Your Phone, Your Arm, a Mote of Dust

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Ensuring the future retains its capacity to amaze us.

By Amy Gutmann | Scientific research and discovery are a part of the great American tradition of opening new frontiers, and have been the business and focus of our national government from its very inception. From Clipper Ships to Conestoga Wagons to moon landings, our federal government has always supported and guided the exploration of new frontiers. Scientific exploration is simply the greatest of them all—and the most evident.

Consider your phone. The scale of data we now access every day, and the speeds at which it can be computed, are offering revolutionary new insights into the world around us. Vast information and the tools we use to process it fall under the rubric of Big Data. Researchers from across Penn are leveraging it in new and wholly unexpected ways.

A recent Penn study looked to see if Twitter messages could predict the prevalence of heart disease. Researchers from the School of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, and Wharton tracked expressions of negative emotion in random Twitter messages across 1,300 US counties, home to 88 percent of the country’s population. When they mapped their results onto instances of heart-disease mortality in the same counties over the same time period, a striking correlation emerged. Areas with greater instances of negative emotional language also had higher numbers of heart-disease deaths.

Researchers at Penn and beyond are now forecasting and tracking the spread of diseases like flu and Dengue fever based on a population’s online search habits. Wharton Dean Geoff Garrett has pointed to big data as a “sweet spot” for Wharton’s researchers, especially in programs such as our Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative. The potential for greater good through Big Data runs from healthcare to sustainability.

Against this backdrop we celebrate this year a timely anniversary. It has been 70 years since a bold and unprecedented proposal—made in the form of a routine report to the President of the United States—would become the blueprint for American science policy and the foundation of modern research universities like Penn. Engineer and inventor Vannevar Bush wrote the report, titled Science, the Endless Frontier, in the closing days of World War II.

Bush headed the wartime scientific agency that spearheaded revolutionary advances such as radar and the atomic bomb. He drew lessons from his experience that proved fundamentally important to our nation’s future. In particular, Bush presciently saw that our colleges and universities could serve as wellsprings of new knowledge and understanding in a world at peace. As he observed, “as long as they are vigorous and healthy and their scientists are free to pursue the truth wherever it may lead, there will be a flow of new scientific knowledge.”

Consider as evidence your arm. Some of us have on our arms a tiny scar, the enduring mark of our smallpox vaccine. Routine vaccination for smallpox ended almost four decades ago, in 1977, when the illness was eradicated. Like smallpox, there are many once-killer diseases that younger generations of Americans have never known or worried about. Yet on a global scale, the need for affordable and widely accessible vaccines is among our world’s most pressing problems. Roughly 1.5 million children worldwide die each year from diseases that are preventable with vaccines.

Here at Penn, researchers are working on vaccine innovations that could change that. Henry Daniell, a professor of biochemistry and director of translational research in our Dental School, has developed something of a green thumb at growing plants. That’s because he is doing pioneering work on green vaccines that address two key challenges in vaccinating the world: the cost of manufacturing and what is called the “cold chain” problem.

Our current methods for making vaccines are costly. Live vaccines require cold storage, a difficult problem in parts of the world where electricity supply is inconsistent or nonexistent. Daniell’s green vaccines are produced in plants that have been genetically engineered on a cellular level to combat preventable diseases. These plants are then freeze-dried, crushed into powder, and turned into ingestible capsules. The capsules do not require refrigeration. It is expected that they can be produced on a massive scale for less cost per unit than a tablet of aspirin.

Imagine: Cheap, universally accessible vaccines for polio, malaria, cholera, measles, and many other diseases. All growing in a state-of-the-art greenhouse at Penn’s new Pennovation Works. The frontiers of science are vast, and the road to discovery is unending.

But discovery, like freedom, is not for the faint of heart, for the summer soldier or the sunshine patriot. Discovery requires sustained national commitment. Support and funding must be consistent and continuing. This past year we saw thousands die and panic spread from Monrovia to the ports of New Jersey because of what we lacked: a viable Ebola vaccine. The National Institutes of Health has been working on Ebola vaccines since 2001. But as NIH Director Francis Collins observed recently, progress has been slowed by more than a decade of stagnating federal support for crucial research. Had that commitment not flagged, he said, “We probably would have had a vaccine in time for this.”

The fallout extends far beyond vaccines. When adjusted for inflation, the budget for NIH is actually $4.2 billion less than it was a decade ago. Other major sources of research funding, including the National Science Foundation, have fared little better. Federal support for basic and applied research, especially at research universities, has long been the single greatest driver of our national prosperity and health. But from 2005 to 2015, total federal support of research and development slipped from 1.02 percent of national Gross Domestic Product to just 0.75 percent.

To appreciate why this matters, we need to consider finally a mote of dust, symbol of a new age approaching. We have passed from the Industrial Age, through the Information Age, and are now entering the world of the very very small—the Age of Nanotechnology.

Our Singh Center for Nanotechnology is the stunning site for Penn’s interdisciplinary nanoscale work. Alternative energy, medical diagnostics and therapeutics, next generation wireless communications, and space-age industrial materials like something out of a science-fiction novel—these are the technologies that will transform our world.

A prominent example is graphene, a one-atom thick lattice of carbon atoms renowned for its unique electrical properties. Penn researchers are working on graphene-based biosensors that can detect multiple kinds of biomarkers at once—for example, to provide early diagnosis of cancer. They are also investigating how to exploit graphene’s potential to replace silicon in microchips and processors, with a proof-in-principle for making graphene into the fundamental building block of semiconductor devices. Replicated on an industrial scale, we might leapfrog to a new era in computing speed, size, and power.

Your phone, your arm, a mote of dust: the future retains its capacity to amaze us. Seventy years after Vannevar Bush’s landmark report, we have more reason than ever to celebrate our nation’s university research, at Penn and beyond. Truly, the frontier remains endless. All that we require—in these and so many other areas at the edge of understanding—is the renewed and resurgent national will to continue exploring.

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