The Impact of Science on Society and its Importance in Fostering Tomorrow's Innovators
As we navigate the complexities of the modern world, it is crucial to recognise and encourage scientific talent. At Visma Connect, we believe that pursuing scientific knowledge not only unravels the mysteries of the universe but also holds the key to solving some of the practical issues we face daily. As a company, we are committed to advancing knowledge and innovation because it helps us do our job and because we recognise the pivotal role that science and scientific societies play in advancing society.
To delve deeper into the importance of science for society and the need to recognise and foster scientific talent, we interviewed Prof. Ad IJzerman, the Academic Secretary for STEM and Medicine of the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities (in Dutch: the Koninklijke Hollandsche Maatschappij der Wetenschappen, KHMW for short). Prof. IJzerman shed some light on the unique role that societies like the KHMW play in the evolving landscape of scientific exploration and their part in bridging the gap between academia and various sectors of society.
During the interview, Prof. IJzerman reminisced about the origins of learned societies, highlighting the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras as catalysts for their emergence. He also noted that it’s important to remember that science has professionalised over the years. Famously, Albert Einstein had a day job as a patent clerk, while Hendrik Lorentz worked as a teacher for part of his career, hence, at that time, it felt like there was a deeper connection between science and society, as opposed to now, when it has been mainly relegated to deeper exploration in universities.
In the case of the KHMW, its inception in 1752 occurred in response to economic challenges in the Netherlands, showcasing the pragmatic view of science as a transformative force. It began with a call for solutions to improve the economics of the city of Haarlem, its surroundings, and the threat of the sea, with a golden medal serving as both recognition and a means to garner financial support for ground-breaking research.
Since then, we have come a long way, and support for such societies has evolved. The KHMW has around 1000 members: 500 academics and 500 representatives from different sectors of society. It is greatly supported by companies such as Visma Connect and other stakeholders who sponsor their activities and continuously advocate for the tradition of recognising and honouring scientific achievement.
Science in Action: The Role of Artificial Intelligence
The interview took us to scientific research, where Prof. IJzerman noted the emergence of artificial intelligence as a transformative development in scientific research. For example, in Medicinal Chemistry, his field of interest. Over the last two decades, the sheer influx of data has allowed for a new approach to conducting research: computational drug discovery. The availability of data and the use of AI and machine learning provide an opportunity to speed up the time to market new drugs by simulating molecules, harnessing and combining previous research.
A notable success story unfolds as one of Prof. IJzerman’s colleagues, initially trained as a PhD student, now is a professor spearheading new drug discovery. By developing a sophisticated program that combines machine learning and evolutionary algorithms, he can generate innovative ideas for new molecules based on existing data.
“This type of research showcases the remarkable potential for ground-breaking discoveries in drug research. The sheer number of data when it comes to drug research has grown enormously, so it makes sense to use that data and try and exploit it for the future research of medicine,” Prof. IJzerman noted. “Since the existing amount of data is so large, no human being can mine all that information. Now, we can find more possible combinations of molecules and targets in our body. I am impressed with what machine learning, evolutionary algorithms, et cetera can do for us in this and other fields.”
Despite initial hesitations, integrating artificial intelligence into this scientific landscape is not just a trend but a pervasive and revolutionary force, reshaping the future of drug discovery.
Recognising Artificial Intelligence as a Transformative Ally
In the Netherlands, AI is certainly being recognised. Eight universities participating in the Young Talent Encouragement Awards for AI (in Dutch: Jong Talent Aanmoedigingsprijzen voor AI) of the KHMW offer Bachelor Programs related to artificial intelligence. Within these bachelor programs, there's always extensive room for academic education, in which ethics questions are integrated into the study profile.
Prof. IJzerman underscored the remarkable talents emerging from these efforts, emphasising the importance of fostering the next generation of scientific minds. “We award the best bachelor students who just started their first year. That's where organisations like Visma Connect support us: by helping us award students who do very well in artificial intelligence. We encourage them to pursue excellence in their already promising scientific careers, and we motivate them to continue their good work. The talent that emerges when organising the awards is quite remarkable,” he added.
The gender diversity among the AI award winners reflects a commitment to inclusivity. Whereas in particular sciences, such as physics and mathematics, there still seems to be an underrepresentation of female students, that is certainly not the case in the artificial intelligence field. Prof. IJzerman is positive that these numbers will only continue increasing positively in years to come. “We need more young people interested in science, young people, who actually can make a difference in where we're heading as a society,” he continued.
Reflecting on the progress that has been made, it is crucial to acknowledge that the best possible knowledge now serves as a foundation for future exploration. To highlight this, Prof. IJzerman quotes Sir Isaac Newton, “Today’s scientists stand on the shoulders of the giants that preceded them. The pursuit of understanding often leads to discovering new phenomena. However, a persistent challenge lies in convincing the general public that what we have currently is the best possible understanding, that this understanding will change with the advancement of science, but that it is still valid. Communicating this is very difficult and partially explains the rise of scepticism and distrust in science. That’s why I am so happy with a new initiative by Minister Dijkgraaf for a national centre for science communication.”
In a world that often demands quick answers, fostering a culture that values thoughtful consideration and scepticism is vital. As we navigate the complexities of scientific discovery, embracing doubt becomes a strength, a driving force behind the credibility and integrity of our collective pursuit of knowledge.
“Doubt and hesitation are not signs of weakness but indispensable elements of scientific progress,” Prof. IJzerman said, “For many people, hesitation and doubt are a sign of weakness, but when it comes to science, they are a good thing. Most of the time, if you have the time, please think slowly. Hesitate and be doubtful. Ultimately, raising those questions can lead to new, significant discoveries that go beyond human limitations and frontiers.”
About Prof. Ad IJzerman
Prof Ad IJzerman is the Academic Secretary for STEM and Medicine of the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities (in Dutch: KHMW, www.khmw.nl). The KHMW is the eldest learned society in the Netherlands and was established in Haarlem in 1752 as a proponent of the Enlightenment. Today, it hosts some 1000 Dutch scientists and representatives from society, such as CEOs, museum directors, mayors, etc. One of the Society’s responsibilities is awarding prizes and incentives to young students in all scientific disciplines, for which many juries are constituted and supported by Prof. IJzerman.
In his professional life, Ad is an emeritus professor of medicinal chemistry at Leiden University, The Netherlands. There, he led a large team working in the domain of drug discovery, both experimentally and computationally. With respect to the latter, artificial intelligence/machine learning are key approaches to mining the many medicine-related data that are available in the public domain. Ad won many prizes for his scientific work, including the 2020 Nauta Award for Medicinal Chemistry and Chemical Biology from the European Federation of Medicinal Chemistry.
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