Remarks by Neal Lane

Assistant to the President for Science and Technology

and

Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy

 

Zuckerman Lecture

U.K. Office of Science and Technology

London, England

June 30, 1999

 

 

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY IN THE 21st CENTURY

 

 

Lord Sainsbury, Lord Jenkin, distinguished colleagues, good evening. 

It is always a pleasure for my wife Joni and myself to be in London and certainly, it is an honor to be here.  I am grateful to Sir Robert May for inviting me to be the speaker at the last Zuckerman Lecture of the 1900s.

 

Sir Robert and I share an occupational hazard.  Serving as science advisor to a national government requires one to garner public acceptance

on two fronts simultaneously:  as a scientist, and as a policy specialist.  The people of the United States and the United Kingdom seem increasingly skeptical in both areas.  Witness the following episode.

 

A man flying in a hot air balloon suddenly realizes he's lost.  He reduces height and spots a man in a field.  He lowers the balloon farther

and shouts, "Excuse me, sir, can you tell me where I am?"  The man below says, "Yes, you're in a hot air balloon, hovering approximately 30 feet above this field."

 

"You must work in science," says the balloonist.

"I do," replies the man. "How did you know?"

"Well," says the balloonist, "your answer is technically correct, but it's of absolutely no use to anyone."

The man below replies, "You sir must work in policy."

"I do," replies the balloonist, "but how'd you know?"

"Well," says the man, "you don't know where you are, or where you're going.  You're in the same position you were before we met, but now it's my fault."

As science policy advisors, Sir Robert and I would seem to be challenged in both regards.  My remarks tonight are offered to counter

those views.

 

This evening, I will talk about changes underway in U.S. science and technology policy that reflect the philosophy behind the Vice President's January 1999 challenge to the scientific community.  Speaking before the annual meeting of the AAAS, Vice President Gore called for "a new compact between our scientific community and our government one that is based on rigorous support for fundamental science, along with a shared responsibility to shape our breakthroughs into a powerful force for progress."  I will briefly note the trends that are influencing the existing compact, discuss how the U.S. has been responding in terms of S&T policy, and say a few words about where we are headed!

 

TRENDS THAT INFLUENCE THE FUTURE OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

 

Most people, in America and perhaps in the U.K. now take for granted the advances in science and technology that have yielded economic prosperity, good health, a cleaner environment, and enhanced national security.  We, both the scientists who do the research and the taxpayers who fund and benefit from our work, have settled into a fairly comfortable routine of investment and payback that has served us well for many years.  But foment in the current political, economic, and social backdrop, as well as within science and technology, suggests we cannot simply maintain the status quo if our nations are to prosper in the 21st century.

 

Perhaps the most remarkable trend is the increasingly rapid pace of change in science itself.  We see it in Nobel Prize-winning achievements such as the cooling and trapping of atoms that led to the successful creation of Bose-Einstein condensates and atom lasers and in the work of Harry Kroto of Sussex University, in partnership with my former colleagues at Rice

University, in the discovery of fullerenes.  We also see it in the cloning of "Dolly" - the sheep with the Mona Lisa smile; in the remarkable advances in human stem cell research; and in the impressive progress on the Human

 

 

Genome Project, in which the Wellcome Trust is playing such a major role.  Another breakthrough - GPS - will likely make the story I just told about the balloonist obsolete in a few years, since it's almost unimaginable that anyone could be lost anywhere on Earth.

 

Perhaps no area has contributed more to this acceleration of science and technology than information technology.  The Internet, specifically, symbolizes the influence of science and technology on the societal trends

that now affect the future of science and technology.  In less than a decade, this one tool of modern information technology has exploded from a network of fewer than 100 sites - researchers communicating with computers and with one another - to a network of networks, including the World Wide Web, with more than 100 million users of all ages, nations, and walks of life who apply it to all sorts of purposes. The Internet continues to grow - in size and scope, in terms of commercial influence and in terms of cultural impact.  I very much appreciate the perspective of Thomas Friedman, who in his new book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, suggests that we are now operating in a system that has replaced Cold War geopolitics - symbolized by a wall that divided everyone - with globalization - symbolized by the World Wide Web, which unites everyone.  Vice President Gore announced last week that the U.S. will partner with ten developing countries and the World Bank to provide technical assistance and expand Internet access, which will further unite us.  He invites other interested countries to join this initiative as well.

 

There is no end in sight for advances in science and technology or for their impacts on society.  Sir Robert best summed up my assessment of what we can expect in the 21st century when he said, "Tomorrow's world will be even more different from today's than today is from yesterday.  The change will derive, in unforeseeable ways and on uncertain time scales, from advances in fundamental understanding of how the world works."

 

The pace and scope of scientific advances create new challenges for us in the policy area.  Boundaries between traditional disciplines, and even between science - the world of ideas - and technology - the world of tools - have blurred.  Myriad demands on resources have upset the status quo at institutions conducting research and development.  Young people - in the

 

 

United States, at least - continue to spurn science and technology careers, in part because our primary and secondary schools provide such a poor base of understanding in mathematics and science.  We may find our population unable to cope with change of the type Sir Robert describes.

 

STEPS THE U.S. HAS TAKEN IN S&T POLICY TO ADAPT TO CHANGING TRENDS

 

Despite the swirl of change around us, doing good science in the 21st century will likely require the same basic elements we have depended on in the 20th century.  We will still need curious, creative, and capable minds to perform tomorrow's science and engineering.  We will still need young people who are passionate about science and mathematics and are committed to careers in S&T.  We will still need strong and stable government support for S&T, including a solid core of basic research, particularly in institutions of higher learning.  And we will still need high-quality facilities and instrumentation to carry on the kind of research that will lead to the next century's breakthroughs.

 

The challenge, then, is how to maintain these prerequisites when everything else is changing.  I want to talk now about three areas of science and technology where the Clinton-Gore Administration has increased support in response to changing trends:  1) what I will call "broadly enabling" fundamental research; 2) policy-relevant research; and 3) research on the ethical, legal, and social implications of advances in science and technology.

 

In the United States, the federal government has an undisputed role as an investor in fundamental research.  Our commitments to that realm of inquiry are deep and sustaining.  But "broadly enabling" research - research that asks fundamental questions and at the same time is likely to yield progress in many scientific fields and technologies - is receiving top priority.  And history leads us to expect this research to produce gains in the economy and progress toward many other social goals.  In the fiscal year 2000 budget request, President Clinton and Vice President Gore made basic research on information technology - including all aspects of computing and communications - the top priority because information technologies fulfill three critical functions:

 

        First, these technologies allow us to vastly accelerate the pace of research and discovery across all scientific fields.

 

        Second, they have become key drivers of the economy.  During the past five years, these technologies have contributed one-third of America's economic growth.

 

        Third, information technologies are essential for achieving some of our most important overarching public goals, from health care to education to protecting our environment and maintaining national security.

 

The President's information technology initiative, if funded by Congress, will provide a $366 million increase (28%) in Federal IT research.  Much of the new funding will support long-term fundamental research, particularly software, but also very high-risk, long-term research on concepts such as quantum computing and DNA computing.  The initiative will also support advanced computing infrastructure.  We hope to provide to the non-defense research community a network of computers approaching the cutting edge of technology with regard to power in the teraflop domain and associated support services.  Finally, the proposed initiative would greatly expand research into social, economic, and workforce impacts of information technology.

 

     I believe there is bipartisan support for enhanced investment in information technology.  But I anticipate a long, hot summer awaiting the results of our appropriations process.

 

     In addition to support for "broadly enabling" research, the Clinton Administration has also increased support for policy-relevant research  research designed not only to extend the frontiers of science, but also to produce the information we need for wise policy decisions.  Nowhere is

the need for a sound science base clearer than in the area of environmental policy.

 

     Take, for instance, the debate over climate change.  All stakeholders in this debate have used science, in many legitimate as well as questionable variants, to support their arguments.  For that reason, we have dedicated ourselves in international and domestic forums to identifying the types of

data that decisionmakers need, determining where our current knowledge base provides answers or simply raises new questions, and, finally, undertaking the research deemed most likely to provide the relevant facts.

 

When we approach the task of writing policy-relevant questions for climate change, nothing leaps out as particularly revolutionary or mysterious.  For instance, a policy-relevant, but policy-neutral, question identified for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is:  "What are the evidence for, causes of, and consequences of changes in the Earth's climate since the pre-industrial era?"  Scientists know a lot about the answers to that question, but it can completely stymie a policy debate if, for whatever reason, people do not hear the answers.  Policy-relevant questions do not change the nature of the research so much as they focus the researchers on the need to translate their results into "plain English" - or, perhaps, "plain American," in our case - and the need to fill in gaps in the knowledge base.

 

In the United States, we have adopted this same emphasis on policy-relevant questions in our nationwide effort to study and understand the potential regional consequences of climate variability and change.  We have based the assessment on the principles of scientific excellence and adopted an open and participatory approach linking scientists and a broad spectrum of stakeholders - who care particularly about a state or region of the country - that we believe will produce much more influential results than an "ivory tower" undertaking limited solely to input from experts.

 

Indeed, I think it is not an overstatement to say that science has left the ivory tower and entered the marketplace, which means our results will more and more often have ethical, legal, and social implications that deserve our increased attention.  Recent advances in biomedical science, particularly, promise so much for society, but also raise serious ethical questions and challenge deeply held beliefs.

 

For example, the successful cloning of Dolly, rapidly followed by the successful cloning of mice and cows, raised the possibility and the fear that successful cloning of a human being was not far behind.  This prospect understandably rubs most people the wrong way:  technically, because

 

current cloning methods have high fatality rates and the survivors often have abnormalities; but fundamentally, because we are uncomfortable ethically, morally, and emotionally with the concept of producing clones of ourselves.

 

Similarly, society stands to benefit enormously from potential therapeutic use of human embryonic stem cells to treat debilitating and currently incurable diseases.  However, for many people, that potential does not mitigate the fact that human embryos are destroyed in the process of obtaining these stem cells.

 

In the United States, we have encouraged open discussion of cloning and stem cell research under guidance of an independent advisory group - the National Bioethics Advisory Commission - that operates in the "sunshine," meaning that it invites and responds to public comment, and all meetings are open to the public.  Your own Human Genetics Advisory Commission recently issued a report on cloning and stem cell research that made an important contribution to the international discussion of these issues, by drawing a distinction between therapeutic and reproductive cloning that will help frame the continuing debate in the coming months.  Last week your government reaffirmed its opposition to the use of cloning technology for human reproduction.  The U.S. government expects to receive NBAC's recommendations shortly, and, of course, the President will consider them carefully before reaffirming or changing U.S. national policy.

 

We have also begun to incorporate funding for research that will help us anticipate and respond to the ethical, legal, and social implications of advances in science and technology in the very beginning stages of projects.  Earlier I mentioned the special focus of the President's information technology initiative on the social, economic, and workforce impacts of information technology.  We have also set aside funds to answer similar questions raised by the Human Genome Project.  In the United States, funding for this type of research - focusing on the human aspects of science and technology - is likely to receive more attention in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

ADDITIONAL STEPS NEEDED TO SHEPHERD S&T INTO THE 21ST CENTURY

 

Each of the areas of focus I have been discussing  - "broadly enabling" research, policy relevance, and ethical, legal, and social implications of advances in science and technology - is a work in progress.  We know we have much more to do.

 

And I believe there are some additional dimensions of science and technology that require our attention as well.  Among these dimensions

 three stand out as particularly important:  education, partnerships, and public understanding.  They lie at the heart of what Vice President Gore referred to as the "compact" between the science and technology

community and the American public as represented by its government.

 

Education - a very high priority in the Clinton-Gore Administration - is an element of the compact that needs particular attention.  The Administration has taken steps to ensure that all young people have access

 to a high quality education, with particular emphasis on mathematics, science, and technology.

 

Yet, as we near the 21st century, we in America are still unable to attract a sufficiently diverse group of individuals to the science and technology workforce.  And we find the performance of our students

from kindergarten through secondary level disappointing in international comparisons.

 

Yes, there has been progress.  But, it is not nearly enough.  To make the kind of progress we really need, I believe we must have consensus either on a new, more aggressive role for the Federal government or on a modified role for our partners in academia, in the private sector, and in State and local government.

 

It is not clear that an enhanced Federal role is the best tack.  It would be expensive.  And our partners - state and local communities - would likely regard it as intrusive on their domains if we do not first seek consensus on our goals and methods.  Those with a more immediate role in the education of

 

 

the next generation / universities and colleges / State and local governments / may well be the ones who need to take a more aggressive role in making sure that public goals are attained.  In any case, this is an area where revisiting the compact is critical.

 

Education is just one place where partnership among the stakeholders is a key to exerting influence.  Many S&T objectives are accomplished through partnerships  involving Federal, State, and local levels of government, universities, industry, international organizations, and multiple combinations of these institutions - which must adapt to changing times.

 

One recurrent bugaboo in the United States involves the blurry line between science and technology that I referred to earlier.  There is general agreement that technologies moving to the marketplace are in the sphere

of the private sector.  But when cutting-edge science can lead almost instantaneously to marketable technology, where do you draw the line on government involvement? 

 

One example is the broad area of information technology.  Advances in search algorithms or security protocols can have immediate value to Internet-based firms.  When I ask Congress for IT research funds, they want to know why industry is not taking responsibility for this research.  We know firms do conduct some basic IT research, but it is difficult for individual companies to obtain the full benefits from their investments, often because the timing is not optimal.

 

Biotechnology, particularly in the search for new drugs and better agriculture, also poses some difficult questions.  In these areas basic research raises the specter of commercial advantage, through genetic engineering and other technologies.  Even if we resolve issues related to funding of precompetitive and competitive technologies, we still must take proper account of public opinion and societal values.  I will return to biotechnology especially to comment on genetically modified organisms in a moment.

 

Therefore, given the importance of partnerships, we must ask some policy-relevant questions.  What kinds of partnerships do we need to provide the appropriate precompetitive research that makes specific, marketable advances possible?  How can we create standards that facilitate movement to the marketplace?  Is there a way - through policy - to ensure that we take proper account of the concerns and values of the public?  Revisiting the compact may not answer all our questions about partnerships.  But constructive dialogue among the partners should steer us in the right direction.

 

Scientists are, perhaps, the senior partners in the compact between science and society, at least in terms of responsibility.  And there is something I would ask of scientists in the way of change, as well; something that I believe will go a long way toward improving public understanding of science and technology.  That is to become what I will call civic scientists.

 

For a vivid example of such a scientist, we need only invoke the namesake of this distinguished lecture series, Lord Zuckerman himself, whose training in the life sciences made him valuable to the British government in researching the biological effects of bomb blasts at the start of World War II.  For several decades after the War, he extended his scientific training and expertise to social and civic applications, including serving as the first Chief Scientific Advisor to the British government - still a most noble calling, I might add.

 

I believe that even more so than in the past, scientists and engineers must get visibly involved in societal issues in their communities, in their states and local communities and at the national level.  But the case for the civic scientist applies just as forcefully at the international level, for two reasons.  The first is the universality of scientific knowledge.  And the second is the dramatic and accelerating internationalization, or globalization, of science and technology.

 

The best science depends on cross-fertilization of the best minds, without regard for political boundaries.  I must take this opportunity to

say that I am deeply troubled by the current climate of panic and isolation that has gripped the U.S. Congress in the wake of breaches in security at

one of our national laboratories.  National security is a serious matter, but

an overreaction threatens the very core of scientific progress - free exchange of ideas.  I am personally dedicated to maintaining open doors for civilian research even as we increase security for classified information.  Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson is taking steps to do just that.

But as I started to say, we need global cross-fertilization - open exchange of ideas and a commitment to working together as civic scientists - to deal with issues where the science is moving quickly toward the marketplace and where the public no longer blindly accepts authority.  Science, policy, and politics have converged in many such areas in recent years, but I would like to briefly address one that has become a very sticky wicket around the globe - genetically modified organisms.

 

Today, almost 20 years after research on the little-known Agrobacterium resulted in the first successful and dependable genetic transformation system for crops, desirable genes from most any species

can be modified to function not just in other plants, but in specific tissues

at specific times.  That advance opens the door for new opportunities to enable resistance to diseases and pests, drought tolerance, improved nutritional properties, and other beneficial traits that can be used to improve consumer health, protect the environment, and increase the farmer's bottom line.  Biotechnology is no miracle solution.  But with over 800 million malnourished people in the world today, those are very attractive capabilities.

 

However, with capability comes responsibility:

 

        Responsibility for regulatory agencies to protect human health and the environment through a process that is open and inspires public trust;

 

        Responsibility for industry to develop products that benefit the consumer and the environment; and

 

        Responsibility for consumers to thoughtfully hold government and industry accountable for their decisions and ensure that those decisions are based on sound science.

 

That third responsibility is a loud clarion call for the civic scientist.  As scientists we need to communicate risks and benefits clearly to the public and respond to their concerns.  Against the backdrop of the media - which vary dramatically in their respect for facts - the work of the civic scientist is desperately needed.  It is our responsibility to work with the media, civic organizations, and other outreach mechanisms to make sure consumers have the information needed to make informed decisions.  People need to feel confident that their food is safe, wholesome, and good value for their families.  Consumers deserve nothing less than transparency in the science policy debate and our very best efforts at public education.  I am certain that public understanding will be a major objective of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society when they meet on this topic in July.

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

In the U.S. we have made a good faith downpayment on the challenge from the Vice President to develop a new compact between science and society:

 

        Broadly enabling research, exemplified by the information technology initiative, has taken top priority on our agenda.

 

        Researchers have integrated stakeholder interests in their projects, increasing the policy-relevance of their work.

 

        Ethical, legal, and social implications of advances in science and technology are now starting to get the attention they deserve from the outset of research.

 

        Education - the single most important factor for continued prosperity and closing the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" - has become the primary focus of all parties to the compact.

 

        Partners in the S&T continuum - from academia, business, and government at all levels - have reassessed their goals and explored how they will join efforts to make a whole greater than the sum of the parts.

 

        Instead of hitting the snooze button, scientists are responding to the wakeup calls brought on by GMOs and other contentious science policy debates and working with the public to achieve better understanding of

the power and limits of science and technology.

 

We have a lot of work left to do.  But our vision - a continuing stream of scientific advances, fueling technological developments that will improve the economy and the quality of life for everyone in the next century - keeps us going.

I collect what my office refers to as a "Jetsons" file of speculations on the future of science and technology.  It's named in honor of a one-time popular cartoon TV show about life in a futuristic space age.  These "opportunities" have sustained me and my White House colleagues through many a long, dark day of budget battles. 

 

Nothing is more satisfying than imagining developments in the 21st century that may mean that:

 

        People will be able to visit Mars first virtually, but eventually, in person - with our advanced understanding of aging - perhaps me amongst them.

 

        Trees will be able to convert sunlight to liquid fuel and deliver the fuel directly from their root systems to underground pipelines.

 

        Various types of MEMS - microelectricalmechanical systems - will be

able to get long distance communications costs down practically to zero, or be assembled into robotic organisms that hunt for survivors in

collapsed buildings, or deliver drugs directly to diseased tissue.  And 1,000-fold further down in miniaturization, nanotechnology is on the horizon.

 

        Someone finally - especially after Dolly has shown us what females can

do on their own - will give us the answer to that urgent question, "why should males exist?"

 

Before concluding, I want to pause to take note of an approaching milestone  not a millennium, not a century, but a bicentennial.  Next

year will mark the observance of the 200th anniversary of the election of Thomas Jefferson as the third U.S. President.  Jefferson revered science and exploration, and chartered the Lewis and Clark Expedition an exploration of the American West whose impact on society he could scarcely have imagined.  I can think of no more fitting way to honor Mr. Jefferson than by committing to 21st century expeditions in science and technology that simultaneously push the frontiers of knowledge and improve peoples' lives.

 

 

 

I am fortunate to work for a President and a Vice President who share a compelling vision of the power of science and technology and a commitment to use those tools to prepare for the 21st century.  Bill Clinton said last year that he foresees in the next 50 years:

 

a world where climatic disruption has been halted; where wars on cancer and AIDS have long since been won; where humanity is safe from the destructive force of chemical and biological weapons, wielded by rogue states or conscienceless terrorists and drug runners; where our noble career of science is pursued and then advanced by children of every race and background; and where the benefits of science are broadly shared in countries both rich and poor.

 

The past 50 years have been exceptional times for science and technology.  I look forward to working together with all of you, particularly because of the special ties between the U.S. and the U.K. - but also with our colleagues around the world - to achieve the kinds of changes outlined by the President for the next 50 years, so that people come to look at such progress as typical, rather than exceptional.

 

In closing I want to share a story I heard about "old England" - maybe someone can tell me whether it's true.  There was a budget debate among the faculty at an Oxford college.  The dons were debating what to do with all of their college's money.  Most seemed to agree that buying land would be the best use for the money, since, as one faculty member observed, "for the past thousand years, land has proven to be a very wise investment for the college."  At this point, the college's whiskered old patriarch stood and said, "true, but the past thousand years have been atypical."

 

Indeed, for our two nations, and our world, the past 1,000 years, past 100 years, even past 10 years, have been atypical.  And that's a good thing.  Let's work together on another century of changes even more marvelous than those we see today.  Let's work to insure that as we continue on this accelerating spiral of progress in science and technology, we involve our

 

 

 

 

citizens much more directly than we have done in the past.  Let's make sure that all people around the world better understand the issues, participate fully in decisions about how to deal with risks, and, especially, enjoy all the many benefits offered by science and technology.

 

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak to you tonight.

 

 

 


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