110 January 6, 2002
"What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?" — GWB
The following message is the basis for the 6th Annual Edge Question. I sent individualized emails to the third culture mail list as in the example below, addressed to Steven Pinker, the first participant to respond.
p.s. A selection of the responses below were excerpted by The New York Times Op-Ed Page on Saturday, January 4, 2003.
Ian Wilmut • J. Craig Venter • Steven Pinker • Ray Kurzweil • Gino Segre • Stephen Schneider • Oliver Morton • Rodney Brooks • Seth Lloyd • Denis Dutton • Freeman Dyson • Philip Campbell • Kevin Kelly • Lawrence Brilliant • Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi • Paul Davies • Robert Shapiro • Jaron Lanier • J. Doyne Farmer • Colin Tudge • Marvin Minsky • George Dyson • William H. Calvin • David Gelernter • Janna Levin • Howard Gardner • Martin Seligman • Richard Nisbett • David Lykken • Alison Gopnik • Marc D. Hauser • Eric R. Kandel • K. Eric Drexler • James J. O'Donnell • Michael Shermer • Daniel Goleman • Richard Saul Wurman • Andy Clark • John Horgan • Roger C. Schank • Nancy Etcoff • Gerald Holton • Judith Rich Harris • Brian Goodwin • Karl Sabbagh • Joel Garreau • Susan Blackmore • Leo Chalupa • Jordan Pollack • David Myers • Ernst Pöppel • Lisa Randall • Stuart Pimm • Eduardo Punset • Lee Smolin • Rafael Nunez • Timothy Taylor • Mike Weiner • Leon Lederman • Bart Kosko • Adam Bly • Randolph Nesse • Terrence Sejnowski • Mary Catherine Bateson • Alan Alda • Cliff Barney • Douglas Rushkoff • Donald D. Hoffman • Steve Giddings • Lance Knobel • Piet Hut • Robert Aunger • Christine Finn • David M. Buss • Beatrice Golomb • Rupert Sheldrake • Delta Willis • Clifford Pickover • Eberhard Zangger • Steven Quartz • Keith Devlin • John McCarthy • Gary F. Marcus • Justin Hall • Stephen Reucroft & John Swain
t the end of every year, John Brockman, a literary agent and the publisher of Edge.org, a Web site devoted to science, poses a question to leading scientists, writers and futurists. In 2002, he asked respondents to imagine that they had been nominated as White House science adviser and that President Bush had sought their answer to "What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?" Here are excerpts of some of the responses.
Mapping the Planet Professor PlayStation Little Geniuses Think Small Science Without Secrets Fending Off the Big One Intellectual Globalization Cassandras of the Labs Really Popular Science
President Advice on Policy
Congratulations! President George W. Bush is considering asking you to serve as his science adviser. He asks that you write him a memo addressing, "What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?"
So begins this year's online question from Edge, an e-salon of leading scientists and members of the "Third Culture" (in answer to C.P. Snow's scientists vs. humanists)...
This year—with smallpox vaccination, bioterror, stem-cell research, climate change, energy policy and missile defense dominating news—the annual question eschews intellectual posturing and gets down to practicalities...
can improve your own science education at www.edge.org, where the
Edge memos will be available January 6.
research in the United States has a distinguished record of contributing
to knowledge and to new medical treatments. In the same way, research
with cells derived from cloned human embryos will offer unique opportunities
to study many extremely unpleasant diseases, perhaps one day to
have treatments for these diseases and also to produce safer medicines.
This research cannot be carried out in any other way.
Each year thousands of people in the USA are killed by taking medicines, even if the medicine was prescribed and used appropriately. This is because people differ in the way that they react to drugs. Pharmaceutical companies would be able to reduce this risk to us all and design drugs to be safer and more effective if they could study these differences in function of liver cells. At present the only source of such cells for research is the liver of casualties, if the organ is not suitable for transfer to a patient. Liver cells with these important differences in responses to drugs could be derived from cloned embryos and be used first to study these genetic differences and then to design better drugs and to establish the basis for personalised treatments.
There is no fully effective treatment for any of these conditions and in some cases none at all. We all know people affected by them and may fall victim ourselves, as we get older. In these circumstances, it would be a tragedy if concern over the unsubstantiated claims of the birth of a cloned child led to legislation that prohibited these important research projects.
By contrast there is every reason to encourage legislation to prohibit the production of children by cloning. Apart from the many ethical and social concerns the evidence from experiments with animals all points to the conclusion that the likely outcome of attempts to clone humans would include late abortions, the birth of dead children and of abnormal live children. As there is no way to avoid this tragic outcome it is important that legislation is enacted as soon as possible to prohibit such attempts.
I urge you to distinguish between these two uses of the cloning procedure, to allow the research that has the potential to be so beneficial, while prohibiting the misguided attempts to produce children.
Dear President Bush:
At no time in our history is science more important in our society and thus to your administration than now. We have made exciting and promising advances in so many areas of scientific and medical research yet we still have so much to learn. This is especially true in the rapidly growing field of genomics.
In just the last 10 years we have gone from having the complete genetic map of just a few microbes to today having completed the sequencing of more than 100 organisms. With the genetic material in hand of organisms such as human, mouse, and fruit fly, researchers now have the opportunity to understand these complex creatures so that we may one day better treat disease, fully understand evolutionary biology, and thus understand the most fundamental aspects of life and how we as humans function.
The future is indeed bright but only if we have a science-literate administration to help translate this basic research into potential treatments. With these great advances also come tough ethical issues. But we must not become mired in these debates nor let fear and ignorance win out over progress for us all. While I cannot accept the offer to be science advisor I would like to outline a few ideas for your administration to consider.
There are three key areas that need immediate attention:
Our health care system is suffering from double digit inflation while the number of uninsured and underinsured continues to rise beyond any acceptable level for a civilized nation. We have now the potential to dramatically change the cost of health care by using the new predictive tools that will come from the genomics revolution. It is imperative that we make the commitment to go the less costly route of preventing and limiting the extent of disease rather than treating symptoms after they occur as we do now.
On this same preventative theme we can greatly diminish or effectively eliminate the threat of bioterrorism by using the modern tools of genomics to more quickly and accurately detect a suspect agent including genetically modified organisms; develop new effective vaccines without the risk profile associated with current small pox and anthrax vaccines; and develop new effective antivirals and antibiotics.
While your administration has made great progress in providing new funding for these efforts, more direct funding for the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) at the NIH will move this field faster.
Despite much discussion on the topic of alternative energy solutions, the United States continues to rely almost exclusively on fossil fuels. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) approximately 80 percent of all human-caused carbon dioxide emissions currently come from fossil fuel combustion. The DOE also estimates that world carbon dioxide emissions are projected to rise from 6.1 billion metric tons carbon equivalent in 1999 to 7.9 billion metric tons per year in 2010 and to 9.9 billion metric tons in 2020.
This continued consumption of fossil fuels is ample evidence that there is a growing need to eliminate carbon dioxide output into the environment and capture back some of the carbon dioxide associated with global warming. Recent climate modeling from Scripps Institute of Oceanography suggests that if climate change is allowed to continue unabated a temperature increase of just two degrees will be enough to dramatically reduce annual snowfall and ultimately food production due to the drought that will develop in our most important agricultural states.
As a nation we must invest in finding new solutions for our energy needs. I believe that genomics could provide a viable avenue for alleviating some of the problems associated with carbon-based fuels.
I believe it is imperative that we push forward on all the fronts outlined above to insure energy independence, national security, and an improved environment, health and well-being for future generations.
Dear President Bush,
Your father called himself "the education president," and you have promised new educational policies in which "no child is left behind." These affirmations of the centrality of education in a modern democracy are admirable. As our economy comes to depend increasingly on technology, and as modern media present us with unprecedented choices in our lifestyles, our workplaces, and our political commitments a child who cannot master an ever-increasing body of skills and knowledge will be left farther and farther behind.
Unfortunately, the goals of the Presidents Bush are not being realized. Most debates about education in this country focus on issues of administration: vouchers, charter schools, class size, teachers unions, budgets, high-stakes testing. Fewer have focused on the actual process of education: how events in the classroom affect the minds of the pupils. This is an area in which science in particular, the sciences of mind can make crucial contributions.
Your immediate predecessor was enthusiastic about applying research on the brain to education and child development. But as exciting as the field of basic neuroscience is, I suspect it will provide few insights into the process of education. All learning must change the brain, but the changes at the level of brain cells are pretty much the same in all complex organisms -- including mice, which dont learn to read, write, or add. It is the patterns of changes across billions of neurons that determine the distinctively human forms of learning that face us in the classroom, and to understand them we need to understand how intact human beings perceive, think, and act. These topics are the province of the sciences of mind, particularly cognitive science, psychology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral genetics, and evolutionary psychology, must be brought to bear on education in a more systematic way than has happened so far.
First and foremost, we must apply a scientific mindset to the educational process. People outside of the educational establishment are often shocked to learn how little in instructional practice has been evaluated using the standard paraphernalia of social sciencecontrol groups, random assignment, data collection, statistics. Instead, classroom practice is set by fads, romantic theories, slick packages, and political crusades. We already know that some methods of teaching reading work better than others; we need more of these assessments, and faster implementations of what works into classroom settings.
Second, the sciences of mind can provide a sounder conception of human nature, which ultimately underlies all educational policy. What is the mind of a child inherently good at? What is it bad at? Without answers to such fundamental questions we will be groping at random or plunging headlong in wrong directions. An emerging view is that the human mind is impressively competent at problems that were recurring challenges to our evolutionary ancestors seeing and moving, speaking and listening, reading emotions and intentions, making friends and influencing people. It is not so good at problems that are far simpler (as gauged by what we can program a computer to do, for example) but which are posed only by a modern way of life: reading and writing, doing mathematical calculations, understanding the world of science or the mechanics of a complex society. If so, this has obvious applications for education, both positive and negative. We should not make false analogies that assume that children can learn to write as easily as they learn to speak, that learning math can be as fun as learning to run and throw, or that children in groups will learn to do science as readily as they learn to exchange gossip. On the other hand we can try to co-opt the mental faculties that work well (such as understanding how objects fall and roll) and get children to apply them to problems for which they lack natural competence.
Third, we can use an understanding of the mind to set priorities in education at all levels. The goal of education should be to provide students with the cognitive tools that are most important for grasping the modern world and that are most unlike the cognitive tools they are born with. Observers from our best science writers to Jay Leno are frequently appalled by the innumeracy, factual ignorance, and scientific illiteracy of typical Americans. This has implications in countless areas of the public and private spheres for example, when people fall victim to scam artists and irrational exuberance in their investments, when they squander their money and health on medical and nutritional flim-flam, and when they misunderstand the advantages and disadvantages of a market economy in their political decisions. The obvious cure for these fallacies is enhanced education in relatively new fields such as economics, biology, and probability and statistics. Unfortunately, most high-school and college curricula have barely changed since medieval times, and are barely changeable, because no one wants to be the philistine who seems to be saying that it is unimportant to learn a foreign language, or English literature, or trigonometry, or the classics. But no matter how valuable a subject may be, there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and a decision to teach one subject is also a decision not to teach another one. The question is not whether trigonometry is important, but whether it is more important than statistics; not whether an educated person should know the classics, but whether it is more important for an educated person to know the classics than to know elementary economics. In a world whose complexities are constantly challenging our intuitions, these tradeoffs cannot responsibly be avoided.
FIRST, consider the following: would-be bioterrorists have no need to put their "inventions" through the FDA for approval. But the scientists we are depending on to develop the defensive technologies (for example, new anti-viral medications) are required to go through this extremely cumbersome process. Complying with these regulations not only takes many years, but slows down the entire innovation process.
If we look at an analogous offensive-defensive standoff, that of software viruses, we find that the cyberterrorists are indeed creating and unleashing ever more sophisticated software pathogens. But development of the defensive technologies (for example, antiviral software) has been able to keep pace, and software viruses are at worst a nuisance. We have done so well precisely because the development of software technologies is unhampered by sluggish regulatory procedures. We will need the same speed of innovation and implementation in the biological sciences.
In the current environment, when one person dies in gene therapy trials, there are congressional investigations and all gene therapy research comes to a grinding halt. There's a legitimate need to make biomedical research as safe as possible, but our balancing of risks is completely off. The millions of people who desperately need the advances to be made available by gene therapy and other breakthrough biotechnology advances appear to carry little political weight against a handful of well publicized casualties from the inevitable risks of progress.
This equation will become even more stark when we consider the emerging dangers of bioengineered pathogens. What is needed is a change in public attitude in terms of tolerance for needed risk. The leadership for creating this change can only come from the top official, the President of the United States.
SECOND, on another biotechnology front, pressure will heat up considerably this year in the controversial area of stem cell therapies. The number of available germ cell lines has turned out to be a small fraction of the 60 lines that were to be made available for research purposes. Although I would advocate that this policy be reconsidered, my proposal is on a different front: to dramatically increase funding for promising new methodologies in the field of "human somatic cell engineering," which bypass entirely fetal stem cells. These emerging technologies create new tissues with a patient's own DNA by modifying one type of cell (such as a skin cell) directly into another (such as a pancreatic Islet cell or a heart cell) without the use of fetal stem cells. There have been breakthroughs in this area in the past year. For example, scientists from the U.S. and Norway successfully converted human skill cells directly into immune system cells and nerve cells.
Consider the question: what is the difference between a skin cell and any other type of cell in the body? After all, they all have the same DNA. The differences are found in protein signaling factors that we are now beginning to understand. By manipulating these proteins, we can trick one type of cell into becoming another.
Perfecting this technology would not only diffuse a contentious ethical and political issue, it is also the ideal solution from a scientific perspective. If I need pancreatic Islet cells, or kidney tissues, or a whole new heart, to avoid autoimmune reactions, I would strongly prefer to obtain these with my own DNA, not the DNA from someone else's germ line cells. The feasibility of doing this has been demonstrated, and there should be a crash program to perfect a technology that could dramatically improve the health of all Americans.
THIRD, on a different front, that of energy, there has been dramatic recent scientific progress in developing hydrogen fuel cells, including microscopic-sized fuel cells using the same technology that fabricates electronic circuits. These fuel cells, based on micro-electronic mechanical systems (MEMS) can be scaled from tiny devices that will power everything from portable electronics up to cars, appliances, and homes. These systems use safe fuels such as methanol and generate no emissions other than tiny amounts of water and carbon dioxide. The fuels can be fabricated without environmental impact from widely available coal and shale oil with new technologies that capture emissions. All of the requisite technologies have been demonstrated.
Perfecting these new hydrogen-based energy sources would have profound and positive implications for the economy and the environment, not to mention the geopolitical minefields of our current fossil fuel-based economy.
Dear President Bush:
We are becoming increasingly aware of the connectedness and smallness of our world. Our problems are global- we are all affected by what one area or country does. Mid-western industrial pollution impacts on Washington D.C. air quality; Antarctic ice melting causes flooding in Bangladesh and Peruvian El Ninos can be traced to atmospheric pressure seesaws between the Pacific and the Indian Oceans. The AIDs epidemic's ravages know no boundaries. These realizations have changed the way we think and must change the way we act. Finding ways to deal with these issues and ones like them is a pressing scientific need as well as a political, economic and moral one.
Parallel to these concerns, however, are topics that are pressing even though they do not directly alter the quality of our everyday life. Science deals with day-to-day matters, but it also challenges us to leave the legacy of its discoveries to future generations. The Greeks are remembered because of their findings in philosophy and geometry, not because of territorial conquests. Copernicus' realization of the Sun's centrality marks the Renaissance. We want to be remembered in the centuries that come because of our own great achievements, ones that our descendants will say changed the way they see the world.
New insights in developmental biology—our similarities to not only chimpanzees and baboons, but to fruit flies and worms, the genomic revolution and the invigorated emergence of neuroscience are all candidates for unforgettable discoveries. They must be pursued with all the means at our disposal. I would like to address a totally different one: the birth of our universe.
A century ago there was no scientific theory of the universe's origin. It has been less than 40 years since we obtained the first evidence of radiation in the creation's aftermath and only a decade since we established convincingly that the universe was once a super-dense, ultra hot medium at essentially one common temperature. I said "essentially" because there are small deviations in that record; differences far less that a part per thousand from point to point in the sky, but these provide the clue to all the formations of galaxies, stars and planets that followed. This journey back in time is the greatest archaeological expedition ever undertaken, the uncovering of how our universe began and evolved. We almost have the tools in hand for embarkation on this voyage and should not dawdle.
Through the past century's insights, we have come to realize that we live on an ordinary planet circling a typical star of a mid-sized galaxy. Perhaps there is one additional step—that our very universe is not an anomaly in a continuum of space and time. We can leave a trace greater than Copernicus did. Such discoveries, achieved by scientists engaged in international collaborations and speaking the common language of science may serve as a role model for a world in which national, ethnic and religious barriers are broken down.
I believe it is a pressing issue for the nation and the world to have dreams worthy of the best it can achieve.
of Physics and Astronomy
We all share a strong belief in democracy. But it can only function well when the people understand the choices they need to make and are in a position to make trade-offs rationally. As issues get increasingly complex, ignorance decouples the people from the knowledge they need to help guide policy choices that can shape our future. Illiteracy in all forms—and especially in scientific matters—is a threat to a functioning democracy.
Woodrow Wilson said about a century ago "what are we if we have to be taken care of by a handful of experts who know the job, for if we don't know the job we are not truly free". Therefore, as Science Advisor I would work to greatly enhance the scientific literacy of the public—but not just the public, also government employees, elected officials and the media.
Science literacy is not just about the "facts"—knowledge of chemistry, physics, biology or economics per se. More important for non-specialists is to understand the process of science, and how science interacts with public policy issues and gets communicated via the media.
The media and political institutions are typically advocacy based—if a reporter gets the views of a Democrat, she must also get the views of a Republican. That is certainly appropriate in covering political stories, but rarely are complex issues of science simply decomposable into two polarized positions. Moreover, not only are there many possibilities, but relative probabilities are attached by scientific assessment to each of these possibilities.
Thus, an "equal time" doctrine is in fact a miscommunication of what science knows or how it works. Science is about quality, not equality. However, equality of opportunity to get your data and ideas heard is essential too, but via forums in which people who are knowledgeable about the complexities are present and in peer reviewed publications. Such institutions of science are where probabilities get thrashed out.
Science does not allocate equal time or space to all ideas once the winnowing process of quality assessment has begun. To follow the political doctrine of "balance" diminishes democracy since it distorts the knowledge base upon which sound decisions should be made. In science all views are not given equal time or credence because the scientific process of assessing likelihood takes precedence over mere inclusion. This leads to many conflicts over controversial policy issues, like climate change, strategic defense or health policy.
Climate change—in particular Global Warming—is a good case in point. No honest scientist can assert with total confidence it will turn out to be mild or catastrophic. But a dozen scientific assessments have shown that the "good for you" and "end of the world" scenarios are the two lowest probability outcomes. Some benefits are likely, but so too are a range of risks—especially for natural systems and in poorer countries.
The current political debates in which mild/catastrophic views are polarized and get the bulk of the attention in the media and in front of congress is an unfortunate distortion of what the scientific community has reported in its assessments. Such false dichotomy debates impede, rather than enhance democracy since they are not accurately representing what is known and at what likelihood.
The role of science the is clear: assess what can happen and what are the odds of it happening. The role of policy—driven by the beliefs of the public—is to make value judgments on how to react to the odds of various possibilities. It will take some major realignment of institutions like the media and congressional hearings apparatus to back away from the model of polarized advocates toward a doctrine of "perspective": reporting and debating based on the assessment of the likelihood of various events, not giving advocates of extreme opposite views equal time or space.
Over time, better applications of science by a public and officials who understand what can happen and at what odds will strengthen democracy and distance it from both the special interests that spin and distort to bolster ideological or client interests and the elitism of the few people who are the only ones who currently "know the job".
Dear Mr President,
Your number one priority in science and technology should be a new commitment to international public health. It is not a particularly sexy topic; it needs no new nano-know-how, nor a radical change in our way of seeing the physical world. It will create no great technical advantage for America, nor add to its already impressive defenses. Though it will employ the talents of hundreds of thousands around the world, relatively few of them will be on the cutting edge of research. But it is what you must do, nonetheless.
I, like you, am a believer in progress. And it is for that reason that I expect our descendants in a century or two to look back on our age and hold us in contempt. Not for the fact that we fought wars; some wars need to be fought, and some wars are hard to stop. Nor for the fact that we polluted the environment; we are, after all, becoming aware of the problems we have been storing up, and we are beginning to address them on many levels. Our descendants will despise us for having been content to live in a world where millions of poor people died each year for want of basic medical interventions that the rich half of the planet took for granted. And they will be right to do so.
Half a million women die each year because of complications surrounding pregnancy and childbirth; 99% of those women are in low and middle income countries. Saving the vast majority of them requires nothing more than providing trained birth attendants. The 1.6 million children in poor countries who die every year from measles, tetanus and pertussis could almost all be saved by the provision of simple vaccines, and if vaccines were developed against some of the other diseases that kill poor children—diarrheal diseases and diseases of the respiratory tract—that number could be doubled.That's without starting on malaria, which kills over a million a year on its own. Vaccines against malaria would be a great boon, and should be a high priority—but even interventions available today, such as insecticide impregnated sleeping nets and drug treatment, could save hundreds of thousands. Aggressive extensions of existing tuberculosis treatment programs could save millions more each year .
Some of your other advisers will tell you that there is no quick fix for any of this—that the best medicine the poor of the world can get is economic development, which slowly raises health standards in its wake. They are wrong. It is possible to achieve impressive health gains in very poor countries if the will and the resources are there. There is good reason to believe that improving the health of the poor makes subsequent economic development faster and more certain—and helps plant the seeds of stable democracy.
This is not to say that the problems can be solved simply with money and supplies. New interventions will be needed—most sorely vaccines against AIDS and malaria. And much will need to be done to build the capacity of health care systems to serve the poor. But that is not an intractable problem—it has been solved in various ways in various places. Evidence of a real commitment among rich countries to providing the necessary resources would galvanise public health workers around the world to take up those solutions and invent new ones of their own. The idea that spending on aid is necessarily wasted is a cynical and self-serving lie. If you don't believe me, ask Bill Gates.
Other advisers will tell you that the American people will resent money spent overseas when many are uninsured at home. Feel free to tell them that you have some plans for dealing with that problem too. Feel free to tell them that there will also be many benefits to spending money on the health of the poor; that it will grow new markets and win new friends, improving America's image both among those who benefit from this new generosity and those in Europe and Japan suddenly obliged to match it. But tell them too that you are doing this not for those reasons, but because it is the right thing to do.
And tell them that the American people are not as small of heart or mean of spirit as they imagine. Tell them that the American people will understand that the annual $8 billion budget you intend to have set for this program by the end of your second term is less than one percent of what America spends on health care. Tell them that every American couple that leaves a maternity ward with a healthy baby will be happy to think some of their money is making sure a mother in Africa doesn't bleed out unattended. Tell them the opportunity to change the world does not come often—and that as such opportunities go, this one is cheap.
I wouldn't want you to cut other science and technology spending to this end. But if you were to decide that was the only way to balance the books, then I would say go right ahead. The end purpose of research is knowledge with which to improve the human lot. At the moment we already have the knowledge we need to save hundreds of millions of lives over the coming decades, and if push were to come to shove for a few years, using that knowledge should be a higher priority than storing up more knowledge for the future .
You and I, as believers in progress, have faith that the future will be able to take care of itself. We must turn our attention to the present.
Dear President Bush,
Science and the technology that flows from it have been great strengths of the United States; without them the US would not be the single superpower that it is today in the world.
For the last fifty years that science has been carried out largely in the open and has been shared with the rest of the world. That sharing has been a source of great strength. The US graduate education system is the strongest in the world and many international leaders have had some of their training in our Universities. The openness and the way in which our universities have been run as meritocracies, not places where national origin or religion is considered in evaluating one's work, has attracted waves of immigration of great scientists and engineers to this country.
There is a place for classified and restricted research but it is mostly in areas that are close to application, not in fundamental scientific and engineering questions. The place for that research is not at our universities. The great universities of the US should remain as open arenas for all areas of research where they act as an engine of creativity that feeds the scientific needs of the US and the world.
As science advisor I would urge you to continue, and strengthen, this policy of openness. I would urge you to set aside perhaps a billion dollars to fund new fellowships for graduate students from predominantly Islamic countries to come and study science (broadly construed) in the United States. I would urge you to direct the INS to treat foreign students as welcome guests rather than suspected criminals who must be monitored constantly by their host universities, and who are to be arrested, as has recently happened, when the courses they end up taking at a respected first rate university do not match some preconceived plan.
To reach out this generous hand to aspiring young students would be courageous in the current domestic climate of fear. But the long term payoff for the United States will be immense. It will create long term personal links between people in the countries we currently most fear and our own country. Based on past experience we can predict that many of those people will rise to positions of leadership and authority within their countries. In the shorter term it will be an act of generosity rather than aggression, and one can hope that it will have positive effects in the way the US is viewed. Besides that we will gain access to a large number of very smart, very driven, young minds who will help us and the world in making scientific progress.
Once I have convinced you to follow this advice I will get to work on some more radical ideas which involve funding science that is deep and curiosity driven, rather than dressed up as responding to politically justifiable immediate needs. Such science has been the well spring of the great advances throughout history.
Dear Mr. President,
Thank you for your invitation to advise you on matters of science. Science is after all the most public form of knowledge.
Scientific knowledge consists exactly of those pieces of information that can in principle be verified by anyone with the tools and desire to do so.
My advice to our highest elected official is to keep science public. Secret knowledge, no matter how laboriously acquired, is less than science.
Some knowledge, of course, must remain secret for the security of the nation. Do not have the National Security Administration publish its cryptographic keys.
But unless there is a clear security risk, publish all else. Why? Science belongs to the public: they pay for it; they benefit from it. The benefits of scientific knowledge accrue far more rapidly when that knowledge lies open for all to see, to test, and to try.
Your administration has presided over some good examples of the benefits of open dissemination of scientific knowledge. I will restrict my attention to my own field of quantum computation.
Quantum computers are devices that store information at the level of atoms, and that process that information in a way that respects the wave like nature of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is famously weird, and one of the consequences of quantum weirdness is that even a small quantum computer, consisting of a few thousand atoms, would be able to break all existing public-key cryptosystems.
By their potential power, quantum computers pose a significant threat to the security not only of classified encoded material, but to the security of most commercial transactions, in particular those that take place electronically. Despite the clear application of quantum computation to problems of national security, your security agencies have elected to pursue the majority of their research on quantum computers by open competition for public funds, under the stipulation that the results of the research be published and made available to all.
This is a wise course. Although potentially highly disruptive, quantum computers are hard to build. Large-scale quantum computation is a decade away, at least. To construct such large-scale quantum computers will require the scientific and engineering community to solve wide-ranging problems of nanofabrication and control. The solutions to such problems will have wide application in the design and manufacture of high precision, high-power technologies across the board. The potential benefits of such research are a thousand times greater than any drawback from potential disruption to security.
By keeping the science public, your agencies are dramatically speeding the development not only of quantum computers, but of a wide variety of other quantum technologies, ranging from enhanced lithography to more accurate atomic clocks, to precise global positioning. The frontier of the very small offers huge space for development: keep this frontier open to all.
Science is public knowledge. But science is not the only field where openness is important. The security failures of 9/11 were caused not by too little, but by too much secrecy. And the discussions that form public policy should be public.
I know that other advisors are offering you conflicting advice: keep your cards close to your chest—don't let our enemies (or our allies) benefit from our hard-earned knowledge. Don't listen to them. Science isn't poker: it only works when the cards are dealt face up. Don't go down in history as the Texan who closed the scientific frontier.
Dear Mr. President,
Many thanks for your invitation to apply for the position of Science Advisor to the President. Alas, there is some mistake, for I am a philosophy professor. At their best, scientists respond to problems with answers, and this can be useful to presidents. Philosophers have a cranky habit of responding to answers with more problems. You don't need that.
Taking into account all of the poor scientific policy advice that has been promulgated in Washington for the last forty years, you'll need luck in your search for the right person. The record shows that scientists are as much victims of fashion as other ordinary mortals. Recall a few examples of science in predictive mode:
This list could be expanded into periodic cancer scares, worries about the ozone hole, silicon breast implants, acid rain (another wildly exaggerated threat), air pollution, and so forth. It's odd when you think about it: though you and I might have enjoyed scary Frankenstein movies, when we were children, science and technology were seen as great forces for the benefit of mankind. Things shifted in the 1960s, and a spirit of pessimism began to invade science.
Today, it is much easier for scientists to receive grants if they indicate their research might uncover a serious threat or problem—economic, medical, ecological. Media fascination with bad news is partly to blame, along with the principled gloominess and nagging of organizations such as Greenpeace. But government itself has played its natural part. After all, as H.L. Mencken once remarked, "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed, and hence clamorous to be led to safety, by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."
Since I'm sure you're keen to avoid such alarmism, you'll need an advisor who can see through the fashions of science, and understand something of their psychology. The epidemiologist who slightly overstates the conclusiveness of his study suggesting that french fries might cause cancer (in mice) or the young climatologist on the global-warming gravy train are not basically dishonest people. You too might more easily buy into some doomsday scenario, if it meant regular business-class flights to major resorts to compare computer climate models with other experts (models that you know in your heart could not possibly predict average atmospheric temperatures fifty years hence, but what hell, the food's great).
I hope your new Science Advisor comes to the job armed with knowledge of the rich history of junk science and false predictions served up to government in the last forty years. The point is not to be cynical about fads and careerism, but wisely to choose where best to support both pure science and science that can give us beneficial technologies.
Here two answers to the Edge Annual Question. In the first version I have followed your instruction to stick to science and to those scientific areas where I have expertise. The resulting memo is practical and unimaginative. It may not be of much interest to the Edge community, but I think it would be more useful to the president than a wider-ranging document. The second memo is the unpractical and imaginative version. It is not very imaginative, because I still want it to be taken seriously as an agenda for the twenty-first century.
Memo to the President (I)
The scientific enterprise in this country is generally in good shape and needs only modest increases in support to keep up with inflation. One weakness of the enterprise that needs to be addressed is the system of peer review that governs the support of investigator-initiated proposals. The peer-review system works well for proposals that lie within established disciplines of science. It works badly for proposals that lie outside or between established disciplines.
A glaring example of the failure of the system is the lack of support for large underground detectors of elementary particles. During the past year, the two most important discoveries in particle physics were made using such detectors, one in Canada and one in Japan. The United States has fallen behind in this highly promising area of research, because underground detectors lie between the disciplines of physics and astronomy. Physicist peer-reviewers failed to support underground detectors because they are not accelerators, and astronomer peer-reviewers failed to support them because they are not telescopes.
Similar failures of the peer-review system occur in areas of space technology that lie outside mainstream disciplines. They probably also occur in areas of biology and medicine with which I am not familiar. A possible remedy for this state of affairs would be to assign a small fraction of the national research budget, perhaps five or ten percent, to proposals that are exempt from the normal process of peer-review. The choice of exempt proposals to be supported could be made by directors of federal agencies, with the help of panels representing science as a whole rather than specialized disciplines.
Memo to the President (II)
During the last ten years, the human genome project has laid the foundation for a comprehensive understanding of human biology. The translation of the new understanding into cures for human diseases will be a slow and difficult process.
Meanwhile, a new century has begun. It is time for you to launch a bold new initiative in biology, a planetary genome project to sequence the genomes of all the millions of species that live together on this planet. This will require first of all an aggressive development of new sequencing technology, comparable to the development of computer technology during the last half century, so that the cost of sequencing will continue to fall as rapidly as the cost of computing.
The goal will be to complete the sequencing of the biosphere within less than half a century, at a cost comparable with the cost of the human genome. The successful completion of the project will bring an enormous increase in understanding of the ecology of the planet. Increased understanding could then be translated into practical measures to sustain and improve the ecology while allowing continued rapid economic development.
Detailed understanding of the ecology could lead to large-scale and cost effective use of solar energy and to stabilization of the atmosphere and the climate. Let this century be the century of cures for planetary as well as human diseases.
Dear Mr President
Your administration has commendably focused not only on the urgent ways in which science can help the nation, especially through the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Homeland Security, but also in boosting the broader and longer-term interests of the country by increasing the budgets of, for example, the National Science Foundation, whose science constituencies underpin critical sources of knowledge and skills. I am troubled by the half-hearted approach adopted by your administration towards alternative energy sources and climate research, but will leave those issues for another day.
However, every President should leave a personal legacy that goes beyond the national political and social goals of the moment. If that legacy addresses one of the major issues facing the wider world, so much the better.
Malaria provides you with precisely that opportunity. It affects hundreds of millions of people and kills well over one million every year. It affects countries across South America, Africa and South East Asia. The challenges are made all the more urgent by the development of multidrug resistance by the parasite.
There have been some positive moves from philanthropists and charities for the control of malaria and for the development of vaccines and drugs, and some limited progress with private-public partnerships. But these funds—two or three hundred million all told - are a drop in the ocean. Furthermore, they do not seriously address the longer term need to investigate the malaria parasite at a basic scientific level.
Some people will argue that we already have enough science, we simply need to develop better drugs, or a vaccine, or have better controls of the disease through prevention. History shows, however, that every one of these alternative routes has its own chronic difficulties. Addressing new opportunities in the basic science of the disease could, in the long term, deliver more far-reaching solutions.
The journal Nature recently published the sequence of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum's genome, and other related fundamental information critical in understanding the parasite. That's a key step along the way, and provides a new platform on which to develop essential insights into the many biomolecular and cellular pathways by which the parasite survives and interacts with us, its indispensible hosts. New techniques are beginning to be applied, such as high-throughput analyses of the pattern of gene expression and of the interactions of proteins at key phases of the parasite's lifecycle. The new availability of the genome combined with these techniques will undoubtedly spur progress significantly—if there are funds to permit it.
For the United States to provide significant help in this battle would not simply represent an act of great good will. It would also be in the nation's long-term strategic interests. The less that so many developing countries have to battle with the illness and mortality of malaria and the social burdens that they bring, the more they can focus on economic and social development and provide new opportunities for US businesses and other organisations.
There are many excellent researchers who would make rapid progress in malarial "post-genomics" if substantial new money became available. It would therefore be widely recognised as a wonderfully enlightened action if you were to ensure that the National Institutes of Health introduced a malaria post-genomics programme, with a new budget of at least $300m, as a first step towards the prevention and cure of this devastating disease.
Dear Mr. Bush,
Thank you for your confidence in me. Here are the three things you should encourage; these are neglected by our current science policy:
1) Develop Long Term Science.
Most science experiments, clinical studies, and data collection lasts about 4 yearsthe duration of a graduate student. Most problems we have before us last for generations. Science, like business, has been totally captured by the next quarter mentality, and it will require a deliberate effort to stress the long view so that our knowledge matches our predicament. Long-term studies can begin to alleviate much of our ignorance of climatic, environmental, health, social, and biological issues.
2) Foster a Global View.
While the United States is among the nations leading the world in monitoring and mapping its own territory, most of the world has not been mapped. We, as humans, lack a sufficient survey of the geology, habitat, weather, and biological diversity of our home planet. For instance we have identified as few as 5% of all the species living on earth. A detailed map of the planet, which would include geological assets, urban impacts, ecological assessments, and detailed cartographic information would be invaluable to business, military intelligence, social work, and peace and prosperity, at the very least, to the US. As it is we are trying to run a planet with only a dim sense of what it is.
3) Fund Blue Sky Work.
US universities were once renowned for funding work that could not possibly pay off for ten years or more. Much of university research was pure research that had no obvious application at all at the time of its funding. In an effort to weed out seemingly frivolous work that might wind up as a headline in a supermarket tabloid, a lot of bold research has simply been dropped. Research is now expected to show results quickly, and to fit into return on investment curves developed by business. This may be good for business, and maybe even for government in the short term, but it is disastrous for science, especially in the long term. Some federally funded research should aim for a ten- or even 25-year result horizon. This would create the strongest possible science culture.
These three things could be implemented without substantially increasing the science budget, although that is always a good idea.
During the past several months, I've been frustrated by the smallpox puzzle and the accompanying national agony about vaccination. Dozens of people have cornered me asking "what should I do about vaccinating my family" or, more pointedly: "are you or your family getting vaccinated?"
I was vaccinated against smallpox hundreds of times in the smallpox program in India, and again by CDC last year during the "smallpox bio terrorism" sessions for first responders. In this regard, it is appropriate that as President, you were recently vaccinated. My children, wife, mother, brother and neighbors have not been recently vaccinated and I do not recommend it, at least not yet. Based on the risks and benefits of what we know today, I do not recommend anyone rush out to get vaccinated unless they will be a "first responder" or work in a hospital emergency room.
Why? My decision is based on trying to solve many simultaneous equations. The smallpox dilemma has no simple answers, and making the correct decision may, literally, be a matter of life and death.
The facts today: Smallpox as a disease does not exist. It has been eradicated. A very small amount of the virus which causes smallpox, Variola, has been held frozen in liquid nitrogen in two "legal and secure" facilities in Atlanta and Moscow, as agreed to by the 150+ member states of the World Health Organization. It is easy to "awaken" the demon of smallpox if it is removed from these freezers. Except for a very controversial and potentially destabilizing removal last year of some viral material by U.S. Army scientist Peter Jahrling who used those viruses to infect monkeys with smallpox with the thought of testing smallpox anti viral agents and improved vaccines all the other legal viral samples remain in place. The fear of smallpox as a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists is based either on the public information, which is speculative and anecdotal, or on military or secret intelligence sources which are unavailable. Vaccination of 280 million Americans could cause potentially fatal vaccine side-effects in tens of thousands and death in 500 to 1000. In order to justify so many vaccine side-effects, there must be real evidence of incremental risk of an epidemic caused by vaccine preventable smallpox. There are at least three gating items, all of which must be true before it is logical to begin vaccinations against a disease which does not exist:
As is quite clear from credible journalistic sources, Gating Item #1 appears to have occurred-Russian scientists operating under a Gorbachev approved billion dollar 5-year plan manufactured as much as 100 tons of Variola virus annually at a then secret facility called, ironically, Vector, near Novosibirsk, Siberia in the Soviet Union during the 1980's. There may have been other programs that have remained secret, just as the CIA program "Bacchus" to build a miniature anthrax production lab stayed secret virtually until the anthrax attacks of 2001.
There is no public knowledge, and I stress "public" for obvious reasons, that Gating Item #2 is true. The major known sources of concern are:
As for Gating Item #3, no one knows. The well known Australian experiments altering a gene in mousepox suggests it would be easy for terrorists-or even college microbiology students who had access to pox to create a "superpox" impervious to today's vaccines. I won't go into the details but the bottom line is that if anyone had enough hatred and enough money, the creation of a vaccine-proof smallpox variant is well within the realm of the possible. Obviously, if the terrorists have vaccine-proof smallpox, it is silly to vaccinate anyone with a high risk vaccine that is impotent against genetically altered smallpox.
How great is the risk of adverse reactions? Again, no one can really quantify it because much has changed, for better and for worse, since the 1970's from which the last large datasets are available. At that time the death rate from vaccine was about 2 or 3 per million vaccinated, and the risk of serious side effects about ten times higher. There are factors today which might raise or lower the rate of complications. Thirty years ago far fewer Americans had immune systems compromised by chemo therapy or AIDs, and the prevalence rates of eczema, a serious contra indication to smallpox vaccine, were lower as well. On the other hand, recent data from Israel and from vaccination in the US military suggests that vaccinating young healthy pre-screened men and women carries very few risks of side effects and today's ICU medical care for vaccine complications is likely to markedly reduce fatalities. All in all, it is likely that ten to one hundred people per million vaccinated from the general public would have a very serious reaction or even death from the vaccine-somewhere between 3000 and 30,000.
And so, here we are, faced with the need to decide whether to vaccinate our families. We will each need to make personal decisions under conditions of uncertainty.
Here is why I chose not to vaccinate my family:
That is the conclusion that I have reached as of today. And unless or until that changes, I will not vaccinate my family and the ones that I love.
B. Brilliant, M.D.
Mr. President, allow me to start with a personal reminiscence. When I was being interviewed for my first teaching job, almost four decades ago, the head of the search committee a nuclear physicist told me in dismissive tones: "Well, now that we scientists have been able to harness the power of nuclear forces, let's see if you so-called social scientists can teach us how to use it." His tone of voice and smirk clearly meant that he didn't believe for a moment that we "soft" scientists were up to even such an easy task as that of preventing humanity from the misuse of nuclear energy.
Things haven't much improved since. To-day's issue of the Los Angeles Times (12/2/02), for instance, carries three stories on the front page that relate to the issue I am raising: One of them laments the fact that patients are increasingly refusing to participate in drug trials and medical experiments because they mistrust scientists; another warns about the leakage in the former Soviet arsenal of deadly weapons; and the third consists of a huge color photo of the black waves carrying spilled oil advancing on Spanish beaches.
Now you and I know that it is childish to blame such problems on science or on scientists. It is not their fault that their brilliant advances are so tragically misused, corrupted, trivialized. Yet I am afraid that the majority of our countrymen are going to draw that conclusion, with consequences that are too dire to contemplate. A re run of the Dark Ages would be much worse than the original.
Unfortunately our colleagues in the "hard" sciences have not been entirely helpful either. Their mantra has been: "Our task is to push further the boundaries of knowledge; what happens afterwards is not our responsibility; that's for society to decide." Fair enough: But let anyone else suggest how science should be used and he'll be crucified as a philistine. We all wish to have the proverbial cake and to eat it, too. Sooner or later, however, reality does intervene. It is perhaps time for this to happen to science.
The point is, Mr. President, that a National Bureau for the Support of Science, with Cabinet status, is getting to be a necessity. It should not be a body controlled by scientists. Just as war is too important to be left up to generals, and religion too important to be left in the hands of clergy, so is science too important to be given over to scientists. Nor should it be under the control God forbid of business interests or politicians. It is much easier to specify who should not control such a board than who should, but the task is too urgent for us to be deterred by such an obstacle. It should be a parliament composed by people who have demonstrated concern for the future of humanity: Scientists as well as laypeople yes, even businesspersons, clergy, and generals.
The task of such a bureau would be to allocate a goodly proportion of the national revenue to projects that are important to our survival and wellbeing. Not to the discovery of more foul chemicals, deadly viruses, or laser guns circling around the planet. Instead, ways to produce clean energy, clean water, to keep biodiversity from disappearing should be supported. We should be preparing for the future, Mr. President, not continuing to invest in a mythical past. Currently science is at the service of speculators and mindless traffickers in destruction. It is time the rest of society reclaimed its right to have a voice in determining what their lives shall be like.
When people raise concerns about the headlong advance of science and technology they are inevitably ridiculed as Luddites who are trying to interfere with progress. You should not let this fact deter you, Mr. President. Instead, you should remind those who protest that if there is one issue on which scientists agree is that evolution is in itself blind and unconcerned with our or of any other species' wellbeing. It would be strange to exempt scientific progress from this conclusion. Left to itself, the great power of science can be easily misused and misdirected. If we do our best to direct it we may still fail, but at least we tried.
As the year 2002 draws to an end, your Administration is preoccupied with the prospect of war with Iraq, and with a more shadowy adversary in the form of global terrorism. Much has been said in that context about 'weapons of mass destruction.' It goes without saying that such weapons are the products of science and technology; one might say they are perversions of science and technology. What could be more pressing than finding a way to promote the beneficial aspects of science while curbing the misuse?
I do not wish to repeat here the well worn arguments about defensive versus offensive military research, the development of better sensor and detection technology and more efficient intelligence gathering systems. Arms races have dogged mankind from the dawn of history, and history seems bound to repeat itself.
What America, indeed the world, needs most urgently is a positive and uplifting project, a project born of a vision that transcends the factional squabbles that divide us, something to celebrate the creative side of science by the world's greatest scientific power. Forty years ago, when the world was in the grip of the Cold War, the United States committed itself to putting a man on the moon. Although the Apollo program was undeniably a by-product of the Cold War arms race, viewed with hindsight it was the crowning achievement of twentieth century science and engineering. Apollo continues to stand as an emblem for the triumph of the human spirit in a world dominated by dark fears and ideological divisions.
What, then, should be the Apollo program of the Bush Presidency? The answer has been clear since your own father articulated the concept in 1989. The United States, together with its partners in space, should commit to sending an expedition to the planet Mars. The Red Planet is probably the only body in the solar system on which a permanent self-sufficient colony might eventually be established. Although relatively hostile to humans, the surface of Mars is far more congenial than the moon. By establishing a human presence on Mars, our species will be afforded an insurance policy against a global cataclysm at home.
But that is not the prime reason to go to Mars. Rather, the exploration of the Red Planet will represent a scientific bonanza of unprecedented value. By general consent, Mars offers the bestquite possibly the onlyhope of finding life beyond Earth. It harbors vital clues to the origin of life on our own planet; indeed, it is possible that life came to Earth from Mars. So the search for life on Mars is a search for ourselves: who we are and what our place is in the great cosmic scheme.
Many commentators are urging George Bush Jr. to finish in Iraq what President George Bush Sr. began in the Gulf War. Mr. President, I urge you to apply this advise in space. Take up the challenge. Go to Mars!
Dear Mr. President,
The finest days of your administration thus far were the ones immediately after September 11, when you rallied the spirits of this nation by your stand against the terrorists, and the values that they stood for. You pointed out, quite correctly, that their actions represented an attack against civilization itself. But by raising the vision that our civilization was an entity that both needed protection and was worthy of it, you entered an arena of concern that extends far the particular threats of Al Queda and Saddam Hussein. Within your lifetime, the fabric of scientific information that underlies our technological society has become much more richly embroidered, and at the same time much more vulnerable. And its preservation is essential to the survival of our advanced civilization and even of our species.
At the time of your birth, in 1946, the scientific community was not yet generally aware that our heredity is stored in sequences of "letters" within the chemical called DNA. We now possess the complete DNA sequence for a prototype human being, as well as a mouse, a simple plant, and a number of other species. Each such sequence, or genome, contains millions to billions of characters, far too many to be stored conveniently in books; the data is kept within computers. The Chemical Abstracts Service had been tabulating the literature of chemistry since 1907, but when you were 11 years old, it established a Registry that systematically records, classifies and renders available information about the hosts of organic substances that exist naturally or have been created within laboratories. The number of such registered substances has passed 20 million and is growing by about 4,000 per day. Let us also note the endless reams of computer instructions, and the hardware that executes them, that makes possible the word processing instrument by which I am composing this letter, and the Internet that allows me to send it off immediately. No trace of these conveniences existed in 1946.
In the mid-twentieth century, technical information was stored in books. The most important works were duplicated in hundreds of libraries. A person who wished access to the information need only walk in, locate the appropriate volumes by use of a mechanical indexing system and thumb the pages to the relevant material. In the future, the sheer volume and complexity of the information will require digital storage on discs and tapes.
Apart from questions concerning authorization and passwords, up to date hardware and considerable familiarity with the software will be needed for access to these materials. Computer storage of each document will be limited to a few locations.
Such arrangements may work well when our society is in a healthy state, but very little provision is made for catastrophe. A number of different scenarios can be envisaged which would eliminate electrical power, disrupt or destroy networks, eliminate key personnel or otherwise prevent access to our technological and cultural heritage by survivors. The immense legacy of our civilization would be partly or wholly lost. Such catastrophes have been listed by many writers—they include bio terrorism and natural plagues, nuclear war, asteroid and comet collision, massive and unexpected climate change, famine associated with civil disorders and social collapse and others.
None of these events is probable on its own, nor even taken together do they represent the most likely course for the future. But we make no provision for these possibilities, then we as a civilization are taking the position of an author who does not choose to back up the novel he is typing on his word processor, or the home owner who carries no insurance and does not store his valuables in a secure cache far from his residence. Our scientific and cultural heritage is abundant, and the threats to it are numerous—it is time to back up civilization. To do this we will need to establish secure sanctuaries (think of the monasteries of the Middle Ages) that preserve and update copies of the vital records and articles needed for the conduct of our society. As their interpretation and reinstallation after a catastrophe would require hands-on human expertise, we would need staffed settlements, rather that buried time capsules. Such settlements would need to be remote enough to be immune from the varied array of disasters that might afflict humanity, but close enough top remain in direct contact, and to bring aid when appropriate.
Although a network of Biosphere-like settlements in scattered locations on Earth might be robust enough to weather most difficulties, there is a safer bastion which would provide inspiration and a variety of types of technological spin-off, in addition to its prime function of backing up civilization on Earth. The construction of a lunar base dedicated to that purpose would provide a superb goal for our newly-born century and millennium. It would also provide needed purpose and continuation to one of the great human achievements of your lifetime; the Apollo Program.
I have sketched out a goal that extends in time far beyond few years possible for one administration. The costs will require many years of investment, with private contributions and international cooperation highly desirable. The goals however could be embraced by you, and planning commenced, at only moderate cost at the present time. What greater enhancements of the concepts of Homeland Security and the war against terrorism could there be, than to extend their protection to the preservation of civilization itself, for the indefinite future.
Dear Mr. President,
Whether or not you choose to follow up with me specifically, I want to thank you for reaching out to a scientist who doesn't benefit from prior personal connections to someone associated with your administration. Your sphere of advisors has seemed unusually distant from the scientific and technical communities.
I can understand, in a way, why you have been reticent in the past. Many scientists work in the academic environment, which tends to be liberal minded, and perhaps you've worried that there would be an ideological coloration in the advice you would receive. It would seem that the scientific mainstream is often at odds with your administration on issues such as stem cell research, global warming, and so on.
But the best way around this is not to retreat from the scientific community as a whole, but to embrace it, and demand that it find a way to transcend ideological colorations in its interactions with you. After all, much of the discipline of science is devoted to reducing personal bias. We spend a lot of our time repeating work that's already been done before because we're so cautious about our all-too-human vulnerabilities that could lead to self-deception. In a way we are the most skeptically conservative community around, and you would probably find more common ground with us than you expect if you gave us more of a try.
I suppose a science advisor has to be part speech writer and part budget warrior.
With that in mind, I would like to give you a sense of what my advice would be like on a variety of difficult issues.
You are in an amazing position. You are the most powerful president in a generation. Be bold! Science and technology are the most potent tools mankind has for improving our circumstances. Let's use this amazing moment in history to create a new period of happiness and prosperity. Please don't let your marvelous position in history go to waste.
In this note I will address the four toughest issues, which present the greatest opportunities and the most difficult political dilemmas. These are:
America's success on every level has depended in the past on government lead research initiatives.
There are three models from the twentieth century for giant government research and development projects: The Manhattan Project, the Apollo Program, and the era of massive public works, including the TVA, much of the WPA, and the Interstates.
We have to be bold and imagine a new type of national initiative that combines the best of all three models. The Manhattan project showed what can be done by gathering the very best minds in one place. The Apollo Program showed that it's possible to do big science in a way that engages all the world in a positive way. The massive public works projects I listed, while they might be abhorrent to your economic advisors, should be appreciated because they showed that government can create a giant infrastructure without damage to democracy or capitalism.
I do not propose that big centralized science initiatives are the best method of tackling all our hardest problems, only the ones I listed above.
Private industry can sometimes address a big problem, even one that is serious enough to threaten our survival. In such cases, government should still play role of oversight and be ready to step in should industry fail for some reason. Some examples in this category:
About stem cells, cloning, and such things:
Here we have the potential to extend and improve human life, and it's just the sort of research that is better undertaken under governmental lead. It's expensive, high risk, and fraught with ethical concerns. Furthermore, if the vast new intellectual property riches are either Balkanized or monopolized, humanity will suffer, and America's role in the world order will be seriously challenged.
You face a tough situation here, though, in that one of your core constituencies, the faith-based voters, is understandably queasy about the whole direction. So you've sought compromises on such things as embryonic stem cell research, but the available compromises don't quite give the scientific community enough room to make progress. I understand how difficult these decisions are.
There are two likely negative outcomes from your policies as they stand. In the short term, legitimate research on new fundamental medicine will often be overshadowed by weird proprietary outfits, such as the supposed cloning achieved by a UFO cult or stray doctors here and there. These events poison public discourse.
In the long term, foreign countries will enjoy an economic advantage because the US will not be a center of expertise in medicine. In twenty years we could see a phenomenon in which masses of Americans who can afford the trip head to Europe or Asia for medical care, leaving their dollars abroad, so that there's increasingly less wealth to go around for those Americans who had to stay home.
I don't need to tell you how significant this would be to the long term economic health of our nation.
I would advise you to use your bully pulpit to be tough with both your religious constituents AND the scientific research establishments.
To the scientists, I would say something like this: "You have yourselves to blame in part for the public's reticence to fund the new age of medicine. You seem to love making claims about life's fundamental questions. I'm sick of reading that some robot at MIT has gained emotions, that some new gene explains as much as you seem to claim about a person's character, or any opinion of yours at all about consciousness or God. I don't believe you have expertise on these matters and you embarrass yourselves."
Yes, I want you to be that tough on us, because we deserve it, and because it is what your religious constituents need to hear in the public sphere.
Of course you can have a speech writer smooth these thoughts out so they sound nicer. I'm used to combative debates so you have to tone down any advice I give you in matters of rhetoric. I'm sure you have people who can handle that job.
To your religious constituents, I would say this: "Your concerns are legitimate and sane, but it's possible you've been mislead a bit by those who enjoy exaggerating the true nature of the new frontiers in medicine. You must remember that scientists have to sell themselves in order to be funded, just like everyone else, so you need to learn to discount a little bit of the science fiction-like atmosphere that surrounds reporting on recent research.
For instance, they talk about 'clones', but that's a science fiction word. Dolly the sheep was really no more than a delayed twin, and in fact less similar to Dolly than a regular twin would have been. That's not to say that I support the creation of human delayed twins—I don't. But it's important not to allow the scientific community to mystify what it can do.
It is essential that we hold life precious. Unfortunately, Americans don't always agree on specific questions like abortion, but I know that almost all Americans do hold life sacred and precious. I want to suggest to you that defining the chemical moment of conception as the start of life is not going to work, because it is a definition based on scientific concepts which are themselves in the process of being transformed. We can't reduce human life to a mechanical interaction of molecules, or whatever objects scientists are talking about in a given era. I believe that there is a difference between a collection of cells and a person—call it a soul if you like. If you believe there's a soul in a Petrie dish, you reduce what you mean by a soul.
I want my family and friends to be relieved from disease when it is possible and I want the same for your family and friends. Please join me in a loving quest to achieve this possibility."
I think this approach can work.
Once you win the hearts of both sides, and I think you can, an ethics policy should be based on open information and consent. A person should know and approve of what happens to their tissue. No viable embryo should be created outside of the rule of law. And so on.
But please, let us proceed to improve our lives using the means available to us.
I'll next address Energy, Transportation, and Climate:
We have to address the possibility of climate cataclysm. If we take the position that Kyoto is flawed, and I think there's a strong case that it is, we must articulate an alternative soon, so that the world doesn't think we're crazy.
The revolution in transportation and energy must come about anyway, whether the climate scare is legitimate or not.
I have a bit of a confession to make here. My colleagues and I might have contributed to your falsely optimistic sense about the near term potential of the oil economy. In the last twenty years, ever more powerful computers have created the illusion the oil supply is increasing. I worked on some of the first virtual oil field exploration tools, and such tools have made oil fields far more productive than we ever imagined. Furthermore, computer-aided design has helped produce a new generation of oil extraction machinery that can get at the oil we discover through our simulations. That's all fine, and I'm proud of how much computer science has been able to contribute to the oil exploration business, but there's also a hidden danger. Without computers, not only would oil have been running out by now, but it would have run out gradually, with prices going up as a warning sign. I'm afraid that computers are creating the illusion of an ever increasing supply, and will therefore reduce the period of warning before the supply runs out, which it will.
So, I suppose I hope to make you aware of how my colleagues and I have inadvertently fooled you on this matter. But this issue can be framed positively even better than it can be framed negatively. Why don't we invent new, better fuels and engines and then sell them to the world? What's wrong with that picture? It seems like such a win-win solution.
We should create a new energy/transportation infrastructure, presumably based on a cleaner and more efficient chemistry than the current one. I agree with the emerging consensus that it would probably consist of decentralized hydrogen production, possibly using biotechnology to make the hydrogen. I also see cars that can drive themselves, almost never getting into accidents, and merging flawlessly and automatically into trains to create ad-hoc mass-transit solutions. Car accidents cause more deaths than wars, so the introduction of this technology would create a new boom in wealth and happiness even aside from the curing of problems related to dependence on oil.
If the world saw us building the next energy cycle, our policies related to the current energy cycle would be less contentious.
We might have already contorted the climate enough that switching fuels will not be enough. We might need to resort to a massive technological fix. I dearly hope this will not come to pass, but I believe we should set up an institute that explores such high risk measures as re-carving the ocean floors or intercepting the sun's energy in space on its way to the Earth. Once again, I would grieve if it came to pass that we had to attempt measures such as these in the future, but I must regretfully recommend that we begin to prepare ourselves just in case.
The recent surprise announcement by the Japanese that they had created the world's fastest computer, in order to model the weather, should be treated as a friendly Sputnik-like event. I'm on the science board for what had been the world's fastest civilian computer, at the Pittsburgh Supercomputer Center, and I have to tell you my heart sank when I read the announcement, even though I'm also happy that the new Japanese machine is being put to a good use. I hope you felt as embarrassed as I did, and I wish you would share that emotion with the public.
About the war on terror.
War is Hell. I lived right by the World Trade Center, and I dearly wish I had not been home that day. It is clear that in our connected world, in which many technologies become cheaper and more widely available because of Moore's Law-like processes, and in which communication is easy and essentially free, the old equations about privacy and liberty have to be re thought. I hate this fact with the whole of my being, but I acknowledge it's a fact.
I don't think your administration has been handling this matter very well. For instance, your attorney general comes off badly in public. He seems to be enjoying this turn of events, as if it vindicates his beliefs. If you want Americans or other people in the world to make the mental transition and emotional commitment into a new order, your administration ought to be able to show that it shares in the pain.
You might be thinking to yourself, "This matter is none of my science advisor's business." But privacy these days is about digital policy, and that overlaps both socially and institutionally with the scientific and engineering communities.
I believe you have to have these communities on board in order for your policies to be successful and for the country to be more secure.
I have two specific suggestions.
First, if you want the public to accept less privacy, make it symmetric. Instead of merely building a new domestic spying capability that itself would be vulnerable to corruption, as secret centers of power always are, make key institutions more open and transparent.
This serves multiple purposes. Let's not forget that since the war on terror began, corrupt accounting cost the country more, in monetary terms, than the terrorist attacks. The direct costs were tremendous, but the indirect costs due to the gutting of investor confidence were immeasurable.
We have the greatest information infrastructure in all history, and yet investors weren't tipped off about a wave of massive fraudulent schemes until it was too late. This cannot stand. The remedy is to make big companies and yes, big government agencies, as transparent to the public as the public must become to the new security apparatus.
This might sound counterintuitive at first. Would this not give terrorists more information and therefore advantage as they planned attacks?
I think there are strong arguments that symmetry increases security. No matter how big the spy agencies might be, they can't employ enough trusted eyeballs to look at all the data. And no, as your advisor I can assure you that you cannot count on artificial intelligence programs to make up the gap. The only solution is to have the whole public looking. It was widely distributed public information that lead to the capture of the Unabomber, the DC snipers, and so on.
The strength of Islamist terrorist cells is not so much that they are well trained as that they benefit from a surrounding society that doesn't call in tips. This leads to the second reason to support symmetry. Transparency can be used to make the world friendlier to the US.
Here I would like to add a specific recommendation. The Arabic-speaking world is encountering the power of modern propaganda for the first time via satellite TV. Our response has been to craft infomercials, but why not try to find the next generation of leaders when they are young. They are undoubtedly oriented to new media just like their Western counterparts. Why not make language translators available on the web so that kids in Arabic speaking countries can browse English language websites and learn for themselves about us? Why not encourage personal links using the web? Why not make science and technology education materials available in this way?
None of these proposals would be easy to implement. Computer access is restricted in repressive countries, for instance. Nonetheless, there is considerable room to maneuver and it doesn't cost much.
In a related vein, we could do more to help empower and win the hearts of young people in the exploding populations of the third world by cleverly using inexpensive technology. We could use the latest advances in speech recognition and synthesis to empower illiterate people with access to basic information, for instance. Even undernourished populations often gain access to consumer electronics these days. This strange situation could be turned to advantage. Why not design a hard-to-detect, human powered, wireless communicator designed for illiterate people and give away millions of them in the poorest parts of the world? Why not bring these people into the web of modernity, in which they might find their way to a better life and coincidentally might just send in tips?
All of these ideas relate to security, because as soon as terrorists realize there's even a slight increase in the chance that someone in their home environment might rat on them, they rapidly lose maneuvering room. A little openness could go a long way.
I believe that if such devices were in place, we'd have given out the unclaimed cash award for information leading to the capture of Bin Laden by now.
J. Doyne Famer
The most pressing issue facing the United States today is not doing better science, but rather using the science that we already have to make better public policy. Science, which originally came from the Latin word for "knowledge", is not just something that weird guys in lab coats do - it is a practical mode of thought, a nuts and bolts approach, a way of telling fact from fiction. According to my dictionary, "scientific" means "having an exact, objective, factual, systematic, or methodological basis". It means that when you don't understand something, you make careful observations or experiments, understand what works and what doesn't work, and choose the things that work. Unfortunately, all too often we are now making public policy based on belief and uninformed public opinion rather than science, even when science gives clear answers that directly contradict belief. This approach may make you popular in the short run, but in the long run it is doomed to failure.
I would also like to point out that science is patriotic. Good old American know-how is the foundation that has made this a great country. It is no coincidence that so many of the founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, had a lifelong passion for science. Science is the engine that has fueled our prosperity. The United States has by far the greatest scientific establishment in the world, the best that has ever existed. So why, at the peak of our scientific power, are we completely ignoring science when it comes to formulating public policy?
I began my career as a scientist studying what has now come to be called "chaos". What this means is that lots of things, like the weather, are inherently unpredictable. This has come up recently for global warming, which I'm sure you've heard a lot about. It's true that at this point we can't predict exactly what global warming is going to do to the earth. But there is something we can predict with complete certainty: Global warming is going to make some big changes, and those changes are highly unpredictable. The unpredictability of global warming is precisely why we need to do something to stop it now. One definition of conservative is "preferring gradual development to abrupt change". Conservatives feel particularly strongly about this when we don't have any idea what that abrupt change is going to be. Global warming is a situation where anyone who is paying any attention to what science is telling us ought to be a conservative.
Science isn't just about things, its also about people. During the last fifty years we've learned a lot about people and what makes them happy and productive. For example, we know that once they have their basic needs taken care of, making more money is not a big factor that contributes to making people happy. Scientists have measured that, and understand it a lot better than global warming. Dollar for dollar, investing money in nice parks, safe neighborhoods, getting rid of pollution, and instituting good social services has a much bigger effect on people's happiness than lowering their taxes.
There are many other areas where science tells us things about the world and we aren't paying attention. These include building an effective national defense, preventing huge forest fires, managing water in the west, education, prison reform, drug policy, or social security. In all these areas science tells us a lot about how to make things work better, but we just aren't making good use of what it's telling us.
The prime task of 2003 and beyond is to re-define and re-discover the intellectual and moral roots of science. For science has become bound with wealth and power into a positive feedback loop from which it cannot escape: its perceived role in the present age is to provide high technologies of the kind that generate capital which in turn supports more science, of the kind that will provide high technologies to generate more capital and so on and so on. It becomes more and more difficult to finance science that offers no obvious short-term commercial or military reward. Worse: an entire generation of scientists and politicians has grown up that takes it to be self-evident that science should accept its role as the handmaiden of commerce and power. Hence the present uncritical enthusiasm for GMOs, with no clear vision of how they might benefit humankind, and for the industrialisation of agriculture in general, with no knowledge of, or respect for, all that is destroyed along the way.
So we need above all and as a matter of urgency to re-state what science is, and what it is for, and to re-discover the political means by which it might again promote the perennial human causes of justice, human rights, and cultural and biological diversity. We need of course to revise the teaching of it: to present science not simply as a vocational pursuit, a means to promote wealth and power, but truly as one of the world's most valuable cultural pursuits: not as the royal road to omniscience, which it decidedly is not, but certainly as an indispensable source of insight and enlightenment.
All the rest is detail.
My idea is that the whole "Homeland Defense" thing is too cost-ineffective to be plausible. The lifetime cost of, for example, preventing each airplane-crash fatality will be the order of $100,000,000and we could save a thousand times as many lives at the same cost by various simple public-health measures.
Conclusion: what we really need is a "Homeland Arithmetic" reorganization.
I appreciate the opportunity to offer some advice. We currently have no shortage of scientific expertise to deal with the manifold issues facing this nation and the world. Whats missing is that science (and engineering) is no longer a fundamental priority of the national agendathe way it was when Sputnik galvanized us into action in the aftermath of World War II.
You have dozens of capable and distinguished advisors to call upon who owe their training and their love of science to the excitement of the Sputnik years. What worries me is that we are not instilling the same spirit among the generations now in school.
Should I be accepted for the position, I will move immediately to initiate a national program (with public/private partnership) of sabbaticals for all science educators, from kindergarten through grade 12. This will attract better teachers to the field, encourage existing science educators to widen their horizons, and allow them to remain current with whats going on in the real world. The entire nation will reap long-term benefits through better-educated and more-inspired students, and short-term benefits from the kinds of projects that individual teachers will undertake in their sabbatical years.
Thank you for inviting my comments, and I wish your new emphasis on science all possible success.
A Machiavellian advisor to a president might note that scientists are always handy when you need an excuse to postpone action. We're professional skeptics, and can always find holes in any proposal. (You say that you figured that one out already?) But the physician who waits until dead certain of a diagnosis before acting is likely to wind up with a dead patient. Sometimes things develop so rapidly that only early actionback when you're still somewhat uncertainstands a chance of being effective, as in catching cancer before it metastasizes.
When the patient is civilization itself, science can provide a heads-upbut only the best politicians have the talent to implement the foresight. And coming on stage now is a stunning example of how civilization must rescue itself. Looked at one way, the story is about abrupt climate changebut similar lessons about shocks and instability likely apply to our current problems with suicidal terrorists.
Another major climate story is now emerging, and it dwarfs the three big scientific alerts from the 1970s about global warming, ozone loss, and acid rain. (Yes, it really has been thirty years.) But only a dozen years ago, no one knew much about abrupt climate change, those past occasions when the whole world flipped out of a warm-and-wet mode like today into the alternate mode, which is cool, dry, windy, dusty.
In abrupt climate change you see big alterations in only 3-5 years, as sudden as a droughtwhich it is. We once thought of climate change as gradual, like ramping up a dimmer switch (the usual greenhouse warming notion). But now we know that some climate change is more like the ordinary light switch that flips abruptly. Dozens of these flips have recently been discovered in ice cores and layered sediments around the world.
In scope, a flip looks like a worldwide version of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl of the 1930s. A few centuries later, the drought climate flips back into worldwide warm-and-wet, even more quickly. The big flips have happened every few thousand years on average, though the most recent one was back before agriculture in 10,000 B.C.
Were another climate lurch to happen in today's world, with a population six thousand times greater than on the last occasion, agriculture could no longer feed the city populations. People would flee into the countryside, eating everything in sight, and losing much of the societal organization needed for prompt recovery.
"The bigger they are, the harder they fall" will likely apply, with a vicious downward spiral into the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: famine, pestilence, war, death. It probably won't be the end of human beings but genocide will be widespread in this vast downsizingand not just on the scale of the genocide recorded in the Old Testament or the Greek versions deplored by Thucydides. Just recall Bosnia or Rwanda, multiply by ten, and imagine the whole ruined world affected by such hatred. Recovery from that hellish state of affairs would take many generations.
Can we head off the next flip, or perhaps slow it down? After all, were the same climate changes spread out over 500 years, and not such a shock, there might be a technofix, one that would counter the tendency to collapse like a house of cards. Flips have a chain of causation and, in medicine, this is good news, as it provides a number of intermediate stages at which you can intervene. How much time do we have, to develop this preventative medicine of climate that guards against sudden shocks?
Alas, the next flip may arrive sooner than otherwise, thanks to our current warming trend. The northern extension of the Gulf Stream appears quite vulnerable to global warming in four different ways. That's important because it fails in a flip. An early warning might be a decline in this current. And according to two oceanographic studies published this last year, this vulnerable ocean current has been dramatically declining for the last 40-50 years, paralleling our global warming and rising CO2.
Some optimists say, from what little is known about the climate feedback mechanisms, that we might be immune to the usual flips for awhile. I hope they are right, but a possible "out" is not something to bet our civilization on. As the new National Research Council report Abrupt Climate Change says dryly, "denying the likelihood, or downplaying the relevance of past abrupt events, could be costly." It is now clear that climate is like a drunk. If left alone, it sits. Forced to move, it staggers.
While climate flips are a particularly dramatic setup for the failure of civilization, other sudden shocks might set off much the same scenario, where people flee the cities and destroy the remaining efficient agriculture before starving. Epidemic disease in big cities could trigger much the same thing. So could a widespread economic collapse. Asymmetrical warfare may not yet be capable of starting a climate flip, but we certainly have acquired suicidal enemies whose shock tactics aspire to trigger epidemic and economic catastrophes. But their victims might become the whole world, as many interdependent countries, unable to feed their large populations, slide down the slippery slope into genocidal downsizings.
We must shore up the foundations of civilization well in advance, much as the medieval cathedrals had flying buttresses retrofitted. What to do is a much longer story, but getting started now is important because political consensus takes so long to achieve. The development of atomic bombs required only a few years, yet Europe's impressive achievement of a common currency took fifty years. Action and effective societal reaction have very different time scales.
While scientists can provide better headlights to spot the turnings and the washouts in advance, speeding up consensus-building requires a different set of skills. Only an effective combination of foresight and leadership stands a chance of building those flying buttresses that are needed to protect the cathedral of civilization from abrupt shocks.
I think that political leadership has the harder task, given how difficult it is to make people aware of what must be done and get them moving in time. It's going to be like herding kittens, and the political leaders who can do it will be seen as the same kind of geniuses that pulled off the American Revolution.
The best thing that happened to U.S. science in the last half-century was the Cold War and its consequences—one of them being the Space Race. Americans cared about space in the 1960s as they'd never cared about any science or engineering project before, and never have since. The social catastrophe of the late '60s tends to obscure the spectacular achievements of those years.
What the president ought to do is obvious: focus the nation's mind on a big, real and exciting problem. Ideally we ought to have a competitor to keep us playing our best game—but if the problem is interesting enough, maybe the competitor doesn't matter.
We know several things for sure about what this Big Project ought to be. "Men on Mars" is not it. (It's a fascinating prospect, but too close intellectually and emotionally to the Moon program.)
The right answer will have nothing to do with environmental doomsday stories; it will deal with people's everyday lives, making them better.
Nowadays nearly everyone travels by air; it might be time to reconsider supersonic passenger travel—but the solution has to be cheap and clean and quiet enough to be acceptable, nothing like the Concorde; a hard problem; that's what makes it interesting.
Or: a nationwide magnetic (or some other post-iron-on-iron technology) rail system. Or: practical rocket planes for New York-Tokyo in two hours or less. Or: anything whatsoever to get people between New York and New Haven in under an hour.
That's the sort of science and engineering that changes lives, by manufacturing time, the world's most precious commodity. (Maybe its only precious commodity.)
These are the sorts of practical problems that scientists and engineers (for the most part) no longer give a damn about. But transportation has a lot to do with the nation's quality of life, and transportation is headed downhill fast. For most people, travel is substantially more of a pain today than it was in 1950. Why is that acceptable? I don't give a damn how fast my computer runs if moving my carcass costs more time, effort and pain every year.
Dear Mr. President
There is a weighty apprehension that scientific issues in general have been marginalized in your administration. We could detail our specific causes but the impact is lost if the very nature of scientific pursuit is not appreciated. Should we first advise you of the significance to our country and the world of our broader scientific aspirations?
It is a compelling human story. From genetics, to cognitive science, to physics we can patch together a view of the world, our place in it, our power and powerlessness. We can describe the mad animals we are in the middle of a range of phenomenon from the microscopic to the mind tauntingly vast. The fruits of this vast scientific enterprise are of pressing importance to our survival—a survival that is not currently assured.
I have heard, to my persistent surprise, that people kill each other for land, money, oil. Our petty gripes and vicious aggression as insignificant as a dog fight kicking up dust and dirt in our squabbles as the earth rolls us around the sun. And although so many of us despair over the newspaper accounts of our more barbarous traits, Tuesdays are always a good day as we get the special Science Section in The New York Times and the pessimism lifts.
The articles are not about territory or struggle or financial gain they're about strange crystal growths, rocks from Mars, the human genome, an accelerating universe. These things we do out of purely human curiosity. We are driven by inquisitiveness and a belief that the world is beautiful and true and reaffirms our brand of faith which transcends race and gender and national boundaries. Nature speaks to all of us and any of us.
No one can guess the shape or size or language of the next genius but we can all participate in the knowledge that is woven of all of our contributions. Through a well-supported scientific initiative we could develop energy sources to better protect our planet, cure AIDS, and understand the origin and fate of our entire universe. No small aims.
Reaching these aims demands vision beyond our short-term ambitions. When a Congressional Committee asked how scientific research would advance defense of our country, Robert Wilson, the founding director of Fermilab said, "it has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending". Our scientific culture helps to make ours a world worth defending.
To President George Bush
Re: the new Institute for Educational Sciences
We are faced with a paradox. On the one hand, the United States leads the world on nearly every dimension of scientific and technological achievement, in both the biomedical and the physical sciences. At the same time, we have a precollegiate educational system that is mediocre at best. It is natural to ask whether we can use our scientific strength to improve American education. And, indeed, that is the purpose of the recently created Institute for Educational Sciences. This Institute promises to improve the quality of educational research by embracing models from biomedicine. Indeed it singles out "randomized trials" as the "gold standard" for educational research.
By all means, we should ask science to do what it capable to do, but not what it cannot do. (I am sure that, wearing your religious hat, you would agree with that statement. No one is calling for randomized trials in the church, synagogue, or mosque). Education differs from medicine in three crucial respects and these need to be understood and respected.
First of all, education is an endeavor that is laden with human values. While almost no one disputes the medical goals of longer and healthier lives, we in a democracy differ deeply about the kind of education that we value. How could we ever design a single educational system that would please Jesse Helms, Jesse Jackson, and Jesse Ventura? We cannot conduct meaningful scientific research on educational practices unless we articulate a value system with some specificity. And so, to be concrete, we cant just compare three scientific methods in terms of efficacy. We need to decide whether we want a science education that focuses on factual knowledge, laboratory skills, deep understanding of a few essential concepts, asking good questions, or some amalgam thereof. Only thereafter can proper studies be launched.
Second, young persons are not seeds of corn, nor are they informed adults who can give consent to their involvement in an experiment. It may be appropriate to have randomized trials for certain questions (e.g. what are the benefits and losses of beginning secondary school one hour later each day) but it is not appropriate to institute them for other issues (e.g. teaching a class without any opportunity for student questions, only to determine what the costs and benefits are of such an approach). Certainly, as a parent, I would not give consent for my child to be a guinea pig in order to demonstrate the merits or liabilities of some educationalists pet theory.
Third, teaching is and will always be in part an art or craft, and properly so. Teaching depends upon human interactions over long periods of time and on the transmission of wisdom as well as the gradual elimination of pernicious practices. The educational systems that we admire all over the world are not ones that are based on scientific research; they are the ones where skilled practitioners have cultivated wise procedures over the generations and passed them on to their successors carefully though not uncritically. Attempts to create teacher-proof environments are destined to fail. We need to honor the craft of teaching, and not try to eliminate it by scientific (which are often pseudo-scientific) manipulations.
So two cheers for the New Institute, Mr. President, but remember above all: You went to Andover, Yale and Harvard, respected educational institutions where educational values are debated up front, where you were not a guinea pig in randomized trials, and where you had some of the most gifted teachers in the world. Your children, our children, deserve the same respect.
The civilized world is at war with Jihad Islamic terrorism. It takes a bomb in the office of some academics to make them realize that their most basic values are now threatened, and some of my good friends and colleagues on the Edge seem to have forgotten 9/11. If we lose the war, the laudable, but pet projects they endorse, will not be issues. Fighting fatwahs and no education for women will displace grousing about random assignment of schoolchildren to study education. If we win this war, we can go on to pursue the normal goals of science.
So a science advisor to the President today needs to help direct natural science and social science toward winning our war against terrorism. First and foremost.
Dear Mr. President,
American scientific success, as measured for example by the number of Nobel Prize winners who live in the United States, helps to sustain an illusion that the American educational system is fundamentally healthy. This illusion is further aided by the fact that American higher education is rightly the envy of the world. And it is helped along by the fact that most Americans believe that, though there may be serious problems with most U.S. schools, the ones their children go to are an exception. (This is a variant of the same phenomenon that gets people re-elected to Congress: the public has a low opinion of the Congress in general, but people tend to regard their own Representative as an exception.)
You are well aware that math and science education at the secondary and elementary level is substandard in comparison to most of the rest of the developed world. And education at those levels too often fails across the boards to serve minority populations. You have commented on these facts in public. But you sometimes speak as though we knew how to improve education in all respects. The fact is that most of what we know about education—when we know anything at all—is mostly at the level of widely accepted anecdote rather than solid scientific findings. Enough progress has been made in the last 30 years by cognitive psychologists, as well as by developmental and social psychologists, to allow for an avalanche of research on what is effective in education if a serious national effort were to be made.
Generating support for a serious research program would likely be impeded by pessimism on the part of the public. It is distressing how many people assume that little can be done to improve education—especially for minorities. But in fact we have a large number of demonstrations that it is possible for minority students to perform at levels well above the national average—the "Jaime Escalante Effect." Beneficial results for innovations in minority education have been obtained at every level from early elementary school through college. Unfortunately, it is frequently assumed, even by educators, that such results are possible only for charismatic individuals and that they cannot be duplicated by normal people in normal school systems.
Jaime Escalantes may in fact be rare, but there may be ways to help minority children achieve high levels of educational success short of providing each of them with an inspirational teacher. There are already many hints about how to improve teaching of students in general and there are some suggestions that not all students learn in the same way. An example is tentative evidence that minority children are particularly likely to benefit from interacting with computers as opposed to traditional methods of reading books and listening to lectures.
An all-out effort to find both the generalizations about what kinds of education are good in general, and what kinds are most helpful for minority children, would pay back many-fold. The obvious agency to handle this is the Department of Education. You have directed the Department to spend more money on basic research in education. Perhaps that will be effective, despite the very poor record of the department in spending money wisely for research. My recommendation, however, is to establish a special bureau within the National Science Foundation and avoid any situation where traditional educational researchers have a veto over what kind of research gets funded.
Dear President Bush,
The rate of violent crime in the U.S. in 1993 was five times the rate in 1960. In response to this epidemic, the number of inmates in U.S. prisons began to rise rapidly in 1975 from some 200,000 to at least 1,400,000 today. Locking up seven times as many criminals produced a recent (and temporary) dip in the crime rate but the latest statistics show crime to be starting upwards yet again. Who are these violent criminals? Where do they come from? Neither our state nor federal prison systems normally collect the data required to answer these questions.
Dr. Louis Sullivan, then Secretary of Health and Human Services, reported in 1992 that 70% of juveniles in long-term correctional facilities did not live with their biological father while growing up. About 70% of teenage mothers, 72% of teenage runaways, 70% of elementary school pupils with at least 22 unexcused absences per year, were reared without fathers. In Minneapolis, 70% of 135 children guilty of felonies ranging from arson to burglary and assault, children 9 years old or younger, were found to be domiciled with single mothers. There is strong reason to suspect that our crime problem, involving perpetrators both black and white, is an inevitable consequence of a growing and self-reproducing underclass consisting of the unsocialized offspring of single-mothers who were immature, over-burdened, and/or unsocialized themselves.
A research project to collect accurate, detailed information about the psychological and demographic characteristics of all American adjudicated felons, adult and juvenile, contrasted with a non-criminal control group matched for age, race, and gender, would reveal whether I am right in predicting that the great majority of current prison inmates would have become law-abiding neighbors and citizens had they gone home from the obstetrical hospital with a mature, self-supporting, socialized mother and father. The definite confirmation of that hypothesis would encourage state and federal legislators to give serious consideration to, and at least local experimentation with, legislation designed to inhibit further growth of the underclass and to preserve the right of all American children to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
One promising example of such legislation would be a program of parental licensure requiring persons, wishing to birth and rear a baby, to demonstrate at least what we should minimally require of persons wishing to adopt someone else's baby. These minimum requirements, for undertaking one of the most important and most demanding of human responsibilities, would include a mature married couple, who are self-supporting, not incapacitated by mental or physical disease, and without a prior conviction for a violent crime. Family-court judges would be empowered to grant exceptions to these simple requirements in special cases (e.g., to socially responsible gay or lesbian couples). Babies born to unlicensed parents would be placed for permanent adoption.
I believe that a well-designed, large-scale research program would produce results that would motivate public demand for legislative action. I think that this demand would come both from citizens who fear crime and its heavy price tag and also from citizens who feel a responsibility for those millions of once-innocent children whose fatherless rearing has deprived them of a reasonable chance to grow up as socialized citizens and neighbors.
T. Lykken, PhD.
Dear President Bush,
Like many of your other prospective science advisors I would like to urge you to provide more support for basic scientific research. But I would especially urge more support for the most productive, and most underfunded, scientific community in the country. This group of scientists and science educators do more to provide the basic intellectual infrastructure of the nation than any other. Every year they make fundamental discoveries in physics, biology, mathematics, and psychology, as well as ensuring that the discoveries of previous generations of scientists are transmitted to the scientists of the future. Yet they typically receive salaries somewhere between zero and $15,000.00 a year, and 20% are below the poverty line. Most of the science educators in this group actually make major financial sacrifices to do their fundamentally important work. They receive less federal and state support than any other part of the scientific community, no grants, no scholarships, no R and D write-offs, less even than public elementary schools or community colleges. In fact, both your administration and the preceding one have actually cut the small amount of funding that was once earmarked for this group. These unsung geniuses, are, of course, children under five and the many women (and a few men) who take care of them.
This may seem like a motherhood issue—well, actually, it is a motherhood issue. But really valuing families and genuinely leaving no child behind isn't just motherhood—its the soundest science policy too. And don't please, waste all this scientific talent on meaningless busy work by putting young children in junior versions of our notoriously awful schools. America's science has always been most successful where it is least constrained—we need blue sky research up and down the line. In fact, blue sky research is our most fundamental competitive advantage, not just as Americans but as Homo Sapiens, too. Human beings have thrived because, more than any other creature, we are naturally driven to learn about the world around us. Our greatest scientists and most creative companies regularly borrow the best practices of mothers and preschool teachers. Give all our scientists, old and young, lunch, the right toys, a safe place to play, interesting problems to solve, and someone to talk to, and watch them fly.
Dear President Bush,
I am delighted to hear that you are willing to consider my application as a science advisor to your administration. In the current climate, I can't think of a more important mission than to clarify how the different branches of science can contribute to the overall health of our nation. I would put it stronger: the health of our nation depends on science. In this spirit, I would like to sketch a proposal for how recent developments in the sciences of the mind directly impact on government policies concerning economics, law, and health care.
1. Human nature, universality, and the economics of fairness
Our economy is currently in a vulnerable state of affairs. The stock market oscillates unpredictably. Some portion of this oscillation is driven by foreign markets. To understand the nature of foreign markets, we must understand the psychology of foreign cultures. This entails a search for human universals and how these constrain cultural variation. To illustrate, consider the problem of cooperation, and in particular, how people judge fairness and respond to unfair play.
A standard test of resource distribution and maximization in experimental economics is the Ultimatum Game. The standard game entails one player making an offer to share some proportion of a pot of money to another player. The game is played only once and the identity of the other player is never revealed. Once the player making an offer does so, the other player has a choice: accept the offer or reject it. If the receiver accepts, then he or she keeps the proportion offered and the player making the offer keeps the remainder. If the offer is rejected, both players end the game with no money at all. The intuition from economics, an intuition driven by the view that people are generally selfish and wish to maximize personal resources, is that the player offering should propose the smallest amount acceptable to another player.
This makes good sense because from the receiver's perspective, some money is better than no money, so all offers should be accepted. When this game is played in developed nations such as the united States and the UK, results indicate that the economist's intuition is wrong. People typically make offers of about 50% of the pot and receivers reject offers of 20% or less. Both moves are highly irrational if resource maximization is the norm. It is clearly not the norm. In the developed world, fairness drives both the offer and the acceptance, and what appears to be fair is about a 50:50 split.
This was the standard textbook account until about 5 years ago. The tide changed when a small group of economists decided to look into cross cultural variation of resource maximization and distribution. When people in small scale, non-industrial societies, play the ultimatum game, there are two clear results. First, every human, independent of cultural heritage, has a powerful sense of fairness. Second, the local culture shifts what people consider fair and how they respond to an unfair trade. For example, when the ultimatum game is played in some cultures, there are modal offers of only 15% while in other cultures the offers are as high as 50% but the rejection rates are almost equally high. These results show that the human mind has evolved a powerful sense of fairness, a capacity that is part of the brain's unique endowment. What culture does, constrained by biology, is change what constitutes a fair exchange. Other studies in experimental economics have begun to reveal how public goods can be protected against cheaters. Once again, pure economics fails where an integration of economics, biology, and psychology pays off handsomely. Public goods are vulnerable to cheaters because the payoffs are higher if others contribute in your stead. To guard against defection, economists working in an evolutionary psychology framework have shown that two factors maintain public goods: information on reputation (what participants contribute) and the capacity to punish those who cheat. Again, these factors are cross-culturally important and stable, revealing universal properties of the mind that persist in the face of changes in the environment, including the emergence of civilization, formal governments, universities and so forth.
This view of cooperation and fairness shows striking parallels with other systems of knowing, including language and mathematics. Although each of these systems show cross-cultural variation, each is constrained by machinery in the brain that is present in all humans, independent of culture. The implications of this perspective, and these particular findings in anthropological economics, are profound. Given our nation's interest in and commitment to international trade, we would be well advised to take seriously both the facts concerning human universals in decision making as well as the power of cross-cultural differences to tweak the perception of fairness. We are more likely to develop productive programs for economic development by understanding those parts that unify all humans and those parts that make us different. Our government must not only incorporate such findings, but seriously consider the integration of scientists working in these areas with government officials attempting to launch international aid programs.
2. The brains underlying control and its loss
Each year, our government spends millions, if not billions of dollars on problems concerning violence, drug abuse, gambling, smoking, and eating disorders. Although these problems appear different on the surface, they reflect a common underlying theme: overcoming temptation in the face of weak systems of control. Over the last decade, studies in cognitive neuroscience and genetics have begun to pinpoint areas in the brain that are involved in reward, conflict monitoring, and control, as well as gene sequences that may put some people at greater risk than others with respect to overcoming problems of control. To illustrate the importance of these findings for the health of our nation, consider the following frightening fact: the best predictor, internationally, of the level of violence within a nation is the proportion of young men in the population. Men are more violent than women in all cultures. Although cultures can shift the level of violence, the sex difference remains. Men are more heavily involved in risk taking. We now know that a significant correlate of violence in humans, both men and women, is the level of circulating serotonina key neurochemical in the brain. When serotonin levels are low, the level of control is lower; low serotonin levels are associated with greater impulsivity, more risk taking. We are only beginning to understand what determines and changes levels of serotonin in the brain. One thing is certain: the key lies in understanding what happens in development. A recent study illustrates this point, and shows why science must interface with policy. Genetic analyses have revealed that a particular form of one gene causes differential expression of an enzyme. This enzyme plays a critical role in the production of serotonin. In a study of several hundred young boys, results revealed that when this gene produces a low level of the target enzyme, such children are far more vulnerable to physical abuse by parents than in children with a high level of the enzyme. In particular, boys who were targets of severe parental aggression were much more likely to shows signs of antisocial personality disorder if the level of the enzyme was low than if it was high. Parental aggression should not be tolerated under any circumstance. But what this study reveals is that we are not equally vulnerable to aggression. As our understanding of genetics and neuroscience increase, we will be able to use this information to better plan programs for intervention. Ultimately, this interplay between molecular genetics and neurobiology on the one hand, and social work on the other hand, should lead to a reduction in overall levels of violence as we can perhaps begin to target the source in development as opposed to the consequences in adulthood.
In closing, I believe that our government is ideally poised to bring science more fully into issues of policy. The rapid explosion of knowledge in the sciences must not sit idly in the libraries of universities, but should make its way into building a healthier nation. As President, you have the opportunity to lead this initiative.
The issues at the edge of neuroscience are clear.
The first and most important issue at the edge is the biology underlying conscious experience, particularly the biology of self-awareness: How do you study it? Where is it located in the brain? How does it develop over time?
A second problem is how is memory perpetuated to last the lifetime of an individual.
A third problem is the future of stem cell biology in the brain. To what degree will we be able to replace cells in the nervous system that die with stem cells that take on similar properties?
R. Kandel, MD
Dear Mr. President:
I must respectfully decline your invitation, as I am unsuited to such a role, but I wish to take this opportunity to offer a potentially crucial piece of advice regarding strategic research directions.
The United States, like all the leading technological powers, has recently turned its research efforts toward a broad field called "nanotechnology". I introduced this term in the mid-1980s and described long-term prospects that helped motivate the recent explosion of interest and investment. Advanced nanotechnologies, based on molecular manufacturing, will enable the production of computer systems a billion times more powerful than today's, aerospace vehicles with 98% less structural mass, and medical tools enabling molecular repair of cells, tissues, and organs. These and related technologies will be economically and strategically decisive.
Molecular manufacturing will be based on molecular machine systems able to manipulate and assemble molecular components to make larger products. If you look in a conventional factory today, you will see electronic devices sensing and controlling processes, but the actual work—shaping, moving, and assembling parts—is done by machines that, quite naturally, use moving parts to move parts.
Research programs today are poorly focused on developing the molecular machine technologies essential to the strategic objective of molecular manufacturing. Researchers, steeped in late-20th-century culture, often see machinery as somehow archaic, left over from the 19th century, rather than recognizing it as the necessary foundation of technologies past, present, and future. The broad field of nanotechnology embraces a host of topics related to more fashionable academic topics, such as biotechnology, materials, and microelectronics. Interest in these topics has diverted resources into short-term efforts that are well worth doing—but not at the expense of neglecting core technologies essential to the long-term promise of nanotechnology.
The issues here are broad and basic enough that policy makers need not defer to the judgment of narrow technical experts: Advanced nanotechnologies will be based on molecular manufacturing, which, like all manufacturing, will require systems of machines with moving parts. Accordingly, the development of molecular machine systems must be a central priority of the ongoing National Nanotechnology Initiative.
James J. O'Donnell
The most critical science policy decisions that face you can all be reduced to a three words: education, education, education.
In 1957, I was a little kid growing up at White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, Werner Von Braun's first American test site. I well remember the news stories in the paper on Saturday, October 5, when Sputnik went up, and well remember the flood of money that came to our missile base and to educational institutions everywhere in the months that followed. Three of my classmates and I got our pictures in newspapers all over the country posing thoughtfully with models of missiles because wegrowing up at White Sandswere supposed to be the hope of the next generation. (Me, I decided a few years later that rocket science was what middle aged guys in suits did, so to be truly rebellious I went off to study Greek and Latin, but another few years later I wound up as CIO of a great university, so the education money wasn't all mis-spent.)
American science in the near half-century since has done wonderful thingsbut we train fewer scientists every year, we can't fill secondary school classrooms with trained science teachers, we cannot support the building of research facilities in our universities, and the mass media and the houses of congress are full of scientific illiterates. Scientific research will not fix all humankind's problemsbut so far it has made us healthier, better fed, more prosperous, and better able to achieve the potential of human intelligence and human society than my grandfather's generation could have imagined.
But we will go nowhere near where we need to go without the smart, trained people to take us there. We must be as relentless in hunting down that talent as we are in pursuing terrorists, and as committed to winning the hearts and minds on the American street to an understanding of the power of science as we are to winning hearts and minds on middle eastern streets. We can probably win wars, but to make them worth winning, we must build a world that makes all humankind thrive in ways that are only possible with that most rigorous application of our most precious resourcehuman intelligence.
Dear Mr. President:
We live in the age of science. The geometric growth in computing power and internet communications is emblematic of the impact science has had in all human endeavors. Science has made the world of today as different from 1950, as 1950 was from 1500. Given that fact it is jarring to encounter the results of the National Science Foundation's biennial report on the state of science understanding, published last April:
Education by itself is not a panacea. Although belief in ESP decreased from 65% among high school graduates to 60% among college graduates, and belief in magnetic therapy dropped from 71% among high school graduates to 55% among college graduates, that still leaves over half fully endorsing such claims! And for embracing alternative medicine, the percentages actually increase, from 89% for high school grads to 92% for college grads.
Why do so many people, even smart people, believe so many weird things? The problem is usually blamed on education, especially science education. That is only part of the problem. People believe weird things because they are taught what to think, not how to think. Consider these additional statistics from the NSF report: 70% of Americans still do not understand the scientific process, defined in the study as grasping probability, the experimental method, and hypothesis testing. One solution is more and better science education, as indicated by the fact that 53% of Americans with a high level of science education (nine or more high school and college science/math courses) understand the scientific process, compared to 38% with a middle level (six to eight such courses) science education, and 17% with a low level (less than five such courses).
To address this serious problem we need to teach people that science is not simply a database of unconnected factoids, but a set of methods aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation. Science is a way of thinking that recognizes the need to test hypotheses so that the process is not reduced to mere opinion mongering, that the findings of such tests are provisional and probabilistic, and that natural explanations are always sought for natural phenomena.
Lacking a fundamental comprehension of how science works, the siren song of pseudoscience becomes too alluring to resist, no matter how smart you are. So my recommendation, Mr. Bush, is that since your father was the "education President" you become the "science education President." Not just any science education, but science education that teaches students how to think; and not just how to think about weird things, but how to think about, challenge, and be skeptical of all things, including and especially political, economic, and social issues.
Science is the greatest tool ever devised to understand the cause of things. It is, therefore, our greatest hope for a viable future. Ad astra!
One large set of pressing problems our nation and the world faceranging from growing rates of childhood asthma to global warmingstem in large part from a shared root cause: the cumulative impacts of our habits of consumption. The asthma and global warming, for example, both stem largely from the build-up in the air of particulates from the production (through, say, coal-burning power plants) of the energy we use in our homes and the exhaust of autos. Yet most of us make little or no connection between our own buying habits and concerns like our children's asthma or the warming of the planet.
The reason: Virtually none of us can give a precise answer to the question,"What are the impacts for health, the environment, our planet's resources, the gap between rich and poor, of the products we buy? The answers are potentially available, but now are hidden by a fog about the consequences for ourselves and the world of our own actions as consumers.
Yet the multiplier effectthe vast number of people who buy those same productscreates a vast network of inadvertent, adverse consequences. This goes on because we have little or no information about the hidden links between what we buy, and how it impacts our world, our health, our climate, our children. So those of us who complain about or suffer from these problems still continue to be part of their very cause.
My proposal: surface the hidden links between what we buy and the consequential impacts of those products. Then let consumers make choices based on this new informationin a sense,"voting" every time we purchase goodsand let the power of the free market, rather than government policy alone, become a force for improvement.
So, Mr. President, I urge you to deploy the forces necessary to fill in the hidden links between the goods we consume and their impact in the world. Then create a website that consumers could access at the point of purchaseperhaps by passing a palm pilot-like device over the barcode to get to the product-relevant area of the website.
That website should provide immediate data comparing a product to others in its category on any of several dimensions, such as working conditions in factories where components or the product was manufactured; wages (weighted for national norms, etc.); how much energy was used in producing and transporting the product to market; impact on the environment of its production (this alone involves multiple factors, from industrial byproducts like heavy metals and other toxins, to polluting micro-particles); and so on.
Ideally, consumers could determine which of such dimensions were most important in their personal decision to purchase, and so have a built-in logarithm that would pop out the best choices as they wander down the aisles of a store.
As we've seen in the diamond industrywith the industry wide effort to certify the source of diamonds to keep from market "blood" diamonds that finance corrupt regimes and civil wars in Africaconsumer preferences can become forces for social, political, environmental and economic good. But this can only be only true if consumers become aware of links that are now hidden.
Such transparency could alter the buying habits of substantial numbers of consumers, and so create a new marketing advantage for some companies. Ethically driven (or simply nimble) companies could find market advantage in becoming the"good guys" in their category, and so gain market share. This could then open up an entirely new arena for competition between companies, creating a financial incentive to find ways to improve the environmental; health, and other consequences of everything from their manufacturing processes to their wage structures.
Of course, gathering the required data poses a formidable task. It can begin modestly, focusing on the easier dimensions of information. But ultimately filling in the missing links could require a Manhattan Project-like intensity of research, that would draw on findings from fields as diverse as industrial engineering and sociology, environmental sciences and economics, biochemistry and systems theory. It might also require the creation of an impartial body to gather and vet the datasomething like a mega-Consumer Reports. Perhaps a new cabinet post for transparency, Mr. President?
The role of the secretary of science.
In order to act on all issues scientific and otherwise with constructive progress and the discovery of solutions, data, information and ideas need to be put in an understandable form.
Public information about science should be made public.
Public information refers to everything that creates an informed citizen. Public means everything that we as a society agree should be available to the body politic.
The making of scientific information understandable means presenting, designing & structuring this information so that it is accessible, available and actionable. Constructive science is based upon accessibility, understandability, an informed constituency and finally action.
As your new scientific advisor, I would like to draw your attention to an important and perhaps surprising fact. The citizens of your country are not just flesh and blood. They are, increasingly, flesh, blood, and machine. Let me explain why, and then why it matters.
While the biological bodies of our fellow citizens remain (temporarily at least) much as they ever were, their minds are more and more the minds of hybrid beings. As thinking beings, as persons, they are constituted not just by the blood and guts contents of their ancient biological skinbags, but also by vastly transformative webs of social and technological structure.
To see what I mean, reflect that recent advances in genetics, cognitive science, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and cross-cultural studies are helping to paint a much fuller picture of the complex interplay between native skills and rich developmental plasticity that makes us who and what we are. Part of this picture involves native dispositions of various kinds. But another big part involves a vast and distinctive shot of cortical plasticity. This plasticity allows young (and older) human brains to factor surrounding culture, tools and technologies deep into their problem-solving practice. Brains like ours alter profoundly to fit the technologies and practices that surround them.
And there is more. In the past, this process of fit was mainly one-way. Human brains adapted to the devices that they had to work with. But new technologies are changing this one-sided profile. Our best devices now adapt to individual users according to patterns of use. They provide for fast, fluent, painless information retrieval that alters the tasks left to biological memory. They are mobile, portable, robust. Lose one and you feel impaired, as if afflicted by some transient neural trauma. The simple cell phone, with its ever-expanding range of functions, will probably one day be seen as the key transition technology that led humankind into a new hybrid age.
The level of productive debate and co-operation between the humanities and the sciences of the mind is also rising daily. At this critical historical moment, America can lead the world by taking the quality of human life seriously, and by devoting its impressive resources not to hopeless and misguided causes but to helping all its citizens lead full and rewarding lives. That means spending money on the kinds of education, training and research that will help us to understand ourselves as we are today, and to build better hybrid minds tomorrow. Such a project requires understanding both our biological roots and the socio-technological matrixes that take those roots and turn them into the hybrid intelligent systems we recognize as persons.
This project, the project of tracking the interactions between biology and the social and technological matrix itself, could be for the new century what sequencing the human genome was to the last. Done properly, it could mark a transformative moment in human history: the moment we put war and aggression aside, and tried to build better people by better understanding who and what we are.
The National Institute for the Scientific Study of Peace (NISSP)
Dear Mr. President:
The technologist Kevin Kelly has urged you to give more support to long-term, blue-sky, globally relevant research. I could not agree more. In that spirit, I recommend that you create a new governmental body, The National Institute for the Scientific Study of Peace, to address by far the most pressing issue of our time: the persistence of war as a means of resolving disputes between nations.
Fields such as evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive science are now providing new insights into the brain, emotions, reasoning and the evolution of human nature. Findings from these fields as well as from economics, game theory, anthropology, and political science can help us to understand the causes of war and find ways to reduce its occurrence. Thus far, however, the scientific community has not given war-related questions the serious, sustained attention that they deserve.
The National Institute for the Scientific Study of Peace (NISSP) would redress that insufficiency. Its short-term goal would be to find more effective means of resolving conflict in the world today, wherever it might occur. The long-term goal would be to explore ideas on how nations can make the transition toward permanent disarmament: the elimination of armies, arms, and arms industries. Through its grants and publications, NISSP would encourage ambitious young scientists to see peace as a challenge at least as worthy of pursuit as a unified theory of physics, a cure for cancer, or a cheap, clean, renewable source of energy.
Just as a percentage of the budget for the Human Genome Project is allocated to ethical issues, so part of the Defense Department's budget could be allocated to NISSP. One tenth of one percent should be sufficient. Some might argue that war is not a scientific issue. Certainly it is a dauntingly complex one, with political, economic, and social ramifications. But the same could be said of global warming and population growth.
Scholars such as the Yale political scientist Bruce Russett have noted that democracies rarely wage war against each other. We need more rigorous investigations of correlations such as these, which can identify ways to promote stability within and between nations. What is the link between the risk of war and nations political ideologies? Trade and economic policies? Religious and ethnic diversity? Population growth and poverty? Education and womens' rights? Freedom of the press? Availability of energy, food, and other vital resources?
Darwinian theory is sometimes said to imply that conflict is inherent in nature and hence inevitable in human affairs. This view assumes that evolution is primarily what game theorists call a zero-sum game, in which one organism's gain is off-set by another's loss. War is the ultimate zero sum—or, more often, negative—sum game.
But as the journalist Robert Wright points out in his book Nonzero, non-zero-sum processes such as symbiosis and cooperation also play vital roles in evolution. The key to global peace and prosperity, Wright argues, lies in fostering trade, communications, and other mutually beneficial interactions between nations. (Nonzero has been touted by your predecessor in the White House, but don't hold that against it.)
Many scientists will dismiss total, global disarmament, which I believe should be the ultimate goal of our strivings toward peace, as hopelessly unrealistic. These skeptics will argue that at the very least some trans-national organization should always retain a military force, perhaps equipped with nuclear weapons, to deter or suppress attacks from outlaw states or quasi-states, such as Iraq and Al Qaeda.
Certainly global disarmament seems a remote possibility now, but that does not mean we should fatalistically accept armies and armaments, including weapons of mass destruction, as permanent features of civilization. Given the extraordinary advances our species has already achieved in science, technology, medicine, and human rights, surely we are intelligent enough to make not only war but even the threat of war obsolete. The only question is how, and how soon
Dear President Bush:
One thing a science advisor should do is attempt to define science. The last definition we had was in 1892 when Charles Eliot, the President of Harvard, led a committee that decided upon the high school curriculum that is still in place today. They defined science as biology, chemistry, and physics (in that order.) These just happened to be the science departments at Harvard in 1892. They defined mathematics as algebra, geometry and trigonometry (— same reason.) But a few things have happened since 1892.
One thing that has happened is that there are new and different science departments at Harvard (and elsewhere.) Another thing that has happened is that nearly everyone goes to high school and half of those kids go on to college. In 1892 those who went to high school (and on to Harvard which probably what President Eliot was worried about) were preparing to become teachers, professors, ministers and statesmen. They were not preparing the bulk of the population to live.
One of your illustrious predecessors, John Adams—he was the father of another President of the same name, a confusion that I am sure you identify with—said that education was about only two things: how to make a living and how to live. Unfortunately our current school system does neither.
Science is a good example. Should people learn science?
I have recently become the academic dean at Grandview Prep in Florida. I am trying to build a realistic high school curriculum there. I will tell you a story that will help you understand my problem:
I helped build an on line physics course for Columbia, so I installed it in the curriculum at Grandview. There were immediate objections that it would be too hard. (It is a college level course, but actually it is intended to replace "Physics for Poets" at Columbia so it isn't that hard.) Nevertheless it was decided that the good students at Grandview could take this course but the bad students would have to take regular physics. (I thought this bizarre but went along.)
So, I asked the physics teacher what he taught in regular physics. The first thing he mentioned was Ohm's Law. Apparently, the bad kids could understand Ohm's Law but not space travel (which is the basis of the Columbia course.)
Now, I don't know about you President Bush, but Ohm's Law simply fails to come up in my life. And, while we are discussing things that come up in one's life, when was the last time you used the quadratic formula? Your father said every graduating senior would know the Pythagorean Theorem by the time his Presidency was finished (I suppose he was counting on another term eh?) I have it on good authority (from your brother Neil) that no adult member of the Bush family knows the Pythagorean theorem, you or dad included. I suppose you never needed it. (Neither did hardly anyone else.)
Our problems in science and in education come from our view that education is about preparing for Harvard in 1892 and not for life in 2003. So, as your science advisor I would propose three things:
The time has come to make science more accessible and education in it and other subjects more relevant.
I would recommend the creation of a new institute—The National Institute for Humanism—that would fund research and programs that address pressing national problems in a radically new way, by ignoring traditional dividing lines and disciplines. The Institute would create a mechanism to bridge the worlds of the arts and sciences, worlds that have often acted unheeding of the other, or worse, mistrustful or hostile to one another and in competition for the intellectual center.
As John Brockman has written "Around the fifteenth century, the word 'humanism' was tied in with the idea of one intellectual whole. A Florentine nobleman knew that to read Dante but ignore science was ridiculous. Leonardo was a great artist, a great scientist, a great technologist."
Art and science both address the most profound issues of the day yet often face each other across a great divide. The new National Institute for Humanism would be a mechanism to formally foster and encourage collaborations across the arts, humanities, and sciences, create synergy and cross-fertilization of ideas, uniting thinkers from different viewpoints and disciplines in tackling important questions about who and what we are. Call it the intellectual equivalent of globalization.
Milan Kundera once wrote that every novel offers some answer to the question. "What is human existence and wherein does it poetry lie?" I would submit, so does every work of important science.
No one can dispute any longer that when a Nation's science and technology weaken, the Nation itself is in danger—economically, militarily, intellectually, and in terms of its image and power as a world leader. Therefore it is essential to realize that behind the many pressing scientific issues facing our Nation today, one stands out far among the rest: The persistent decline for several years in the past, and into the foreseeable future, of the very health of the scientific/technological workforce of America. This decline—which, if not reversed, may well turn out to be the Achilles Heel in the battle for maintaining the historic high standing of American science and technology— has several indicators. I will here confine myself to two:
1) As the non-partisan Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable determined by consensus a few days ago, the number and quality of American S&E workers is dropping precipitously—with over 50 percent of federal S&E workers expected to retire within the next ten years, with U.S. production of scientists decreasing since the 1990s (in part because of the long-term decline, in real $ and as a fraction of GDP, in federal funding for true research, except for biology). As the American Physical Society Science News of December 2002 stresses, "Overall, the number of PhD students in science and engineering is at a 50-year low, and there is little sign of a turn-about." To make up for the low enrollment of U.S. citizens, that of "foreign students, in particular, ballooned in the '80s and '90s," and continues to do so—with many major university science departments now having half or more of their graduate students recruited from foreign countries—students which in large numbers return to their home countries after graduation.
2) Not unrelated to the first point is—with few great exceptions—the deplorable state of science/technology/mathematics knowledge and teaching in K-12 classes, and even in U.S. colleges, where now only about 30% of them require even one hour of science instruction for graduation. In April 1983, just twenty years ago, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published its unanimous report on American schools, titled "A Nation at Risk." Its five main recommendations were endorsed, in several public addresses, by President Reagan. To a small degree, these recommendations, and others like them, were adopted by some Governors and schools. But in fact the performance, on average, of America's students is still painfully poor, not only in science and not only with respect to international comparisons with students in other main industrial nations. The Nation is still at risk.
In the days after Sputnik, the nation's leadership aroused our population to make major investments, in both scientific research and science education. The time has come for analogous acts of national leadership, on both points, and along the whole "pipeline," from early schooling to the most advanced research labs. For example: With nearly 2 million new school teachers expected to be needed in the next 10 years, and many existing ones in positions still far below what a true professional would deserve, a large-scale (perhaps State-centered) set of Academic Year (or Summer) Institutes is needed to bring science teachers up to speed, and to be ready to help the more educated pupils reach the next levels. And, at the other end, talented Americans need to be brought back in sufficient numbers into the U.S. research labs, many of which are now demoralized by having to fight again and again in the face of refusals of funding for their admittedly meritorious projects.
I conclude by expressing my willingness to collaborate with others interested in these (here much abbreviated) observations and recommendations. Just as President Eisenhower invented, and brilliantly used, a wide, non-partisan circle of science advisers to deal with key aspects of the international challenges confronting America at that time, so has history brought our current leadership to an analogous moment. And history will judge the success or failure to seize that moment.
Dear President Bush:
I respectfully decline your invitation to compete for the job of science adviser. I just don't think we could work together successfully. For one thing, you're a morning type and a jogger, and I'm not. For another, I somehow don't think we have compatible views of what science is and how it works.
You're an upbeat sort of guy, and would no doubt expect your science advisor to bring you lots of good news about how science is going to solve all the world's problems. But to tell the truth, I'm a little discouraged right now about science's ability to solve all the world's problems.
You see, in my view the source of the world's problems is people. It's people who make wars, commit crimes, mess up the environment, spend too much, spend too little, whatever. So in order to solve the world's problems, we need to understand people. The science of understanding people is called "psychology." But psychology isn't taken seriously, because most folks think they already understand people—who needs science?
What's worse, this attitude is common not just among non-experts like (begging your pardon) yourself: it's common even among psychologists. They all have their own pet theories of what makes people tick, and if the evidence doesn't happen to agree with their theories—well, to hell with the evidence.
Do you see the dilemma? We need a science of human behavior—a science of the human mind—that would tell us (among other things) why people won't believe the evidence that science produces. But if such a science produced interesting and novel results, nobody would believe them! So what's the point?
Maybe you should look for a science advisor in some other field ... um, botany? No, too controversial. Dermatology?
Thanks anyway, and good luck!
Dear Mr Bush,
I am pleased to have this opportunity of sharing with you some of the insights from science that are relevant to the situation you face at home and abroad. Let me start by reminding you of something you learned at school that holds the key to your own and everyone else's future. It's a chemical process that looks like this : 2H2 + O2 -> 2H2O + energy.
Remember? Hydrogen burns with oxygen to produce water and energy. Water and energy are the key to the future, as I'm sure you realise.
You learned from the oil business that whoever controls energy controls the world. You are about to seize the billions of barrels of liquid energy that lie beneath the sands and the coastal waters of Iraq in order to secure the future for your country and gain control of the uncertain politics of this fractious global village in which we now live. However, this isn't a good policy and I want to persuade you of a much better alternative.
Apart from the international political turmoil and increased terrorist activity that this action will provoke, there are direct consequences that will follow for the future of the US . Unrestricted access to all that oil for US industry, with no effective Kyoto-type constraints which you have refused to accept, will accelerate CO2 build-up in the earth's atmosphere to a rate that guarantees a sudden failure of rainfall over the bread basket of the American mid-West. We now know from studies by your own scientists that it is the remarkable volume of water transpired by trees in the Amazon basin that produces the climatic conditions for rain to fall in Kansas and the mid-Western states.
Accelerating the rate of CO2 increase in the atmosphere by profligate use of Iraq's vast oil supplies, together with the continuing deforestation of the Amazon, will not only turn the Amazon basin into a parched desert but plunge the entire mid-West into prolonged drought, resulting in famine in your own land. History would then judge you as an apocalyptic Burning Bush, bringing the scourge of parching fire to your country and its people.
The alternative that science provides for you comes through the blessing of water. The little formula that I reminded you of contains all the answers. You start with water and end with water, pure and unpolluting. Use the sun's energy via solar panels, wind, wave and hydroelectric power to convert water into hydrogen and oxygen. Then use the hydrogen to drive industry, cars and other means of transport. The science and technology is all there, and the countries that develop this industrial potential will lead the recovery from the recession that is now deepening.
As we undertake this technological and economic transformation, we will need to make other major adjustments to our world-view. However, just as science has shown how to become sustainable in energy use, it is providing the vision needed to follow ecological principles, resulting in no waste or pollution in industrial production, consistent with the principles of the hydrogen economy. And, most important of all, there is a shift occurring both in sc silence and in society that is taking us from preoccupation with quantities of goods to concern about quality of life.
We have learned through science and technology how to turn the bountiful resources of the earth into vast quantities of goods, enough to provide for all if we share. However, in the process we have lost sight of the qualities on which our lives depend, which make them worthwhile and meaningful : health and well-being, relationships, community living, sharing, caring for the planet and all of its inhabitants, human and non human alike.
We have tried to substitute quantities for qualities and found that this produces poverty in the quality of our relationships, in the meaning and value of our lives. Science is now expanding so that qualities of persons, communities, cultures, ecosystems, landscapes, farms and animals, the Amazon, the planet , are primary, with a focus on health, creativity and meaning. A science of qualities is now developing in response to the recognised limitations of our science of quantities, to refocus our attention on the qualities and values of life. It's the path into the future. Why not take it? Then you'll go down in history not as Burning Bush but as Bush the Bringer of Universal Sustainability through Hydrogen.
Dear Mr President,
The most pressing scientific issue facing the nation and the world is the deep level of ignorance of science that exists among the vast majority of the world's population, civilized as well as uncivilized. This is manifest in two ways: 1. Lack of knowledge of even basic scientific discoveries about the world; and 2. Lack of appreciation of the effectiveness of scientific reasoning at arriving at the truth: what Eugene Wigner, one of the last century's leading scientists, called "the unreasonable effectiveness of science".
This appreciation is necessary not only to remove current obstacles to the advances of science; it also needs to infiltrate people's everyday lives so that their daily decisions about how to live are based less on fantasy and irrationality and more on facts and logic.
Until this ignorance is corrected, the whole of the scientific enterprise will be continually hampered by its failure to convince an uncomprehending legislature and electorate to provide suitable funding for science, and to exploit to the maximum its discoveries. The best way to deal with this particular problem, which impedes the solution of most other scientific problems, is to provide an annual bonus on top of their salary to new science teachers of $100,000 a year, and put applicants through a rigorous selection process based on a combination of knowledge, skill and passion for the subject, combined with superb pupil handling ability.
There are about 3 million teaching posts in the USA. If, say, a quarter are to teach math and science, that means finding $75 billion a year. It sounds a lot, but it's actually $5 per person per week. It's estimated that global warming could cost the world $300 billion a year, and America a sizeable proportion of that amount. Good science could deal with that problem and pay for itself. Or take something more banal. In the US people spend almost $75 billion dollars a year on nutritional supplements. If people understood science better, most if not all of that money would be saved, either by eating a better diet or by not buying junk medicines. In one generation the problem will be solved, and during that generation, as a new breed of scientists enters the universities and research institutes, the whole of science will begin to benefit.
A less obvious issue is the deteriorating nature of man-machine interfaces as technology becomes more complex. This is not just a matter of better design of control panels and remote controls-it needs a more fundamental innovation where the intention of the any user is immediately translated into the actions of the device.
We are entering an era of scientific change that is rocking no less than human nature itself. This directed evolution is unprecedented. It is convulsing everything from the affairs of state, to defense, to commerce, to labor, to education, to health, to welfare, to the economy. It is not science fiction. It has begun to occur and is accelerating this decade. You need an advisor who can help you try to ride this curve of change.
Human organization is always structured by the technology of the time"We shape our houses, then they shape us," as Churchill put it. But culture moves more slowly than invention.
So in the '50s, for example, we may very well have been rocked by the atomic bomb, television, mass-produced suburban housing, and all the rest. Yet the '50s was the notoriously quiet Eisenhower decade. The cultural upheaval of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' rollenabled by The Pill, synthetic psychedelics and the transistordid not occur until the '60s.
Similarly, the '90s saw the rise of a suite of technologies that are fundamentally altering the underpinnings of our world. These are genomics, robotics, information networking, and nanotechnology. Yet the '90s was an astonishingly quiescent decade. The big news was peace, prosperity, and Monica.
Only now are we beginning to sense a hinge in history, a time when the earth is beginning to move beneath our feet. For only now is technology augmenting and enhancing our very bodies and minds and personalities.
This transformation of humanity demands leadership. It needs a guide to what is being born. It will require someone with a road map and a tout sheet and a cultural compass to the driving forces behind this transformation, identifying opportunities. It needs a chief of state who will provide a sense of intention. We can't live without this transformation and we can't kill it. Trying to let it pass will only turn our lives into a political and philosophical curiosity.
For all recorded history, humans have been trying to transcend human nature: Think of Socratic reasoning, Buddhist enlightenment, Christian sainthood, Cartesian logic or the Marxists "New Man." Now such transformation may actually be in reach because of technology. Is it a good idea after all?
Little stands in the way of the transcendence of human nature occurring in your lifetime 20 to 50 years from now. That's the one thing on which everyone who looks at this compounding curve of change agrees. You can get an argument about whether this is inevitable. Biotech critic Francis Fukuyama proposes a broad program of government intervention to preserve the human nature we've always known. Others scoff, saying such efforts are like placing a rock in a stream. There are more than enough labs run by brave souls in adventurous parts of the world for events to just flow around any barriers.
You can also find disagreement about whether the biological revolution or the computer revolution first will lead us to becoming trans-human. Gregory Stock, director of the UCLA Program on Medicine, Technology and Society, foresees widespread reworking of human biology via genetic engineering that cannot be stopped by either governments or religious groups. Others, like the much-honored computer pioneer Ray Kurzweil, agree with Stock that the biogenetic changes will take place, but believes that we also see profound integration of our biological systems with non biological intelligence, enabling routine integration of machines and the brain by 2030. As you know, Mr. President, your Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has already demonstrated remarkable progress on this front this year.
What none of these scientists dispute is the notion that as exponential technological change continues to accelerate into the first half of the 21st century, "it will appear to explode into infinity, at least from the limited and linear perspective of contemporary humans," as Kurzweil puts it. This will result in "technological change so rapid and profound that it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history."
The towering question is whether this is good or bad. In the near term, the world could divide up into three kinds of humans. One would be the Enhanced, who embrace these opportunities. A second would be the Naturals, who have the technology available but who, like today's vegetarians, choose not to indulge for moral or aesthetic reasons. Finally, there would be The Rest those without access to these technologies for financial or geographic reasons, lagging behind, envying or despising those with ever-increasing choices. Especially if the Enhanced can easily be recognized because of the way they look, or what they can do, this is a recipe for conflict that would make racial or religious differences quaintly obsolete.
There are a variety of scenarios for such a future. One critical uncertainty is whether the technology is seen as benign or malignant. Another is whether society coheres during this transformation or bursts into shards. Some of the possible outcomes: The secrets of human consciousness and the human brain elude us, and the change is stately. Or incremental change continues to accelerate, aging is reversed, the revolution has occurred, and we are just trying to deal with the consequences. Another possibility: new intelligent species roam the Earth in 20 or 30 years, some of them mainly flesh and blood, and some of them mainly not.
In whatever case, what we're talking about here is transcendence becoming separate from or going beyond the gritty world we've always known. The realm of religion and mythology is being challenged by that of science and technology as the key to overcoming the confines of human nature. This is the stuff of Nietzsche, in his declaration that "Man is a rope, fastened between animal and overman a rope over an abyss. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal."
"To me, that is what human civilization is all about," says Kurzweil. "It is part of our destiny and part of the destiny of evolution to continue to progress ever faster, and to grow the power of intelligence exponentially. To contemplate stopping that to think human beings are fine the way they are is a misplaced remembrance of what human beings used to be. What human beings are is a species that has undergone a cultural and technological evolution, and it's the nature of evolution that it accelerates, and that its powers grow exponentially, and that's what we're talking about."
The question then becomes whether we want to be evolving human nature beyond what we've known for millennia. They involve difficult choices. These go to those eternal questions of who we are, how we got that way, where we're headed, and what makes us tick.
I have a dream.
I have a dream that one day we shall look back on today’s society with the same abhorrence with which we now view Victorian child labour, the oppression of women, and the evils of slavery.
We shall look back with horror on terrorist attacks, street crime out of control, and violence marring everyone’s lives—to a time when neither police nor the law were respected, and half our children were criminals before they even left school. And we shall wonder why so few people were prepared to stand up and shout "Enough."
In my dream I can walk down any street in Bristol, Boston, Bogotá or Bombay and no one will steal my phone to get their next fix. No heroin–dazed beggar will plead for my change. No crack-crazed youth will kill me for my credit card. And why? Because in my dream they, like me, can walk down that street and buy any drug they like.
Cannabis and ecstasy, heroin and cocaine, LSD and aspirin, will all be sold – clean, legal, properly packaged in precise doses, with appropriate warnings and proper regulation. Tax revenue will be more than enough to treat addicts and to guide problem users. Scientists will be free to research the effects of any drug without fear. Children will be given true advice, and real drugs education that teaches wise drug use, not ignorant abuse. And global terrorism will have disappeared for lack of funds.
Our prisons will have room to spare. No one will be there for wanting the freedom to control their own mind. And no one will be there because gangs have lured or threatened them into a life of dealing and violence. Police will once more earn the respect of the majority whose lives they work to protect.
In my dream, the peasants of Afghanistan will work their poppy fields for legal wages, the farmers of South America will labour free of the fear of the drug barons, and the profits of world trade will not be siphoned off by the criminals but returned to the people who earned them.
Mr President, it is the United States of America who long ago brought the evil of prohibition upon the world, and still holds the power to prevent the rest of us from seeking freedom from prohibition. Mr President, you could win the war on terrorism, not by fighting, but by refusing to fight the war on drugs.
As your prospective scientific advisor on issues of mind and consciousness, I know that there is no more pressing issue than the problem of drugs. I urge you to act now to free us all.
Dear Mr. President:
As you no doubt recognize, your scientific advisor is essentially a soothsayer. This individual is called upon to make key predictions about different aspects of the scientific enterprise, enabling the President to make appropriate decisions for the benefit and welfare of the American people. To assure you of my qualifications for this position, I will go out on the proverbial limb and make three specific predictions that you will find to be borne out by future events.
First, I predict that all the other applicants for this position will urge you to increase federal funding for science. Second, every applicant will make a special case for increased funding for the scientific field in which he or she specializes. The biologists will plead for more money for biomedical research, the physicists for particle research, and the psychologists for behavioral studies. This is not to belittle the worthiness of such advice. All branches of science can make good use of more funding, and who better to make a case for a particular field than an expert in that field.
Before providing you with my third prediction, allow me to identify what I consider to be the most significant problem in science today. In my opinion, our nation needs to get more of our young people interested in pursuing a career in science.
We are just beginning to unravel the secrets of the universe, from subatomic particles to the molecular cues that guide the building of the brain. As Cole Porter wrote: "the best is yet to come,"and I believe you will agree with me Mr. President that it is vitally important for America to lead the world in this effort. Regretfully, there has been a pronounced downturn in the number of young Americans choosing to dedicate their lives to science. As I travel around the country giving talks at our leading universities, it is readily apparent to me that more and more graduate students and postdoctoral fellows are from abroad. This is to be expected since at present we are the world's leader in scientific research. But, I believe that it would be a grave mistake for us to rely on foreign talent for our future scientific breakthroughs. For one thing, there is no guarantee that these individuals, whose costly training was paid for by the American taxpayer, will remain in this country. It is also shortsighted to assume that foreign scientific talent will be drawn to our shores for evermore. Without in any way discouraging the world's best young minds from coming to the United States to do science, we must come up with a strategy to encourage the best and the brightest in our nation to do the same.
My first recommendation to you, Mr. President would be to budget a relatively small amount of money for a program that might be termed "GWB Science Allstars of the Future." The program would annually select 1000 high school seniors and 100 college seniors with outstanding potential for future scientific achievements. (It might be prudent to distribute the number of nominees and subsequent winners in proportion to the congressional seats held by each of the 50 states, but others are better suited than I to deal with such matters.) The selection committee could be comprised of science teachers as well as preeminent scientists from industry, government and universities. A key aspect of this program is the prize: $100,000 to each high school senior and $1,000,000 to the college counterparts. The total annual cost of the program (including administration) would be less than $250 million, while its impact would be dramatic and long lasting. With serious prize money on the line science would no longer be just for the "weird" kids. Indeed, doing science would be seen as cool. With the right kid of publicity the GWB Science Allstars would become national celebrities, on par with sports heroes. One can even imagine rap songs describing the travails and triumphs of particularly charismatic young scientists.
This brings me to my third prediction, Mr. President. When the young people in our nation get as much money for scientific achievement as NBA draftees, the entire educational enterprise in this country will be raised to a level unprecedented in the history of the world. This could become the greatest the legacy of your presidency, perhaps even rivaling our eventual victory in the war on terrorism, and at a cost of much less than that a single stealth bomber.
Dear Mr. President,
In the mad hysteria of the moment, when all your intellectual resources are focused on finding someone in the Middle East to play Tit for Tat, whether Osama, Saddam, or Abu Nidal, I would remind you of some common sense truths about the complex dynamics of living systems.
First: Punishment doesn't work.
We know that beating a child doesn't make them peaceful, it makes them more violent.
We know that exercise doesn't make you tired, it gives you more energy.
If you have dandelions growing in your lawn, would you selectively blow their heads off or fertilize the lawn to choke out the weeds? Each dandelion you crush results in many more next year, while a stronger lawn resists their invasion.
The moral of this story is that striking back at terrorists may merely create more terrorists, while engaging the people in peaceful commerce inhibits terror.
Second: You can bet your last nickel that masses are fickle.
The mass coherence which supports your initiatives can turn on a dime. Spending $200B on war will cause severe "buyers remorse" when the people realize they bought nothing but national debt, a mess in Iraq, and higher prices for oil.
Third: Optimism is necessary.
Optimists behave different than pessimists. They buy more, invest more, take risk for future gains, and work harder. One doesn't have to be a genius to realize that the threat of continual war, while enhancing power, leads to economic woes because investors and consumers are uncertain. While oil profits may rise, all the rest of our modern industries, from Airlines, to Investment Banking, Telecommunications, Software and Chips will continue to collapse. To end the depression, the country needs optimism about economic growth driven by expectations of peace and stability.
Taking all three points together, my advice is to stimulate optimism by making a bold move turning America's focus from its negative role in war brinkmanship to a positive role as a leader who stands for peace, freedom and economic growth.
Dear Mr. President,
"We refuse to live in fear," you declared in your October 7th address from the Oval Office. If only it were so.
An hour before your address, I was screened into my local airport's sleepy concourse (with but four small flights yet to depart) by nineteen bored security personnel. Cars entering the parking lot, though buffered from the single story airport by two streets, underwent inspection (though not at more vulnerable venues across America, such as ferries and underground parking lots). With 9/11's four crashed airliners still vividly in mind, and with threats of more terror to come, our airlines have been flying into the red. Understandably, Mr. President, we are living in fear.
Terrorists may indeed strike again, though our preoccupation with airline terror likely underestimates their creativity. Already in the aftermath of 9/11 the terrorists have continued killing us, in ways unnoticed. In the ensuing months, Americans flew 20 percent less. "No way are we flying to Disneyland for vacation!" Instead, we drove many of those miles, which surely caused more additional highway deaths than occurred on those four ill-fated flights.
Consider: The National Safety Council reports that in the last half of the 1990s Americans were, mile for mile, 37 times more likely to die in a vehicle crash than on a commercial flight. When I fly to Washington for our meetings, the most dangerous part of my journey is my drive to the Grand Rapids airport.
Terrorists, perish the thought, could have taken down 50 more planes with 60 passengers each in 2001 and—had we kept flying (speaking hypothetically)—we would still have finished 2001 safer in planes than on the road. Flying may be scary (531 people died on U.S. scheduled airlines in 2001). But driving the same distance should be many times scarier.
Why do we intuitively fear the wrong things? Why do so many smokers (whose habit shortens their lives, on average, by about five years) fret before flying (which, averaged across people, shortens life by one day)? Why do we fear violent crime more than clogged arteries? Why do we fear terrorism more than accidents—which kill nearly as many per week in just the United States as did worldwide terrorism in all of the 1990s. Even with the horrific scale of 9/11, more Americans in 2001 died of food poisoning (which scares few) than terrorism (which scares many).
To understand why we live in fear, Mr. President, and how you might lead us to think more rationally, consider four influences on our intuitions about risk (as identified by psychological science).
Some things we should fear more, Mr. President, and you can use your bully pulpit to help us fear the right things. We fear too little those threats that will claim lives undramatically, one by one (rather than in bunches). Smoking kills 400,000 Americans a year, yet we subsidize tobacco growers. Although killing many fewer, terrorists cause more terror. Never again, we vow. And so will spend tens of billions to save future thousands, yet are reluctant to spend a few billion to save millions.
A 2002 report by Deloitte Consulting and Aviation Week projected that the United States would spend between $93 and $138 billion during 2003 to deter potential terrorism. Alternatively, $1.5 billion a year would be the U.S. share of a global effort to cut world hunger in half by 2015, according to a 2001 study done for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Ten billion dollars a year would spare 29 million world citizens from developing AIDS by 2010, according to a joint report by representatives of the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and others. And a few tens of billions spent converting cars to hybrid engines and constructing renewable energy sources could help avert the anticipated future catastrophe of global warming and associated surging seas and extreme weather.
While agonizing over missed signals of the 9/11 horror, are we missing the clearer indications of greater horrors to come? "Osama bin Laden can't destroy Western civilization," observed Paul Krugman (dare I quote him). "Carbon dioxide can."
The moral: It is perfectly normal to fear purposeful violence from those who hate us. When Saddam commits more evil, or when terrorists strike again (likely where unexpected), we will all recoil in horror. But smart thinkers will also want to check their intuitive fears against the facts. To be prudent is to be mindful of the realities of how humans die. By so doing, we can take away the terrorists' most omnipresent weapon: exaggerated fear. If our fears cause us to live and spend in ways that fail to avert tomorrow's biggest dangers, then we surely do have something to fear from fear itself.
Dear Mr. President,
Scientists are natural ambassadors.
I consider it a great opportunity to get your attention for what I believe is an important scientific and societal issue.
Who am I? A neuroscientist born in 1940 in an area of Germany which is now Poland. I belong to the group of people who lost everything after expatriation, and who had to start again at a new place owning only what they had and have in their head, i.e. their brain.
With my experiences I have come to the conclusion stated in the beginning: Scientists are natural ambassadors.
It is only scientists who bring people and nations together. Independent of history, religious faith, economic status, gender or color of skin, scientists work together and have worked together to pursue a common goal, i.e. a deeper understanding of nature and culture. As this is the case, I believe it is necessary to use the sciences building bridges between cultures.
Although your administration is presently deeply involved, and necessarily so, in fighting terrorism, I believe, Mr. President, that a long-term issue should also be tackled by your administration.
Let me use a picture from physics. Stability is only given if an object rests on three legs. This is also true in global politics. A longterm balance is given if three large blocks develop and maintain their identity. This is of course the US, but which is also East Asia (in particular China), and Europe (in spite of some present hesitations to see its identity and its global mission). In a world of three large areas of cultural identity, i.e. US, East Asia and Europe, each one of equal importance and expressing respect to the others, we can hope for longterm stability.
It is the scientists in all these countries to create the necessary atmosphere and provide the societal glue to reach that goal.
With all respect
I am pleased you are considering me for this advisory position. However, before proceeding further, I would appreciate some clarification about your vision for my role in your administration. Particularly in these tumultuous times, I would like to know that you will not neglect the advice of the scientific community. Since you have moved my predecessor's office away from the White House and downgraded his role, refusing to give him the customary title "Assistant to the President," I cannot help but question your commitment to furthering and best utilizing scientific advances.
This apprehension is compounded by your having eliminated my predecessor's deputy from the National Security Council, explicitly indicating that science is no longer an integral part of national decision making.
The views of the scientific community could be especially relevant today. Many pressing issues that will shape the lives of Americans and the world in the coming years will be best addressed by leaders who recognize that science, science education, scientific expertise, and international scientific cooperation are crucial to formulating the best policy.
Take the issue of national security. How can we assess other countries' potential for creating weapons of mass destruction without detailed understanding of potentially dangerous materials and what is required to transform them into truly dangerous ones? How can any agency hope to protect "the homeland" without evaluating our reliance on technology and how best to safeguard it from interference? And how can we hope to have a stable world unless the benefits and advances of technology are more widely distributed?
I fear I will disqualify myself from this job by pointing out that the threat of global warming is an issue the scientific community has finally reached consensus on. Yet the detrimental effects, both economically and environmentally, of excessive carbon dioxide emissions have been completely neglected in formulating current policy.
I do not wish to give the impression that I think the role of scientific advisor is only to attend to the most pressing issues of our day. It is critical that the importance of a long-term view of the role and significance of science does not get subsumed by the more immediate issues. Like a college education, which is absurdly expensive yet repays itself in spades, science is difficult to assess with a cost-benefit analysis. Current scientific policy focuses on short-term achievement and success, to the exclusion of investigating long-term potential and possibilities.
The long-term future of science might well involve big expensive tools that take time to develop and employ. It is essential to develop some riskier ideas if in the end we are to remain competitive. This is particularly true for Particle Physics, where progress will only be made with adequately funded big projects that will most likely happen only with meaningful international cooperation. It is important that you, the President, recognize that with action or inaction, we are making a choice about our long-term competitiveness in this field and physics as a whole. Europe devotes twice the percentage of its GDP than America to physics. The European collider facility in Geneva, CERN, has twice the budget of the main American facility, Fermilab, in Batavia, Illinois. CERN has been able to develop new projects using only its operating budget; American facilities lack that luxury.
My focus on Particle Physics is because it is my field of expertise. But I want to emphasize that the benefits of Particle Physics, like most scientific endeavors, spread beyond their immediate goals. Accelerator technology was developed for purely scientific reasons yet is now routinely utilized in hospitals. Advances in processing and coordinating large databases has and will filter out of the physics environment to the world at large. And exciting ideas and better understanding are essential to stimulating and promoting the advanced education which sustains our economy.
In summary, a coherent scientific policy is particularly imperative in the world of today. There is a real danger of losing the priceless environment, both physical and intellectual, that enhances our way of life. With so many technological and scientific issues at stake, it is critical that corporate interests and political calculations are not the sole determinants of scientific policy. Let's not sacrifice support for major scientific advances to short-term political agendas whose legacy will forever be regretted.
I've given much thought to present adminstration's policy on science particularly on evironmental issues (very broadly defined), but also on related areas (such as energy policy), and have even been involved in some of the issues involving terrorist threats (diseases of people and agricultural resources). I have yet to see an area where science has informed any of this present administration's policies. Despite much hand waving about "sound science" I have no confidence that a science advisor would have any useful impact whatsoever.
I think I'll give this position a pass, not so much out of spite, but because I think there are many better platforms from which to ensure that science effects good policy at the international, national, and state levels.
Neuroscientists have recently discovered that a given visual perception of the Universe activates the same group of neurons than just to imagine that perception. Surprisingly, the discovery did not make headlines in the press.
Apparently, it does not matter that much to perceive a fraction of the tiniest part of the Universe—that is to say, the visible part—or imagine instead the dominant invisible reality of atoms and void, in order to feel something, the glory of colours in Newton's words, or to be self-conscious.
The immediate corollary for corporate life of the absence of barriers between visible and invisible at the level of consciousness is that the same degree, at least, of attention should be paid to evaluating customers degree of satisfaction, than to what is going on in their imagination. Both might be very different and equally relevant. It is obvious that some corporate projects might be geared to fulfill consumers visible needs, and others to short-cut this lengthy process by direct access to the imagination.
By and large people have not realized yet the impact of the sudden crumbling down of all sorts of barriers. From the neuron's point of view there is no difference between a visually perceived or imagined bit of the Universe. From a professional chemist's point of view, it has become irrelevant too to distinguish between a synthetic or a natural compound. Both are likely to be impure, more so natural extracts usually made of complex mixtures, unless processed to separate the components.
Biologist John Bonner at Princeton has, following more than forty years research, proved that it is impossible to distinguish between human intelligence and that of a social amoeba like slime molds. You just cannot demonstrate that slim molds—or bacteria for that matter—are unconscious. Since Darwin and modern genetics, the old debate around what distinguishes humans from other animals has become redundant. If anything, we are looking now into the differences betweens humans and minerals.
Astrophysicist John Gribbin—to the dismay of many—has been meticulously unscafolding away the existence of that last barrier. Life and the Universe are inextricably intertwined. There would be no planets like the Earth, and no life forms like us, if there were no clouds of gas laced with tiny traces of dusty debris produced by the previous explosions of supernova. There is no doubt now. We are made of interstellar galactic mineral dust.
Last but not least, the mother of all barriers, the last frontier between life and death is becoming ever more suspicious and difficult to ascertain. Hardly three years ago it was discovered that we humans too—like mouse and rats—have stem cells. Or, stem cells happen to be immortal. Stem cells command the process of morphogenesis from the incipient and magic zygot to the finished embryo. They are not the least important cells in the body. On the contrary. No wonder if the mother of all barriers has been deadly shaken. If atoms are eternal, and stem cells are immortal, what on earth dies out when somebody dies.
The unprecedented disappearance of barriers clashes with every social convention. Most people only feel comfortable within the narrow limits of his or her own identity, if duly ranged with equals from the same species, tribe, generation, church, country and culture. And identical cultures provide similar sight, taste, tact and hearing. That is the way the neocortex works. But the sudden lack of barriers tunes very well with the unconscious brain and its capacity to allucinate under the effects of LSD. The most powerful drug on earth happens to destroy barriers between people, between mind and body, between oneself and other living organisms and, finally, between the spirit and the Universe.
Science is pointing towards an LSD-like world without LSD intake. And we are wholly unprepared for both. Math, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Psychology—the things we are made of—are inextricably intertwined. People though, remain interactiveless and disentangled.
Governments have no more urgent task than to help to conciliate individuals, corporations, institutions, and society at large with the new frontierless Universe. Otherwise, managers will continue to hold that science has nothing to do with their entrepreneurial projects, citizens and their legal systems will be crushed by unexplained violence, Universities will go on focusing on specific subjects amidst growing demands for global interconnectivity between humans, robots and computers, the practice of medicine will continue to exorcise symptoms instead of regenerating tissues, and in a frontierless Universe nations will continue to fight and hide behind frontiers.
Dear Mr. President,
The United States has led the world in science and technology since World War II. In recent years our lead has reduced as Europe, Japan and Canada have matched and in some cases exceeded our investments in education and science. This is to be expected, and we can be happy that all of our rivals for scientific and technological leadership are also our allies. Indeed, in the modern world, science, democracy and prosperity go hand in hand, and it is no coincidence that throughout history those nations that led the development of democracy also led their times in scientific advancement. Our main goal, as the leader of the democratic world, must be to see that the benefits of democracy and science, and the prosperity they jointly give rise to, are extended to all the peoples of the Earth.
To achieve this we shall have to make use of the unique strengths of our society, which have been responsible for our dominance in science and technology. These strengths are connected to the openness of our society to new ideas and new immigrants, to our spirit of initiative and innovation, to our generosity, our preference for peace over war, and the respect for peoples of all cultures, races and nations that comes from our being a nation of immigrants. We would best build on these by the following steps:
1) Create crash programs, analogous to the Manhattan project and the Apollo program, to solve the major scientific and technological problems facing human kind. These include global warming, energy efficiency and renewable energy resources. It also includes developments in medicine and biology related to public health, such as the AIDS epidemic as well as finding ways to protect against terrorism without compromising our freedoms.
Only the United States has the scientific capability, economic resources and technological base to mount programs to solve these problems. Only the United States has the experience of successfully carrying off such ambitious programs. Only the United States has the spirit of innovation and risk taking that makes such projects succeed. By taking on and solving these problems we would create enormous benefits to all the peoples of the world. There is indeed no better way to maintain our position of leadership in the eyes of the world.
Thus, in each of the areas I mentioned, I propose that the United States announce a crash program with clearly defined goals. Put the prestige of your office and the scientific and technological capabilities of the United States on the line in each of these. Create a flexible, flat organization, led by scientific and engineering visionaries, not managers and bureaucrats, fund them generously and give them all the scope and resources they need to succeed quickly. Remember that it took less than five years to make the atomic bomb, and less than ten to put a person on the moon. Avoid the temptation, in areas such as global warming and energy independence, to reward special interests by delaying action and funding further studies. Instead, put the energy of our scientists and engineers into finding and implementing workable solutions to the problems.
This is an expensive proposal, but it will be worth every dollar. For example, in the long run it will be cheaper to invest our resources to develop renewable sources of energy, and new energy efficient technologies, than in increasingly risky and destabilizing attempts to control oil and gas by military force.
2) Our leadership is due in no small measure to the fact that a large fraction of scientists and engineers working in the United States immigrated here in order to study and work. To maintain leadership, we must keep open the possibility that a bright young engineer or scientist can come to our shores from anywhere in the world and realize the American dream while working in our universities, laboratories and companies. We benefit enormously from the talents and contributions of those who stay and become American citizens, but we also benefit from those who return to their countries after studying and working here. There is no better way to win friends and to promote the spread of our values than by continuing to have open doors for scientists and engineers. Generally speaking, there is no person of any background or culture more likely to appreciate our democratic values, and less likely to engage in terrorism or religious fundamentalism, than a person trained in the sciences.
3) Let us do everything we can to maintain leadership in pure sciences. This means funding the NSF and NIH generously, but it means more than that. Over the last several decades these organizations have become increasingly bureaucratic, inflexible and unresponsive to the needs of those scientists who do the most to advance science. There are fewer and fewer grants to individual scientists as an increasing proportion of the funds are diverted to big projects and research centers. But it can be documented that most major advances come from the laboratories and offices of individual scientists, and not from big research centers and projects. Then why the trend? Unfortunately all too often, the big research centers and projects serve to further the careers of bureaucrats and administrators in government and the universities.
In the universities as well there has been also a rapid growth of bureaucracy and middle management. Where there used to be one chair or dean, there is now a suite of offices with several associate and assistant bureaucrats. While many businesses have eliminated middle managers and flattened hierarchies, to gain the flexibility needed to innovate and compete in a rapidly changing world, universities have been going in the other direction. Many business leaders are quite simply shocked when they try to partner with universities, as they discover how administrative heavy and bureaucratic the large universities have become.
But progress in science depends on risk taking and an openness to novelty and surprise. This is why most scientific advances are made by young scientists, or by those who take the risk of switching fields during their careers. I once asked a General of the Marine Corp how they educate people to take on large amounts of risk. He said the most important thing they teach a Marine officer is that there is a big difference between leadership and management. This is a lesson too many of the administrators who lead the big universities and research projects never learned.
So I would ask: why should the universities, which are the sector of our society most responsible for innovation and discovery, be the place where seniority and bureaucracy most hinder the rise of talented young people to positions of leadership?
I once asked a venture capitalist how he judged when he was taking on the right amount of risk. He responded that when more than 10% of the companies he funded succeeded, he knew that he was not taking on enough risk, and that his profits would consequently suffer. This amazed me, as we university professors write our grant proposals to NSF and NIH as if there is no risk whatsoever. To be funded, we have learned, we must present every scientific project as if it is bound to succeed. Many scientists simply propose doing things they already know will work. This reduces risk taking, leads to much duplication of effort and slows down the progress of science. I would then propose that you require that the federal funding agencies reorganize themselves so that they behave more like venture capitalists than like mortgage bankers, so that young scientists, and scientists of all ages with bold and ambitious ideas, have the support they need to take on the degree of risk that is required to keep science advancing rapidly in the United States.
How do our brains create Infinity?
The Infinite is one of the most intriguing ideas in which the human mind has ever engaged. Full of paradoxes and controversies, it has raised fundamental issues in domains as diverse as theology, physics, philosophy, literature, and art. Moreover (and strangely enough), the Infinite, elusive and counterintuitive, has played a central role in defining a fundamental field of human intellectual activity characterized by precision, certainty, objectivity, and effectiveness in modeling our real finite world: mathematics!
Without the Infinite, mathematics as we know it, would simply not exist. But where does the Infinite come from? How do we grasp the Infinite if, after all, our biology is finite, and so are our experiences and everything we encounter with our bodies?
From the point of view of the scientific study of the mind (i.e., cognitive science and related disciplines) several other questions need to be addressed: What cognitive mechanisms make the Infinite possible? How such an elusive and paradoxical idea structures an objective and precise field such as mathematics? Why the various forms of infinities in mathematics, such as infinite sums, limits, points at infinity, infinite sets, and infinitesimal numbers, have the exact conceptual structure they have?
Recent studies of human conceptual systems in cognitive linguistics, cognitive semantics, and psycholinguistics show that like many abstract ideas, the Infinite is created via very specific everyday cognitive mechanisms that make human imagination possible such as conceptual metaphors, conceptual metonymies, conceptual blends, and so on (which are very precise inference-preserving inter-domains mappings).
Now the big question for cognitive neuroscience is: How does the human brain orchestrate and enact these cognitive mechanisms that bring Infinity into being.
I spent my Christmas on sick leave from my university, suffering from a stress-related illness. OK, so I'm a periodic depressive of a particular sort. A lot of scientists and thinkers are, alternating between great activity and deep lassitude. Why am I telling you? Well, because in Britain at least, the creeping managerial culture of universities makes it very difficult for people like this to flourish. In a misguided attempt to put accountancy procedures in place to obtain value for money out of science, civil servants are in danger of driving out the creativity and innovation that lie at the heart of the story of western science.
It is natural for governments to expect results from science, but they cannot be guaranteed. However, there are two positive things you can do, each of which makes more sense in relation to the other than either does alone. The first is to acknowledge the precedence of observation over experiment. The second is to take the 'interpretive dilemma' to heart.
When bureaucrats try to manage science they want experiments done. That is what they think good science does. It is a convenient belief because research-grant monies can be easily justified when measurable results are produced to a pre-agreed schedule. But much (perhaps most) great science has been based predominantly on observation and has no timetable. Newton and Darwin did very few significant experiments, but both exercised immense observational acumen on a daily basis. Both also took so long to publish their insights that they would undoubtedly both have been fired from modern universities for failing to produce. But the mentality that finds it so hard to thrive in a regularized accountancy culture is the one most suited to long and profound contemplation of the meaning of phenomena. It is the one most likely to crack through the interpretive dilemma.
The interpretive dilemma simply states that in order to interpret something, one must have decided that there is something to interpret and, in focussing on that something, one has already formed a strong idea of what it is.
For example, as an archaeologist, I am used to interpreting burials. But when I am trying to uncover the meaning of a particular burial, I hardly stop to think that I have already decided the most important thing about it when I called it a 'burial'. In casually naming it, prior to conducting certain measurable experiments (dating and technological analyses) I have already dramatically lessened the possibility of understanding anything new and surprising.
By rethinking the nature of apparent 'burials'—a process that involved absolutely no experimentation or new excavation at all, but which nevertheless took up several years thinking time—I have recently suggested that what early humans were up to was very different to what we hitherto thought, and that the birth of religion and the emergence of social cohesion was rooted in atavistic practices of human sacrifice and ceremonial cannibalism. The ostensible 'burials' that archaeologists have dated to the period of the last Ice Age are in fact the remains of elaborate, communally-approved ritual murders.
Mr President, space to rethink the apparently familiar is essential to all good science. It means that you need to trust scientists to follow their instincts, and not make them accountable every year for a string of tangible results. Look after your science contemplatives and they will look after you.
is an opportunity to improve the quest for cures for many diseases,
including cancers, by increasing the instrumentation budget for advanced
detection of physical properties of the genome, such as being able
to view the conformal shape of DNA in live cells as it twists and
turns, winds and unwinds, achieving 5500:1 rates of compression in
size, knowing when to unwind and transcribe, photon and EMF emission
by DNA in cells in vivo and in vitro, which we have no way to measure
today; etc. Included in this
We cannot see into the nucleus of live cells very effectively, and most of our understanding of DNA, its role in cells, and cellular signalling, is deduced from chemical analysis and imputation. Not from direct observation and measurement. Advances in many technologies, including nanotechnology, neutron imaging, microscopy, SEM and AFM, X-Ray crystallography, and more, are widening our ability to see.
Only two years ago the NIH began funding instrumentation to facilitate sensing at the nano levels needed to really understand the processes of cellular biology.
Complicating this quest is the lack of much coalescence among fields of science. Few molecular biologists understand advanced physics, photonics, Van der Waals forces, et al. And the reverse is also true, few physicists are knowledgeable, in depth, about what goes on in cells, at the level of understanding the potential role of histones, microtubules, cellular signalling, and the complex, interrelated activities of the cells which make up our bodies and determine our health, longevity, aging and survival.
We are benefitted by the significant investments into nano/bio technologies being funded through NIH, NSF, DARPA/DOD. An increase, modest on the scale of the overall budget, with a research mandate encouraging exploring these new areas of potential discovery, can yield enormous benefits in developing diagnostics, and as a result of that, therapeutics, to tackle the many diseases afflicting humanity, and the current enormous cost of treating these diseases.
Dear Mr. President,
You may recall that we met at the White House during your reception for U.S Nobel Laureates. My award was in Physics (1988) and we had a brief discussion of neutrinos and our ever more incisive story of the creation and evolution of the Universe and how the deep connections of the outer space of cosmology and the inner space of particle physics are joined to illuminate the history and structure of the physical universe.
I was impressed by the questions you asked, with a line of Laureates waiting to meet you. When you remarked that the nation owes me (i.e. its scientists) a great debt, I could not refrain from asking, "Sir, could you possibly estimate approximately how much that would be?" the crowd broke up and I missed my chance. Now I would like to bring up a new topic which I believe is as crucial to the future of the nation as any that my illustrious colleagues have raised. This is the education of our children and especially the prep to 12 schooling they are receiving. I have spent the best part of the past decade in a growing fascination with the problem and with growing despair.
I know you are aware of the problem and your "Leave no child behind" rhetoric and legislation are bold steps to face the issue. But I am afraid the problem is much more desperate than one imagines. My vantage point as a scientist enables me to realize that out scientific and technological successes are now at risk. Alan Greenspan has testified before the Goodling Congressional Committee hearings that we have maintained a robust science by means of fortuitous immigration which is slowing down as nations begin to realize how crucial their scientific and technological manpower are to their own development. And our industries plead for more visas to supply the human resources that our own schools are failing to do. Our founding fathers, in their almost infinite wisdom, left education to states and localities, failing perhaps to anticipate the national peril that would arise if our (now) 16,000 separate school systems failed to educate the populations we need, not only the future scientists and engineers but also the voting citizens with a sense of science that a democratic society must have in order to support difficult decisions that 21st century society must make.
I suggest that the President convene a very powerful National Commission on Education. It would consist of University Presidents, CEO's of major technology industries, High ranking officers in the military, scientists and educators. The Chair must be a person of immense public recognition and respect, e.g. Colin Powell, should he retire from your Government The charge would be to create an action plan for a far reaching national consensus program to bring the U.S. into the 21st century educationally. Whereas this would clearly not be a Federally mandated program, the influential composition of the Commission must have a profound effect on the States and localities.
We have a large number of successful schools and skilled teachers. We have very strong elements of new curricula. The revolution we need is to add the new elements of cognition science, to collect the new information from the neurosciences that are useful in the classroom, to create a new ethic of teacher education and continuous professional development. Salaries for teachers and a creative effort at raising the social status of teachers must be blended to make teaching a primary objective of the best students.
It is not difficult to imagine that the Commission will suggest a program of matching Federal and State resources to pay for the increments that this program will require. There is probably a ten year program of implementation before the payoffs begin to appear. Special programs will be needed for the inner cities but solid experience in Chicago and other cities indicate that, given the resources, these can achieve spectacular success.
There are many holes in this proposal but that is why we need this high level Commission. The Bush Education Commission will create a heritage that few Presidents can claim, rivalling the creation of free public education, the G.I. Bill , Social Security etc.
Generations of Americans will remember and honor you for finally addressing the issue of our failed school system and of matching resources with rhetoric to create a new age of education, a new meaning of superpower.
With best wishes for the remainder of your term,
Dear President Bush:
The country suffers from a crisis in scientific literacy. Indeed you yourself have often used the phrase "fuzzy math" as an insult even though your own home state of Texas funds fuzzy mathematics at research centers at Texas A&M and at the University of Texas at El Paso.
But there is a more focused and more urgent crisis of scientific literacy: There is widespread statistical illiteracy among scientists themselves. The signature of this illiteracy is not being able to tell a number from a curve.
Please allow me to explain. Almost all scientists and engineers work with and interpret statistical data. The very phrase "scientific study" tends to mean a study conducted in accord with standard principles of modern statistics. But few scientists or engineers can distinguish the key condition that gives rise to the beloved bell curve (remember those IQ and SAT tests?) from the condition that lets a pollster accept the averaged answers of a thousand or so subjects as a reliable estimate of the population at large (remember exit polls?). The first case gives a curve and the other case gives a number and it is crucial that at least the scientists who advise policy makers be able to distinguish the two. This goes to the heart of whether in a given case scientists should even apply the statistical framework and whether they should accept the results if they do apply it.
I know you are not a detail person. But this is one detail worth knowing: The whole distinction here turns on something as simple as the square root of the number of samples. That's right: everything turns on whether you use a number or its square root.
Here is how it turns out. The square-root case gives you something called the Central Limit Theorem or CLT for short. The CLT gives you the (thin tailed) bell curve that remains the most popular probability model in science and engineering—even though more accurate bell curves need thicker tails to account for the observed frequency of "rare" events such as stockmarket crashes or big flashes of lightning. Mathematicians even named this bell curve the Gaussian after the German mathematician Gauss although more and more scientists simply call it the "normal" bell curve because they find it so normal to apply to random phenomena. (Behind this is a deeper illiteracy that confuses data dispersion with an artificial and nonrobust contrivance called the "variance" but that is too much detail for this memo.) The other case works with the number of samples rather than the square root of that number. It gives you one of many so-called Laws of Large Numbers or LLNs for short. Those LLN theorems give you a single number or "poll result" that lesser politicians might use to measure public sentiment on a given yes-or-no question. This common confusion (that CLT = LLN) over a mere square root ranges from science and engineering to medicine and the war room.
See the problem? Social policy rests on empirical science or at least it should. And empirical science rests in turn on statistics and this is a subject far trickier than all too many scientists seem to think. So a little statistical incompetence can have dramatic social effects—think junk science in the courtroom.
What to do?
There isn't time to train or retrain our scientists and engineers and physicians (and lawyers) in probability and statistics. Nor would it be either cost effective or polite to require that at least once each grant applicant submit her answers from a proctored multiple-choice exam on basic statistics when she submits her grant proposal to a federal funding agency—even though state governments periodically do require just such test results to renew a driver's license.
Instead there is a simple rule of thumb you and your staff can use to quickly weed out the least competent: Fire or at least ignore any advisor or applicant who in good faith uses the phrase "law of averages." There is no such law.
Dear Mr. President,
Unlike some of my colleagues, I am uncomfortable acting both as a media executive and as an advisor to the President, and so I must regrettably turn down your invitation to serve. But I will say this:
In times where the most important issues facing your administration, and indeed the nation, are science-centric—from the search for biological weapons in Iraq to human cloning, from global warming to smallpox vaccinations—the voice of the President's chief science advisor must be more pronounced; the public needs to see and hear a stronger scientific presence in the West Wing.
Mr. Blair has taken noteworthy steps to increase science advice within his government. It is critical that you have the necessary, direct science advice to guide your decision-making. Budget increases for research are commendable; informed policy can be revolutionary.
Dear President Bush,
It was somewhat surprising, but still most welcome, to receive your request for advice on the pressing scientific issues of our time. Brief general advice won't be very useful, with two possible exceptions. First, support for superb science education will pay off so handsomely that I have no idea why you have not done it already. Probably you are distracted, but this is one of those "not urgent but important" things that should not be put off further. Second, because the big advances usually come from basic science, you would do well to invest more there, instead of assigning resources mainly to solve problems.
I suspect, however, that what you really want is advice on how to use our scientific advantage to gain economic and military advantages. We dominate the world in science, and this science helps us to dominate the world. But, the price is high. Many in other countries see the United States not as the leading light, but as a bully that uses its scientific powers only to advance its own interests. Yes, I know we do much that benefits other countries, and it must be frustrating to you that these efforts get so little notice. Nonetheless, many people hate us and see our science as an instrument of imperialism.
You can change this, and science can help. We are coming to new explanations of how relationships work. Trading favors is only the beginning; a reputation for fulfilling commitments is equally important. Your current policies demonstrate that you understand the importance of convincing others that we will fulfill military commitments even when they are not in our direct interests. There is also power in fulfilling commitments to help others even when no benefit is expected.
Just a few generous actions based on values, not interests, would change how the world sees us. Here is one way to proceed. You could create a new organization, call it The World Science Collaboration, to tackle problems that other countries find urgent. Provide them with resources to deal with these problems, and with whatever help they request from US scientists, many of whom will be eager to contribute to such an effort. To work, this must not be aid with strings attached, but a gift without any expectation of paybacks, financial or political. Once it is clear that we are serious, the world will quickly realize that we do not always use our science for ourselves.
Furthermore, the initiative will spread scientific expertise that will foster development and fight superstition. If we invested 4.5 billion dollars, the cost of one aircraft carrier, into finding cures for malaria and sleeping sickness, the whole world would see us differently, and the health of the world would soon be improved. If we set up a dozen such projects, the changed outcomes in arguments about the USA late at night in dirt-floored huts across the world might well enhance our security more than all the technology we can muster.
This opportunity is rare in its appeal to people across the political spectrum from the helping left, to the pragmatic center and, one would hope, the truly religious on the right. People here will see this as a small but feasible and tangible antidote to perceptions that the United States is the enemy of the rest of the world. People elsewhere will see that the United States can act on principle instead of cynical self-interest. This could be the most important accomplishment of your presidency.
I would be curious to hear your perspectives on this, and glad, if you would like, to discussion specific plans for implementation.
M. Nesse, M.D.
Dear President Bush:
A new branch of science is emerging that will have a far-reaching impact on the economy of the United States, with applications to medicine, agriculture and defense that will be revolutionary.
The discovery that DNA carries the genetic code for cells opened a new era in biology that focused on the organization of information in cells. Soon we will know all the genes in cells from humans and many other species and high throughput methods are available to identify proteins and to analyze their three dimensional structures. However, the sequence of a genome only provides the equivalent of nature's white pages, a useful index of genes but far less than we need in order to know how cells work.
At present researchers are creating a list functions for those genes in different cell, which is equivalent to nature's yellow pages. But even this is not enough to know how organisms are built since the genes encode a program that is used during development to create a wide range of different cells and organs.
We need a new approach to these problems that uses all of the tools in molecular genetics and in addition brings to bear powerful computational tools from computer science. Although we have the tools and techniques to make major discoveries, we do not have enough scientists, trained at the interface between biology and computer science, to make them.
A bold new initiative is needed to train a new generation of computational biologists who are equally at home in wet bench science and the world of computational science. A new national institute should be initiated at the National Institutes of Health devoted to the goal of discovering broad general theoretical principles for how biological systems become self organized into functional systems.
For example, we can anticipate that general principles will emerge from the study of how various proteins and macromolecular complexes in cells interact with each other and control gene expression. The potential payoff for establishing these general principles is enormous. The Institute for Computational Biology and Medicine will be a resource for the entire nation, focusing existing talent and creating the computational infrastructure needed to make major advances.
Dear Mr. President,
I hope that some of my colleagues will offer you a shopping list of specific goals. I want however to address a broader question that requires fitting together the findings of many researchers and that resonates with popular culture and the political process. For simplicity let me put it in terms of a single question: Can Human Beings Learn?
Most people would answer, of course. I am sure that you yourself remember learning things from time to time, at Yale for instance, and perhaps since. But I write to point out that we are steadily reducing our estimate of what and how much humans can learn, except at a relatively trivial level. And we are making policy on that basis.
We live at a time of impressive progress in biology (especially genetics and neuroscience), which has replaced physics as the most glamorous of the sciences. Certainly you have had to take positions on applications of this new science to human beings, but you may be unaware of the indirect influence of popularized scientific ideas on our systems of child care, education, health, and criminal justice. In all of these areas we are drifting toward biological determinism, but the situation is complicated by the popular belief that whereas what human individuals can learn is limited, scientists can learn to tinker. Thus we regard more and more problems of individual behavior as biologically determined, but we are increasingly ready to treat them biochemically, and looking forward to treating them genetically. Our fatalism about the individual capacity to learn and heal is matched only by our technological hubris.
Let me give you a glimpse of each area:
I can see a lightbulb flashing over your head. "She's not talking science," you say, "she's talking the liberal agenda." That's true, Mr. President: liberals are not people who spend money on government programs per se, liberals are people who put money into improving social conditions because they affirm that humans can learn—from parents, peers, teachers, and what they see and hear around them. How come? Because human biology evolved for adaptation by learning. Can all humans learn equally well? Of course not, but they can learn better. We have seen that in the case of the learning disabled over the last generation. Are humans perfectible? Of course not. But liberals tend to use government to improve social conditions (which is to say, to support the learning environment in the widest sense) rather than on coercion, incarceration, warfare—and rewarding those who have already had the benefits of privileged environments. Have you ever noticed, Mr. President, how so much of the twins research that is used to argue the determining importance of genetics depends on controlling for socioeconomic status? That little phrase is the basis of the liberal agenda: give everyone an equal chance and, yes, the genes will play a large role. Inequality blocks genetic potential.
But is this science, you ask? Indeed. Anthropologists have spent the last century assembling evidence of how differently humans behave when reared in different cultural settings—and how those differences disappear when the settings change, sometimes overnight, sometimes over a couple of generations.
Mr. President, do continue to support research in neuroscience. We need to know more about the effects of love or trauma, of intellectual stimulation or monotony on the brain itself. Brain structure may increasingly be seen as a result rather than a cause. Keep the work going in human genetics and biochemistry. Doing science is after all derived from the evolved human capacity to adapt by learning and we can hope that some of the hubris will settle down with time. But put your money into research and policy for the great long term experiment of building a world in which everyone can learn to be the best they can be.
Dear Mr. President,
I think there may have been a terrible mistake. I'm not a scientist.
Worse than that, I'm an actor. So, I don't know how I got recommended to you as a candidate for science advisor. Possibly, someone felt that if we could let an actor be president without major damage beyond a trillion or two, why not science advisor? But, I'm also a writer who has a lifelong interest in science, and I host the PBS program Scientific American Frontiers, and I have played Richard Feynman on the stage, so I can see where the confusion might have arisen.
If you choose to name me as your advisor on scientific matters, I would consider it my duty not to turn you down, but I think it only fair to let you know the kind of advice I'm liable to give you.
First, I really do value science. I get the impression from some previous appointments in your administration that the mission of the appointees is to dismantle the agencies they were put in charge of. I might do some damage through ignorance, which may be why I'm on your short list, but I could not bring myself to put an end to science in the United States; so if that's what you had in mind, please count me out.
As for my actual advice, it breaks down into two major categories: Deep and Deeper.
The world is going to come to an end in about 5 billion years no matter what we do. So, in the long run, you're off the hook. It's true that things like Global Warming, plus the increasing loss of clean water and bio diversity, can hasten The End Of Everything As We Know It, but even so, it will all end eventually. Nobody gets blamed for continuing a disastrous policy, so there will be no harm to your reputation if you do nothing. People simply do not say, "Caesar did nothing to halt the Roman practice of putting lead in the air and water, probably resulting in the eventual weakening and fall of the empire." But they're absolutely fascinated with the way he could divide Gaul into thirds.
Recognizing this, I will not advise you to do anything related to the environment. I will simply ask permission to put a glass of water on your desk every day with little things swimming in it. Sooner or later, you'll slip and drink from it, and while you're in the hospital, we can talk about the billion or so people who have nothing else to drink.
I will also arrange for the local gas station to charge your mom and dad what a gallon of gas costs after the actual costs of the gas have been added. This would include the cost of subsidies to oil producers, health care for skin cancers and lung conditions, and a couple of wars, but we'll skip the wars. I don't think this comes to more than a thousand dollars a gallon, but if your folks write you about the awful price of gas these days, then maybe we could have another talk.
And while we're on the subject of gas, I believe it is our duty as patriotic citizens to end our reliance on foreign oil. It is also our duty as rational people to end our reliance on any oil. Both of these duties are satisfied by pouring a huge amount of money into the development of hydrogen cells, as well as thermal, wind, solar and several other forms of energy. But it will take a huge amount of money—possibly what it will cost to pay for 3 or 4 days of the next war.
As you can see, the Deep stuff isn't all that deep, and it's pretty much what you would expect from your average limousine liberal. The Deeper stuff gets, as you might suspect, deeper. It will also, I'm afraid, get more earnest.
What your science advisor really needs to do is help you re-fashion the thinking of the country. Too many people think cloning cells for the fight against disease is the same thing as creating Frankenstein's monster. Too many people think evolution is the idea that people are descended from apes. And too many people think that genetic modification of plants is a dangerous new idea, instead of something that's been going on for ten thousand years.
If our people don't learn to make distinctions and challenge their own thinking, as well as that of others, then they will be at a disadvantage when facing the technologies, insights and strategies of those who do. Rationality has a special importance for us now.
The commencement speaker at Caltech this past year said,
"We live in a time when massive means of destruction are right here in our hands. We're probably the first species capable of doing this much damage to our planet. We can make the birds stop singing; we can still the fish and make the insects fall from the trees like black rain. And ironically we've been brought here by reason, by rationality. We cannot afford to live in a culture that doesn't use the power in its hands with the kind of rationality that produced it in the first place."
Actually, I was the commencement speaker who said that, but I thought you'd pay more attention if I put the Caltech part first.
The problem is that, although we're all entitled to our beliefs, our culture increasingly holds that science is just another belief. Maybe this is because it's easier to believe something—anything—than not to know.
We don't like uncertainty—so we gravitate back to the last comfortable solution we had, and in this way we elevate belief to the status of fact.
But scientists are comfortable with not knowing. They thrive on it. They don't assume that just because they had an idea it must be right. They attack it as vigorously as they can because they don't want to lie to themselves. As Richard Feynman said, "Not knowing is much more interesting than believing an answer which might be wrong."
Above, all, Mr. President, I think your science advisor needs to help you help our country learn to be comfortable with uncertainty, and—as hard as this might be to believe—to put reason ahead of belief.
Dear Mr. President,
The most pressing science-related issue for the nation and the world concerns how best to make the existential choices that bring science, a value-free process, into a social arena where values are central.
This is not, strictly speaking, a scientific issue. Your science advisor is really a social advisor, providing an expert's view on how the state can best assist in and benefit from the advancement of science.
Therefore I urge you to appoint a social scientist, preferably a sociologist who has studied the impact of science on society, as your science advisor. More specifically, since a global networked economy and global political issues (such as terrorism) are affecting the entire planet, I suggest that you choose someone who has investigated the new social forms that are developing to cope with the global communications network.
This will not guarantee wise choices but it will at least meet scientists half way in dealing with scientific issues.
A modest super-fund to explore alternative, non-resource-based energy sources could solve a great majority of the world's problems. But it would need to be accompanied by an equally serious look at our commodities-based economic model. Our chief obstacle to sustainable energy technology might not be scientific at all, but economic. What would happen to the oil industry if we no longer needed oil?
The same could be asked about our chemically and genetically addicted agriculture. It's not that high-yield, top-soil enriching farming practices are out of reach; it's simply that our agribusiness industry doesn't know how to profit off a paradigm that doesn't rely on synthetic fertilizers and gene modification.
America's great problems lie in our inability to change the models we are using to understand the challenges before us. And this is where a genuine science education—both in schools and through good use of media—would prove extraordinarily useful.
The scientific model acknowledges that it is just a model of our reality. It is not the way things are, but rather a way of explaining the way the way things are. Those of us who use the scientific model have great practice in reminding ourselves that our understandings must constantly be revised, evolved, even improvised.
To push a science agenda, we would have to promote the underlying premise of science: that none of the systems we use to understand this reality are pre-existing or true. They were simply the most useful at a particular moment—very often to a particular group. When they stop being useful, we must be prepared to discard them.
Scientists are now studying many fascinating and fundamental problems: What is the nature of "dark matter," the unseen and as yet unknown matter which apparently comprises most of our universe? What is the ultimate "theory of everything" that will unify our understanding of the forces of nature? Will such a theory let us predict the masses of fundamental particles?
But the single greatest mystery facing science today arises, remarkably, each time we see the red of an apple, hear the blast of a trumpet, smell the fragrance of a rose, or reel with anger from an insult. The mystery is this: What is the relationship between our everyday conscious experiences and our brains?
The issue is that brains seem to be physical objects with physical properties like spin and momentum, but conscious experiences seem to lack such properties. What, for instance, is the spin of anger or the momentum of my experience of red? The very question sounds like nonsense, and that raises the mystery.
The mystery is us. What kind of creatures are we? Are we composites of physical bodies and nonphysical experiences? Or are we entirely physical, or entirely nonphysical? Do brains create conscious experiences, or vice versa? Could some complex pattern of neural activity in my brain actually cause, or be identical with, my experience of red? How, precisely? Is the distinction between physical and nonphysical even useful here?
The mystery could hardly be more personal: What are we? And the fields of science potentially relevant to its resolution could hardly be more diverse: Quantum physics and chemistry, molecular biology, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, cognitive science, sociology and anthropology.
The mystery is as old as philosophy and religion, but today it engages many of the brightest minds in diverse scientific fields. An initiative to study this mystery could galvanize these fields and promote multidisciplinary collaborations.
What are the potential payoffs of such an initiative? At a minimum there is the intangible benefit of furthering our scientific understanding of what we are. The tangible benefits of such an understanding are anyone's guess. They might include payoffs of interest to any administration, such as a better understanding of the sources of interpersonal and international conflict and how these can be resolved. For if we better understand what we are, we might better understand why we behave as we do.
Dear Mr. President:
A great president is measured in several ways. One is his response to crisis. Another is his vision of the future.
Many of issues most critical to our future as a society, and indeed as the human species, have a large scientific component. These include:
There are many others, and that means there are some very tough decisions that we, as a nation, have to make in confronting these problems. We are in it for the long haul: they won't go away soon. It is essential that we, as a people, be fully informed to make these choices. Yet many among our population have a woefully inadequate background in scientific matters, which lie at the very foundation of these and other problems.
For this reason, the most important scientific matter facing the nation is that of scientific education, literacy, and appreciation. It is imperative that our populace, as well as our decision makers, have a solid grounding in basic scientific principles, appreciation for what science can (and cannot) do, and understanding of how science is carried out.
I've referred to crisis, let's turn to vision. Not only would a scientifically literate populace be better equipped to handle our problems, but it would be better able to work towards a greatly improved future. The fruits of past scientific innovation are all around us: computers, TVs, the World Wide Web (invented by high energy physicists!), medical diagnostics, advancing cures for many diseases, new sources of power, and many more. Our modern society as we know it would not exist without the discoveries of sciencewe'd still be huddled around our wood stoves and lanterns and riding horses. And there is so much more we can do, as we advance our fundamental understanding of our Universe, our world, and our biology. Science is a path of bold exploration, and it may someday even be a path to the stars.
For this reason I would urge you to follow the vision of a scientifically literate populace, able to intelligently confront our crises and lead humanity to a better future.
There are many things that could be done, and we can discuss details later. But here are some ideas:
Science is the only way we have of truly understanding how our increasingly complex world works. The scientific view is the long viewit is not short term thinking; it seeks the big picture. The choice is clear: a future of ignorance, or a far better future of enlightenment.
Dear Mr President,
You are fortunate in leading a nation pre-eminent in science. By any measure, scientists in the US are having a profound impact on our understanding of virtually every field of research.
But this sustained excellence is matched by the steady of growth of a culture of unreason, deeply opposed to the methods and conclusions of science. You are in a uniquely powerful position to confront this dangerous trend, but I'm afraid you are also in a deeply compromised position. For tackling the culture of unreason means confronting the core of your political support, the religious right.
Why is this important? The scientific issues we need to confront as a society are increasingly posing hard questions of moral judgement and of practical concern. This is particularly true in the revolution in biosciences which intimately affects who and what we are. Your administration has already compromised US scientific advanceand potentially the health of many of your citizensby a politically motivated policy fudge over embryonic stem cells.
The questions in coming years will get harder, not easier. It will be the task of elected politicians to make societal choices on the basis of scientific evidence, not prejudice.
Your friend Tony Blair recently gave a speech where he declared, "We're at a crossroads. We could choose a path of timidity in the face of the unknown. Or we could choose to be a nation at ease with radical knowledge, not fearful of the future, a culture that values a pragmatic, evidence-based approach to new opportunities." Prime Minister Blair believes the second path is the clear choice. It's time you demonstrated the same conviction.
Dear Mr. President
I had to smile when I read the assignment, to give advice about pressing scientific issues, while sticking to those scientific areas where I have expertise. As an astrophysicist, few issues in my trade could be considered pressing. When I meet people who ask me what I do for a living, I often describe my area of work as being in some ways more akin to art than to science: we astrophysicists produce pretty pictures and interesting stories about places and times far away, events that are unlikely to affect you and me in our daily lives.
However, there is one aspect of my work that does have deadly consequences, more precisely, will have deadly consequences if it is ignored. Here is where heaven and earth meet: in the possibility, and in the long run the certainty, that people will die through the effects of an impact of an asteroid, large or small.
Although there are several more pressing things to worry about right now, including many already pointed out by the band of science advisors reporting here, this does not mean that it would be wise to neglect the threat of an asteroid impact. Would you be willing to face the public if an asteroid would be discovered heading our way? You would have to tell them that NASA has been discovering and tracking asteroids, but that funding had not been sufficient to catalogue most of them, and that there had not been any funding so far to study the question of how to deflect an asteroid, once found, even though the technology has in principle been available. Not a nice speech to give, I bet.
Fortunately, it is rather straightforward to develop the technology to send a spacecraft to a 100-meter diameter asteroid, in order to give it a nudge so that it will miss the Earth. The ingredients are at hand, and all we have to do is to carry out a test mission, in which we demonstrate the capability to significantly alter the orbit of an asteroid. That way, when we discover an asteroid with our name on it, so to speak, we will be prepared. We could be in a position to save millions of lives, and at the very least we could not be accused of knowing about a danger and ignoring it.
Even if we are lucky, and no life-threatening asteroid crosses our path in the foreseeable future, developing the technology to gently nudge asteroids is likely to help us to explore the solar system. Plasma engines, for example, can be used as tug boats for asteroids but also to speed up human expansion into space. This could be a major legacy of your administration: to open the door to populating other worlds while at the same time making our own world a safer place.
The appointment of an anthropologist such as myself to the post of science advisor would be unusual, but perhaps opportune, as some of the lessons anthropologists have drawn from their investigations over the past century have some bearing on the times. Anthropology has always been identified with the concept of culture, and recent events suggest that the need to understand how different belief systems arise and perpetuate themselves has become urgent. But let me first explain how anthropologists use the culture concept as a way of identifying how humankind is different from the rest of Creation, because this not only contains its own lesson, it sets the stage for the argument about how one cultural group comes to differ from another.
Culture is what we have that other creatures don't. However, as we have learned more about other animals, the number of features unique to our way of life has diminished considerably. For example, we used to think that no other animal learned an idiosyncratic way of performing some behavior that makes their group characteristically different from other groupswhat anthropologists call "cultural traditions." Now we know that chimpsand probably a number of dolphin and whale speciesdo have socially acquired traditions. So we can no longer say that such traditions are unique to us.
Grammatical language is still on the list of quintessentially human characteristics, but its status on the list is highly contested because some say that chimps can be taught by human care takers to speak (or use sign language) in grammatical fashion. Thus, some species have near-human abilities to make complex judgments. Our first lesson: We should therefore consider these animals as being worthy of moral rights equal to their cognitive and emotional capacities.
The best we can say nowadays is that people have complex culture. This means primarily that we have organizations (or designed, special-purpose social groups), and technology (especially machines), which have no parallel in the rest of the animal kingdom. What is important about this, in light of recent events, is that organizations and technology have allowed human cultures to diversify in ways seen in no other animals.
Human groups exhibit specific ways of life that have emerged during the individual history of that group. As a result, the human population, unlike any other, can be divided into groups that live according to quite different sets of rules. This sometimes makes it hard for members of one group to sympathize with the members of other groups, or even to comprehend what the rationale for some "exotic" behavior like a witchcraft trial or an elaborate "rite of passage" into adulthood might be.
The anthropological enterprise would be unnecessary if people everywhere lived according to the same set of rules. At the same time, anthropology would be impossible if it weren't the case that individuals can learn to live successfully amongst those whose culture is different from their own. Aspects of culture may reflect the idiosyncratic history of each group, but they make sense within the confines of that history. Our second lesson can be drawn from this fact: Just as we should understand and respect other animals, so too should we honor other cultures, because just as species diversity is important to the survival of the biosphere, so too is cultural diversity necessary for the health and longevity of the human species. The world will only become a safer place when we realize that each and every culture is an invaluable inheritance of knowledge tested against local conditions over a long period of time.
While the findings of anthropologists indicate that we should be tolerant of cultural variation, taking anthropology seriously as a science also indicates that we should not mistake exotic beliefs for science. The fact that people have diverse systems of belief does not give them all equal claims on truth. Intelligent Design theorists, for example, argue that because the natural world is complex, a supernatural agent must have designed it. There are two problems with this argument. First, scientific theories for the emergence of complexity exist, such as Darwinian evolution and complexity theory. Second, even if such theories did not exist, the conclusion that only supernatural causes can explain such complexity does not follow, since a scientific explanation for complexity could arise tomorrow. Our final lesson: The teachings of Intelligent Design theorists therefore belong in programs of religious, not scientific, instruction.
I believe these lessons from anthropology should play an important role in deciding our future scientific policies. I respectfully hope you will agree.
Have you ever held in your hand a prehistoric stone tool and considered the processes involved in making it? The hand that struck the flakes and who it belonged to, and the world in which they encountered this technology? And pondered the time scale of the evolutionary technology involved in the transformation of stone into an artifact, and one which holds the potential to make other tools? And hold that thought (as well as the object) as you consider the technological change in your own lifetime (computers you have used?), and the acceleration of the rate of change that is now made even more complex by overlays of hype, something which is itself generated and spread by means of escalating technologies.
For the past eight years I have taught a course on Archaeology and Anthropology to American High School students. These young people are juggling their own rites of passage into adulthood with the external demands of an increasingly challenging world. They don't talk readily about what happened in their grandmother's day, or what their parents grew up with. They can see more relevance in discussing what their older siblings used at school. Last year's model is the new archaeology. I encourage them to think about the evolution of the computer over a few decades as if considering stone tool technology over millenia. It's not change that is significant, it's the rate of change, and that's a tricky concept to convey to students who have never used a pen to write an essay.
But what is unique about the 21st century perspective of these Americans is they have, potentially, more than objects to teach them about changethey can hear the folk-memory of these archaic forms in the stories of the Apple on which a mother wrote her thesis; the DEC PD11 on which a father worked. They can learn to evaluate change from observing the material culture of still-functioning computers, all the more so because of the work of individuals and institutions such as the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, who seek to preserve them. And they can also consider the inequalities of technology by finding out what becomes of old computers which are not yet interesting, but simply out-moded.
Without a sense of the past, there is a danger of raising a generation of change-junkies, weaned on the rush of accelerating technologies, for whom history has no relevance. They would recognise technological change only through its material culturethe stuffbrought to them on the street and in a welter of media hits. In their world where nothing stands still, they are left with no space to evaluate why technological change happens and, crucially, its implications.
Change happens. The challenge is to work with the materiality and mass consumerism of our everyday world, and to use it to communicate a scientific context in which technological leaps and bounds make sense. Not just to American High School students. But to all of us.
Dear President Bush,
One scientific issue that requires immediate attention is this: Understanding the psychological circuits that motivate people to murder. The impact of killing cascades beyond the obvious tragedy of each prematurely terminated life. Each dead victim is also a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister, a father or a mother, so the lives of the victim's family shatter. Uncertain and unpredictable dangers promote contagious anxiety. The limited days of our lives become wasted when we seek to act, but lack the knowledge to detect and deter killers.
The current lifetime odds of being murdered at the hands of a fellow human being are far from trivial. In America, they are one in 200 for the general population, and one in 26 for certain sub-groups of males. If you add attempted homicides that are "unsuccessful" due to valiant or desperate measures, the victim list more than triples. In the hot spots around the world, the toll of dead bodies runs from the hundreds to the hundreds of thousands.
In the past century, war across the world has claimed victims by the millions. We are endangered from the outside by our avowed enemies. We are threatened from within by killers among us. An urgent need for the nation to establish a deep scientific understanding of psychological circuits dedicated to murder and the causal processes that create, activate, and deactivate those circuits. Without such knowledge, we cannot effectively prevent the premature and irreversible ending of lives.
Dear Mr. President:
Among the pressing issues that we face:
1. Natural pathogens (bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites):
As recognized pathogens develop multi-drug resistance, and as new pathogens are recognized, our tools for recognizing and treating these agents must keep up. At one time it was thought that infectious diseases had been practically vanquished. We must work hard to keep up.
Conversely: Some microorganisms contribute to host health and defense. There is need to focus on studying and mining the benefits of beneficial organisms, as well as attending to those that produce harm. (Thus, there is evidence of altered gut "flora", i.e. altered balance of bacteria and fungi, in persons with irritable bowel syndrome; there is evidence that some "intestinal flora" are vital to gut function and nutrient absorption, and protect against invasion of pathogenic organisms; there is evidence that H. pylori, a bacterium that may contribute to gastroesophageal reflux, may also protect against esophageal cancer;
Additional work must go toward defense against pathogens and toxins developed as weapons of terrorism and biowarfare..
In our ever more chemically rich environment, certain health problems are escalating that are likely to be linked to exposures to certain chemicals and their combinations. Increasing evidence implicates certain chemical agents, and combinations of these agents, in chronic multisystem health problems to which a subset of the population appears susceptible; persons with fibromalgia/chemical sensitivity/chronic fatigue syndrome spectrum often report onset following chemical exposure and there is increasing evidence to support effects on membrane functioning, neurotransmitter systems, and mitochondria (the energy producing elements of cells) from these chemicals in susceptible persons. (Some genetic susceptibility factors have already been identified.)
Persons with such chronic multisystem problems are disproportionate users of healthcare resources. Fathoming the mechanisms of these problems and developing strategies to mitigate their onset and treat them when present will reduce healthcare costs and downstream litigation costs, and will enhance the health of many. Understanding these mechanisms may also lead to prevention, by permitting proper warnings to be placed regarding use of potentially hazardous agents, especially use in combination with agents that may have harmful interactions.
4. Chemical warfare and terrorism defense:
Because some of the classes of chemical implicated above, particularly carbamates and organophosphates (both of which act by inhibiting regulation of a key nerve and muscle signaling chemical that has widespread roles throughout the body), are used both to protect military persons in the event of nerve agent attack, and are used as nerve agents themselves, this work will have vital importance for military preparedness and health protection; for treatment of veterans in the event of renewed military conflict with nations that have or are suspected to have chemical warfare agents; and for civilian health protection.
5. Genomics and proteomics:
The time is ripe for increasing work to mine the genome, and more pertinently, to study how the balance of proteins and non-protein chemicals, using modern informatic and advanced statistical techniques, can:
6. Capitalize on existing databases to reap their full benefit:
There is much material that has never been culled from existing federally funded databases. A major reason is that the incentive system in academics rewards those who bring in large new grants, with the attendant overhead dollars. Thus, rather than spend time to study prior databases in detail, the incentive system encourages the time to be spent on procuring new grants. Additionally, there is a peculiar attitude, that must be changed, that major findings based on data initially procured by someone else are of lesser importance, even if they lead to paradigm shifts, than the expected next step that one performs oneself. There is need to change this attitude.
Surprisingly, neither medical schools nor graduate schools have formal training in reasoning from evidence, the process of inference, fallacies in reasoning, and factors that influence the credibility of evidence. Even persons with a good grounding in statistics per se are not trained in these areas. In consequence, even many persons that are highly respected in the scientific community are ill-positioned to generate the recommendations from evidence that they are tasked to do. I can cite many instances in which failure of training and aptitude in this area has unnecessarily held back progress. I believe that such training should begin to be part of the core training process for graduate and medical schools. Arguably, reasoning skills ("how to think") should be an element of the core curriculum, at a more basic level, even among undergraduates. While this need not be legislated, it could certainly be strongly endorsed.
Additional focus should go to development and refinement of tools to handle large and incomplete databases.
Efforts are needed to develop technologies to reduce dependency on foreign oil sources. This is an area in need of real leadership. We all recognize the importance of the oil industry in the US, and there is no reason that industry cannot participate in, or take a lead in, developing alternative technologies, or technologies to enhance efficiency of fuel use.
The current structure of science leads to costly and needless delays in release of scientific information resulting from the structure of the publication process. Moreover, costly page charges lead to tightly written documents, but at the expense of key information being included. An antischolarly approach ensues: limitations in number of citations prevents all but limited literature from being cited, effectively leading to "loss" to the scientific community of valuable older information, the costs of which have already been expended. (Rather than it being required that each declarative statement should have a source cited, it is now possible for authors to make assertions that may have no basis in evidenceand if they do, the reader is not in a position to ascertain what that basis is.)
In the modern internet era, new approaches to speeding information dissemination, by capitalizing on internet technology should be seriously considered. (As one primordial suggestion, a system could be generated by which new research results could be posted on the internet. The system would have in place an opportunity for peer-review comments to be appended. This permits new readers to post their comments and expertise. A continually modifiable process of credentialing reviewers, with rankings by other readers, could allowing ranking of review comments. Among the advantages of this process, full database information could be provided, circumventing space limitations in journals, permitting others to perform their own analyses. Space limitations in journals often prevent pivotal information from being expressed.
I believe that if 1 percent of science funding went to research that was of real interest to taxpayers, science would literally become more popular.
At present the distribution of funds for research depends on the priorities within the scientific establishment, and on the agendas of corporations and government bureaucracies. The administration of science is neither democratically accountable, nor carried out in a democratic spirit.
My proposal is that 99 per cent of the research funds continue to be allocated in the usual way. But I suggest that 1 per cent is spent in a way that reflects the curiosity of lay people, who pay for all publicly funded research through taxes. It would be necessary to create a separate funding body. One possible name would be the National Discovery Center.
What questions capable of being answered by scientific research are in fact of interest to the electorate? The simplest way to find out would be to ask for suggestions. Some would come from individuals, through the Center's Web site. Some would come from local groups, like sports clubs and horticultural associations; from national societies like the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club; from voluntary organizations like Narcotics Anonymous; from consumer protection organizations; and from local governments, schools, churches and trades unions. Potential subjects for research could be discussed in newspapers and magazines, and on radio and television. To find out in more detail what subject areas are of significant public concern, market research and opinion polls would probably be helpful.
The Center would be governed by a Board representing a wide range of interests, including non-governmental organizations, schools and voluntary associations. The Center would publish a list of the research areas in which grants were available, and would invite applications that would be evaluated on the basis of expert advice. This Center would only fund research that is not already covered by the regular science budget, and would therefore open up new areas of scientific enquiry.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), established by the US Congress in 1998, sets a precedent. Complementary and alternative medicine are of great interest to millions of American tax-payers, and the basis of a multi-billion dollar industry. But before NCCAM's predecessor, the Office of Alternative Medicine, was set up by Congress in 1992, research in these fields was receiving practically no support through established grant-giving agencies. NCCAM's current annual budget is about $100 million (less than 0.5 percent of the total budget of the NIH).
Diverting 1 percent of the present science budget to the National Discovery Center, open to democratic input and public participation, would involve no additional expenditure, but would have a big effect on people's involvement in science and on innovation. It would appeal to many voters, make science more attractive to young people, stimulate interest in scientific thinking and hypothesis-testing, and help break down the increasing alienation many people feel from science. It would also enable many working scientists to think more freely, and unleash some of the creative potential that is currently being stifled.
Dear Mr. President,
A top priority for today's science advisor should be Alternative Energy, with a fleet of Think Again Tanks to reconsider the potential of cold fusion, hydrogen cells, more efficient solar power, better methods of drilling for methane, and employing wind and tidal energy.
Your science advisor would also need to be a political analyst, whose first hurdle would be overcoming West Wing Withdrawal. For all Martin Sheen's ability to multi-task, in reality, key problems are often pushed to the back burner, and domestic policy is naturally suffering by the current need to put out so many fires in foreign policy.
Reducing our dependence on foreign oil was a need that should have been addressed a few decades ago, a "Vision Thing". The long view so necessary in science is limited by the preference for short-term gains, i.e. how to be re-elected in 2004. Your father's success in foreign policy was quickly undone by discontent on domestic policies and a bad economy. So how to please the voters, create new jobs, and maintain sustainable development?
Develop a project of broad appeal, say, something that will make Baby Boomers look younger. (It was, after all, a marketing campaign targeting Baby Boomers that promoted SUVs as must haves for the adventurous.)
the moment let's call this phase one Reinventing the Wheel. In reality,
we're reintroducing the bicycle, along with Green Lanes, to combat
urban sprawl. Lance Armstrong might be involved to give the project
broad appeal, although there's hardly a town or city unaffected by
this in the U.S.
Green Lanes should accommodate bicycles, along with 3-wheel rickshaws, Segways or other non-fossil-fuel burning transport, including horse drawn carriages. These protected lanes could also allow golf carts, electric powered, quiet and producing no fumes. All should be registered and licensed to help fund the Green Lanes, designed with some clever coverage for in-climate weather.
This would be the first small step towards reducing traffic, and perhaps the beginning of an educational program that draws upon talents of Hollywood, Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley to transform scientific research into ideas that engage, and offer doable solutions.
Finally, how can we return scientists and other thinking people to a mentoring (celebrity) role? When Albert Einstein arrived in New York, hundreds of fans turned out to greet him. I suggest the White House consider a New Year's List similar to England's peerage designations, to honor visionary leaders in science. The honorees could range widely, including conservationists, AIDs researchers, even novelists who write well about science and conservation. Instead of knighthood, recipients might be denoted by a tier of titles (the Order of the Helix) or put EMC after their name (Einstein's famous formula adapted to denote "Einstein Mentoring Colleague.") Recipients would be required to speak on issues that most concern them at Year's End, answer questions from students, and participate in a roundtable similar to "A Glorious Accident".
Dear President Bush,
We are entering an era of revolutionary scientific change, and you are fortunate to be President of a nation that leads the world in scientific and technological discovery. A top priority for today's science advisor should be on-demand matter, a new area of science now emerging that will have a far-reaching impact on the world's economy and the well-being of humankind.
Perhaps you have heard of printing "on demand," a technology that allows books to be quickly printed to meet the immediate needs of a customer. Similarly, on-demand matter (OM) is just on the horizon and will allow humanity to create new substances quickly and efficiently.
In particular, on-demand matter made from "quantum dots" will someday allow us to produce virtual substances with undreamed of properties. Let me give you some background.
Quantum dots consist of trapped electrons with no nucleus. Once confined, the electrons repel one another and form orbitals reminiscent of orbitals we find in actual atoms. Novel substances made from quantum dots will be able to change their properties as easy as a traffic light changes from red to green, and their properties can be adjusted in real-time through the application of light, electricity, and so forth. Visionary writer Wil McCarthy has coined the word "wellstone" to refer to hypothetical woven solids, made from entities such as quantum dots, whose bulk properties are broadly programmable.
With on-demand matter, humanity will be able to create ecologically friendly industries that produce low-cost and exceptional products. OM can be used to create novel sensors, computing devices, space vehicles, windows, protective clothing, medical prostheses, rooftops, auto parts, and a host of on-demand materials with limitless potential. With just a voice command, your toothbrush becomes a supercomputer, or your umbrella changes to a material that could never be available by other means.
One of the first steps I would make as your science advisor would be to recommend the formation of a number of think tanks to consider the potential of on-demand matter. A modest funding agency to explore OM may one day lead to a technology with the potential to solve a number of the world's problems and empower humanity to sail on a shoreless sea.
Dear Mr. President,
In my opinion, in the future, what will be of major importance is how, in principle, we carry out scientific inquiries—not in which fields we conduct that research.
Let me use a simile to illustrate my point of view. The question as to which fields to concentrate future research on reminds me a bit of the question "What shall we have for lunch?" Everybody must eat—just as every industrial nation needs a research plan. So, why not pick something from the menu: Missions to Mars, the human genome, larger accelerators—there are countless options.
However, when considering what to eat, the customer employs a certain perspective, looking down the aisles past the waiter to the delights behind the kitchen door—the latter being the equivalent of the chest holding the nation's research funds. Let us now reverse the perspective. Looking from the kitchen door down the aisles past the waiter, we see the guest—and it turns out something has become fundamentally wrong with him. The customer is an immensely huge freak, almost immovable due to the large amounts of fat he has already accumulated. The last thing this person needs is yet another meal. Instead, a complete change in attitude towards eating seems imperative, including a new perspective of life and its numerous opportunities, more physical exercise and much less but smarter food intake.
How did the customer grow so fat and cumbersome?
Over the past few decades, research focus was determined by big science projects, beginning with the "Manhattan Project" and continuing with the mission to the moon and the peaceful exploitation of nuclear energy. As a consequence of the apparent success of these big science projects, politicians consider focused research to be the best way to achieve clearly defined scientific goals. To continue the restaurant metaphor, uniting a few thousand scientists to strive for a common goal to be reached at a certain time is like asking several outstanding chefs to produce one certain dish—it is almost guaranteed that they will be able to deliver a decent meal. But this is precisely the reason why our patient has become so fat.
For politicians, big science projects can lead to immortality. John F. Kennedy promised a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s and consequently, on July 10, 1969, the nation got what the president had asked for. Administrators also prefer big science projects, because instead of having to split budgets amongst thousands of candidates, they only have to pass the money on to a few large governmental institutions.
Even scientists themselves prefer big science projects. Such projects may bring tremendous power and fame to their leaders; at the same time, they yield a structure that reduces insecurity among followers. For taxpayers, however, big science is often useless at best, and potentially harmful at worst. The "Manhattan Project" led to the biggest single incident of manslaughter in human history, the production of nuclear energy including the disposal of waste and obsolete plants is economically futile, and the moon landing is regarded by many as a cold war propaganda mission with questionable scientific merit. Considering recent big science projects such as super colliders, space stations and Mars missions, the effort and costs to launch them appear to be inversely related to the significance of potential results for the general public. Once again, big science projects made our customer fat and immovable.
What is needed now to get scientific research back on a fast and efficient track again can be termed "lean science". Lean science is slender, quick, efficient and inexpensive. It has the potential of leading to numerous unexpected insights and discoveries. Yet, lean science also holds a number of potential weaknesses. It is more difficult to administrate, the outcome cannot be determined beforehand, and it requires education, patience and tolerance.
Lean science is built upon the concept that all scientific achievements sprang up in the minds of individual people. Thus, providing individual scientists with a hospitable environment in which they can flourish and excel is bound to lead to new discoveries. Some private universities in the United States have already realized this and improved the environment in terms of academic freedom, qualification of staff and quality of physical surroundings.
In the past, great thinkers and artists appear to have come in groups. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were not only contemporaries, they also lived in the same city—Athens in Greece. The coincidence of great thinkers continued in history—artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were contemporaries just like painters such as Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet and Paul Cezanne or poets like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller and Heinrich von Kleist.
How come there was such an abundance of great thinkers in certain places at certain times, while there seems to be little if any of such excellence around today? I, for one, am utterly convinced that such great minds are indeed around today—they always have been—but those periods in Greece, France and Germany were rare times when the environmental conditions were right for great thinkers to emerge and become visible, speak up and meet each other, exchange ideas and then take them further.
Thus, in my opinion, the first thing to consider when thinking about pressing scientific issues would be to provide the right environmental conditions for scientists to flourish in. That does not mean loads of money. On the contrary, it means respect, freedom of thought, a platform for the exchange of ideas, and a path forward even for the non conformist—since by definition, all great thinkers were non-conformists.
How can we obtain such an environment? We would probably have to overhaul the medieval university system, in particular the obsolete idea of uniting research and teaching, and the mad concept of peer review, in which established authorities judge the merit of competing ideas.
Getting rid of the old-fashioned universities would make room for a new system that could operate similar to Montesquieu's scheme of divided powers in politics (Executive, Legislative, Judicial) to prevent misuse of power. A tri-partite control of powers in academia could consist of research in think tank-equivalent institutions, education in colleges, and administration of quality, funds, jobs, permits, awards and the like in separate institutions. Scientists would only work in one of these units at a time. Early on in their careers, they would be researchers, then teachers and finally administrators—instead of being all at the same time, as it is often the case today. Funding would be provided individually, mainly on the basis of track record and persuasiveness of ideas.
Hence, a long-term strategy is required—much like what is needed to get a fat person thin and healthy. Your country was among the first to fully adopt Montesquieu's scheme of a separation of powers, and today it is the closest working model to the academic system I have introduced here. Thus, you are in an ideal position to make a fat system slender, beautiful, athletic and primed for success!
Dear Mr. President:
First, I should start off by endorsing virtually all the recommendations you have received so far. I would add another recommendation, which I believe addresses a fundamental, but ironically largely ignored, problem facing us today. Let me put the problem this way: why is it that in an age of unprecedented material wealth, a billion dollar self-help industry, and an economy designed to feed not stomachs but lifestyles, more and more people are depressed and go through life listlessly, with little sense of purpose or meaning? Why in the absence of such meaning do some people turn to destructive ideologies, whose manifestations in terrorism are all to real (I think a cult model is the way you should be thinking about terrorist organizations, by the way)?
Studies of our biological constitution make it increasingly clear that we are social creatures of meaning, who crave a sense of coherence and purpose. Yet, our modern way of life seems to provide fewer and fewer opportunities to engage in the group life that satisfies these human needs—indeed, many of its structures and institutions stunts these very needs. In addition to these obstacles within the design of modern life, it's my hunch that modernist culture is based on a profoundly mistaken view of human needs. The upshot is a deeply flawed view of human happiness as the private pursuit of self actualization. The implications are profound, and range from an enormous cost in public health terms to more and more social conflicts, terrorism being just one manifestation of these.
As science advisor, I would initiate a program at the intersection of science and culture to investigate what modern brain science reveals about human needs and how such an understanding can be applied to create both ways of living and a culture that better satisfies them—for lack of a better word, I'd call this "neurosociology."
I think we will find that the staggering advances in brain science reveal human needs to be vastly different from the modern view—for example, that we aren't the asocial, consumptive selves Freud thought we were, but instead are deeply social and need not only to belong but to identify with groups and purposes larger than ourselves.
This initiative would attempt to use this new knowledge to design ways of living that provide more opportunity for real meaning and social engagement that the human brain requires—from how we ought to think about the design of communities, the workplace, learning institutions, and entertainment and leisure. This initiative would also have to focus on a deeply troubling problem: although science is the engine of our society, its core values and insights have had only a weak influence on our culture. This is a troubling gap: for science, and therefore, our civilization, to sustain itself, we require a culture that is built on the core values and insights of science itself, one that endows human life with the meaning we all crave. Aligning the design of life and a sustaining culture with the human needs that brain science is beginning to reveal would, I think, have a profound impact on many of the most troubling social dilemmas we face.
To sum it up, I would recommend the creation of a new science of human flourishing and significance, a nascent neurosociology, whose goal would be a happiness worth having.
I am pleased to learn that I am being considered as your next Science Advisor. Unfortunately, as a mathematician, I do not feel sufficiently well qualified for that position. I do, however, feel there is a clear and demonstrated need for someone on your team to offer advice on interpreting quantitative data, particularly when it comes to risk assessment. I would like to suggest that you create such a position, and I would be pleased to be considered for it.
For well understood evolutionary reasons, we humans are notoriously poor at assessing risks in a modern society. A single dramatic incident or one frightening picture in a newspaper can create a totally unrealistic impression. Let me give you one example I know to be dear to your heart. The tragic criminal acts of September 11, 2001, have left none of us unchanged. We are, I am sure, all agreed that we should do all we can to prevent a repetition.
Strengthening cockpit doors so that no one can force an entrance, as you have done, will surely prevent any more planes being flown into buildings. (El Al has had such doors for many years, and no unauthorized person has ever gained access to the cockpit.)
Thus, the remaining risk is of a plane being blown up either by suicide terrorists on board, by a bomb smuggled into luggage, or by sabotage prior to take-off. In any such case, the likelihood of significant loss of life to people on the ground is extremely low. So low that we can ignore it. The pilot of a plane that has been damaged while in the air will almost certainly be able to direct the plane away from any urban areas, and the odds that any wreckage from a plane that explodes catastrophically in mid-air are overwhelmingly that it will not land on a populated region.
I know that what I say might sound cavalier or foolhardy or uncaring. The hard facts the numbers present often fly in the face of our emotional responses and our fears. But the fact is, we have limited resources, and we need to decide where best to deploy them. This is why you need someone to help you assess risk.
That leaves the threat to the plane and the people on board. Let me try to put that risk into some perspective. For a single individual faced with a choice of driving a car or flying, how do the dangers of the two kinds of transport compare in the post September 11 world? We know the answer, thanks to a calculation carried out recently at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. In order for commercial air travel to be as risky (in terms of loss of life) as driving a car on a major road, there would have to be a September 11 style incident roughly once every month, throughout the year.
Let me stress that this figure is not based on comparing apples and oranges, as some previous airline safety studies have done. By being based on the lengths of journeys, those previous studies made airline travel appear safer than it really is. The figure I have given you is based on the computed risk to a single individual. It compares the risks we face, for the journey we are about to take, when any one of us decides whether to board a plane or step into our car. In other words, "How likely am I to die on this trip?"
The answer, as the figures show, is that it would take a September 11 attack once every month before air travel offers the same kind of risk as car travel.
In short, most of the current effort being put into increasing airline safety is a waste of valuable resources. In a world where fanatical individuals are willing to give their own lives to achieve their goals, we can never be 100% safe. What we should do, is direct our resources in the most efficient manner possible.
In that connection, if you have not already done so, I recommend you see the movie The Sum of All Fears, where terrorists smuggle an atomic bomb into the United States in a shipping crate and detonate it in downtown Baltimore. Leaving aside the details of the plot, the risk portrayed in that film is real, and one where we would be advised (and I would so advise you) to put the resources we are currently squandering on airline security.
That is why you need expert assistance when it comes to interpreting the masses of numerical data that surround us, and putting those numbers into simple forms that ordinary human beings, including Presidents, can appreciate.
Dear Mr. President:
A President can only do a very few of the many things proposed for the improvement of American society. I want to make one positive proposal for which Presidential action is appropriate and to issue one warning.
The weakest area of science is social science, specifically as it evaluates the effects of changes in social institutions. These institutions include education, taxation, criminal justice, structure of government, the institutions that support scientific research. Proposed changes in these and other institutions need to be evaluated by systematic experiment with clear criteria of success and proper statistical evaluation. The experiments need enough publicity all the way through so that the results are heeded.
There are experimental programs today, but they are mostly too dilute. Thus every state or city or school district wants its share of experimental money, and there isn't enough money to experiment everywhere. Social experiments need to concentrate the money in a few places and provide enough scientific observers and statistical resources.
Because Congress and administrations often respond to pressures to divide the money "fairly", Presidential leadership can play a big role in concentrating experimental programs.
Now here's my warning; it may be unnecessary. The scientific community, worldwide as well as in America, is like other communities and given to fads and taboos. These taboos have prevented some subjects from being researched or even discussed. These subjects include the genetics of behavior and intelligence. When a program fails, the possibility that genetic differences are involved is not allowed to be mentioned. Another taboo in the scientific community that studies energy is nuclear energy. Nuclear energy provides the one guarantee that those aspects of American society that depend on high use of energy including personal mobility can be sustained indefinitely, i.e. beyond the supply of oil
Dear Mr. President,
With the threat of war in the Middle East, continuing concerns about terrorism, and a weak economy, science is probably not high on your agenda right now. But it should be.
Some the decisions you make now could dramatically affect the fate of our country, not just in the next decade, but in the next century. Perhaps most important among them will be the choices you make about stem cell research. If your administration continues to restrict stem cell research as it has, America will lose its place at the forefront of science and technology.
It will start slowly; few people will notice as some of our best scientists move elsewhere—to countries like Britain, Canada, Germany, and Japan. But within a decade or two, someone will notice that the most important patents and technology of the 21st century are all held elsewhere. In the 20th century, we led the way—our discovery of transistors led to everything from radios and televisions to cell phones and PocketPCs. But the leading technologies in the 21st century—cures for cancer, heart disease, and mental illness—will all be biological, and without research on stem cells, we will be left behind.
Stem cells are so important because they hold the key to life itself. Everything about the human condition—from the heartbeat or a smile of a newborn baby to the ability of our bodies to fight off disease—follows from the choices of individual cells in growing organisms. Embryonic stem cells burst with potential, therapeutically and scientifically; they truly can become anything. The researchers who master their secrets will be able to use them to repair damaged hearts, build vastly better drugs, and even regenerate damaged brain tissue and heal fractured minds. They will also be able to use those secrets to figure out what makes the human brain special, and in so doing open the door to new kinds of tools for education, probably not yet even dreamt of.
In the next century, the most educated, the most healthy, and the most wealthy citizens will be the ones living in the country that best understands the science of the human body. Let us not lose our place at the head of the class.
Education is a proven means for investing in our future. But while American schools are notoriously under-serving their students, kids are rushing home to learn how to succeed in alternative universes. Video games compel kids to spend dozens of hours a week exploring virtual worlds and learning their rules. Barring a massive overhaul of our school system, Nintendo and PlayStation will continue to be the most successful at captivating young minds.
Over 60% of Korean homes have broadband Internet access. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games are immensely popular there; increasing numbers of people spend hours each night fighting monsters together online. The largest Korean textbook distributor Daekyo and an independent software design firm JMCJ (Interesting & Creative Co., Ltd.) have joined forces to make a massively multiplayer online role-playing game in which children can study math, science and history: Demiurges. These people intend to make it possible for people to play in a virtual world saturated with real-world knowledge.
That game may not be successful—educational software has a famously difficult time competing with splashier commercial titles. In their paper "Serious Play," academics Jennifer Jensen and Suzanne de Castell mourn that "Non-commercial development of 'educational games'has been primarily in the hands of enthusiastic academics from a variety of disciplines who frequently lack funding, skills, and/or access to cutting edge technological resources." But while commercial games seize the most attention in the industry, efforts are still underway in the States to use games to teach specific skills.
With a budget of $7 million the U.S. Army built the first in a series of games to be made available as free download over the web, and to be distributed free on CDs with gaming magazines. Their first title, "America's Army" helps teenagers learn about tactics and waging war, as they rush through first-person shooter missions armed with guns and grenades. Except for the U.S. military trim, and some mission constraints, "America's Army" is indistinguishable from popular video games for sale in stores.
Unfortunately, there are few games intent on teaching more civilian skills. While televisions and slide shows play a large role in classrooms, video games are still appallingly underutilized as means for teaching. Throwing money at the problem is not the only answer; however the kind of advanced technology and game design talent that money could buy could well serve the project of developing engaging educational electronic entertainment.
Jensen and de Castell continue: "what researchers and educational game developers have so far been unable to do is to create an 'educational game' which offers its players an engaging, immersive play space, in which users want to stay, explore, and 'learn' as they consistently do in commercial games." Let's match the money and effort spent on "America's Army" to develop a freely-available game teaching kids about math and science, history and citizenship.
The bulk of the problems we face are ultimately due to ignorance: lack of knowledge and understanding at one level or another. This has always been the case in the past, and will certainly continue to be so in the future.
Science is the nemesis of ignorance, and ignorance is our single biggest enemy. Ignorance has been attacking us for ages and it is so ever present that we often forget that it's there. Broad-based support for science, and the public awareness and appreciation of it, are essential if we are to have a future. There is no single overwhelmingly pressing sub field or sub-issue. We need it all, we need it now, and we need everyone to understand it as deeply as possible.
We still die from diseases we don't know how to cure, or even worse that we could easily prevent. We may even fail to follow up avenues of research that could show success due to ignorance of basic biology.
We pollute our planet or are dependent on other countries for energy because we don't know how to do any better, or we fail to understand the consequences of our actions. Perhaps worse, we fail to appreciate techniques that we already have which can produce power cleanly and eliminate nuclear waste.
We treat each other with hatred or disrespect because we fail to understand different cultures and customs. We harm ourselves with dangerous chemicals because we don't know enough to keep away from things that will ultimately hurt us.
With this in mind, and trying to capture some of the Zeitgeist, we propose that the US launch a vigorous "War on Ignorance". Funding comparable to that of the Wars on Drugs and Terror should be funneled into an aggressive counterstrike against the things that wound us or hold us back most.
We need better schools and a uniform and high standard of education for everyone, better science in the media, better public education (including about diet, health, drugs, sex, and everything else we so often remain silent about, making safe harbors for the Axis of Ignorance), and more money for both basic and applied research.
So let us arm the people—all of them—as well as we can. Arm them with knowledge, so that they become productive, law-abiding, tax-paying members of society. Arm them so that they may live with hope and dignity, and contribute to the good of all.
Leave them without it, and we'll have a society governed by irrationality and fear. It's an old saying that knowledge is power, and this is truer now than it's ever been. Ignorance, as always, remains our biggest foe. Focus on taking that one out, and the rest will follow.