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Standing on the Knife-Edge: The Leadership Imperative

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

American Association for the Advancement of Science, The 2003 William D. Carey Lecture
Washington, D.C.

Thursday, April 10, 2003

Good evening. It is a profound honor to be asked to present the 2003 William D. Carey Lecture, and to be numbered in the august company of your previous, distinguished lecturers.

When I was preparing for this evening, I noted with interest that the Carey Lecture was established to honor Bill Carey upon his retirement from 12 years as the executive officer of the AAAS. The Carey Lecture recognizes leadership in the articulation of public policy issues that have been engendered by the application of science and technology — a leadership exemplified by Bill Carey, especially in helping to create the National Science Foundation.

I must preface my remarks today. We are a nation at war. The events of the past weeks underscore just how global is the reach — and how urgent the task — of science. The war in Iraq is premised on preventing the use of advanced chemical, biological, and possibly nuclear, weapons against innocent people. And, the progress of U.S. and British forces is, itself, supported by their use of advanced weapons and technology — laser-guided missiles, remote-controlled “packbots” to see into hostile spaces, new surveillance methods, and an array of special computers.

Science and technology will continue to advance; these are not genies that go gently back into their bottles. But as the events of the past century have made painfully clear, there is a “knife-edge” to the advancement of science. Its misuse could take us to the brink. Yet, science also can lead us toward salvation.

Taken on its own, science is, essentially, a neutral commodity — choosing no sides, offering no judgments, rendering no opinions — except with respect to the science itself. Science is no stranger to controversy, because there are always debates about scientific results and discoveries themselves — their veracity, their replicability.

The results of research remain neutral, until they are ascribed meaning, or significance, through application. Truly controversial issues lie at the juncture of science and humankind, when new knowledge is applied in ways that may have unanticipated moral or ethical implications, where safety or security risks are introduced which must be balanced against the benefits achieved, where we find public understanding of science or not; fears about its use, or not.

On Wednesday, April 9, 2003, the House Science Committee held a hearing to examine the societal implications of nanotechnology and to consider, in light of those implications, H.R. 766, The Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003. The hearing focused on three overarching questions:

1. What are the concerns about existing and potential applications of nanotechnology?

2. How is it possible to anticipate the consequences of technology development?

3. How can research and debate on societal and ethical concerns be integrated into the research and development process, especially into projects funded by the federal government?

This hearing occurred against the following backdrop:

  • Nanotechnology, which is the science of manipulating and characterizing matter at atomic and molecular scales, and which integrates a multitude of science and engineering disciplines with widespread applications, has prompted some to advise caution.
  • Bill Joy, Chief Scientist for Sun Microsystems, has raised the notion that the convergence of information technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology could result in intelligent, self-replicating, nanoscale robots, which could make humans an endangered species.
  • Michael Crichton’s science fiction novel, Prey, enlarged the debate by bringing Bill Joy’s concerns to a larger audience.
  • Recently, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommended that the societal implications of nanotechnology be integrated into nanotechnology research and development programs. The Academy asserted that the rapidity of development will affect how we educate scientists and engineers, how we prepare our workforce, and how we plan and manage research.
  • The environmental and health impact of these technologies need study to understand how nanoparticles interact with living systems.

In a sense, what the House Science Committee hearing really was addressing are these questions:

Is science (or technology) safe, or dangerous? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? Are we in favor of, or against scientific and technological innovation? Should it be enabled? Should it be forbidden? Can it be regulated? How can our answers to these questions protect humankind, and at the same time enable science to move forward, and provide the life-enhancing discoveries we have come to expect and depend upon?

Science presents a series of “knife edge” issues — pros and cons, positives and potential negatives. It is up to the science and engineering community, itself, to step forward and provide leadership: solutions, clarifications, or resolutions to what seem to be either/or propositions, but which often can be solved — scientifically.

But scientific solutions have, at times, not always meshed well with policy solutions. On the difficult “knife-edge” issues, the scientific approach must dovetail with policy.

With scientific and policy leadership, knife-edge questions can be defused, enabling the development of technologies that can bring prosperity, enhance security, ensure an enduring peace, and safeguard the global community. I would like, first, to explore some of the knife-edge issues that science and technology place before us everyday. Then, I will discuss the role of scientific leadership in the resolution of such issues. Finally, I would like to offer a leadership challenge to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and the scientific community, as a whole.

I will begin with what I know — nuclear science (and technology).

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 57 nuclear power plants generate almost 80 percent of that nation’s electrical power and provide several billion dollars in annual revenues from sales of surplus power to other European nations. There has never been a nuclear power accident 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 (EU), 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 more than three-quarters of the nation’s emission-free electricity production.

Beyond nuclear power, approximately 10 to 12 million nuclear medicine imaging and therapeutic procedures are performed each year in the United States.

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 then, the U.S. government reported last year that 1,500 radiation sources were believed lost or stolen in the United States since 1996. More than half of these were never recovered.

In late March, The New York Times reported that police in the former Soviet Republic of Tajikistan had arrested two people who were in possession of — and attempting to sell — four kilograms, or about nine pounds, of a radioactive mercury.

In the Republic of Georgia, over 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.

At a conference under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna last month, some 600 technical specialists, customs officials, and other law enforcement officers gathered to discuss Radiological Dispersion Devices, or “dirty bombs,” and the potential for nuclear and radiological terrorism. The conference was co-sponsored by the Russian Federation and the United States, in cooperation with a number of other international police organizations.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, speaking at the conference, made it clear that, in the post-September-2001 environment, terrorism has added an entirely new dimension to technological advancement — because terrorists “will employ technology never intended for use as weapons, to murder thousands of innocent and unsuspecting individuals in the most shocking and ruthless way.”

These news stories, perhaps, illustrate the premise of a new Harvard University report, entitled “Controlling Nuclear Warheads and Materials: A Report Card and Action Plan,” which found that the United States lacks a comprehensive and sufficiently well-funded plan for protecting the world’s supply of nuclear material from terrorists.

We can only surmise the extent of the terrorist demand for fissile material on the black-market — and, the price it would command. Former Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia calls this situation “the new arms race between terrorist efforts to acquire nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, and our efforts to stop them.”

To the concern over the control of nuclear materials afloat in the world, we must add concern over how nations comport themselves internationally. On the Indian sub-continent, we have India and Pakistan, essentially equally armed with nuclear weapons, in a dangerous stand-off, based on deeply rooted historical and ethnic divisions that overshadow the potentially devastating consequences of conflict between them.

Domestically, there is heightened concern over the safety and security of nuclear reactors.

War in Iraq and fear of terrorist activity are fueling an intensified campaign to close the Indian Point nuclear power station, 35 miles north of New York City. The plant is in compliance with federal safety regulations, but state and local officials have declined to certify the plant’s emergency plan because of fears of the release of radiation in the event of a major accident or terror attack. The area is densely populated — about 11.8 million people live within 50 miles — and its proximity to New York City makes it a potential terrorist target.

I could tell you about safety concerns at another U.S. nuclear power facility — the Davis Besse plant outside of Toledo in northwest Ohio — but I think you get the point.

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

Biomedical technologies also exist on the “knife-edge” of life and death, and of policy differences.

The transplantation of an electrical device into his diaphragm has enabled injured actor Christopher Reeve to breathe more easily. The procedure, called “diaphragm pacing via laparoscopy,” placed electrodes in his chest, enabling his respirator to be turned off for brief periods, and may strengthen his diaphragm muscles sufficiently to enable him to live, eventually, without a respirator altogether.

Yet, in another medical procedure, the nation was transfixed by the errors that occurred during a widely publicized heart/lung transplantation at Duke University Hospital this winter, which caused the death of a young Mexican woman because of the use of tissue of the wrong blood type. The incident forced hospital officials — and thinking individuals everywhere — to confront some of the most troubling questions posed by our expanding biotechnology capabilities: that no matter how far biomedical science advances, doctors are still human, and the best laid plans can be confounded by the simplest of errors.

Fuzeon, a groundbreaking AIDS/HIV drug that received FDA approval last fall, developed by a team that included several alumni of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was the first AIDS/HIV drug approved in seven years. Fuzeon inhibits the ability of the HIV virus to fuse to cells of the immune system, helping to restore the patient’s natural defenses. It shows promise in helping patients to overcome resistance to many of today's more commonly used anti-retroviral drugs.

But, AIDS patients, and their advocates point out that Fuzeon will cost just under $20,000 per year, putting it out of reach of many. Conventional treatments cost $7,000 to $12,000 annually.

The prohibitive costs of funding and exploiting pharmaceutical research and development is a key aspect of this issue. Development of a new drug in the year 2000 cost in the neighborhood of $800 million. Does patent protection yield the best way to fund research and development? Or, to get the best drugs? Should government policy regulate the cost of pharmaceuticals, and if so, how? And, to what extent?

Knife-edge issues do not always involve life or death, or the latest technologies. In an interesting twist to old ideas, demonstrations are underway to examine the transmission of Internet data over the power grid. This brings electrical transmission — an “old” technology — full circle with a “new” technology — the Internet. It, possibly, also places policy driven from one agency of the federal government — the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) — into the policy yard of another agency of the federal government — the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) — or of state agencies — the public utility (or service) commissions. The idea is not without controversy. It is rooted in competing public policy (telecommunications competition) and competing governmental jurisdictions, but technological clarity could help to inform the debate.

Obviously, these kinds of issues are not new to you who are here this evening. You have pondered the double-bind that these and other questions pose for scientists as individuals, for the science and technology community, for legislators, for government policy makers, and for society, as a whole.

Each of these and other issues or situations has a public policy component, and each needs careful attention and considered action. In each, resolution will require leadership — leadership on the knife-edge.

The first leadership question is, who will do the science? Who will address the issues?

Scientists and engineers comprise less than 5 percent of the total U.S. civilian workforce, yet the societal, economic, and “quality of life” impact of their scientific discoveries and technological innovations throughout U.S. history greatly exceeds their small number. They have given the United States the world’s strongest national economy, with the largest per-capita income and the highest standard of living. The abundance and sophistication of tools, foods, medicines, and technologies derived from their work, likewise, has enabled the United States to provide, for decades, unparalleled assistance to the world’s peoples, to alleviate affliction caused by natural disasters, famines, pandemic diseases, and to lead the way to a global marketplace of goods, technologies, and information. (In other words: economy, aid, and trade.)

You also know, as I do, that science and engineering are essential to our national economic and physical security. We realize their influence as we look to the past, and examine how far, and how quickly, America advanced during the last 150 years. We realize their import, as we look to the present to protect our nation, and make it safe.

And yet, the cohort of scientists and engineers who have been responsible for propelling our nation to these heights of leadership, prosperity, innovation, and security, is soon to retire. Nor is it being replaced in sufficient numbers.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is a case in point. The General Accounting Office (GAO) reports that about 15 percent of NASA's science and engineering staff can retire now, while 25 percent will be eligible to retire in the next five years. In a performance and accountability report issued in January, the GAO cautioned that NASA faces a workforce shortage which will worsen as the workforce ages and the pipeline of talent shrinks. This dilemma is more pronounced among areas crucial to NASA's ability to perform its mission, such as engineering, science, and information technology.

Of course, NASA is not unique. Most federal agencies face a similar challenge, as does the corporate sector. The National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2002 find that, although the number of trained scientists and engineers in the national labor force will continue to increase for some time, the average age will rise, and retirements will increase dramatically over the next 20 years.

This emerging loss of scientists and engineers is compounded, at the entrance end, because the aging cohort is not being replaced in adequate numbers. Graduate and undergraduate student populations in engineering and the physical sciences — and even in the computer sciences — are static or declining. The only positive trajectories have been in the life sciences. In the broader view, a similar trend grips total undergraduate and graduate degrees granted to American students in these disciplines.

In the past, we have imported the science, engineering, and technological expertise we needed. This has been, and continues to be, an important source of talent distributed across all sectors of our economy. But in an era of turbulent global relationships and security concerns at home, this is beginning to be more difficult. International students and scientists have begun to choose to return home in greater numbers — sometimes because of, sometimes irrespective of, global conflicts.

Many jobs are moving overseas. Some have linkages to U.S. companies, whose workers, living abroad, are well compensated. The economies in some third world countries are improving, creating more opportunities. At the same time, in the post September 11th environment, immigration is becoming more restrictive, especially for science and engineering students wanting to study certain technical subjects. In addition, some immigrants and some international students perceive safer environments for themselves elsewhere, such as in Australia and Canada.

So, what should we do?

The good news is that we can do something. We have the talent. It resides in plain view — in the new majority. By this, I mean the new majority comprising young women, minority youth, and young people with disabilities — groups that, currently, are underrepresented in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology — the "under-represented majority." Taken together, these groups offer us an opportunity — what I call an "affirmative opportunity" — to construct the science and engineering workforce of the future.

But, consider what it will take to do this: In a dozen years (by the year 2015), our undergraduate population will expand by more than 2.6 million students. Two million of them will be students from these underrepresented groups.

  • Will this cohort want to study science and engineering? What is going to spark and nurture their interest?
  • And, how do we ensure that they will be prepared, academically, to advance in science and engineering? U.S. high school students rank near the bottom internationally in science and mathematics. If this is true for the population as a whole, how do we escape this quicksand for the underrepresented majority?
  • And, if these young people have the desire and the preparation, will they have the means? Fewer than 40 percent of 18 to 24 year-olds in the lowest family income quartile go to college, compared with about 80 percent of the top quartile income families. What are we doing about this?

If these young people are willing, if they are prepared, and if they are financially able, then we will have bridged the science and engineering talent gap. If underrepresented minority groups, women, and persons with disabilities were adequately represented in science and engineering, there would be no U.S. talent gap.

Our challenge is to make this happen.

If we are to have a workforce that will "do the science" of the future, we must make the case, nationally that the talent is, indeed, in plain view. This, too, will require that we "stand on the knife-edge." Why? — Because of concerns about affirmative action. But, the debate about affirmative action is a red herring. The future scientific prowess of the United States depends upon closing the talent gap, which we can do only if we mine all the talent. But, this takes work. It takes more than post-secondary education remediation strategies, or making “merit-based decisions” about university admissibility. The fight cannot begin at the college classroom door.

Moreover, educating is one goal. Educating for leadership is another. The creation of the scientists and engineers of the future is not just about drawing more of the underrepresented majority into the workforce, but how we educate all potential young scientists and engineers. I am reminded of what John Henry Cardinal Newman said in The Idea of a University, which many regard as the classic defense of, and case for, liberal arts education.

“The liberally educated person,” he maintained, “possesses the knowledge, not only of things, but also (of) their mutual and true relations; knowledge, not merely considered as acquirement, but as philosophy.”

All fields of study narrow as specialization increases. And, the totally narrow view is nearsighted and ultimately faulty. The antidote is a basis in multidisciplinary approaches to problem-solving, and a broader education base.

Since, the knife-edge issues occur at the nexus of science and human kind, a grounding in the liberal arts, or perhaps more importantly, ethics, is crucial.

Why a different science education?

  • There is a growing need for scientists to communicate. As complexity grows, so does the need for scientists to collaborate and work in teams, where the need to understand, explain, persuade, and emphasize pertain.
  • A young scientist entering industry today spends much time explaining science to consumers, legislators, policy makers, environmentalists, judges, lawyers, and the media.
  • There is a greater-than-ever need for scientists, themselves, to heighten respect for scientific and technological solutions, and to alleviate a cultural fear of science.
  • Scientists must understand, and be governed by, the social consequences of their work.
  • Society needs technologically knowledgeable, but broadly educated, individuals on its highest councils.

However, like scientific research itself, building a science, mathematics, engineering, and technology workforce has a lengthy lead time. To "build" or to "craft" a scientist or an engineer, we must begin in junior high school, at the latest. It takes as much as a decade or more to construct the interest and excitement, the background and preparation, the education and experience, needed to produce a future Ph.D. in biocatalysis, for instance, or a nuclear engineer.

Yet the systems that enable this process often depend upon a mix of government policies, political climates, and economic constructs which operate on a fast scale, but which have long-term effect. Decisions debated today, enacted tomorrow, and implemented next year combine to set the tone and create the environment that will affect us for many years to come. This is the knife-edge, the knife-edge between the present and the future — our future.

Decisions in these arenas impact students, their choices, and their support. Decisions in these arenas affect whom we educate and how. They also affect broader science literacy and support among the general public. They affect how we raise and resolve the tangled ethical issues that advancing scientific research continuously places before us.

These decisions and their impact cry out for real leadership.

Yet, the United States, unlike many other global nations, still has no national plan to address the issues. At times of crisis, we look for guidance from leaders who are thoroughly informed, sure in their vision, have a clear sense of purpose, and, most of all, are unafraid to stand on conviction in the political wind. We need leadership from every sector and in every capacity. We need collaborative leadership that seeks to find the common ground between extremes. We need scientific leadership to uncover the technological solutions that will resolve the polarizing challenges. We need creative policy leadership to set the guideposts that will assure that we meet our goals.

Because this issue affects the American future so broadly, this new leadership needs to be a coalition leadership, combining the science communities, the education communities, the corporate and industrial communities, and the full spectrum of government. Each sector has a real stake in the outcome, and each complements the whole.

A second area of leadership that I believe is critical will be to focus the energies of the scientific community on those areas in which technological solutions can make the difference in resolving knife-edge challenges.

Nuclear energy, for example, is an important transition fuel for the first half of this century, reducing our dependence on oil and petroleum products, supplying our growing need for power, and helping to resolve our global climatic and environmental concerns over greenhouse gas emissions.

Advanced, safer reactor technologies could be developed, and, indeed, there is $388 million in the Department of Energy budget request for several such programs, and even more in comprehensive energy legislation currently under consideration in the Senate and House of Representatives.

Science also should concentrate on advances to make renewable energy into a reliable source for our long-term energy future. Solar and wind energy are now operable only about 30 percent of the time, making them impracticable for base load electricity generation. Similar contributions are needed in electricity storage technology, advanced transmission of electricity, and resolving the logistical barriers to the commercialization of hydrogen, if this is to be a next step.

The IAEA is pushing for broader use of the sterile insect technique (SIT), using radiation to sterilize healthy insects, which are then released into the environment where they will attempt to breed but be infertile, thus controlling and/or eradicating pest populations. A proven candidate is the tsetse fly — which, as the carrier of sleeping sickness to humans and livestock, is a major source of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. The effectiveness of using the SIT technique to eliminate the malaria-bearing mosquito also is now being researched.

This type of leadership — which focuses on finding scientific solutions to current knife-edge issues, also requires a shared vision throughout the scientific community — including scientists in government, industry, and, of course, research universities. This, of course, only underscores my earlier point — that to accomplish these technological solutions to knife-edge issues, we will need scientists in the pipeline.

The third element of leadership on the knife-edge must be communication to inform public policy. We live in the information-glut era. Vast amounts of information — some credible, much not — are available at a “click” to everyone. But, Internet search engines do not come with “credibility” filters, which can leave the public confused, and unenlightened.

The resultant sense of disquiet about science, and where it can lead, reflected in some of the questions addressed in the Congressional hearing on nanotechnology, suggests that we have not done our jobs completely as scientists.

We need personal and collective leadership. Personal leadership must be strong and bold, allowing one to be visionary and to stand in the political wind.

You are leaders. As each of you works individually, in your particular arena, I also ask you to think more and more about collective leadership across work sectors, across government, industry, and education to build a national viewpoint and a national will to inform the public, and public policy, and to defuse issues.

Public policy is not always — perhaps, not often — an ideal forum for fair debate. It is a roiling marketplace where every voice has its own agenda, and where an issue can become veiled and confused. But, it is a public marketplace for ideas, it is democratic, and it is open. The public policy arena needs the reasoned voice of science itself — scientists who have no economic interest in the outcome of a decision, scientific organizations that can use their credibility to inform public policy debates, weighing in on knife-edge issues with the voice of reason.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) can have such an impact. Its interdisciplinary nature, its crosscutting strengths, its position in American scientific life, and the breadth and diversity of the disciplines it unites under one banner command respect and make it an ideal leader on such issues. What is needed is a process by which a prestigious vehicle for policy articulation — such as the AAAS — can speak even more strongly with a disinterested voice, offering authoritative judgments, and cutting through the clutter of contradictory, sometimes self-serving opinions.

I believe the AAAS can truly take on the leadership mantle as the American Voice of Reason, providing leadership on the knife-edge. The scientists and engineers at the research universities and the corporate and government laboratories will develop the technological solutions. AAAS can work toward inserting these solutions into the political and policy process, and by doing so, can help to educate the public and inspire a new science and engineering generation.

The onset of the third millennium of human history is a young and tender time, with much at stake. Yet, it may well prove to be another time of unprecedented opportunity for science and technology. By the middle of this century, the population of the world will double.

  • Science discovery and technological innovation can provide the food, shelter, clothing, education, health, and quality of life for all these people.


  • Ignorance and fear can interfere with — and even halt — scientific research.

I believe scientific research must be guided by conscience, consensus, and by actions that take the complex values of our social and moral worlds into account. Areas of biomedical research, like stem cell research, also are controversial — and risky. But, risks are part of what we do. Without risk taking, without experiments, and without failures, we cannot move forward. Whether with natural biological processes, or with nanotechnology, we must be prepared to explore the scientific and ethical implications of our research, risks and all, if we are to understand and use these marvelous instruments wisely — for the benefit of us all.

The scientific community has the leadership, and the fortitude, to step up to this opportunity. We cannot stand on the sidelines and allow science and its contribution to human knowledge, to technological innovation, to economy, aid, trade and security to be held hostage to fear and misinformation, special interests, or bad policy. The scientific community must take a stronger hand in formulating policy. We cannot just advocate for the support of science itself, we also must articulate the knife edge issues. We must bring balance to the debate, and we must advocate the role of science, and of the scientific community, in addressing the issues — inside the community of science, and outside.

We have no choice.

If the world is to achieve peace for all nations, and plenty for all peoples, it will be scientific and technological developments, and their intelligent and sensible deployment, that enable these achievements. And, if we are to achieve security for our nation, and for the world, that, too, will be attributable in large measure to technological innovation, its wise application, and the appreciation and understanding of science and technology by the public.

We have a lot of work to do. There is a lot at stake.

Thank you.

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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