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November 6, 2014

Jonas Salk Symposium: Collaboration essential if world is to progress amid unprecedented challenges

Jefffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute and professor of health policy and management at Columbia University.

Jefffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute and professor of health policy and management at Columbia University.

Collaborations like those that led to the Salk polio vaccine will be crucial if the world is to progress amid challenges of unprecedented magnitude, said economist Jeffrey Sachs in his keynote address at a daylong symposium commemorating the 100th anniversary of Jonas Salk’s birth.

“Sustainable development is the holistic integration of economic, social and environmental objectives; an approach of scientific analysis, of governance, of problem solving and of human action. … It’s not an academic field alone …  it is a field of human action,” said Sachs, director of The Earth Institute and professor of health policy and management at Columbia University.

Sponsored by the Graduate School of Public Health, the Office of the Provost and the Jonas Salk Legacy Foundation, the Jonas Salk Centenary Symposium on Oct. 28 celebrated the polio vaccine pioneer’s commitment to sustainability and examined connections between sustainability and public health.


Sustainable development differs from sustainability — which refers mainly to environmental concerns — in that it requires a holistic vision to integrate human development and environmental sustainability, Sachs said, arguing the need for both an analytical holism — to see the intricacies and interconnections among systems of economics, politics and nature — and a moral holism of goals and objectives.

“We need an integrated vision even to understand the kind of world that we’re in, but we’re also going to need an integrated vision if we are going to choose morally the direction we need to move,” he said.

Growth is more than concern for the bottom line. “If we pursue economics to the point of mass social inequality and exclusion or if we pursue economics to the point of environmental destruction, we’re going to end up with nothing of lasting value,” he said.


The world is at an inflection point: the spot on an S-curve where the trajectory changes direction, said Sachs, contending that our scientific knowledge, technology and diplomatic opportunity present a unique opportunity for action.

“We are at a juncture where we need the inspiration of what Jonas Salk accomplished” to solve global challenges and ensure a sustainable future, said Sachs.

“We need public-private partnerships for sustainable development. After all, that’s what the Salk vaccine represented: It was a massive public-private-academic partnership to bring about one of the sublime achievements of our time.”

Huge collaboration was crucial “in the scientific understanding of what to do, for the financing of how to do it, for the public engagement to make it possible,” Sachs said.

“Think about having a clinical trial of nearly 2 million young people. That required a country with a determination to solve problems. It required a public understanding: Remember that there are places in the world where health workers get shot, not celebrated, because of lack of public understanding or lack of knowledge … This is such a profound achievement that we need to understand it and to draw lessons from it, and therefore find ways to apply those lessons to the challenges and predicaments that we face in our generation,” he said.

Philanthropy and moral commitment are fundamental ingredients of sustainable development, along with scientific advances, technological development and political leadership, Sachs said, calling the Salk vaccine “a product of society and moral commitment.”

Without philanthropy, “we don’t make the accomplishments that we need,” he said, adding that moral purpose in the vein of Salk’s dedication to human betterment is crucial.

“It’s not enough to be a great scientist, it’s not enough to be a great technologist. Everything depends on the direction that one is pointed.”

Such moral direction is threatened today, he said. “Even our capacity for moral discussion has been greatly weakened and undermined,” Sachs said, adding that philosophies that elevate the cause of self above all else “will never produce the Salk vaccine or the kinds of breakthroughs we need.”

He said: “There’s nothing automatic about progress. There’s nothing automatic about a human capacity to solve problems,” reminding listeners that just 100 years ago the archduke of the Habsburg empire was assassinated in Sarajevo, sparking three decades of world war. “Even in 1914, which itself was an age of great prosperity and scientific breakthroughs … the world could savagely come to self-destruction on a scale that was unimaginable. That’s the paradox that we always have to face,” he said.

However, he cautioned against cynicism: “We do have to keep this sense of dual perspectives,” Sachs said, citing a line from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address: “‘For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty, and all forms of human life.’ This is our technological know-how, it’s our human nature. We can go in either direction.

“It is one of the points that Jonas Salk made repeatedly in his writings and his interviews:  We face a choice. We always face a choice. There is no such thing as simply running the differential equations. … For humanity, that curve can go in multiple directions and it is our choice to envision the future and choose the kind of future that we want.”


“I say we’re in the age of sustainable development, partly as a description of where we need to be and partly as a hope,” he said.  “It’s partly an analytical observation and partly what in my profession we call a normative or hopeful or ethical observation, that we’d better be in the age of sustainable development.”

Sachs, a senior United Nations adviser, noted that three crucial meetings of world leaders lie ahead in 2015: A summit in July on financing for sustainable development, followed by another in September to adopt sustainable development goals and, in December, a make-or-break climate summit. “It’s almost no coincidence that these three major fundamental topics for a transition to the age of sustainable development are all on the agenda in the coming year. If we fail we won’t have another chance soon,” he said.

“Multilateralism already is so fragile, is so easily pushed aside and is so vulnerable to the extremists and to the cynics and to the doubters and to the greedy, who are interested in next quarter’s profits, not the survival of humanity in the 21st century,” Sachs said.

“If we don’t get this right, I don’t know if there’s another way back soon enough to avoid calamity.”

The possibility of success is likewise real. “We truly do hold in our mortal hands the ability to end all forms of human poverty: That is not simply great rhetoric. … It is also a literal reality, ” he said.

“Our scientific age is an age of stunning capacity.”

Whereas the Salk team took three years to demonstrate there were three basic strains of polio virus, today’s genomic sequencing would shorten that task to mere hours or days. Billion-fold improvements in integrated circuitry make possible the transmission of data to the most remote parts of the world.

Other successes have come in global health. In line with the UN’s millennium development goal of cutting extreme poverty, the number of people who live on less than $1.25 per person per day has declined from 43 percent in 1990 to 21 percent in 2010, and is expected to fall to 16-17 percent by next year, he said. Mortality rates for children under 5 have fallen from 12.5 million in 1990 to 6.5 million this past year. Malaria deaths are declining.

“These are areas of progress that are absolutely real.”

However, “reality forces us to watch both sides of the ledger,” he said, cautioning that the social aspect of sustainability is under increasing stress: “More exclusion, more inequality, more perversion in the inequality of power, as well as the inequality of wealth and income,” he said.

The world’s population, on pace to reach 11 billion by 2100; human strain on resources, and our impact on the world’s climate are unprecedented problems for this generation.

“We have never faced the inflection point before,” he said.

“We recognize problems of inequality, of exclusion. We know problems of war and peace. We know about our complex human nature. But what we don’t understand is the human impact on the physical world as it exists today, because it has never existed in this way before,” Sachs said. “We are so numerous, we are so productive, that we can overshoot the very basic substrate on which we grow. That is the overshoot and collapse that is a very real possibility.”

To face such unprecedented challenges requires sustainable development. “We will need rapid technological transformations for safe energy systems, safe health systems. We need equity in social services provision. We need community protection of natural resources from local level to global scale. We need strengthened local governance. We need better sharing of work, learning and leisure. We need to restrain arbitrary corporate power. We need more responsible financial markets … we need to re-democratize our democracies,” Sachs said.

“We need to design systems,” he said. “Systems are not markets … they include markets, they include public administration, they include civil society. They are partnerships that are much more interesting and complex than markets alone. We need that for sustainable energy, sustainable agriculture, nutrition, sustainable urbanization … and the capacity to deliver health, education and meaningful work for all.”

Sachs acknowledged the value of entrepreneurial development, “but sometimes we need to steer as well,” he said. “We need to aim for safe energy. We need to aim for an Ebola vaccine. We need to aim for the kinds of scientific breakthroughs that are possible.”

He called for directed technological change, citing the government’s role as a fundamental driver of such breakthroughs as semiconductor chip development, computers, the Internet, the Mars rover and the human genome project. “That’s what we can do when we try,” he said.

Such directed change “is exactly the story of the polio vaccine,” Sachs said.

“Jonas Salk didn’t stumble on it. He aimed for it. And he aimed for it as part of a national effort to aim for it, with the scientific community aiming for it and racing towards it; and with the March of Dimes, a national philanthropic effort aiming for it, and with government leadership to help bring it about.”

The spirit needed to face sustainable development is the same spirit embodied in John F. Kennedy’s famous speech in 1962, after he had declared that the United States would send a man to the moon and return him safely before the end of the decade: “‘We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.’

“That’s the spirit that we need to face sustainable development,” Sachs said, ending with Salk’s words of wisdom: “We must learn to become wise and good ancestors, bequeathing an earth for future generations … We have enough time if we do not waste it.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 47 Issue 6