Welcome and Remarks by MIT President Charles M. Vest

OSTP 25th Anniversary Symposium May 1, 2001


INTRODUCTION

Good morning. I want to start by thanking all the many people who worked so hard to organize this event. And I want to extend a very warm welcome to all of you for joining us here in Cambridge.

As some of you know, my tenure as president of MIT has been punctuated by almost monthly visits to Washington, sitting down with our federal leaders and making the case for the value and potential of investing in science and technology, i.e., giving advice whether they want it or not. For the most part, I've received a very hospitable reception. But I must say, occasions like today's are a tremendous relief, when I can just relax and preach to the choir!

We're here together to celebrate something very important: the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and its impressive record of influence and accomplishment -- during a quarter-century in which science and technology have become absolutely integral to the vitality of our economy, and of our society as a whole.

It's a privilege to have so many past Presidential Science Advisors joining us for today's celebration.

But I want to address for one moment someone who is no longer with us -- but who in a very real sense is responsible for all of us being here. Most people believe that the new administration in Washington represents the second Bush White House. But in an important sense, it's really the third -- because when Vannevar Bush became the de facto science advisor to Franklin Roosevelt, he, together with Bill Golden, who assumed a similar role with President Truman, changed America forever.

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the role that science and technology have played in America's success since World War II -- in terms of our economy, national security, health care, and quality of life. And that is in large part because of Vannevar Bush, Bill Golden, and other visionaries who followed him in the role, like Jim Killian, Jerry Wiesner, and those of you here today.

After the War, defense remained the dominant driver of physical science and high technology and provided an underlying rationale for the support of advanced education and research. And the benefits of this support extended far beyond national security considerations.

But as we all know too well, with the end of the Cold War, much of the broad-based support of science and technology slipped off the radar screen of national priorities.

A NEW COMMITMENT TO SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

But I believe we have come to a moment when America needs a passionate new commitment to investing in science and technology -- and those of us, who understand that need, have a special obligation to help make it happen.

Although we no longer face a single great nuclear superpower, a strong commitment to broad-based, fundamental research is still vital to our national security.

It's vital to our ability to alleviate suffering and create opportunity for peoples around the globe.

It's vital to improving the health and safety of our citizens, including the disadvantaged and the physically challenged.

But perhaps above all, it is absolutely vital to maintaining and extending the benefits of America's economic success.

THE POWER OF OUR INNOVATION SYSTEM

The truth is that this country's overall prosperity in the last half century is due in no small measure to what I think of as America's Innovation System -- a three-way partnership among academia, industry, and government.

Universities educate new generations of scientists, engineers, and students -- who in turn generate the new ideas.

Industry translates these ideas into products and services in the marketplace.

And federal and state governments adopt the policies that make it all possible, and provide the necessary financial support.

This winning combination has served our nation very well. In the half century since World War II fully half of the growth of the US economy has been due to technological innovation. Half!

And I don't have to tell this audience that tomorrow's economic strength will spring almost entirely from the technologies emerging from our laboratories today. The next few decades are obviously going to be an exciting time to be involved in leading-edge science and technology research and its translation to the marketplace in the form of new products, processes, and services.

LAYING THE GROUNDWORK

In fact, the promise is so great that it's easy to take for granted that our economy will always be run by the engine of innovation. But I'm here to tell you that we can't let America make the mistake of taking this for granted. The engine can only run if governments supply the fuel of support for fundamental research.

The plain truth is that, as a nation, we are not doing what we must do to ensure our future strength in innovation.

In recent years, the number of engineers graduating from our universities has decreased by over 20 percent. And over half the doctoral candidates in math and the physical sciences in this country's universities are from abroad, with an increasing number returning home upon completing their studies.

And there's another trend that's just as disturbing, though perhaps easier to correct: Federal spending on research and development -- as a share of the nation's GDP -- is lower now than it was 15 years ago.

If America is to have a bright future, we need to lay the necessary groundwork today, through education, and through policy and research:

First, as we all know by now, we need to improve our K-through-12 education system. America's technology-driven economy demands that our educational institutions supply the innovative thinkers who create new industries and provide the workers who will fill the ever more demanding jobs those new industries generate. Singapore, Japan, Australia, Hungary, England, Canada -- all of them leave us in the dust in tests of student achievement in math and science. Our high schools must not, by default, deny American students the chance to pursue careers in these fields.

Second, we need to attract more of our citizens, especially minorities and women, into careers in science, mathematics, and engineering. As a nation, we cannot prosper without drawing on the talents of this large segment of our population. Only about 5 percent of the 24-year-olds in this country have earned degrees in the natural sciences or engineering. By that measure, we now trail Japan, Korea, and the UK. A decade ago, we were leading. Our colleges and universities must make scientific and engineering education more attractive and accessible to bright young men and women, and our workplaces must provide the incentive and the opportunity to make the most of that talent.

Third, we need to make sure that we're educating our young scientists and technologists not only in the rigors of their own technical fields, but also in the broader skills it takes to make things happen in the "real world."

At MIT, we're addressing that challenge though our Technology and Policy Program, or TPP. Founded in 1976, TPP is now the largest program of its kind in the world, and it fills a critical gap. Traditional engineering education rightly grounds students in the fundamentals of engineering science and application, and hones their technical skills. The TPP makes sure that students also gain an in-depth understanding of the other disciplines -- such as economics, law, and politics -- that ultimately may have just as much impact on which ideas make it to the marketplace or to the floor of Congress, and why. (As an aside, if you're interested in knowing more about TPP, I encourage you to look at the materials in the display adjacent to the registration tables.)

That's the educational groundwork. Now, the question of policy and research.

I would say that above all, we need to invest more in research -- across the board. Lots of people do not want to hear this, but I believe it is essential. While other nations are increasing their R&D commitments, US investment in broad-based fundamental research -- which takes place largely in our universities -- is actually slowing.

Certainly, industry can and should do more in this regard -- and at least at MIT, we're trying very hard to cultivate creative new partnerships with industry. Over 23 percent of our research sponsorship now comes from industry.

But there is also a legitimate, necessary, ongoing role for Federal support of fundamental science and engineering research and advanced education. Period.

Recently, we've been delighted that the federal government is making an accelerating commitment to biomedical research. But truthfully, it's like giving shoes to only one of the champion runners in a relay race. Today, for every dollar we invest in life science research, we invest only about 50 cents in the physical sciences, engineering, and related fields combined. Thirty years ago we invested roughly equally in physical science, engineering, and biomedical research. Our federal investments today are dangerously lopsided.

Now there is a legitimate question -- is this truly an imbalance, or is it simply a reflection of the fact that this is the golden age of advancement in the life sciences, whereas physical science and engineering are mature and should slip toward the back burner?

I believe that it is indeed a fundamental and corrosive imbalance. In this era of intellectual interdependence, when the most interesting ideas are emerging at the surprising overlaps and intersections between previously unrelated fields, that unbalanced investment represents a serious strategic error. And there may be no one in the country better equipped to understand why, than the people in this room today.

Finally, as leaders in this field, I believe we personally need to battle the troubling tendency to try to separate science policy from technology policy. It makes no sense at all! This is an intensely interdisciplinary time! Is "bioengineering" science, or is it technology? "Brain research" may sound like a scientific field -- but it would never have achieved its current level of sophistication without concurrent, joint development of the most advanced technologies. We must insist on a coherent, sustained, strategic national commitment to science and technology -- together. And we must realize that we have three partners in this mission -- academia, government, and industry.

As people with the expertise and experience to appreciate these problems in all their dimensions, it's our job to make the case in Washington for prompt and continuing action.

We need to persuade federal leaders that broad-based, fundamental research is an investment, not a cost. That innovation is not something that will just "take care of itself." That our future economy, jobs, and security will not simply grow on trees. And that OSTP and the President's Science Advisor aren't some marginal academic constituency, but rather represent vital interests of the American people as a whole.

OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES

This 25th anniversary of OSTP in its current guise comes at a propitious time to think together about American science and technology policy. The people we are privileged to have gathered together have led us from World War II to the World Wide Web.

Looking backward at our journey we can come to understand what role science policy has had in creating the infrastructure, human capital, and opportunities that have driven one of the most remarkable periods of transformation and economic strength in our history. Looking at the present, we can see strengths and weaknesses, but above all opportunity.

Just imagine:

We have essentially completed sequencing the human genome. We now know the dictionary of life. We have a breathtaking new understanding of how humans have evolved and how we fit into the total plethora of living things. The insights are staggering.

We suddenly have the extensions of our eyes and hands that allow us to do nano-scale science and technology. We can create new materials and devices that are structured one atom or molecule at a time. This may lead to materials with remarkable new properties, to hugely greater strength-to-weight ratios, to low-power/high-performance computers, and to new medical diagnostic and treatment strategies.

We have a world that is increasingly tied together through the Internet and made accessible by the World Wide Web. The information base that this makes available virtually everywhere and on an as-needed basis has began to totally transform the way we live, work and learn. Its potential for democratization and empowerment is truly unprecedented in human history.

Information appliances are starting to turn the corner toward readily serving our personal and collective purposes, rather than making us slaves to an endless progression of computers, fax machines, pagers, cellular phones, personal digital assistants, etc.

High resolution functional magnetic resonance imaging, gene knockout technologies, and increased understanding of cells and complex systems have set the stage for a quantum leap in our understanding of brain, mind, and memory, with potentially huge payoffs in improved mental health, communications, and teaching and learning.

Boundaries are disappearing -- boundaries between nations, boundaries between disciplines, boundaries between science and engineering, and boundaries between what is fundamental and what is application. In many ways, the knowledge structures and techniques of life science, physical science, and information science are simply merging.

I hope that our discussions today will be conducted with this enormous field of opportunity and change as context.

But as we sharpen our focus, it seems to me that moving into the future, with no Office of Technology Policy to serve the Congress, and with few people and structures in place in the new Administration, we must think together about how we in the science, engineering, and policy communities can serve our nation well as it faces great challenges in both the near term and the long run.

The President and the Congress have many issues with which to grapple that demand serious and objective knowledge and advice based on sound science and engineering.

Just to note a few:

  • Energy and environment, including a sound strategy around global climate change and sustainable economic development.
  • New biomedical research, diagnostics, and therapies based on the use of stem cells.
  • Development of a new space transport.
  • Stewardship of our nuclear stockpiles.
  • Understanding and deployment of genetically modified organisms in agriculture and medicine.
  • Facing the new challenges to our security -- bioterrorism, cyberterrorism, urban warfare, and indeed the broad issues associated with the vulnerability of our increasingly complex infrastructures.
  • Launching the new systems biology that will move us from the sequenced human genome to a world of improved health and quality of life.
CONCLUSION

We have our work cut out for us.

The bottom line is this: It is not what we already know, but what we don't yet know that will make the difference. So today, as we celebrate all the progress that OSTP has achieved, I hope we can also come together in another way: to persuade our many friends in Washington that when it comes to funding broad-based fundamental research, now is not the time to leave the dance floor.


Topics: Technology and society, Education, teaching, academics, MIT presidency, Special events and guest speakers

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