Published 29 June 2011 by

Nobel Laureates and humanitarian advocates: Agre and Wiesel

I fear I have already offended Professor Torsten Wiesel only one question into our interview. The softly spoken man and gentle man sitting in front of me is a Nobel Laureate for his work on identifying specialist cell functions in the visual cortex. The Swedish laureate won the prize in 1981, and I am speaking to him at the 61st meeting of the Nobel Laureates in Lindau.
I ask him: "I’m interested in how you have used your science as a springboard to work in human rights and peace and other humanitarian issues?" 
He disagrees. "I wouldn’t phrase it that way, he says. "I didn’t have initial plans to get into all these things, like human rights. But it sort of happened, since I am inclined with a certain amount of compassion towards human rights and civil rights. When asked to do things, it’s hard to say no," he chuckles.
Wiesel was at the lab bench for 40 years, and then was president of The Rockerfeller University, a biomedial research college in New York, between the ages of 68 and 75. After retiring from that post, Wiesel decided to devote himself to humanitarian work, especially finding research opportunities for young people around the globe. He says: "Science is always interesting… but as you get older, I’m 87 years old, you realise your limitations and focus on other things."  

AgreProfessor Peter Agre (right), who won his Nobel for the discovery of aquaporins, water channels that allow osmosis to occur in biological membranes in 2003, had a different approach.The lively American told me over a coffee at Lindau that his interest in global health preceded going to medical school: "Our community of Scandinavians in Minnesota have always been involved in medical missionary work. Not evangelical, bible-type stuff but working in hospitals and clinics in the developing world. That appealed to me in a great way.

"I came ready for health challenges in the developing world. I worked in cholera, and diarreal disease. The discovery of the water channels came out of the blue, and it explained how the fluid transport in cholera and diarreal disease occurs, but it wasn’t because I was searching for it. Nature dropped that in our laps." 

Agre describes a conflict between wanting to apply science for the ‘well-being of society’ and actually doing research. He says: "I always found research fascinating but very demanding – there wasn’t a lot left over for science diplomacy or human rights." And, one of the big questions of humanitarian work was: "Who pays your salary?"

Everything switched when Agre chanced upon the discovery of aquaporins. This allowed him to steer his career towards science diplomacy. Another reason for the change in direction is simply that scientists tend to make their big breakthoughs as young scientists at their peak. He says: "You can keep doing research but it’s a little bit like an athlete who is still on the track but isn’t what he used to be."

Agre’s Nobel prize "opened doors". For instance, he was invited to meet with scientists in North Korea, which is closed to US diplomats. He says he thinks that you can use the prize as a platform for advocacy "without demeaning the prize". Nor would Agre let it go to his head. He tells me: "I’ve had journalists ask me, do you feel like you are part of this constellation with Pasteur and Einstein? And I said ‘Hell no! I identify with Huckleberry Finn!’ What’s around the river is most curious to me."  

WieselLike Agre, Wiesel (right) is humble about winning a Nobel. Wiesel says: "It should be used for the advantage of others, like scientific research, human rights, medicine, and to raise money for these things. One of the responsibilities [of winning a Nobel prize] is to see that you take advantage of it – not for yourself. This is my third year at Lindau. Coming here is part of this." But Lindau is just a drop in the ocean of Wiesel’s many commitments (read more on his profile).

Wiesel is particularly involved with the Human Frontier Science Programme (HFSP), of which he is secretary general since 2000. He seems proud of his changes to the programme, which include introducing an award for postdocs who go back to their country to spread their learning, and a postdoc programme for physicists or chemists who want to study biology. The HFSP is funded by international governments, including Japan, the US, Australia, New Zealand and EU countries. "I like the idea of this," Wiesel says."because it provides opportunities to build bridges between countries. I think science is a good instrument for peace. English is the common language, and you don’t talk politics!"

Wiesel was also the president of International Brain Research Organisation (IBRO) from around the same time. Ithe IBRO has approximately 70,000 members from about 60 member countries. "The idea is to provide opportunities for young people in developing countries to learn about the brain," Wiesel says. He explains that researchers in Africa, Latin America and the Far East are funded in their research via money given to their region by rich nations or from the publication of the IBRO’s journal.   

Agre admits that when he was young, he was more interested in athletics, girls and art than attending science conferences. But now that he is the director of the John Hopkins Malaria Research Institute he has the freedom to participate in Lindau. Agre prefers to be seen as a person rather than an ‘automaton’, ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’, he tells me. "I don’t think real scientists have to be geeky. That’s why I hung around and danced with the students, chatted. I like to mix it up," he adds.

Agre gives talks movingly of his experiences visiting Zimbabwe and Zambia, and meeting children that are susceptible to contracting malaria. "Drug resistance is a big problem with Malaria, so we need to have new solutions. My contribution to this is to inspire young people to enter the field. I serve on boards, such as the Drugs for the Developing World Programme in Spain. It’s fostered by GlaxoSmithKline, but it’s a non-profit. I do what I can to raise awareness."

"I see Sandra Chishimba, from Zambia as a future leader in malaria," Agre enthuses, "Someone has to fund scholarships, find mentors… The ambition is not that she gets a green card and moves to California, but the ambition is to go back to Zambia and help people." 

Whatever their different paths to science advocacy, Agre and Wiesel are both impressive agitators for peace, human rights and global health. At the opening ceremony of the Lindau meeting, the German Minister of Education and Research, Professor Anette Schavan, highlights the power of science to cross international borders. She says: "In 1958, Israeli scientists invited a delegation from the Max Planck Society to Israel. This was the first official contact between Israelis and Germans after the Shoah…In the years that followed research communities continued to build up trust."

As mentioned above, Agre was invited to North Korea, and he is building relationships with scientists there. "No US official is welcome, yet scientists, we are welcome there." This makes him think that some tensions between adversarial countries may be eased through scientific partnerships. He says:

"I think if we could use science to maybe not revolutionise the governance of these countries but maybe to turn the vessel a little bit. When I was at a young age, the Cold War was at its height. The US, Russia and Chia were at loggerheads. There was actually minimal interaction by our government leaders. The scientists, particularly the American and Russian physicists, maintained contact through scientific meetings usually in territories considered safe and non-territorial, such as Scandinavia or the UK. And I think they kept in contact and sometimes provided routes for information. With the meltdown of the Iron Curtain, things changed rapidly. All of the scientific intellectuals were already in touch and maybe this reduced the tensions that could have led to a thermo-nuclear war."

Wiesel also does peacebuilding work as a founder for the Israli-Palestinian Science Organisation. This is a non-profit aiming to create peaceful relations through scientific collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian scientists. However, Wiesel says he finds it frustrating because fundraising for such a venture is a challenge, as well a political obstacles. Wiesel reveal that "The president of the Arab University in Jerusalem, Sari Nusseibeth, gets death threats."

Wiesel is also currently involved in the building of a graduate university specialising in the life sciences in Okinawa, Japan, called the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. It is constructed from scratch, and will contain more than 50 laboratories when it opens its doors to thousands of researchers in Autumn of 2012. This is a kind of peacekeeping mission between different fields of science. Wiesel reminds me that Linus Pauling was a chemist and was the first one to propose that DNA structure was a helix in 1951 – Watson and Crick’s famous work on DNA structure was built on this foundation.

You can listen to short interviews with Agre and Wiesel in the Scientific American podcasts, and videos of Agre’s lecture on the Lindau meeting site.