DCM Thomas Smitham Remarks at Aspen-Italy Award Ceremony

“This Is What Success Looks Like:  Collaboration in Science and Medicine Addressing Today’s Challenges”

October 23, 2019

(As prepared for delivery)

I would like to start by thanking Aspen-Italia Chairman Giulio Tremonti for inviting me to share this award ceremony with you tonight.

It is an honor, as well, to share this opportunity with Dr. Anna Ascani, Deputy Minister of Education, University and Research (MUIR).

In preparing my remarks for this award, I thought: This is what success looks like.

We often speak, in both diplomatic and academic circles, about the value of collaboration and the amplified impact we gain when we pull together experts from across the Atlantic to work on shared challenges.

Those conversations are necessary and good, but conversation alone does not always lead to the results that we need in our rapidly changing world.

When the Aspen Institute was founded by intellectuals and businessmen in the United States in 1950, the goal was breathtaking: relaunching an international dialogue that would encourage shared knowledge, shared values, and shared success in a world torn by war and strife.

And when the Aspen Institute Italia was established in 1984, the special emphasis on transatlantic relations further focused and refined Aspen’s original goals.

The achievements recognized through Aspen Institute Italia have consistently reflected your original mission: to internationalize Italy’s potential, to promote the free exchange of ideas, and to build on shared values, knowledge, and interests.

And these achievements have helped point the way to developing these ideas for implementation in our shared business environments.

The groundbreaking advances recognized by the Aspen Institute Italia Award in the past few years — ranging from mathematical models of the spread of the Ebola virus, the recognition that wind coming from black holes can help create new stars in different galaxies, and the discovery of new quasi-crystals in nature — all of these contribute incredible advances to our shared scientific understanding.

This year’s prize-winning collaboration, A Test for Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Using Nasal Brushings, is equally impressive. This study exemplifies the highest quality of collaboration and scientific research between Italy and the United States.

Not only does this study demonstrate methods for diagnosing prion diseases — ruinous and progressive neurodegenerative conditions — but it also suggests new methods for expanding diagnosis in more common neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s, a devastating condition which affects hundreds of thousands of Americans as well as Italians.

The positive impact that this research can have on individuals, and their families, communities, and societies, is truly game-changing.

And, as previously noted: this research team has achieved this through a unique forum for enhancing international collaboration.

The United States and Italy have a strong history of partnership across scientific and technological fields, as well as historical connections stretching back centuries.

In the medical field, we currently have over 75 visiting Italian scientists working at the National Institute of Health.

Cumulatively, the NIH has supported 174 direct grants and research activities with Italian researchers and research institutions from 2009 through 2018.

Italy is one of the strongest partners in NIH’s portfolio of international collaboration.

The same pattern of close partnership permeates our broader scientific, technological, and educational engagement.

Whether we talk about space exploration, or dark matter research, or the number of Italian and American scholars who participate in Fulbright opportunities, both of our countries are advancing and learning and addressing the challenges of tomorrow.

But the most important element of all: our experts are making these advances in tandem.    Sharing elements of research that, alone, might never lead to these critical leaps of intellect and connection and possibility.

Tonight’s winning team of researchers, eleven experts from four different scientific organizations in both Italy and the United States, is the absolute proof-of-concept for the “Aspen method,” the concept of encouraging interpersonal relations and free exchange of ideas in open debate in a supportive setting.

And of course, it is a particular pleasure to recognize Dr. Gianluigi Zanusso, from the University of Verona’s Department of Neurologic and Movement Sciences, and Dr. Byron Caughey, from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the Rocky Mountain Laboratory of Persistent Viral Diseases, who represent this stellar team’s success.

Creating the environment for success for experts like yourselves is just the beginning. Bringing together such a broad array of talent, dedication, and passion — and allowing the authorities to engage in such a rich intercultural dialogue — will inevitably lead to even greater discoveries.

And using the “Aspen method,” helping individual leaders connect and work in today’s admittedly complicated reality, will help inspire both today’s leaders and tomorrow’s experts.

The proof is in the results that the Aspen Institute Italia continues to recognize and honor: new insights for a complicated, connected world, based on universal ideals and shared values.

So congratulations to tonight’s prize winners, but more importantly, congratulations to the Aspen Institute Italia.

Without the passion and dedication of the scientists and researchers behind this project, we would not be celebrating these significant medical advances.

And without your organization’s commitment to our shared goals, tonight’s prize-winning research might not have found the right environment in which to blossom.

Quite honestly, I can’t wait to see what advances will come next!