For Francisco González, President of the BBVA Foundation, “knowledge is the wellspring of our individual and collective opportunities, our main evolutionary resource, and our one solution” to present and emerging challenges. The winners in this seventh edition exemplify the value of basic knowledge and the optimism that comes from the transformative power of knowledge in such varied domains as health, the environment, the technological revolution, world hunger and artistic innovation. The Frontiers Awards recognize advances in areas congruent with the knowledge map of the late 20th century and the present day.
23 June, 2015
Knowledge is the best means we have to confront the central challenges of the present and near-term future: from halting climate change or ensuring the preservation of the natural environment to revolutionizing the treatment of devastating diseases, designing more effective social and economic policies or exploiting the full potential of the Internet, the technology that defines our age. This is the message emerging from the presentation ceremony of the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, held today in the Marqués de Salamanca Palace, Madrid.
Francisco González, President of the BBVA Foundation, and Emilio Lora-Tamayo, President of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), handed over the awards in this seventh edition at an event that welcomed numerous representatives of the scientific and artistic communities, members of the diplomatic corps and personalities from the worlds of business and culture.
BBVA Foundation President Francisco González stressed that “knowledge is the wellspring of our individual and collective opportunities. Increasing the breadth and depth of our understanding is not only of value in itself, it is also vital for our shared future. That is the message we wish to convey to society with these Frontiers of Knowledge awards, distinguishing the authors of outstanding contributions and, by extension, paying tribute to the whole community of scientists and creative practitioners.”
González continued by saying that knowledge is a sine qua non to resolve the central challenges of this first quarter of the twenty-first century. “Knowledge in the broadest sense, extending from the social sciences that shed light on individual attitudes and decisions – still a pivotal factor, however global the problem – to the creation of specific technologies. Knowledge is our main evolutionary resource, and our one solution.”
The awards in this seventh edition go to Stephen Buchwald, for discovering catalytic routes of key importance in the industrial development of new drugs and agricultural compounds; Tony Hunter, Joseph Schlessinger and Charles Sawyers, for opening the door to personalized anti-cancer therapies; David Tilman, for scientifically establishing the value of biodiversity; Leonard Kleinrock, for theoretical and technological contributions that laid the foundations of the Internet; Richard Blundell and David Card, for elucidating aspects of human behavior with a vital bearing on economic development; Richard Alley, for reconstructing past climate and climate changes through his reading of the ice record; the NGO Helen Keller International, for improving the nutritional intake of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide with innovative methods including the Homestead Food Production program; and composer György Kurtág, for creating a distinctive musical voice of rare expressive intensity, drawing on the best literary and musical traditions.
'The encouragement of curiosity as a tool to unlock the basic knowledge that leads eventually to applications, albeit by often tortuous or unplanned routes.” Francisco González also referred to “optimism and the need to hold onto a sense of wonderment.'
For the BBVA Foundation President, not only their specific contributions but also the life stories of Frontiers laureates exemplify “the qualities that underpin knowledge generation and can therefore help us to promote it.” Among them, “the fostering of freedom of thought and productive teamwork” and “the encouragement of curiosity as a tool to unlock the basic knowledge that leads eventually to applications, albeit by often tortuous or unplanned routes.” Francisco González also referred to “optimism and the need to hold onto a sense of wonderment.”
Emilio Lora-Tamayo, President of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), emphasized that the Frontiers juries adopt “the professional standards of scientific evaluators” and apply the most stringent metrics in reaching their decisions. “It is not we who are honoring the prize winners here tonight,” he added, “it is they who honor us, and all of society, with their excellence, honesty and dedication.”
An optimistic vision
The laureates echoed González’s message in their own acceptance speeches. David Tilman, winner in Ecology and Conservation Biology, remarked that “we are the only species that searches for knowledge, cherishes its discovery, and teaches it to subsequent generations.” “We have sufficient knowledge,” he continued, “to meet current and future needs without further harming the environment. What we lack is the wisdom to do so. We need a new ethic that balances our needs for food, energy and a livable environment, values efficiency, and assures that future generations have lives as rich and full as those that we are privileged to live today.”
For Climate Change laureate Richard Alley, “we are the first generation that knows how to build an economical, sustainable energy system to power everyone on the planet almost forever. And, we have a window of opportunity before the climate changes from fossil-fuel burning become large and highly damaging. We can use solid science to find paths that help the economy and the environment.”
The road to a revolutionary technology
Leonard Kleinrock, winner in the Information and Communication Technologies category, turned to his own life to plot a timeline for the kind of research that delivers technological breakthroughs. “In the first phase, there is the recognition of a need, a desire, a dream, if you will. In my case this took place when, as an MIT graduate student in 1959, I recognized that computers would eventually need to communicate with each other, even though the technology was not there at the time.” The second step is “the expression of a vision to fulfill that dream. Early on, rare individuals had articulated a vision of what would be the Internet. One of the first to do so was Nicola Tesla, in 1908.”
In the third phase, “one must conduct the basic science and mathematics to give substance to that dream. In my case, as a PhD graduate student in 1962, I established a mathematical theory of computer networks, set up the analytical model, carried out the mathematical solution, and articulated the underlying principles that made the technology so effective.” Finally, in the fourth phase, “the technology must be implemented and deployed. Surprisingly, once the theory was laid out and proven, the ideas were ridiculed and dismissed outright by the entrenched networking industry. It took years before the fundamental ideas were implemented into the practical realization we now call the Internet.”
No applications without basic science
Stephen Buchwald, Basic Sciences laureate, reflected that “many feel that support for research should be focused exclusively on endeavors that have specific practical applications in mind. I can tell you that the work for which I am principally receiving this award would have never been carried out under that funding scenario. History has shown that it is exceedingly difficult to predict which scientific discoveries will lead to breakthroughs. Moreover, so often it is the scientist following his or her own intellectual curiosity whose finding leads to a breakthrough. Basic curiosity-driven research and societal and economic progress are inextricably linked.”
Tony Hunter, who read the acceptance speech on his own behalf and that of his Biomedicine co-winners Charles Sawyers and Joseph Schlessinger, recalled how “like many scientific discoveries, there was an element of serendipity in the way that I stumbled on tyrosine phosphorylation,” adding that “it is very satisfying that a discovery made over 35 years ago has led to the development of a treatment for such a devastating disease as cancer.”
Richard Blundell and David Card, who shared the award in Economics, Finance and Management, looked back on what first drew them to their field of study: “Understanding what policies work and how better policies can be designed is a key part of our motivation. Our aim has been to uncover the causal relationships that underpin economic behavior and allow us to make credible statements about the impact of minimum wages, of welfare changes, of tax policies, of education reforms and the like.”
Kathy Spahn, the President of Helen Keller International, referred back to the words of the NGO’s founder “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much,” in recounting the achievements of last year: “The distribution of vitamin A supplements to 54 million children under five; provision of micronutrient-fortified staple foods to 290 million people throughout Africa; and well over one million families in Africa and Asia growing and eating more nutritious food thanks to our Homestead Food Production program.”
György Kurtág, Contemporary Music laureate, expressed his thanks to all concerned for “awarding me this astounding prize” and remarked that he was currently “working on my [first] opera: Fin de partie, based on Samuel Beckett’s Endgame.”
Awards congruent with the knowledge map of the 21st century
The BBVA Foundation established its Frontiers of Knowledge Awards in 2008 to recognize the authors of outstanding contributions and radical advances in a broad range of scientific and technological areas characteristic of our times. It is supported in this enterprise by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), Spain’s premiere public organization for multidisciplinary research.
The awards’ eight categories respond to the knowledge map of the early 21st century, including some of the key global challenges of our times: Ecology and Conservation Biology, Climate Change, Information and Communication Technologies and Development Cooperation. These stand alongside the classic categories of Basic Sciences, Biomedicine and Economics, Finance and Management. Finally, the award family is completed by Contemporary Music, an art at the leading edge of cultural innovation, where Spain is home to a wide and talented community of authors, conductors and performers.
All awardees were presented with an artwork by sculptor Blanca Muñoz (Madrid, 1963), based on a series of spirals that represent the progress and interrelation of scientific disciplines. The spiral, in the words of the author, “is the optimal solution for growth in a limited space as well as the best way to represent continuity.”
Helen Keller International takes the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Development Cooperation for its family-led agricultural programs, of proven effectiveness in the fight against malnutrition
24 February, 2015
The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Biomedicine goes to Tony Hunter, Joseph Schlessinger and Charles Sawyers for opening the door to the personalized treatment of cancer
27 January, 2015
The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Basic Sciences goes to Stephen Buchwald for creating more efficient, stable, broad-spectrum catalysts of importance in drug discovery
20 January, 2015