Remarks by John H. Gibbons - Univ. of Washington

Remarks By
Assistant to the President for Science and Technology

Dael Wolfle Lecture

University of Washington
Seattle, WA

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: " 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 squarely.

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 generations.

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 community, specifically.

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 technology.

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.

Biography of Dr. John H. Gibbons

Remarks - 12th Annual EPSCor National Conference

Remarks - Presidential Award for Excellence

Remarks by John H. Gibbons - Univ. of Washington

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