American Association for the Advancement of Science
February 12, 1996
The Technology Challenge:
What is the Role of Science in American Society?
But today, before this extraordinary collection of minds, I'll ask the question that in many ways must precede the others: What is the role of science in American society? Why does science matter anyway?
These are complex questions. And no one person has all the answers. I certainly don't. In fact, before I proceed further this morning, I want to recalibrate your expectations. As you listen during the next half-hour, feel free to think our session as a biology class. But don't think of me as the professor. Think of me as the frog.
So let me begin by describing a deep -- but little noticed -- change in the pond of our public life. Not too long ago, the metaphors of science migrated easily to the realm of political and economic affairs. In previous generations, the logic and lingo of science -- from Newtonian physics to the industrial science of Frederick Taylor -- informed our public conversation. But not today -- or at least not very often. When today I say that our current, chaotic political culture reminds me of Ilya Prigogine -- that because our system has more and more energy coming in, it will eventually reorganize itself into a complicated and unpredictable new system . . . nobody has a clue what I'm talking about.
As a result, the language we use to discuss public problems is less vivid and less robust than it ought to be. Chaos theory may offer clues for when government should intervene in the economy. Economic policy perhaps should focus less on "priming the pump" -- and more on "imprinting the DNA." Evolution could offer insight into our social structures. But at the moment, we lack the vocabulary to even begin such discussions.
We either avoid scientific metaphors altogether -- or we lean against the crutch of Industrial Age metaphors that are splintering with age. In particular, we continue to rely on the metaphor of the factory -- of mechanized mass production -- well after it has exhausted much of its supportive force.
So today, in the spirit of academic inquiry, let me propose an alternative metaphor . . . an updated metaphor . . . a metaphor more appropriate to the times and more muscular in its power to explain. It is the metaphor of distributed intelligence.
In the beginning of the mainframe computer era, computers relied almost totally on huge central processing units surrounded by large fields of memory. The design was much like a mass- production factory. The CPU would send out to the field of memory for raw information that needed to be processed, bring it back to the center, do the work, and then distribute the answer back into the field of memory. This technique performed certain tasks well -- especially those that benefited from a rigid hierarchy or that depended on the outer reaches only for rote tasks.
Then along came a new architecture called massive parallelism. This broke up the processing power into lots of tiny processors that were then distributed throughout the field of memory. When a problem was presented, all of the processors would begin working simultaneously, each performing its small part of the task, and sending its portion of the answer to be collated with the rest of the work that was going on. It turns out that for most problems, this approach is more effective.
But somehow this idea, revolutionary as it was in the computer world, never travelled to other regions of our life -- and didn't come anywhere near politics. And that's a shame. Because in the realm of politics or economics or public policy, the metaphor of distributed intelligence has enormous explanatory power. It offers an insight into why democracy has triumphed over governments that depended exclusively on a central authority. And it illuminates why private sector organizations are shedding their middle layers and pushing power, information, and influence to frontline workers. Taken a step further, it even helps explain phenomena as diverse as virtual communities on the Internet and television programs like "America's Funniest Home Videos."
All of which raises a question much like the one Lily Tomlin asked me last week when the President signed into law landmark legislation reforming American telecommunications. As I tried to explain something to her during the bill-signing ceremony, Lily -- actually, her character, Ernestine the operator -- asked me: If you know so much, how come you're not signing the bill? In other words, if this is such a great metaphor, why hasn't it taken hold?
Here's one possible explanation: I've got it wrong. Perhaps the metaphor of distributed intelligence simply isn't as powerful as I've claimed.
Here's another possibility: the increasing segmentation of society -- in particular, the segmentation of scientific disciplines. At their best, the scientific community and the university community embody the ideal of distributed intelligence. The great power of science derives in part from specialization into disciplines. But much of the power also comes from open criticism and communication across disciplines. Indeed, some of the most significant discoveries have emerged from the productive friction that occurs when different perspectives rub against each other and produce the spark of new insight. But if the physicists don't talk to the chemists, and the chemists don't talk to the economists, and if the economists don't talk to the climatologists, then distributed intelligence is more aspiration than reality. So a second explanation for the absence of this metaphor is that it describes a phenomenon that itself disappearing.
Finally, here's a third possibility why the notion of distributed intelligence has not migrated to our public conversation: the growing disconnect between science and democracy. Walk through the halls of Congress, and you'll see the Gucci loafers of corporate lobbyists, but not the white lab coats of American scientists. Page through a directory of members of Congress, and you'll find well over 150 lawyers, but only six scientists, two engineers, and one science teacher among the 535 people in the House and the Senate.
As a result, scientific concepts sometimes elude the vast majority of our elected officials.
That is inherently unfortunate, because we want well-rounded leaders.
But let me dwell a moment about some of the harder-edged consequences -- in the hopes that it will solidify my case for this new metaphor: Lack of scientific understanding undercuts support for the pursuit of further understanding, which fosters deeper ignorance, which in turn further erodes support for battling that ignorance. It's a vicious cycle.
And it's already underway. Listen to what some members of Congress have been saying recently.
Two weeks after the Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to scientists for their work on ozone depletion, Texas Congressman Tom Delay said -- and I'm quoting -- "The science underlying the CFC ban is debatable." The agreement to terminate the use of CFC's, he said, was "the result of a media scare."
Congressman Delay also said that DDT was -- and I'm quoting -- "not harmful."
And just a few weeks ago at a hearing on clean drinking water, Oklahoma Congressman Tom Coburn said -- and I'm quoting once again to assure you I'm not making this up -- "I want to touch on cryptosporidium for a minute. . . this disease can sometimes be very helpful, because it helps us identify those who in fact are immune compromised."
These comments ought to send shivers up our spines, because they suggest that the lack of scientific metaphors is merely the symptom of a deeper disregard for science itself and further proof of the vicious cycle I mentioned a few moments ago.
And that's precisely the opposite of how it should work in America. For much of this century, Americans have benefited from a virtuous circle -- a virtuous circle of science and success. As the nation generated wealth, a portion of that wealth was invested in research, science, and technology. Those investments helped answer what seemed answerable -- and eventually spawned still greater wealth, which was then invested in still more research. On and on it went. In this virtuous circle -- launched with bipartisan agreement -- prosperity generated investment, investment generated answers, and answers generated further prosperity.
But now -- because of the woeful lack of knowledge that you just heard -- that virtuous circle risks coming undone. At the very moment a new age demands continued investments in science and technology, there are some in Congress threatening to turn the clock backward with the largest cuts in 15 years.
In their most recent budget, according to AAAS's own study, the Congressional leadership proposed reducing federal funding for science and technology by one-third by the year 2002, adjusted for inflation. And get this: several years after the Cold War ended, defense R & D is going up, while civilian R&D is going down. More for Star Wars, less for environmental research. At the very moment global economic competition and global environmental degradation demand civilian research and the technologies it often produces, this Congress is proposing the sharpest cuts in nondefense research since America was fighting World War II.
This organization's study a few months ago laid out the numbers plain and simple. The only investment the Congress wants to increase was in health sciences. And that's great. But in almost every other realm, they're approaching science with all the wisdom of a potted plant.
Research on issues that will affect the health of our children, the condition of our planet, and the vibrancy of our economy -- risks being slashed to the bone. Global warming . . . down. Supercomputers . . . down. Nuclear nonproliferation . . . down. New materials . . . way down. Solar energy . . . way down. Environmental satellites . . . down. Water quality . . . down.
It's like they're living in a gravity-defying universe. Everything that ought to be up is down. Everything that ought to be open is closed. Their science policy is straight out of science fiction. A few may talk like Johnny Mnemonic, but most support policies designed for Fred Flintstone. They promise to boldly go where no Congress has gone before, but their flight plan will take us into the ground.
President Clinton vetoed several of the bills containing these cuts -- but not before that other side shut down the government, and furloughed thousands of government scientists. And right now, several agencies -- in particular, the National Science Foundation -- are sputtering along with stopgap funding that makes it almost impossible to plan and difficult even to finance day to day activities.
But the saddest part is that it doesn't have to be this way. Last week, President Clinton proposed a budget outline that leads to the first balanced budget in seventeen years. And he gets there without compromising our values, without abandoning our commitments to education, the environment, and science and technology.
Of course we've got to balance the budget, but there's both a sensible path and a dangerous path that can take us there. Consider: federal investments in basic research now total 0.27 percent -- that's .0027 for any humanities majors in the crowd -- 0.27 percent of America's gross domestic product. That's considerably less than American households spend each year on pet food or breakfast cereal.
Only a few years ago, the United States -- public and private combined -- invested three percent of its GDP in research and development. Today, it's sunk to 2.6 percent. But if that weren't enough, consider the long-term consequences if these deep cuts are imposed: by the year 2000, for the first time in history, Japan will spend more on research and development than the United States, in real terms. Not more per capita, or more as a portion of their Gross Domestic Product. More. Period. Even though Japan's economy is considerably smaller than ours and its population is about half our size.
If our guiding metaphor is the factory, such proposals don't seem outlandish. After all, the goal of the factory is to crank out more and more of the same thing at a lower and lower cost. Shaving a little here and little there is smart business.
But if the guiding metaphor is distributed intelligence, such proposals are terribly misguided. Because distributed intelligence combined with this virtuous circle of riches and research is needed now more than ever, and has already made a difference in this country.
For instance, the discovery of the structure DNA led to new drugs for Lou Gehrig's disease. The Hubble Telescope, besides opening new vistas on our universe, helped produce to new treatments for breast cancer. A federally-supported agency, the National Academy of Sciences, sounded the first alarm that chloroflorocarbons were eroding the ozone layer. The MRI was a product of four separate discoveries in four separate fields of scientific inquiry. And the Human Genome Project is now determining the location and sequence of an estimated 100,000 human genes, and generating new strategies to battle illness and disease.
If we abandon our commitment to science, and fail to understand the power of distributed intelligence, this is what we risk losing -- the chaotic, convoluted, unpredictable breakthroughs that basic science produces.
But we also risk losing something even more significant, the effects of which could be even more tragic. We risk losing our children.
It would be tragic if the richest nation on the planet, through its inaction, told its own future that discovery doesn't matter. Anybody who has kids -- or remembers being one -- knows the ferocious curiosity that bubbles in our youngsters. Kids capture bugs and ask questions about clouds and wonder how cars work. Kids like you never stopped.
But if we extinguish that natural creativity with a fire hose of needless reductions -- if we broadcast an unending stream of signals that discovery doesn't matter, that science is for someone else -- then all of us will pay an emotional and financial price impossible to calculate. And if we fail to reform our schools -- away from the model of the factory and toward the model of distributed intelligence -- we will have only ourselves to blame.
Fortunately, President Clinton is trying to do better. On education, he's made real progress . . . launching direct student loans . . . opening the doors of college to more Americans . . . establishing education standards so every diploma means something . . . promoting education technology in the classroom . . . proposing a tax deduction for families' investments in higher education.
And on science and technology, he's also scored big -- in large part because he's fielded a scientific dream team. Jack Gibbons has become the most influential science advisor the White House has seen in a generation. Cabinet secretaries like Bruce Babbit, Ron Brown, Carol Browner, Hazel O'Leary, and Donna Shalala have fought for a cleaner environment, a strong technology base, national laboratories, and health care research. Dan Goldin has helped take NASA to the stars, while keeping the costs here on Earth. And every layer of the Administration is peopled with women and men dedicated to discovery.
And that team has delivered results. We've extended the R&D tax credit for three years . . . lowered capital gains taxes for investments in emerging companies . . . scaled back the anti-trust barriers to joint ventures in research . . . beefed up protection of intellectual property, giving inventors real protections for their patents . . . boosted funding for the nation's flagship research agencies . . . launched an education technology initiative . . . established the National Science and Technology Council . . . supported research into global climate change . . . and ensured our environmental regulations meet the tests of common sense and cutting-edge science.
But we cannot do it alone. That is not how democracies work. And this is where you come in. Democracies, too, depend on distributed intelligence. And this democracy needs the sound of your voices and the dedication of your hearts. You must take up the call for knowledge. You must enlist in the army of persuasion whose battle cry says knowledge is important for knowledge's sake. Because when you say something is important -- and you say it with enough force -- others might pay attention. But if you view your own pursuit of knowledge as divorced from the nation's pursuit of progress, both endeavors will fall short of their goals.
In a sense, at the edge of a new century, we have a choice of two paths. One path retreats from understanding, flinches in the face of challenges, and disdains learning. It's a know-nothing society -- a society in which the storehouses of knowledge dwindle, the spigots of discovery are twisted and turned off, and missions of exploration are stalled on the ground. This know-nothing society bases regulations on suspicion instead of science, says that DDT isn't harmful, and claims that global warming is the empirical equivalent of the Easter Bunny.
That's the path we will be forced onto if these Congressional cuts become the law of the land, because scattered throughout their proposals are cuts in funding -- and outright prohibitions on research. The guiding principle is an old saying applied to a modern nation: what we don't know won't hurt us. Trouble is, that's the recipe for destruction in a distributed intelligence society.
But there's another path -- infinitely brighter, considerably more American. It's a path on which government continues funding basic science and applied technology. It's path that keeps the virtuous circle of progress and prosperity alive and functioning. It's a path whose signposts say "education is a matter of national security," "environmental protection is a matter of national security." It's a path dotted with investments that open the doors of education to all our people. It's a path that applies what we've learned from science to the rest of our lives.
And it's a trail that's within our power to blaze. We have in our hands and our minds and our souls the power to create this learning society. That's partly what this year's presidential elections will be all about.
Last year, another President -- Chuck Vest, President of MIT -- decided to present his annual report as a series of questions his faculty told him were the most urgent ones in their fields. What he told us in that report underscores the need to deliver on these crucial investments in science and technology.
He reminded us that we don't know "which aspects of climate change are predictable." And we need to know.
We don't know "how best to use our information infrastructure and new media to promote learning among children." And we need to know.
We don't know "how to produce materials with no waste by-products." And we need to know.
We don't know "how to extract all the energy from existing fuel sources." And we need to know.
We don't know "how and why cells die." And we need to know.
We don't know "how know old the universe is, what it is made of, or what its fate will be; we do not understand what mechanism generates mass in the building blocks of matter." And we need to know.
We need to know these things. We need to understand these things. We need to discover these things.
We need to create a learning society, a society that harnesses the power of distributed intelligence and uses it to lift our lives. And as the very embodiment of that ideal, you have an obligation to help make it happen.
As always in America, it's possible -- but it's up to us. As always in America, it's possible -- because it's up to us. Let's get to work.
1996 OSTP Speeches
Statement of Vice President Al Gore
Testimony before Committee on Science - March 6, 1996
The Technology Challenge: What is the Role of Science in American Society?
President and First Lady | Vice President and Mrs. Gore
Record of Progress | The Briefing Room
Gateway to Government | Contacting the White House | White House for Kids
White House History | White House Tours | Help
T H E W H I T E H O U S E