember talking to the chair of the mechanical engineering department. He was telling me what they were doing. It was like my mouth fell open. I said, “Mitch, I could have been an engineer.” It wasn’t until then that I understood what engineering really meant in a very deep way. I could have been engineer, so I didn’t feel that coming to MIT would be as alien as many people thought, as MIT’s first biologist to serve as president. There’s a lot of engineering in biology. Then, of course, once I got here, people give me a lot of credit for encouraging disciplines to crisscross. Of course, everyone’s worried about it. Our structures, our academic structures, are based on a disciplinary model. People saw already the disciplines were crisscrossing and they were concerned that our young faculty coming up would not survive the tenure process if they weren’t closely affiliated with a particular discipline. I’ll tell you, one of my strategies to learn about MIT was to invite the recently tenured faculty to breakfast at the president’s house. Once a month, I would have anywhere between 12 and 20 people around the table who had gotten tenure in the last couple of years. I knew who was invited. I knew what departments they were from. But as we went around the table and each of them told me what they worked on. I couldn’t have told you what department they were in. They were all these crazy mash up of disciplines. I stopped worrying about the cross disciplinary problem. But I also realized that MIT, in a unique way, could play on this incredible strength of bringing people together across disciplines or, frankly, just encouraging something that was happening. One of my too often use clichés was, “Can we turn these footpaths into super highways?” That was really the theme of the Energy Initiative deeply. Can we bring people together from all of the disciplines across the Institute to accelerate progress against this very serious problem of providing enough energy to sustain the lifestyles we want, and people coming out of poverty want, without creating a crisis for the planet that will destroy all of us?
RA: The idea of transforming universities, academic institutions, so that we structurally can collaborate across disciplines more easily is one of the points you make very well in the end of your book. You also point to some important functions of the federal government, or governments generally, in fostering this kind of convergence of disciplines and attacking profound problems that we have. Would you share with us a little bit of your thinking there on what’s the role of government in this?
SH: I think people at MIT who have watched technology evolution understand just how hard it is, what hard work it is. We fondly call the kinds of physical object building innovation as “tough tech”. It is really tough. It’s hardware versus software. It takes a lot of money and a lot of time to get that right. I often make a kind of sick joke about new pharmaceuticals, which is, you can’t put out version 1.0 that doesn’t work, call it back, and put out version 2.0 because by then people are dead. Doesn’t happen on a social media app. Put it out, put it back, and start out, start again. The turnaround time, it’s just very, very hard. People have, nations have recognized for a long time that new technologies which build new companies that build new industries require the seed corn of invention. No company can afford to do that if it’s going to take 20 years and four or five billion dollars. No company can, particularly in the current environment where short term-ism has kind of, in my mind, corrupted our economic system. Companies can’t afford to make those investments and they no longer do. There used to be a few companies that actually did invest in the foundation of new technologies, new science. It’s up to the government to fund the early starts where you’re going to have more misses than hits, and then make those hits available to companies to grow them into money-making technologies. Following World War II, Vannevar Bush, one of our great heroes from MIT, our dean of engineering, who led the science and technology development effort for World War II. Following the war, following any war, most nations that have overextended their coffers by a lot, have finished the war in a debt environment, pull back on those investments and the countries, even the countries that win, fall into very deep depressions that take a while to work their way out. Bush recommended to FDR that the United States not do that after World War II. Instead of pulling back, we should double down and invest just as heavily in technologies for peace. Use what we had learned by building technologies for war in building technologies for peace. Brilliant, brilliant concept and it did work. It got a slow start but it did work. The idea was that the federal government would fund generously lots of fundamental research and set it up so that companies could pick up those products and develop, as he said, the new companies, the new industries, the new economy. Which we did. The 20th century American miracle, which was really quite a spectacular success. Following Bush’s recommendation, as I said, it was a little slow getting started. We reached a peak in federal funding of research in the mid-1960s when it was about 2% of GDP. Today, we’re down at about .7% or .8% of GDP. Not as large a national commitment to the seed corn for new industries. It’s still a lot of money. One might argue that we’re still spending lots of money and that’s enough. In the second half of the 20th century, following World War II, the United States was essentially in it by ourselves. Because the nations that might have competed were busy rebuilding their countries, following war that was waged on their soil. We had the privilege of not having to invest in those kinds of things. Instead, we invested in the future. Now things are different. Countries around the world want to play in the space that the United States pioneered in the second half of the 20th century. I’ll tell you a funny story. As president of MIT, not a week went by when someone from some country somewhere in the world was in my office, basically saying, “We get how the United States did this in the second half of the 20th century. We’re going to do it too. We know that we need an MIT-like university. Please help us to develop the infrastructure of this technology transformation.” You could have the point of view that all the new technologies that we need to defeat Malthus again will come out of somewhere and that’s just fine. I’m of a very, very different opinion. I think the United States needs to play as hard as we’ve ever played before. Because we have unique abilities, unique capabilities, a unique cultural foundation that allow us to do this with a kind of purpose and joy that other nations are trying very hard to replicate. If you look at investments in research as a percent of GDP, the United States is now surpassed by a number of countries. Whether China has surpassed us this week or next week or last month or next month, I don’t know, but China has certainly made the commitment to develop the kind of innovation-based economy the United States did in the 20th century. I think as a nation, we need to decide who we want to be, what we want to build in the 21st century, and make appropriate financial and other kinds of economic commitments to getting that done.
RA: That’s a nice set of contributors there. We have universities, which you’ve worked on. How do you get different disciplines together? The federal government. You were heavily involved with talking to the government about what their role should be and could be in this venture we’re on. And the role of biology, taking advantage of what nature has done. All of those experiments over billions of years. I thank you for putting all of that into a fascinating story in The Age of Living Machines.
SH: Thank you, Bob. I have to say, it was an incredibly joyful, joy-filled, and exciting adventure to help MIT figure out how to deliver more on the resources that we have. You were a very, very important part of it. Thank you for that.
RA: Thank you.
RA: Show notes and links for this episode are at energy.mit.edu/podcast. Share your questions, comments, and show ideas with us on Twitter @mitenergy, and subscribe and review us wherever you get your podcasts. From the MIT Energy Initiative, I’m Robert Armstrong. Thanks for listening.
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