Making innovation part of the university’s DNA
Following an intensive international search, eminent scientist, engineer and entrepreneur Prof Subra Suresh was appointed President of NTU, beginning his term on 1 January 2018. As the fourth president of a relatively young university in the era of the fourth industrial revolution, Prof Suresh calls his approach “Leadership 4.0”.
Nominated by former US President Barack Obama and unanimously endorsed to lead the National Science Foundation (NSF) from 2010 to 2013, Prof Suresh managed an annual budget of US$7 billion before moving on to take the helm of Carnegie Mellon University as President from 2013 to 2017.
Before serving as Director of the NSF, Prof Suresh was Dean of the School of Engineering and Vannevar Bush Professor of Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
As a successful researcher, academic and leader who straddles disciplinary boundaries, Prof Suresh brings a unique perspective to the running of one of the world’s top young universities. In this interview, he shares his vision for innovation at NTU and why remaining an active researcher makes him a better president.
What are your top priorities for research and innovation as President of NTU?
My top priority is to attract the best people, create an environment where they can pursue their best ideas, provide the infrastructure they need, and get out of the way. As the fourth president of NTU, I sometimes call this “Leadership 4.0”.
To attract the best people, you have to give them opportunities to succeed, but equally important is tolerating failure. To give people the freedom to explore their best ideas and to nurture young talent in particular, we launched the Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship. NTU’s Nanyang Assistant Professorship scheme is a similar mechanism to get talent from all over the world.
We also plan to leverage NTU’s strengths, in particular in areas like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and robotics for which NTU is now world-renowned. This year, we launched the NTU Institute of Science and Technology for Humanity (NISTH) that approaches the theme of AI in relation to ethics and governance. NISTH allows us to connect computer science, engineering and mathematics to other parts of the campus—from humanities, arts and social sciences to human behaviour, business and ethics.
What is your approach to developing a culture of innovation at NTU?
Innovation cannot be a mandate dictated from the top; it has to be part of the DNA of the place. NTU has moved up remarkably in a relatively short period of time, and it is more nimble than many of the more established universities around the world because of its relatively young age. We need to inculcate a culture of innovation while NTU is still in this youth or “start up” mode, so that in the long haul, the University will be on auto-pilot and doesn’t have to depend on its leadership to be reminded to reach for the stars.
How will you set the research direction for NTU?
We want faculty to be involved to decide the areas that they are passionate about and to compete successfully for various funding mechanisms available based on peer review. To establish strategic priorities for the University, we do this in an iterative process. Firstly, we ask the experts in the community which key areas will shape the next 20 years. From there, we get ideas from around and within those fields and from the faculty to decide which areas to pursue.
Oftentimes, we find that young people come up with the best ideas. For example, the NSF once gave two young people from Stanford University a fellowship to work on something called the page rank method. Those two people were Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and their work eventually led to Google.
Since the best ideas can come from unexpected corners, and not necessarily from the most celebrated people in the top institutions, we want to create a culture that is not hierarchical.
The next big idea could very well come from a relatively unknown young person working in a small laboratory.
What is your opinion on the ideal balance between basic and applied research?
There is a mountain of evidence that very good basic research can also invariably lead to tremendous societal impact. Though the NSF is the world’s largest funding agency in basic science and was not mandated to carry out applied work, it had huge impact on industry, funding most of the computer science education and research driving the US economy today and seed funding companies like Qualcomm and Symantec. The examples show that outstanding basic science will invariably have major applications.
Even if the applications are not valuable in an economic sense, their value to society in terms of art, culture and language can be quite profound. Take something like Fermat’s last theorem in mathematics, which was eventually solved by Andrew Wiles at Princeton University after many years of study supported by the NSF. What was the return on investment? It proved that we can push the boundaries of the human intellect and come up with a solution despite over 200 years of deadlock—a priceless achievement that is very valuable to demonstrate the power of human thought.
Tell us more about your own research and why it is important for you as the President to continue active research.
My primary job is to be president, but that doesn’t mean I should give up research. Research has been part of my DNA for several decades and I successfully pursued it in my previous roles as the head of NSF and president of another university. In fact, teaching and research is the bread and butter of a university.
Right now, I am studying the properties of cells from an engineering perspective as well as the properties of engineered materials. In the first area, we look at how human diseases such as cancer and hereditary blood disorders influence the properties of cells for diagnostics, therapeutics and drug efficacy assays.
In the field of materials science, we recently published a paper in Science that showed how diamonds, which are the hardest material in nature, can actually be bent at the nanoscale. This finding opens up a whole range of possibilities because by straining a semiconductor material like diamond, you can change the bandgap, photonic and optical properties.
We have an active project combining the strain engineering of materials with machine learning to see how we can achieve desirable properties for electronic and energy applications and have just filed two NTU patents on that.