Siemens Competition Awards Keynote

November 18, 2006

I am delighted to have the opportunity to address such a highly qualified, intellectually curious and hard-working group of students. First, let me offer my sincerest congratulations to the students, their teachers, research mentors, and parents. Making it to the regional finals of the Siemens Competition is an outstanding achievement in its own right; make no mistake about that. And while only one team and one individual will advance this evening, you all are outstanding researchers and scientists and I applaud you all. As a faculty member in one of the world's leading Computer Science programs, when I went to look at your posters in the University Center earlier today, I was amazed at the depth of insight and amount of research that each represented. Of course, truth be told, I didn't really understand many of the posters as my own genomics and nano-technology backgrounds are rather thin, but the top-drawer nature of the work was evident nonetheless. And speaking as someone who graduated second in his high school class, exactly 0.03 behind the student who graduated number 1, I am here to tell you that your professional career will be undiminished if you did not come in first this evening (although you may feel bitter about it for a while). Remember, it's not about the winning; it's about the doing!

This evening, though, I want to talk to you less about your research work and more about the larger task that lies ahead of you. These are both exciting as well as trying times to be a scientist. As scientists, we are constantly and consistently pushing the frontiers of what we know about the world around us. As new technologies come online, we have the ability to delve even deeper into the fundamental workings of organisms and the universe. And you are right in the middle of all of this fascinating growth and discovery. Yet, at the same time, funding for basic research is being cut like never before. This has been felt in my own field for some time, in which first DARPA and then NSF funding opportunities have been seen to diminish, and is now being felt by other fields as well — this year, for the first time in many, many years, the budget line for NIH did not even keep pace with the rate of inflation.

Part of this is the fault of the politicians, perhaps, as they try to satisfy too many constituencies, but it is also our fault as scientists. We have just not done a good job of getting our voices heard in the public marketplace of ideas. For the longest time, science operated in the background. Scientists lived by the scientific method and the results were what they were. They made their observations, formulated a research question, generated a hypothesis and an experiment to test it, and observed the results. Then they made sure their results were repeatable, published those results and let them stand on their own. Your posters that were displayed in the University Center are proof positive that this technique is alive and well. And scientists did "their thing" "over there", in a vacuum, as it were, independent of what was going on "over here" in the "real world". Sometimes science and the real world collided, but the validity and authority of science was generally unquestioned.

Yet, lately, we are seeing science challenged as never before. And these challenges are not based on the integrity of any data, or the validity of any experiment, but rather on the basis of whether the results support a particular policy view or not. If we choose to have an energy policy that ignores global warming, we don't say, "The science says 'X', but we're doing 'Y'". We just dismiss the science as irrelevant, or incomplete. If we choose to have a health policy that is based on particular societal norms surrounding sexual conduct, rather than acknowledge those norms as the motivating factor, we dismiss successful clinical trials of certain drugs as "unproven" or "ineffective".

There was a time when the voice of science was valued in political and policy debate, and there was a time when that voice was politically neutral. Lately, though, rather than checking scientists' credentials, we are more concerned with checking their voting records. Yet, as Steven Hyman, the provost of Harvard Medical School was quoted in a recent article in The New Yorker, "there is no such thing as right-wing or left-wing molecular biology". Unfortunately, this is what is being used to vet the appointment of scientists to positions of national prominence — not scientific acumen, but adherence to a particular party line. And understand this is not likely anymore to be the province of just one party — partisan politics happens on both sides of the aisle.

In addition to the policy bias that seems to infuse scientific discourse in the political arena, at so many levels, we have also allowed the distinction between science and faith to be blurred. Don't get me wrong, this is not a polemic against religion (I have been a practicing Catholic since my birth). I also acknowledge, not apologetically, that faith and science can co-exist as they have in my own life. For example, I accept, on faith, that I will go to sleep tonight and get up in the morning. I can't prove that I will indeed get up tomorrow morning (other than by looking at the short and long term trends in my life), but I can prove it happened this morning, since I'm here talking to you. As a scientist, I know that we cannot prove many things that we would like to prove. The work of Kurt Godel tells us that there are statements that are possible to be made, yet impossible to be proven, within a given formal system. In computer science, for example, I know it is not possible for me to take a random program and an arbitrary input and prove that the program will halt on that input, let alone prove that it will produce the correct result!

But there is a fundamental difference between a scientific theory like evolution where the premise is universally accepted and we are still questioning the mechanics, and the "theory" of "intelligent design", which claims that the world is too complex to have come about solely through evolution and thus demands the hand of an outside "designer" to explain the vagaries of life on this planet. And we are faced with a populous that either can't tell or, more frighteningly, doesn't want to know, the difference between a theory that has been continually tested and revised and a "theory" that cannot be so tested because it requires a supernatural mechanism, the existence of which, of course, cannot be tested or proven. It should not require a federal district judge to enlighten the Dover, Pennsylvania school board about basic scientific truth. So how do we, as scientists, begin to address this issue? How do you, as someone who is doing research in HIV, or nano-technology, make sure your work can be conducted, and your results heard, in a society that can't tell the difference between evolution and "intelligent design" as scientific theories? Or that views HIV as a punishment for socially inappropriate behavior. Or that thinks there are enough stem cell lines to do viable research? Or that can't tell the difference between Computer Science and authoring web pages or using Excel, a subject near and dear to my heart.

The world at large is seemingly becoming less and less scientifically and technologically literate at a time when more and more literacy will be demanded of its people to make decisions on policy. As we push farther and farther back to the moment of conception, as we make more and more discoveries about our genetic makeup and how to manipulate those genes at a very early stage, as we develop newer and better drugs and drug delivery mechanisms, as we are able to manipulate the physical and chemical and biological worlds on the nano-scale level, we will demand more and more of our politicians, and our people, in terms of basic scientific understanding as they debate policies concerning those advances. And yet, we are seeing less and less interest in acquiring that understanding as the world grows more and more complex.

So what are we to do? And what are you to do? It is this question that I put to you this evening. Just doing good scientific work is not enough. You know from your own research that you need to be able to disseminate the results of that work. In particular, you need to make sure that you can communicate those results, and their importance, to colleagues and to the public at large. And how do you acquire the skills to do that? First, by being as sure in your science as you can — that is, acquiring as deep a technical foundation over the next 4 years and beyond as is possible. But understand that the next 4 years are not going to build that foundation completely, they are fundamentally not designed to do that. So don't make the mistake of trying to "get it all in" over the next 4 years. And don't overlook the real opportunity that the next 4 years presents to you — the opportunity to grow in multiple other dimensions as well as in your area of scientific specialty.

It is this last piece that I think is fundamentally important, and yet is easy to dismiss. Your scientific career is just starting and will progress over at least, in most cases, another 50 years or so. And over those 50 years, you will have multiple opportunities to deepen your understanding of your area. You have the 4 years of your undergraduate education, 4 to 6 years of graduate school, and then 40 years in industry or academia (or both). So compared with the length of your career, these next 4 years are incredibly short by comparison. Yet these next 4 years are crucial to developing your understanding and appreciation of realms outside of your area of scientific interest.

These "general education" or "off-major" courses are likely to be as important to you as a scientist in the 21st century as anything in Biology or Chemistry or Physics. I know from my own experience that I have used as much (and maybe more) from English, Economics, and Law than I have from Calculus. And these off-major opportunities will also not likely be made available to you either in such quantity or quality after you graduate with your bachelor's degree. Put another way, the time after you graduate is likely to be spent either in graduate school or in a research lab. Neither of these experiences is designed to be "broadening", in fact, it is the very opposite — this is where the deepening really happens. So, regardless of what school you attend next year, make sure you avail yourself of as many opportunities as you can over the next 4 years to become as intellectually diversified as you can. This opportunity for broad intellectual growth is one that cannot be squandered. As science and policy have converged on the plains of ignorance, we must be as facile as we can to communicate our ideas and our results to overcome that ignorance.

It is very easy to live in our research lab or our ivory tower and be blissfully ignorant of what is going on outside. Yet we owe it to ourselves and our scientific community to be as aware as we can about what is happening at the policy-making levels and how we can afford influence. Of course, one of the best ways to communicate your passion for science and technology, and one of the best ways to combat that ignorance is to consider teaching as a career, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention this to a group of students like yourselves. Over time, I have come to appreciate how much I have benefited from having excellent teachers at all levels of my education — mentors who pushed me and challenged me and helped me along the way. If, as you were standing by your poster talking to people about your research, you felt particularly proud when you explained something to a questioner and they "got it", and you could see the light bulb go on, I strongly encourage you to consider teaching. If, as Professor Beth Jones said, "Science is the best profession there is", I would argue that teaching science is even better!

Tonight, we applaud you. Your research potential is astounding. But do not underestimate your ability to inform and enable change because tomorrow, we need you to change the world. I have every confidence that we will hear how you have done so. Once again, I extend my heartiest congratulations to all of you on behalf of Carnegie Mellon.