JOHN H. GIBBONS
Assistant to the President for Science and Technology
Dael Wolfle Lecture
University of Washington
October 9, 1996
I am very grateful for the opportunity to be on campus and to present
this year's Dael Wolfle lecture. His is a life of service to science
and society, and it's a pleasure to celebrate it in this way with you.
And it's a particular pleasure for me because Dael directly contributed
to the institutions to which I've been devoted for the past 17 years,
including the President's science advisory apparatus; the National
Academy of Sciences Committee that recommended the establishment of
the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment; and the American
Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). In the history of
the West, there was a hardy group of explorers, entrepreneurs, and
independent spirits collectively referred to as the "mountain men."
In the exploration and development of science policy, Dael
epitomizes the Mountain Man.
Well, certainly today we are at another historic time for the nation. I
guess each moment in time is a historic time. But with the ceremonial
approach to the millennium, it is a good opportunity for us to make
some critical decisions about where it is we want to be and how we
want to get there in the 21st Century. And in a sense, we are doing
no less than deciding about our future as a self-governing society.
There are many perspectives about the future. In my darker moments,
I think of Pogo who once said to Churchy Lafemme, "Well, Churchy, as
I see it, from here on down it is uphill all the way."
There are others who have a more optimistic view of the future.
However, every thoughtful person should see ourselves as in a time
of expansion of options through the proliferation of knowledge. Even
though this means more opportunities, it is also a time in which a number
of constraints of complexity, of limits to physical dimensions of things,
complicate and encumber our future.
It is also clear that science and technology will continue to play a
central role in our future, I believe, just as much, if not more so,
than in the past. We will use these tools to help bridge our way into
the 21st Century. And I expect that our journey into the next millennium
will certainly involve change and opportunity and challenge.
I think the President said it well in his 1995 State of the Union when he
said: "...now we move to an age of technology, information, and global
competition. These changes have opened vast new opportunities for our
people, but they have also presented them with stiff challenges."
While some see this as a time of crises with mostly negative
connotations, I take the more optimistic view that this is an exciting
time for productive change and progress in many dimensions.
This dichotomy of perspective is not new. I think this was best
articulated by Gramsci when he wrote in his prison notebooks: "The crisis
consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot
be born. And into this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear."
I think Gramsci's observation is a fair characterization of how we
find ourselves as we move to the millennium, away from the cold war,
into an era of unprecedented competitiveness, economic integration, global
environmental stress, rapid technical and social change, regional and ethnic
conflicts, and of a lot of other things.
I certainly cannot subscribe to the notion that science and its partner
technology are in a crisis, at least a crisis of impending disaster.
To my way of thinking, a true crisis in science would correspond, for
example, to an approach to the limits of knowledge itself, or to a massive
retreat of support for research. And despite our extraordinary continuing
adventure of discovery, I think we have not to worry. John Horgan and The
End of Science notwithstanding, we are still quite secure in our ignorance.
As Lewis Thomas observed in the Medusa and the Snail: The only solid
piece of scientific truth about which I feel totally confident is that we
are profoundly ignorant about nature. Indeed, I regard this as the major
discovery of the past 100 years of biology. It would have amazed the
brightest minds of the 18th Century enlightenment to be told by any of us
how little we know and how bewildering seems the way ahead.
Now that we have begun exploring in earnest, doing serious science, we
are getting glimpses of how huge the questions are and how far from being
answered. But we are making a beginning, and there ought to be some
satisfaction, even exhilaration, in that fact. The method works. There
are possibly no questions we can think of that can't be answered given
the proper tools and resources.
Einstein said, that one of the most remarkable things about the
universe is that it appears to be understandable. Not so much that
we understand it now, but it is subject to understanding.
I used to wonder in awe at my father's lifetime in which the automobile
and heavier-than-air transport became possible, the x-ray was discovered,
the composition of the atom and quantum world were discerned, the
neutron and nuclear fission were discovered. A lot of extraordinary
things happened that turned the science world upside down.
But then I began to reflect on events during my still somewhat tender
age. It has been since I graduated from college that we have gone into
space, that we have discovered the reason for the extraordinary
species extinction at the KT Boundary in which a sudden cataclysmic
event completely overwhelmed the slow underlying progression of Darwin's
evolution. That discovery dramatically broadened our view of evolution.
We discovered continental drift to be a fact and were able to measure
the velocity of crustal plate movement; we found the neutrino;
we discovered DNA and molecular biology.
So the last decade, or even the year or event of the month will do
just fine for me in talking about the progress and the state of science.
For example, over roughly the past year, the Bose-Einstein condensate,
a new form of matter, predicted a long time ago, has now been observed.
This is a microscopic collection of atoms that have been cooled to
such low temperature that their wave functions completely overlap and
the whole group acts as a single atom. The "Schrodinger's cat"
phenomenon, with which I'm sure you are familiar--it is deeply
connected to the unsettling aspects of quantum uncertainty--has
just been confirmed experimentally.
I have a little piece of paper in my office hanging on the wall
that says: "Heisenberg might have slept here." And I calibrate
my visitors by seeing whether they smile quickly at that statement.
Experiments focused on the very small (particle physics) and the
very large (cosmology) are teaching us about the nature of mass itself,
as well as about the elusive missing mass which appears to comprise
most of our universe.
We are making stunning advances in our quest to understand the origin
and early development of life. The sequencing of an archaea genome,
announced just this summer, has revealed a third form of life. One
such organism, Methanococcus jannasch, is found around hot
vents in the ocean floor where the water is near the boiling
temperature and the pressure is at 600 atmospheres. All that
organism needs in order to live its life cycle totally away from
sunlight is nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen, from which it
makes methane. It is neither prokaryote nor eukaryote. And thus
textbooks need to be rewritten again as of the summer of '96.
Almost simultaneously, we have encountered intriguing evidence of
the possibility of ancient life of Mars. There is clearly much science
to do in reviewing and advancing these kinds of research. It reminds
us about our ignorance of the origin of life, its many different
manifestations here on earth, and its possible occurrence throughout
the universe. A great scientific adventure certainly remains at
the frontier for us and our descendants!
Many systems with complex organization pose profound challenges to us.
The recent paradigm of punctuated evolution has certainly fundamentally
altered our understanding of evolution of the biosphere. Development of
the brain and its development in response to external stimuli,
especially in early years of life, are only partially explored subjects
at the intersection of the life and behavioral sciences. Research in
this area is filled with incredible intellectual challenge, and it
promises also to be of tremend ous importance to educational practice as well.
And we have just begun to recognize the complexity of the earth system,
a fascinating interaction of land and oceans and atmosphere. We have
only recently recognized depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer,
and we also have only recently come to understand how human actions
can make it grow or shrink on a planetary scale.
We have only partial knowledge of the basic workings of the metabolism
of the earth's living skin or the biosphere. More complete knowledge
in this area is certainly going to be needed if we are going to
address comprehensively the problem of climate change, indeed, of the
impact between human activities on our spaceship earth and its
performance and its durability.
We are early in the learning curve when it comes to the issue of
ecosystem metabolism, of biodiversity and its importance to the
working of the planet today and its importance as a collection of
potential answers to yet unposed questions--questions of the future in
the areas of food security and medicine, for example.
These dynamic issues of the global environment that are associated
with the issues I just mentioned -- ozone depletion, global warming,
the loss of biodiversity -- all have a common trait, a very long time
frame far beyond the kind of time frame that I have to deal with in the
White House or the Congress and most of us have to deal with in our daily
private and corporate lives.
They and related phenomena, such as human population growth, develop
over decades and centuries, not years. And even if they can be
stabilized, the time needed for recovery is even longer for many of
them, somewhere between human time scales and geological time scales.
Albert Schweitzer once said near the end of his life that "man has
lost the ability to foresee and to forestall. He will end up destroying
the earth." This from a man who had a full life of great optimism about
the future. A very sobering observation from a very wise person.
Our short national history does tell us that we have difficulty
addressing these relatively slow-changing, long-term issues. Adlai
Stevenson, Jr, said that ". . . we Americans never seem to see the
handwriting on the wall until our back is up against it." Thus, one
almost has to develop a perception of crisis in order to effect action.
The enormous challenges that I see in the area of environment or
sustainable development or can't be solved simply by ignoring them.
Innocence or inaction is not the route to salvation. In fact, such
issues will continue to grow worse as long as we refuse to address them
At the same time I must observe that members of the Congress are
trying to halt the funding of many global environmental research projects
despite the fact that their scientific merit has been attested to by
the National Academy of Sciences as being very high. Some in Congress
want to stop this research by calling it liberal clap trap! I believe
that their real problem is that they are concerned that this kind of
scientific investigation may indeed disclose the kinds of limits of
nature that are anathema to their political philosophy.
We are in the formative stages of coupling the physical, biological,
and social sciences in the pursuit of global knowledge. The admonition
of C.P. Snow is still with us that we need to continue to try to bridge
that infamous gap between our cultures of natural science and social
science in order to effectively tackle many research questions.
This coupling certainly is essential if we are to define and understand
and, therefore, react to the notion of a carrying capacity of the earth
for humans. Capacity is a strong function of the degree with which we
use our intellect through technology to provide for goods and services
with minimal impact on resources.
A key proposition of the Clinton administration is that by embracing,
supporting, and sustaining research in science and engineering, we can
provide for environmental quality and the protection of our future
generations while at the same time providing goods and services to our
economy. This proposition goes against the grain of the traditional
paradigm that somehow environmental quality and other amenities of life
are in fundamental confrontation with providing the physical amenities.
This seeming dilemma was illustrated in a cartoon in the New Yorker
in which two people were standing on a busy street corner in a big
city. One said to the other, "You know, the way I look at it, there
is a tradeoff for everything. You want a high standard of living, you
settle for a low quality of life."
Science and technology would claim that is not necessarily the case.
Indeed, so does the President. We all too often think of standards
of living in terms of convenient, economic measures of our progress.
I would remind you of what Rene Dubos said about this. He said, "Just
as important are the social amenities that make it possible to
satisfy the longing for quiet empty spaces, for privacy, independence,
and other conditions essential for preserving and enlarging the
peculiarly human qualities of life. These are in short supply already."
et me turn to the issue of funding for science and technology for
a moment, because achieving our multiple goals can't be done just by
wishing it!. I think all of us need periodic reminders about the
rewards of investing in the future. We have done this well in the
past. Our global competitors in defense or aeronautics, environmental
technology, medical devices, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, computers,
and a host of other areas have all learned from our example.
Some of those competitors now make similar or greater investments
than we. While we cut our research budget, Japan is doubling theirs
to provide for the future as well as spur their economy. They already
exceed us in research investment per capita. Before the turn of the
century, they will exceed us on an absolute basis, even though they
have half our population.
In the context of Aesop's Fables, some of our most worthy competitors are
acting today like the ants. They put aside the seed corn for a cold and
rainy day. We did it ourselves for many years. In years past, the Federal
Government saw opportunities to invest for a better future, persevered
in those investments, and reaped ample rewards.
For example, fiber optics was a germ of an idea in an obscure area of
basic physics only 30 years ago, but fiber optics now carry most U.S.
long distance telecommunications.
The global positioning satellite system represents a confluence of basic
research in physics and software communications and high-speed electronics.
First developed for military purposes, as was the internet, it is now
rapidly expanding in the commercial markets for navigation and air
safety, as well as contributing to agricultural and ecosystem management.
Severe weather prediction emerged from the integration of space platforms,
immense computing power, and atmospheric science research to help prevent
the loss of life and property.
Biotechnology resulted from decades of basic research in molecular
biology and computer science and now provides diverse services from
pharmaceuticals and health diagnosis to improved foods.
But I am concerned that we are becoming a little bit more like Aesop's
grasshopper than the ant -- the grasshopper who sang the summer away. In
unison we sing less government, lower taxes. But there is dissonance when
we try to talk about preparing for the future and putting aside
something for our children and our grandchildren.
That is one reason I am very pleased to be in this Administration in
which the President and Vice President constantly address this question
of investing for the future, including providing for the effective
replenishment of natural resources we consume with knowledge and
technology that provides similar economic opportunities for future
The Federal Government clearly plays a pivotal role in assuring our leadership
in science and technology.
Federal applied research and development investments partnered with
private sector innovators have led directly to the kind of leadership
of U.S. firms today in agriculture, aeronautics, electronics and semiconductors,
computers, communications, pharmaceuticals, and other leading industrial sectors.
Despite our self-imposed commitment to stop borrowing from the future to
pay for present consumption, and the continued tight budget squeeze that
will be required to balance the budget, we believe it would be foolhardy
to cut deeply or eliminate the historic cost-shared partnerships in
technology development which will undergird our future.
Finally, I would like to reflect on the underlying causes of stress
and pressure we now observe on society in general and in the science
I would posit three factors that I think we ought to try to wrestle
with. First we need to address the consequences of our long-held paradigm
that the exponential is our friend. Humankind, especially Western
civilization, has long viewed expansionism -- expansion of human
population, of consumption of natural resources, of occupation of the
land -- as a vital life sign, the route to a better life; a measure
sine qua non of our progress.
Implicitly, science and technology have joined that metaphorical
westward expansion that Ken Bolding titled the cowboy economy route
to progress; namely, move west and produce more. The notion worked
remarkably well for quite a time in our national history. But now
we have run out of geographical frontiers, and there is much frustration
with science itself, in part because it is now discerning limits
that are not welcomed in a cowboy economy.
Herb Stein, a highly regarded economist, once addressed the phenomenon
of exponential growth in the following way. He said, "That which
cannot continue forever must at some point come to an end." It
sounds simple, but when you get down to the practicality of it and
the paradigm change it implies for our society, it is a really great
challenge for us. Is the time not already overdue to re-derive measures
of progress and wealth?
The second thing I would hope we can take into account is the fact
that, largely driven by accelerating advances in science and technology
and by the mounting complexity of our society, the ability of our
society to accommodate and to adapt to change is sorely stressed.
This, I believe, is one important explanation for the international
rise in revisionism, in ultra-fundamentalism, in anti-science and in
governance: all emerge from people's frustration with the situation
they find themselves in.
The third factor, is that there has been a loss or erosion of
the social contract between society and the research community. The
implicit bargain of a halfİcentury ago was to keep us out of a hot
war with the menacing Soviet Union, and on the side to create economic
wealth, and improve human health. That constituted the underpinning
to the support of science for decades.
The mostly "white hat, cornucopia" image of science and technology
was properly challenged by Rachel Carson and by other events in which
science, or at least the applications of science, often seemed to be taking
us in the wrong direction. A couple of decades ago, Robert Heilbroner
observed that ours may be the last generation that has the opportunity for
society to wrest control of its future away from the unbridled forces of
This discomfort with the way things were going was further underscored by
the cancellation of the superconducting supercollider several years
ago, reflecting in part a public conviction that this kind of science,
however pure and non-threatening, is not sufficiently relevant to the
public's interest to hold its support. Even if science isn't understood,
if people have a feeling it is going to affect their lives in a positive
way, such as, for instance, research in molecular biology, people will
still support it. But if they neither understand the science nor have
a feeling that it is relevant to their lives, then the social contract is broken.
These are issues we need to wrestle with rather than speculating about
the limits to knowledge. There are attendant responsibilities of the
members of the scientific community to better and more frequently
communicate the activities that we are engaged in and their relevance,
however unpredictable, to the needs and wants of society.
We need to integrate across disciplines, to bridge between the natural
and social sciences, in order to address not only the frontiers of
knowledge but also the frontiers of concerns of our society.
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