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Science and Society: A Nexus of Opportunity

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Science + Society: Closing the Gap
American Ballroom
Boston, Massachusetts

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


The world has undergone extraordinary changes within the lifetimes of everyone in this room — most brought to us through science and technology. The world has become smaller, human societies bump against each other, the global economy is expanding.

The changes have brought unprecedented challenges to our nation and to our world — changes that demand the most potent innovation, if they are to be resolved. I contend that the changes and the challenges — when fused with discovery and innovation — will offer unmatched opportunities. I am an optimist.

But, how are we to get there?  How are we to think about the challenges before us? How are we to close the gap between science and society?

Of course, there cannot be society without science — or vice versa. They are integral. There should be no gap.

Our challenge, today, is to think in new ways and map new paths to erase the sense that there is a gap.

For context, I pose a simple metaphor — the marketplace, or what classical Greece dubbed the "agora." The agora was the heart of ancient Athens society. Interactions occurred, there, between people and all societal sectors — government leaders and legislators, commercial, administrative, political, academic, and social activity. The agora provided a religious and cultural center. It was the seat of justice. The agora was the societal nexus.

Our contemporary agora includes these — and more: professional societies, unions, think tanks, commercial marketing, the media, the entertainment industry — and science and technology. And of course, we have the Internet — an engine of information and disinformation without equal. Global in its reach, staggering in its power, it is transforming the Age of Information.

The agora — then and now — is where the public selects its "truth," where society accepts what it will regard as "fact," where leaders make public policy decisions.

What happens when the agora is populated with self-proclaimed "experts," with "authorities" supporting every view? The result is the devaluing of information — the devaluing of science. The trend undermines the scientist as the dispassionate, objective voice of reason, and weakens science as the authority for sound public policy.

On issues ranging from genetic engineering and stem cell research, to the value of conservation and the reality of global warming, our public discourse abounds with controversy — and, the volume and passion of the rhetoric sometimes drowns the voice of science itself.

What we are really here to talk about is "The nexus of science and society." What is evident is that this nexus is increasingly fraught with confusion and mistrust.

It is instructive to consider how the role of science has changed as civilization has evolved. In primitive society, science and religion were frequently merged in a single figure — a "medicine man" or a "wise woman." Government was either vested in this authority figure or subject to it.

In the Renaissance, science emerged as an authority in its own right. Discovery and invention were cause for delight. Francis Bacon, and others, suggested a difference between "divine philosophy" — the Church — and "natural philosophy" — disciplines which could be verified empirically.

What followed were the Age of Reason, and the Industrial Revolution, in which scientific inquiry and invention often were determined by economic necessity — or societal needs.

In the 60-odd years since the end of World War II, science in the United States has been predicated on a model proposed by Vannevar Bush, whose key assumption was a multi-sector partnership in scientific endeavors, especially between the government and research universities.

This approach had three key ideas. First, that basic research would lead to innovations which, in turn, would be exploitable for national security, economic growth, and sustained societal benefit. Second, that while the source of the next discovery could not be predicted, broad-based research investments gave confidence that such discoveries would arise. And third, a concomitant investment would be made in the development of human capital in science and technology, coupled to the support of the research itself.

The initial "payoff" — the utilization of scientific talent for national needs — was realized when World War II was won on the talents of scientists and engineers whose work produced weapons systems, radar, infrared detection, bombers, long range rockets, torpedoes.

The secondary "payoff" was that the U.S. dominated global science and engineering research and innovation during the six-plus decades which followed. In fact, economists estimate that as much as half of U.S. economic growth over the past half century has been due to advances in science and technology. Developments which have revolutionized life and spawned new industries include atomic energy, jet and rocket propulsion, other space technologies, communications, television, computers, semiconductors, microchips, laser optics, fiber optics.

Science and technology will continue to advance, but there is a "knife-edge" to the advancement of science. Its misuse could take us to the brink of disaster. Yet, science, also, can lead us toward solution of global problems.

One "knife-edge" example is nanotechnology — the science of manipulating and characterizing matter at atomic and molecular scales, and which integrates a multitude of science and engineering disciplines. Nanotechnology potentially has widespread applications, but has prompted some to advise caution.

Bill Joy, Chief Scientist for Sun Microsystems, raised the notion that the convergence of information technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology could result in intelligent, self-replicating, nanoscale robots — making humans an endangered species. Michael Crichton’s science fiction novel, Prey, brought the same concerns to a larger audience.

It is clear that the environmental and health impact of these technologies need study to understand how nanoparticles interact with living systems. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has recommended that the societal implications of nanotechnology be integrated into nanotechnology research and development programs. The Academy has asserted that the rapidity of development will affect how we educate scientists and engineers, how we prepare our workforce, and how we plan and manage research.

In a sense, these concerns really reflect these deeper questions:

Is science or technology safe, or dangerous? Do the benefits outweigh the risks?  Should science be enabled? Or limited?  Can it be regulated?  How can our answers protect humankind, and, at the same time, enable science to move forward, and provide life-enhancing discoveries?

So what should we do?

First, as a nation, we must recognize the centrality of science and engineering for our national security, our economic well-being, and the alleviation of human suffering worldwide. This translates to a full-fledged national commitment to invest deeply in basic research across a broad disciplinary front, even in the face of competing priorities. It is stunning when people say that science is just another special interest group, because science and technology is the root of our success, but it is so embedded, that it is taken — entirely — for granted.

Second, we must have a national focus and commitment to re-ignite the interest in science and mathematics of all of our young people. This requires a focus on early education and preparation, especially in mathematics.

Third, the scientific community must engage on key public policy issues, proactively, not reactively. Public policy is not always — perhaps, not often — an ideal forum for fair debate. Every voice has an agenda, and issues can become confused. But, it is public, democratic, and open. There needs to be greater awareness of and respect for scientists and the role of science in resolving critical national and international issues.

To move ahead, we must look not only at the technical dimensions of public policy, but at the policy dimensions of technological change which spring from basic science. This should drive, if not a greater appreciation of science, a greater appreciation of why an understanding of science, at least at a rudimentary level, is important.

To highlight this, let me touch on one of our greatest contemporary challenges — our need for global energy security. The public policy implications of this challenge are legion.

The U.S. House of Representatives, yesterday, passed legislation that closed what it called loopholes for oil and gas industries, and eliminated tax breaks. But as the New York Times pointed out, it is not an energy policy.

For context, consider the historic decision made by Winston Churchill, then-First Lord of the Admiralty, as World War I approached. He shifted the British Navy from coal-power to oil, to make the fleet faster than the German Navy.

The oil-powered fleet, however, was now subject to insecure oil supplies from what was then Persia, rather than relying on local supplies of coal from Wales.

The move forced Great Britain to face a new national strategy challenge — securing essential energy sources. Churchill had this advice: "Safety and certainty in oil," he said, "lie in variety and variety alone," — a prescient statement worthy of note, today. Another example is the conversion of submarines from oil or diesel to nuclear propulsion.

Many say that the U.S. needs "energy independence." But, what the Winston Churchill example illustrates that we must speak in terms of "energy security." A narrow focus on U.S. energy interests alone — without regard for the energy interests of other countries — is neither practical nor productive. Energy, today, is interdependent, and global.

Multiple, interrelated, international factors collide, including global trade — including energy trade and markets, international travel, terrorism, political turmoil and instability in export countries, wars, piracy, natural disasters, and overall supply chain vulnerabilities.

The stability which true global energy security could offer would be priceless. Our planet's 6 billion people are pressuring the world's energy supplies and the pressure is mounting as developing nations expand their economies and their standards of living — as well they should. As the population nears 8 to 10 billion people around mid-century, their energy demands grow proportionally.

Consider the relationship between energy and development. For any nation, affordable energy, especially access to electricity, enables better health care, improved education, and greater food production. As a result, its citizens live longer, and earn higher wages. Infant mortality decreases, life expectancy increases, living standards rise. In short, more global development requires more energy. Why should other countries NOT wish to develop? But without new approaches, more countries will be competing for finite resources.

And, if we fail to address the energy needs of the poorest countries, millions will remain in poverty — with inadequate health care, scarce water and food, lack of basic education — unable to function in the "global innovation enterprise." They will continue to feel, keenly, the imbalance in distribution of wealth and privilege. This can lead to a sense of humiliation, to unrest and instability — conditions easily exploited by extremist groups, increasing the global threat of terrorism — or to human rights abuses, corruption, despotism, and other forms of poor governance. Failure to address these global asymmetries and imbalances has worldwide repercussions, with national implications.

Secure, sustainable energy from diverse sources, is inextricably interlinked with our own economic wellbeing, and with our national security; and provides global energy security.

Global energy security requires consideration of four factors:

  • Redundancy of supply and diversity of source, and
  • Optimum source relative to sector use
  • Infrastructure investment and maintenance
  • Consideration of lifecycle costs and energy conservation

To address these factors, we can no longer just drill our way to energy security. We must innovate our way to energy security. We must innovate the technologies which uncover and exploit new fossil energy sources, such as oil shale or methane hydrates, and improve their extraction; we must innovate the technologies that conserve energy and protect the environment, and we must innovate the technologies that lead to alternative energy sources, which are reliable, cost-effective, safe, as environmentally benign as possible, and sustainable.

Innovation, particularly on this scale, requires national leadership and broad public education on the interlinked issues. It, also, requires consistent investment in research and development (R&D), and consistent investment in human talent — the educated, prepared, professional scientists, engineers, and mathematicians — i.e. in the "intellectual security" of a robust American science and engineering workforce.

I have been speaking for some years about the critical need to invest in our human talent in science and engineering. Several trends are converging:

  • the aging and imminent retirement of today’s scientists and engineers.

  • an insufficient number of young scholars in our nation's science and engineering "pipeline" to replace those who will retire.

  • a decline in the number of international scientists and students who come to the United States to work and to study. This group long has been an important source of skilled talent for the U.S. science and engineering enterprise.

  • the concurrent change in our national demographics: Young women and ethnic minority youth now account for more than half of our student population. This "new majority" traditionally has been underrepresented in science and engineering, have few role models, and yet it is from this group that the next generations of scientists and engineers must come.

Finally, federal investment in basic research — in the physical sciences and engineering — has declined by half since 1970, as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Since research and education potentiate each other, this has had a deleterious effect on the creation of a new generation of scientists and engineers.

This is what I term the "Quiet Crisis."

It is "quiet" because it takes decades to educate a physicist or a nuclear engineer, so the true impact unfolds only gradually, over time.

It is a "crisis" because discoveries and innovations create the new industries which keep our economy thriving, and which mitigate the global scourges that breed suffering and global instability. Without innovation we fail — as a nation and as a world.

Reports, by major corporate, academic, government, and private sector entities all have recognized these trends and warn of the consequences, if we fail to act and national conversation is engaged. We are at the point of action.

Throughout 2006, the President and Members of Congress from both political parties recognized the need to do more help the United States maintain the U.S. competitive edge. While many efforts to increase basic research funding, to educate the next generation of scientists and engineers, and to address energy security were delayed, there are yet signs of hope. 

There is interest and action at the state level. The National Governors Association (NGA) has selected "Innovation America" as its focal point for next year, under the leadership of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano.

In California, a plan to cut emissions by 10 percent by 2020 is expected to change the market demand for corn-based ethanol and biodiesel fuels, natural gas, and experimental fuels.

New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer has promised to reduce energy costs through aggressive energy conservation, and to add clean generation capacity and renewable energy production.

This month, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso unveiled an unprecedented common energy policy to diversify energy sources, calling upon member states to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020.

How, then, are we to educate students for leadership in the global marketplace? How do we instill the capacity and the motivation to address the global asymmetries? 

We ask a lot of our young people . . . although, sometimes, I think we do not ask enough . . . because, as they assume the reins of leadership, they will be called upon to find the political and diplomatic solutions for global challenges, but they also must find the technological solutions, discoveries, and innovations.

As education has evolved over time — and, indeed, as there is considerably more knowledge to acquire to achieve mastery — we have moved away from a basic integration of knowledge into distinct and isolated specialties. Is this not, perhaps, to the detriment of vision and understanding? Basic science is a linchpin, of course, and we too quickly separate the study of science, in all of its richness and multiplicity from the study of the humanities, arts, and social sciences.

We want our students to acquire a multicultural sophistication, an intellectual agility, and enough knowledge of science and technology to enable them to take what they know and to apply it in diverse arenas. Innovation needs this cross pollination. A global experience — either through semesters of study abroad or by utilizing the Internet for cooperative, collaborative projects — is becoming an essential part of a robust educational experience.

As for broader public education and appreciation of science, the scientific community, itself, through its professional societies must engage the public and make science more accessible.

It can help people, not only to see the fun of science, but also to understand what science is, what a scientific theory is — as opposed to belief — how science is done, that accepted scientific models or theories are based on evidence, the testing of hypotheses by experiment, and that theories change as new evidence emerges.

Science-rooted government agencies and businesses have an educational responsibility, as well, to speak in plain language to support public understanding of science and to support scientists speaking their work.

This is important in overcoming mistrust of science, distrust of scientists, and a shift away from understanding the importance of science to modern life.

It is important, also, that we address the ethics of the application of science in key areas, and how it ties to people’s core beliefs. It is a two-way street which needs to be traveled more frequently to bring light — and less heat — to issues.

We must understand that the nexus of science and public policy, inherently, means its nexus with public values, meeting people where they live. Scientific perspectives will not prevail in all arenas, at all times, but we must engage, nonetheless.

In the end, this is about the kind of human society that we want to build. And, every individual here has an important role to play in bringing the key messages about science, about energy security and innovation, about science and human health, about education for a global world, to those whose lives you touch.

More than half a century of U.S. dominance in science and engineering research has both engendered, and been driven by a number of unique advantages, including:

  • the most extensive and sophisticated system of higher learning in the world;
  • a financial system providing ready access to venture capital, and a long tradition of investment in entrepreneurial projects;
  • government structures to support the scientific enterprise, and policies which encourage entrepreneurship;
  • a tradition of collaboration public-private collaboration; and
  • a culture of risk-takers, in which divergent ideas and viewpoints are sought out and welcomed.

If we take these advantages and continue to invest in science and engineering research across a range of disciplines, develop our human capital — accessing the complete talent pool, and tackling key public policy issues pro-actively and consistently, while engaging the public in new, creative and respectful ways, we can heal rifts, address rising expectations worldwide, insure our security by helping others to feel secure, and usher in a new "golden age of scientific discovery."

You possess the power to help us turn this corner — to close the seeming gap between science and society, to speak out for the value of scientists and what they do. You are the influencers, the communicators, the interpreters, the messengers. You are the voices in the agora. Please make them heard.

Thank you.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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