Speech on behalf of the recipients of the doctor honori causa en médecine et sciences from l‘université Pierre et Marie Curie
11 October 2016, the Sorbonne, Paris

It is my honour to thank you on behalf of my fellow recipients of the doctor honori causa en médecine et sciences from l‘université Pierre et Marie Curie.  We are proud to take our place among the distinguished group of 130 scholars who have been recognised in this way since 1975.

We, like the honourees who came before us, are a diverse group and I feel very privileged to share the stage with such talented and inspirational colleagues. We have all started from very different points and have followed very different paths. But our careers, and our love of science, have a common bond: a passion to make a difference in the world.

This ceremony is a celebration of the kind of international cooperation and collaboration that is so essential to a vibrant academic community. As scholars from all over the globe, we know the value of diversity, the importance of understanding, and the power of collaboration. To use the phrase that UPMC employs to describe the doctors honoris causa, we know that “borderless cooperation” produces breakthroughs.

We stand for that borderless cooperation. We should never take these values for granted, especially in these times. We will not let the recent United Kingdom vote to leave the European Union, nor any other political decision, impede academic cooperation and the pursuit of knowledge.  Rather, we will continue to assert the values of our academic collaboration and counter the negative tone of some of the political discourse in Europe and the United States. Individually and in our institutions, we pursue knowledge and understanding, and must pursue it ever more vigorously at a time when tolerance, understanding and patience are in short supply. 

When economies get stressed or societies face change, the winds of cooperation give way to the tides of competition. As scientists, we are naturally competitive.  We strive to be the best, and we strive to excel as individuals in our chosen fields.  But we also know that many of the challenging issues we tackle through research require not just the best individual efforts, but the best collaborative efforts. 

Successful collaboration brings together fierce competitors, and helps them join forces to work together towards a common goal.  It can of course be risky, collaborating with your arch-rival.

But we have seen, time and time again, how success follows when we move from competition to collaboration. For instance, the International Space Station works through cooperation between European, Russian, Japanese and American space agencies. It has happened many times in the world of science.  And we see it happening today in global health crises. 

The recent outbreak of the Zika virus began in Brazil in 2015 is one such case. In early February 2016 the World Health Organization declared a health emergency because of the cluster of Zika cases. Ten days later a combination of 30 scientific journals, research institutes and non-profit groups based in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and the US, signed a data sharing agreement. Collaborative efforts are now underway around the world, involving academics, governments, and corporations. They are working together to map the genome of the Aedes mosquito, understand the pathways of infection, and work on effective detection, prevention and treatment. Competing researchers are collaborating to overcome this global threat. 

By contrast, we have also seen what happens when competition prevails. In 2012 the outbreak of MERS Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus began.The international race to understand this disease became instead a race to the patent office.

MERS research was slowed, dangerously, by a lack of sharing and competition over intellectual property. 

As scientists we must also remain true to our values of openness and inclusion. We must continue to value differences in perspectives. We must continue to collaborate across borders. 

We stand here in the halls of a truly great institution. There are seventeen Nobel laureates from this wonderful place, including Pierre and Marie Curie themselves. The UPMC has always been a beacon for scientists to visit and collaborate.  I was lucky enough to spend my post-doctoral stage in Paris and to work with one of the finest physicists in my field, Pierre Gilles deGennes. International collaboration stimulates new ways of thinking, and new approaches to research. What I loved about the deGennes school of thought was the reduction of fiercely complex problems into strikingly simple elements.  Pierre Gilles epitomized the borderless cooperation represented here today; he was truly a “physicien sans frontieres”.

It is no surprise that at Imperial College London, approximately three quarters of our research papers include a co-author from another institution. In fact last year, we wrote papers with collaborators in 111 countries, working in more than 2,400 universities, businesses and other research organisations.  Many of my colleagues work with the outstanding researchers here at UPMC. 

They come here to UPMC to collaborate. Together they look at the possibilities for cardiac stem cells to help those with acute or chronic heart disease; they derive unique insights into the global impact of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic; they collaborate to develop robotics for assessment of, and rehabilitation from, neurological disease or injury.  In fact, great things are happening here every day.

We honourees are humbled by the many great researchers here at UPMC. We celebrate this outstanding university. We are proud to be part of the UPMC community of scholars, and part of the long and rich tradition of scientific research in France. We thank you again for this great honour.