Merck is well known as a vibrant science and technology company. But the company’s drive to improve the well-being of humanity doesn’t stop there; it is also the originator of a series of awards and programmes designed to motivate, facilitate and stimulate current and future scientific endeavour globally. Here, Ulrich Betz fills in some of the detail of Merck’s initiatives in that regard.
Merck is a leading science and technology company with a 350-year history of scientific achievement. Advancing human progress has always been at the heart of everything we do. Much of our work to make the lives of people around the world longer, better and more sustainable is done in conjunction with a global network of partners.
To help stimulate innovative research that has the potential to address unmet needs in areas of current or emerging importance, we provide a series of research grants: http://researchgrants.merckgroup.com.
In preparation for the “Curious 2022 – Future Insight” global scien-
tific conference (http://curiousfutureinsight.org), which takes place from 12–14 July, Merck and AAAS/Science have published an updated edition of the “Milestones of science” poster (https://www.science.org/content/resource/milestones-science), which summarises many of the most significant scientific milestones in the history of humanity.
The posters description reads: “Through a process of education and learning, building upon the previous generations’ advances, humans have evolved intellectually at a rapid pace, going from mapping celestial bodies to sending robotic rovers to Mars, and from detecting the first microscopic creatures to developing vaccines to mitigate pandemics. This vibrant poster clearly demonstrates how the accumulation and synthesis of knowledge has accelerated in recent decades, particularly with the advent of computers and the ability to more rapidly share large amounts of data. We invite you to join this voyage of discovery and marvel.”
As most of these milestones of science build upon the achievements of previous generations, it is important to take a long-term perspective towards innovation and the value that it can create moving forward. Scientists and, more broadly, we as a society should strive to harness the power of science and technology to ensure we hand the planet over to the next generation in a better state than we inherited it.
For us at Merck, innovation and sustainability go hand in hand (https://www.merckgroup.com/en/sustainability-report/2021/). For example, we are committed to a 50 per cent reduction in our direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared to 2020. In 2021, these emissions decreased by 9 per cent compared to the previous year. Converting 80 per cent of our purchased electricity to renewable sources by 2030 is one way we will achieve these targets. In Brazil, our sites are already fully powered by renewables.
One central element to help facilitate a more sustainable way of life for current and future generations is peace. On the occasion of the 350th anniversary of Merck, we launched the Darmstadt Science Declaration – “Make science, not war” – calling on all nations, organisations and societies to invest more resources in the advancement of science and technology to solve the challenges of today and to enable the dreams of a better tomorrow (http://make-science-not-war.org).
Identifying key opportunities and threats is a central task in ensuring the well-being of current and future generations. What is the next big thing, the next amazing opportunity with the potential to add key new milestones of science and technology in the future?
Also to mark its 350th anniversary, Merck launched the Future Insight Prize (http://futureinsightprize.merckgroup.com/, https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-16061-6_3) to honour and enable pioneering scientists whose contributions can help solve some of the biggest challenges facing humanity. The prize, which comes with a €1million research grant, is to be given out annually by Merck for 35 years. Each topic aligned to the prize so far has been very visionary, identifying key issues years before they became critical. For example, the first topic of the Future Insight Prize in 2018 was pandemic preparedness, two years before the COVID pandemic began. Subsequent prizes on antibiotic resistance (2020), sustainable nutrition for a growing world population (2021) and energy – CO2 conversion (2022) followed. The topic for the 2023 Future Insight Prize will be announced at the conclusion of this year‘s conference.
People from all over the world are cordially invited to contribute with their dreams for a bright future and their visions on how science and technology could contribute towards that goal by contributing to the Dream Board, accessible at http://curiousfutureinsight.org.
Additional awards and prizes offered by Merck include the Emanuel Merck Lectureship (https://www.merckgroup.com/en/research/grants-and-awards/emanuel-merck-lectureship.html), the Johann-Anton Merck Award (https://www.merckgroup.com/en/research/grants-and-awards/johann-anton-merck-award.html), the Heinrich Emanuel Merck Award (https://www.merckgroup.com/en/research/grants-and-awards/heinrich-emanuel-merck-award.html) and the Alfred R. Bader award (https://www.merckgroup.com/en/research/grants-and-awards/alfred-r-bader-award-for-student-innovation.html).
A key area of research focus for Merck and its partners is bioconvergence, where technologies from across biotechnology, digitalisation and material science merge together. Steve Jobs was one early predictor of the potential of bioconvergence when he said: “I think the biggest innovations of the twenty-first century will be at the intersection of biology and technology. A new era is beginning.” The topic was also emphasised in surveys conducted by Merck in collaboration with Nature, Science and Harvard Business Review (https://hbr.org/sponsored/2018/03/breakthrough-innovation-in-the-21st-century, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0040162518316354).
One example of bioconvergence being put into action by Merck is bioelectronics. Here, bioelectronic medical devices are being developed that can selectively stimulate distinct nerves to potentially treat and monitor chronic diseases. Combining nerve signals with other accessible physiological datasets can help create a holistic understanding of disease conditions. This understanding will support better, personalised treatment regimes in the future. Applying our long-standing material and healthcare expertise will help us to advance this future pillar of medicine, with the aim of bringing new hope to patients with severe and chronic diseases.
To leverage the power of digitalisation for R&D, Merck for example runs the annual Merck Compound Synthesis Challenge (http://compoundchallenge.merckgroup.com), a competition to identify the most efficient synthetic route for a given small molecule, supported by our SYNTHIA™ retrosynthesis software. AI is set to transform chemical synthesis, providing opportunities to shorten one of the longest steps in the drug discovery process: getting new medicines to patients faster. Engineered by chemists and computer scientists for more than 15 years, SYNTHIA retrosynthesis software is powered by sophisticated algorithms that can help experts access and make use of the vast amounts of data on chemical synthesis collated over decades of research. The tool works by harnessing the potential of advanced algorithms powered by more than 100,000 hand-coded reaction rules – painstakingly sifting through retrosynthetic possibilities – while at the same time examining what has been done, what could be done, and what starting materials are available.
But the opportunities do not stop there. For example, Merck also aims to enable participants of the healthcare industry to unlock the power of big-data analytics and collaboration across their respective sector ecosystems. To achieve this goal, the Syntropy company was created in partnership with Palantir Technologies. Syntropy represents a data integration and analytics environment in which healthcare organisations can contextualise and analyse infinitely diverse data types securely across their entire ecosystem, enabling experts to collaborate in the fight against cancer and many other diseases.
The question of where the road will lead to for this and additional future game changers is certainly difficult to answer (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0040162517309733), but additional hot topics are the utilisation of RNA as a new therapeutic, synthetic biology, and advancements in the understanding and prevention of ageing, as well as advances in artificial intelligence and quantum computing.
The generation of a positive outlook into the future in the face of all the issues and challenges is important, particularly in the light of the results of a recent survey in which, for the first time ever, young people responded that they would prefer to live in the past than in the future (https://www.zdf.de/nachrichten/panorama/jugend-vergangenheit-zukunft-umfrage-100.html).
We are also investing in the future scientific education of the next generation of scientists, not only via research grants (http://researchgrants.merckgroup.com), but also, for example, with the Merck Innovation Cup (http://innovationcup.merckgroup.com), the Merck Grants for Education (https://www.merckgroup.com/en/research/grants-and-awards/grants-for-medical-education.html), the JuniorLab (https://www.juniorlabor.de/), the Curiosity Cube (https://thecuriositycube.com/), and other educational programmes.
In order to ensure a bright future now and for generations to come, there is, of course, the prerequisite that these generations should first of all be born. Birth rates are declining globally at an alarming rate (https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/field/total-fertility-rate/country-comparison) and are now, in almost all countries, with very few exceptions, below the level of 2.1 children per woman required for replacement. Some countries are way below that rate; for example, the US: 1.8, China: 1.4, the EU: 1.5, and South Korea: 1.1. While an analysis of the underlying reasons is beyond the scope of this article, the problem needs to be taken seriously and is a turnaround from previous fears of overpopulation.
Merck is active in the fight against infertility and, with our broad portfolio of treatment options, devices and advanced fertility technologies, we aim to contribute to improved treatment outcomes that will help couples fulfil the dream of parenthood.
It is important to combine the iron rule of science (“observation and data can be the only evidence”) with the golden rule of ethics (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”).
United by science for a better tomorrow – now and for generations to come.
About the Author
Ulrich A.K. Betz, Senior Vice President of Innovation Merck, is an accomplished R&D manager with >20 years of experience in the pharmaceutical and chemical industry, including positions in the President’s Office Merck Biopharma and positions reporting directly to the Heads of Research and Development at Bayer and Merck. In his current role for example he designed and implemented the Merck Innovation Cup, the Curious-Future Insight Conference, the Merck Future Insight Prize, the Darmstadt Science Declaration, the idea competition innospire and the BioMed X Outcubator.