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Jakarta Post

Nobel winner calls for more research to drive progress

  • Tama Salim and Asila Jalil

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, February 9, 2017   /  03:47 pm
Nobel winner calls for more research to drive progress Rare encounter: Nobel laureate Sheldon Lee Glashow (right) listens to questions posed by a Binus University student dueing a Q&A session at the university in Jakarta on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2017. (JP/Tama Salim) (JP/Tama Salim)

The question of whether countries should invest in scientific research comes down to political will, although history has shown that basic science drives technological progress, a Nobel Prize winner has argued.

During a rare appearance at Binus University in Jakarta, American particle physicist Sheldon Lee Glashow challenged developing countries like Indonesia to decide whether they wanted to be on the side of progress.

“It’s a question of the givers and the takers; there are some countries that accept the fruits of science but do not contribute to them, and there are other countries that produce the fruits of science and export them to the rest of the world,” the Nobel laureate said on Wednesday.

“[But] the question for your country is: ‘What kind of country do you want to be? A giver or a taker?’ And that’s a political decision.”

During his keynote speech, Glashow, who shared the 1979 Nobel Prize for Physics with fellow scientists Steven Weinberg and Abdus Salam, listed numerous examples of how scientific discoveries were important for human progress, regardless of whether they were incidental or accidental.

Sometimes technological progress is made because man has found an urgent need for it, as was the case with solar panels, he said, adding that it took scientists 115 years to make use of the photovoltaic process.

Glashow, the Higgins professor of physics (emeritus) at Harvard University, made the same case for nuclear power, weighing up its positive and negative aspects.

“Nuclear bombs are a threat, yes. [...] There is always a danger that some irresponsible political leader will set off a nuclear catastrophe, and that would be a very bad thing,” he posited. “But on the other hand, nuclear power is a possible way — maybe the only possible way — in which we can avert the disaster of climate change.”

Glashow’s argument raised the question of whether Indonesia should do more to combat climate change by committing additional resources to scientific research and development.

In terms of climate change, Indonesia has made efforts to address the issue in recent years. It has, for instance, adopted the Paris Agreement on climate change, which carries an obligation to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The adoption was followed by several action plans to combat climate change, such as the National Action Plan on Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions (RAN GRK) and the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC).

Meanwhile, local media reports have criticized state funding for research as meager, standing at around 0.2 percent (Rp 17 trillion) of gross domestic product (GDP). The allocation is the lowest in ASEAN, according to World Bank figures.

Glashow is among Nobel laureates visiting the region as part of the 6th ASEAN event series titled “Bridges — Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace” hosted by the International Peace Foundation.

From January to March, a string of Bridges events are being held in Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, involving Nobel laureates for peace, physics, chemistry, medicine and economics.

Jose Manuel Barroso, who received a Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the European Union, delivered a keynote speech on global governance in Jakarta on Jan. 25.

The next speaker is Nobel laureate for economics, Robert F. Engle III, who will deliver speeches in Surabaya on Feb. 20 and in Jakarta on Feb. 22.

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