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Science and Leadership: The Imperative

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Gustav Pollak Lecture
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University

Thursday, February 22, 2007

When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its fourth assessment report on February 2nd in Paris, calling global warming "unequivocal," it became an entry point to understanding that — as a planet, as nations, as individuals — we must find the leadership to make change, and to do that we must find the leadership to trust science.

And so, I begin with a premise: that to resolve the critical, global issues which confront us at the beginning of this young century — and to assure that our planet and its people, indeed, have a future — it is necessary for science and leadership to coalesce in ways that we have not yet seen.

To understand the premise, and its implications, I would like to introduce the simple metaphor of the marketplace — or what the ancient Greeks would have called the "agora." This represents the place where, historically, interactions occur among societal sectors and the "public at large."

The government occupies a quadrant — the decision-makers, the legislators, the bureaucrats, the regulators, the policy makers, the courts, and the body of law, itself. Industry and the private economic sector — from merchants to corporations — occupy another segment. The religious sector — church, mosque, synagogue, and temple — has its place in the agora. As does academia — the educators and students who shape the future. The agora is the societal nexus.

In the past century, things have changed. There has been an exponential rise in the volume and availability of information, which influences the perception of science, the understanding of the role of the scientist, and the acceptance of both. This volume of information influences the formation of public policy, as it relates to science and technology, and their use.

Other influential factors, and actors, have appeared and are competing for the attention of both citizens and leaders. This includes the media, which convey factual information, but also filter, editorialize, and comment. It includes professional societies, and although these have existed for centuries, their variety and profile increased dramatically in the last half of the 20th century.

Think tanks offer yet another factor in the mix. Think tanks used to focus on a specific purpose, or the analysis of a particular issue. Today, their numbers and their budgets have grown, and their focus often expands beyond specific issues to viewpoints — political, religious, philosophical. The hundreds of experts they employ flood the agora with journals, op-ed commentary, television and radio appearances. Virtually every aspect of public affairs — from crop subsidies to pharmaceuticals has its own proponents and opponents.

Compounding the difficulty of threading through this array of opinions is the sophistication of commercial marketing. Marketing was created to advertise and sell products. But, now, it extends to shaping the ideas conveyed to the citizen via mass communication media.

And finally, we have the Internet — an engine of information and disinformation without equal. Global in its reach, staggering in its power, it is transforming the Age of Information.

But, what happens when the market place is populated with self-proclaimed experts? When we have "authorities" supporting every view? When they appear in advertising virtually everywhere, and now, even on cell phones? The result is the devaluing of information, and the devaluing of science. The trend threatens the concept of the scientist as the dispassionate, objective voice of reason. It threatens the authoritative role of science in helping to shape sound public policy. The citizen, bombarded by information, is unsure which expert to believe — as are their representatives, the politicians.

In such an environment, where does the scientist stand? In this environment, how does the public choose its "truth" and settle upon what it will accept as "fact?" How do our elected officials arrive at constructive decisions? What is the role played by science in the crowded agora? In such an environment, how does the scientist help to shape public policy? What happens to the individuals who speak out with facts which run counter to the prevailing view? And — crucially — with what degree of trust does the average citizen regard the voice of scientific expertise? Is the voice even heard?

The arena of public discourse abounds with controversy — and the volume and passion of the rhetoric sometimes drowns the voice of science, itself. And yet, science meets society — sometimes most explosively — where it impacts public policy, because public policy is where we chart our future. And this is where, as I said at the outset — we must find and insist upon sound leadership.

Consider, as an example, the long range import of the historic decision made by Winston Churchill, then-First Lord of the British Admiralty, as World War I approached. Sir Winston shifted the British Navy from coal-power to oil, to make the fleet faster than the German Navy.

The oil-powered fleet, however, was now subject to insecure oil supplies from what was then Persia, rather than relying on local supplies of coal from Wales.

The move forced Great Britain to engage a new national strategy challenge — securing essential energy sources. Churchill had this advice: "Safety and certainty in oil," he said, "lie in variety and variety alone," — a prescient statement worthy of note, today.

A more recent example of a similar strategic move is the conversion of submarines from oil, or diesel, to nuclear propulsion. This decision clearly added greater speed, stealth, maneuverability, and length of mission for naval forces. It also placed the United States and other countries — some allies, some not — squarely into a world with many actors seeking similar advantage, and looking to develop the nuclear weapons which these ships were built to deploy and use.

Policy drove a technology choice here, which, in turn, led to other strategic policy issues — issues on the knife-edge of public discourse.

The propensity for science to posit knife-edge dilemmas can further compound the confusion, and sometimes add to the distrust of science and technology.

Of course, science is rife with "knife edge" issues — offering pros and cons, positives and potential negatives, and, sometimes, few clear choices. Because these issues appear, often, on the cutting edge of science and technology, there are few, if any, precedents for guidance, which makes it yet more difficult to sort through how science meshes with public policy.

I will explore a few examples of "knife edge" issues, all of which have implications for public policy.

First, consider clinical trials which test the efficacy of drugs for the very youngest among us. Children often metabolize medicines differently than do adults, and experience different side effects. But the child medication market is small and, without incentives, pharmaceutical firms usually do not conduct the requisite testing to write appropriate instructions for pediatric use. To correct this, the U.S. Congress, ten years ago, passed the "Pediatric Exclusivity Program," which offers a six-month patent extension incentive to companies who test new drugs in appropriate child-focused trials.

The program has proven effective. Under it, pharmaceutical companies have studied more than 300 products, and have made 115 available for pediatric use. A similar program recently was introduced by the European Union.

But a study just published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, questions what it says may be the program's overly generous return on investment. In eight of nine drugs studied, the pharmaceutical company benefited — but the range of net economic return to industry varied widely. In the most lucrative, the value of the patent extension and the additional protected sales was 20 to 74 times the cost of the trials.

In the next few months, the U.S. Congress will reconsider the program, which is up for renewal this year. The study raises knife-edge questions: does the federal policy provide the prescription drug industry with a "windfall" profit? What is a fair net economic compensation? Does it reflect the true cost of developing pharmaceuticals and of clinical trials? Would a shorter extension be more realistic? Or, would it jeopardize a proven, effective policy?

A broader technology-linked public policy question is whether the U.S. Congress or the appropriate federal agency might wish to encourage more genetically determined personal approaches to developing pediatric drugs, as opposed to dosage adaptation of broad spectrum adult-developed pharmaceuticals. This illustrates a knife-edge technology-linked public policy issue.

Consider another example. In areas high in biodiversity, organisms which cannot flee their predators — such as plants or coral — are evolutionarily predisposed to develop high toxicity. Biologists have been exploring such substances for the possibility that they may be developed into drugs useful in treating human disease. The harvested material is called "cyanobacteria," and is being used to "prospect" for organisms which can act against ailments such as malaria, dengue fever, and parasitic disease.

This example raises interesting questions about who should profit from patents based on biodiversity found in developing countries. What should be the standard for bio-prospecting? Should it benefit the company whose scientists took initiative? Or, should it benefit the venue, or country of origin? Or both? And, to what degree? If the extracted material were a mineral — or oil — there would be little question that the nation or place of origin would receive compensation. U.S. patent law protects the individuals who do the intellectual work needed to turn raw biological discoveries into marketable products. International law does not yet address such issues.

Areas of high biodiversity are not always found in developing countries. Our national parks have become increasingly valuable, as other ecosystems around the nation have been altered. Scientists increasingly have been bio-prospecting for "extremophiles," organisms which may have unique properties and uses, in the thermal waters of Yellowstone National Park or the damp caves of Carlsbad Caverns. At first, the National Park Service received no compensation. That is changing. Now, the National Park Service has begun requiring agreements, including potential compensation, with scientists who are bio-prospecting.

Obviously, as thinking individuals, you have pondered the double-bind which these and similar questions pose — for scientists, of course, but, also, for legislators, for policy makers, for society, as a whole — for us all, really. And, you have done so amid the roiling agora, where the knife-edge issues of the day are debated, and where they intersect with public policy. Each of these examples has public policy components. Each needs careful attention and considered action.

As I implied at the outset, in referencing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, I have a particular interest in, and concern for, energy, and in particular energy security. If we accept the IPCC's conclusion that human activity is "very likely" the cause of climate change, then we could argue that it is human global energy use which is, primarily, at issue — although this is not the only factor. I believe that addressing the world's energy needs, in an environmentally sustainable way, is the central challenge of our time.

While many speak in terms of national "energy independence," I prefer the terminology "energy security." A narrow focus on U.S. energy interests alone — without regard for the energy interests of other countries — is neither practical nor productive. Energy, today, is interrelated, interdependent, and global. There is no real energy independence.

Global energy supply is governed by multiple, interrelated factors with international dimensions. These include global trade — including energy trade — and markets, international travel, terrorism, political turmoil and instability in export countries, wars, piracy, natural disasters, and overall supply chain vulnerabilities, as economic researcher Daniel Yergin posits.

Our planet's 6 billion people are pressuring the world's energy supplies and that pressure is mounting, as developing nations expand their economies and raise their standards of living — as well they should. As the population nears 8 to 10 billion people at mid-century, energy demands will grow proportionally.

If we fail to address the energy needs of the poorest countries, millions will remain in poverty — with inadequate health care, scarce water and food, lack of basic education — unable to function in the "global innovation enterprise." They will continue to feel, keenly, the imbalance in distribution of wealth and privilege. This can lead to a sense of humiliation, to unrest and instability — conditions easily exploited by extremist groups, increasing the global threat of terrorism — or to human rights abuses, corruption, despotism, and other forms of poor governance. Failure to address these global asymmetries and imbalances has worldwide repercussions — with local implications. The pressures translate into global instability.

For any nation, affordable energy, especially access to electricity, enables better health care, improved education, and greater food production. As a result, its citizens live longer, and earn higher wages. Infant mortality decreases, life expectancy increases, living standards rise. Why should other countries NOT wish to develop? But, more global development requires more energy, and without new approaches, more countries will be competing for finite resources.

Secure, sustainable energy from diverse sources is inextricably interlinked with our own economic wellbeing, and with our own national security. And, both are linked to global energy security. The stability which true global energy security could offer would be priceless.

Nonetheless, individual countries have worked assiduously to ensure their own energy security — with as much independence as possible.

More than three decades ago, France, a nation with few coal and natural gas resources and virtually no oil resources, embraced a national nuclear power policy for generating its electricity. Today, France's 59 nuclear power plants generate almost 80 percent of that nation's electrical power and provide upwards of $3 billion in annual revenues from sales of surplus power as the world's largest net exporter of electricity. There has never been a nuclear power accident, involving a light water reactor, in France, and the nation safely reprocesses much of its nuclear waste. Because its nuclear energy produces no emissions, France has the lowest rate of carbon equivalent emissions in the European Union, and is predicted to have the least difficulty among EU members in meeting its greenhouse gas emission goals under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

The environmental benefits of nuclear power also are recognized in the U.S., where the modest-but-respectable 20 percent of U.S. electricity generated by nuclear power represents nearly three-quarters of the nation's emission-free electricity production.

Of course, there is heightened concern in this country, over the safety and security of nuclear reactors, especially since September 11, 2001.

But nuclear power reactors are not the only arena where nuclear materials come into play.

There are approximately 18.4 million nuclear medicine imaging and therapeutic procedures performed annually in the United States, according to the Society for Nuclear Medicine, a figure which has been increasing steadily.

Nuclear byproduct material is used in calibration sources, radiopharmaceuticals, bone mineral analyzers, portable fluoroscopic imaging devices, brachytherapy sources and devices, gamma stereotactical surgery devices, and teletherapy units. Radioisotopes are used to identify drug-resistant strains of malaria, tuberculosis, and other diseases; radiation is used in sterilizing bone, skin, and other tissues required for tissue grafts to heal serious injuries; and nuclear techniques are used to optimize malnutrition studies.

Agricultural productivity is enhanced by the development of new plant varieties through radiation-induced mutation. Researchers are working on using nuclear techniques to develop new plant strains adaptable to cultivation in saline lands.

Isotope hydrology is used to map underground aquifers to improve groundwater management, as well as to investigate and recover from contamination events.

But, there are the drawbacks.

The U.S. government reported in 2003 that 1,500 radiation sources were believed to have been lost or stolen in the United States since 1996. More than half had never been recovered.

Anti-terrorism officials, conducting an Aerial Background Radiation Survey of New York in August of 2005, discovered 80 unexpected "hot spots," around the city, according to the Government Accountability Office. Sensors picked up large quantities of radium in the soil of Great Kills Park, part of Staten Island's Gateway National Park. The park has been closed and the other "hot spot" sources have been under investigation.

The International Atomic Energy Agency lists 26 radionuclides of concern at three threshold activity levels — Category I, 2, or 3 with I being the highest risk. Sixteen are commonly used in sources, while the other 10 are unlikely to be used in sealed sources that would have activity levels high enough to be placed in the three categories. The IAEA estimates that there are more than 100,000 Category 1 and 2 sources worldwide. The number of Category 3 sources exceeds 1 million, with the number of all sources exceeding 3 million. Previous IAEA reports indicate that up to 70 radiation sources go missing each year. and the agency reported 263 smuggling attempts involving radiation sources over the last 14 years.

In the Republic of Georgia, more than 280 "orphaned" radioactive sources — that is, sources outside of regulatory control — have been recovered since the mid-1990s. Some of these sources have lethal levels of radioactivity; for example, mobile caesium irradiators containing approximately 3500 curies of caesium-137.

What prevents an armed theft of highly enriched uranium (HEU) at one of the 99 research reactors around the world, with HEU enriched to 90% or greater uranium-235 (i.e., weapons-grade)?

Given that Libya obtained nuclear weapons blueprints on a compact disc, and given the enthusiasm of black-market merchants, why should we be confident that those plans were not copied and shared with other countries and sub-national groups?

Why should we have any assurance that the political upheavals of the next two, three, or four decades will not result in acquisition and use of a nuclear weapon by an extremist group.

With the rapid pace of technology morphing from discipline to discipline, what is the likelihood that, based on one of several next generation wireless technologies, a nuclear weapons control system could be hacked, leaked, or even sabotaged by a disgruntled "insider;" or an outsider, for that matter?

To concern over the control of nuclear materials afloat in the world, we must add concern over how nations comport themselves internationally. India and Pakistan, essentially, are equally armed with nuclear weapons, in what has been, for years, a dangerous stand-off, based on deeply rooted historical and ethnic divisions that could cloud the potentially devastating consequences of conflict between them.

The recent activities of North Korea and Iran are of current concern. North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in January 2003, severed nuclear inspection arrangements with the IAEA, and launched its first nuclear test last October. The recent marathon six-party talks in Beijing have apparently reached an agreement which requires North Korea to close its Yongbyon reactor within 60 days in exchange for 50,000 tons of fuel oil and provides a positive model for international intervention and leadership. The motivation and nuclear goals of Iran remain unclear, although IAEA inspectors confirmed this month that Iran is equipping its Natanz uranium enrichment plant, bringing it closer to building a atomic bomb in defiance of the December 2006 U.N. Security Council resolution.

Obviously, the propensity for the development of nuclear weapons is of ongoing, and growing, national and international concern.

But, with recent history as a backdrop, and with these and other scenarios as potential future challenges, the critical question is this: how do we assure ourselves that countries, bilateral arrangements, and multilateral frameworks such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), will be staying ahead of the game, looking in all the right places, catching up with catastrophes before they happen, and distributing its limited resources according to areas of greatest risk? A truly knife-edge question which plays into global energy security.

My purpose in this iteration is not to frighten, but to illustrate the two sides of nuclear knife-edge issues.

Nuclear energy and its sources bring enormous benefit to human kind across a variety of fields, but are fraught with very real and justified concern about the diversion of nuclear materials to less than peaceful purposes. Do the benefits outweigh the risks? How can we gain the benefits and mitigate the risks? Can we find the right balance? What must the public understand? What must our leaders understand? And, do? These are truly knife-edge questions.

A more realistic focus, when considering global energy security, consists of addressing four factors:

  • Optimum source relative to sector use
  • Consideration of lifecycle costs and energy conservation
  • Redundancy of supply and diversity of source, and
  • Infrastructure investment and maintenance

This can only be achieved through innovation. We must innovate the technologies which uncover and exploit new fossil energy sources, such as oil shale or methane hydrates, and improve their extraction; but, we must innovate the technologies which conserve energy and protect the environment, and we must innovate the technologies which lead to alternative energy sources, which are reliable, cost-effective, safe, as environmentally benign as possible, and sustainable.

It will be our national capacity for innovation which will help us to achieve these goals.

Innovation and the development and exploitation of new technologies, particularly on this scale, demands two crucial elements:

  • Consistent investment in human intellectual talent — the educated, prepared, professional scientists, engineers, and mathematicians — the "intellectual security" of a robust American science and engineering workforce,
  • And strong, consistent leadership in the public agora to overcome public distrust and confusion over science, to resolve the knife-edge issues, and to generate sound, progressive public policy.

I have been speaking for some time about the critical need to invest in U.S. human talent in science and engineering. Several trends are converging:

  • the aging and imminent retirement of today's scientists and engineers;
  • an insufficient number of young scholars in our nation's science and engineering "pipeline" to replace those who will retire;
  • a decline in the number of international scientists and students who come to the United States to work and to study. This group long has been an important source of skilled talent for the U.S. science and engineering enterprise, but growing opportunities for study and work in their home countries, and elsewhere, are making themselves felt here.
  • the concurrent change in our national demographics: Young women and ethnic minority youth now account for more than half of our student population. This "new majority" traditionally has been underrepresented in science and engineering. they have few role models and mentors to pattern themselves after among faculty and researchers, and yet it is from this group that the next generations of scientists and engineers also must come.

Much of the rise in federal support for basic research in the last decade has been driven by increases in support for biomedical research. Over the same period, support for basic research in the physical sciences and engineering, until very recently, has been in decline. More recently, NIH support for biomedical research has plateaued. Since research and education potentiate each other, this has had a deleterious effect on the creation of a new generation of scientists and engineers.

These factors comprise the "Quiet Crisis."

It is "quiet" because it takes decades to educate a physicist or a nuclear engineer, so the true impact unfolds only gradually, over time.

It is a "crisis" because discoveries and innovations create the new industries which keep our economy thriving, and which mitigate the global scourges that breed suffering and global instability. Without innovation we fail — as a nation and as a world.

Reports, by major corporate, academic, government, and private sector entities all have recognized these trends and warn of the consequences, if we fail to act, and national conversation is engaged. We are at a point to turn rhetoric into reality.

Throughout last year, the President, and Members of Congress from both political parties, recognized the need to do more. Many efforts to increase basic research funding, to educate the next generation of scientists and engineers, and to address energy security were introduced. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate heeded the call when they voted to pass the FY07 joint continuing resolution. The measure will freeze funding for most domestic and foreign aid programs, however, there are modest but critically needed funding increases for research agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science. The President has signed the spending bill into law. In addition, the President's fiscal 2008 budget proposal, released last week, proposes a 7.2 percent increase in FY08 for basic research, and proposes provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act to improve mathematics education and require science proficiency of all students by 2020.

In the international arena, there is a "Quiet Crisis," as well. Technological innovation is crucial in a world concerned about trafficking in nuclear materials and the proliferation of nuclear weapons programs. Consider the role that advanced technology has played in recent years in helping the IAEA to expose clandestine nuclear programs. Satellite monitoring has played an important role in detecting changes in nuclear and other facilities; and advanced analysis techniques, including 3-D visualization technology, have enhanced the capability for interpreting those changes. Laboratory analysis of swipe samples, and other environmental samples, has played a key role in uncovering previously denied nuclear activity — for example, in determining the nature and origin of HEU contamination found on centrifuge equipment.

The network of analytical laboratories (NWAL) on which the IAEA relies uses an array of advanced nuclear forensic techniques. Fission track particle analysis is useful and involves using ashing or ultrasoneration for removing particles from an environmental sample, then spreading the particles onto a plastic track etch film, and subjecting them to thermal neutron irradiation. The particles with fissile isotopes leave "damage tracks" in the film, which can be etched to make them visible under a light microscope for comparative selection and further analysis. Another technique, known as secondary ion mass spectrometry — which involves bombarding the sample surface with a primary ion beam and conducting mass spectrometry on the secondary ions emitted — also is useful for measuring the isotopic composition of micrometer sized particles from environmental samples. These and other techniques have played a seminal role in re-constructing the history and nature of past and present nuclear programs — in particular, in understanding the chronology and types of activity, and the origin of the nuclear material involved.

Clearly, the IAEA or any safeguards program of the future will continue to be in need of innovative technologies to uncover undeclared nuclear facilities and activities. Whether future techniques involve noble gas sampling, neutrino detection, or some technology as yet undeveloped, the goal in this area will be to stay ahead of the game through the creation and use of the newest techniques and technologies.

When we consider human capital, given the international reach of IAEA and other countries' safeguards and detection activities, a geographically and culturally diverse workforce is an immense and enviable strength. For the IAEA safeguards inspector pool, it should be a strategic asset, a means of enhancing cultural sensitivity, bridging language barriers, supplying critical regional and cultural insights, and in some cases perhaps improving ease of access. At the very least, it should prompt active recruitment strategies in every region and country with the relevant organizations and academic institutions.

Returning, once more, to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The panel was established by the United Nations — specifically the UN Environment Program, and the UN specialized agency, the World Meteorological Organization — to assess scientific, technical, and relevant socio-economic information to provide governments with an agreed-upon view of the science of climate change upon which to base their national policies.

I have used the report as a touchstone because it warns us that without, innovation, we put at risk very future we wish for human society and for our planet.

The knife-edge of science and public policy impels all of us to leadership —

  • Leadership to examine and to address the distrust and confusion in the agora which surround the knife-edge issues of science;
  • Leadership to resolve the "Quiet Crisis", to assure that all young people have a sound understanding of science, that they are inspired and encouraged to tackle these difficult subjects early, and that we instill in them the excitement — and the hope — of science;
  • Leadership to assure that young people have the kind of higher education which addresses global leadership and the function of science in policy issues;
  • Leadership to base public policies on sound science;
  • Leadership to tackle the innovations we must have to assure our national security, our global security, and a global future;
  • Leadership toward a cultural shift — to value science and those who do it.

This leadership is required of all of us — elected leaders, of course, government officials, of course, but leadership extends to each of us within our own spheres of influence.

In the end, we must inaugurate a new nexus of science and leadership. In the end, this is about the kind of human society that we want to build.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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