"Science in a Twenty-First Century World"
National Science Foundation
Address at the 54th Annual Meeting of the Board of
Weizmann Institute of Science
November 11, 2002
Thank you for that gracious introduction, and good
evening to all of you. I am delighted to be here at
the famous Weizmann Institute of Science, which for
decades has been highly praised for its leadership
in scientific research. I am equally delighted to
be back in Israel, a new country with a rich and ancient
President Chet, Mr. Ambassador, Board of Governors,
Honored Guests, and especially my very good friend,
Professor Katchalski-Katzir, thank you for this honorary
degree and for the privilege of making a few comments.
The ties between Israeli and U.S. scientists and engineers
have always been durable and productive. Our nations
have enjoyed an equal measure of shared values for
the democratic process for goodwill and for cooperation.
Such enduring friendships and alliances are particularly
important during times of rapid change and altered
circumstances. They are equally our harbors in rough
seas and in fair weather.
For each nation, there is a list of historic moments
that have come to be used as markers to measure a
place in time. When we speak of ancient timeframes,
we mark them first with BC or AD.
In the history of the United States, we speak of the
Revolution, the Civil War, Pearl Harbor, Sputnik,
the Kennedy assassination, and the Moonwalk. I'm certain
that each of you could recite a litany of such telling
moments in Israeli's history, including your Independence
Day and the Six Day War.
September 11th 2001 is a new marker
in our collective psyche and in our societies, not
just in the U.S., but here, and in all the other nations
around the world that suffered human losses that day.
The role of basic research in national security was
never more clearly demonstrated than in the days and
weeks immediately after September 11, 2001. National
Science Foundation scientists and engineers were at
Ground Zero within hours and days, deploying robots,
assessing structural damage, determining economic
losses, and addressing social consequences of that
horrific event to the Nation. Following the anthrax
terrorism, NSF again was responding to the Nation's
need, with fundamental research proving both relevant
and applicable. Thus, the research you do here is
both highly relevant and very important.
There is a line I recollect from a poem that I read
long ago. It was, "There are no stars to hold this
time in place." I suspect most of us felt that way
as those unimaginable events unfolded.
At this time of uncertainty in global history, the
need for international scientific cooperation and
understanding is greater than ever before. Our common
pursuit of new knowledge is a powerful tool for bringing
people together toward the common goal of solving
problems and building a world of peace and prosperity.
It is abundantly clear that there is a powerful need
today for increased scientific and engineering knowledge.
In times such as these, we are acutely aware of living
in a world defined by, and dependent on, science and
This is one lesson we have learned in the U.S. Every
discussion about airline safety, outbreaks of disease
like the West Nile Virus, failure of communication
links, contamination of food and drinking water, assessment
of damaged infrastructure, and countless other concerns
depends on scientific and technical knowledge.
The mathematician-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead
said of science, "The aims of scientific thought are
to see the general in the particular and the eternal
in the transitory."
And so we must ask how science can elucidate these
times, in which we are living. We know that science
brings fresh knowledge of ourselves and our planet,
and, thus, what is newly possible. That, however,
is not enough.
Science and technology are neutral. They are neither
inherently good nor bad. What we choose to do with
the potential offered us by scientific knowledge is
Modern biotechnology allows us to feed the world with
improved nutrition but also allows terrorists to make
more lethal bioweapons with greater ease.
The world has always been a delicate balance of many
complex forces, not the least of which is humanity
-- in all of its diversity of cultures, goals, and
Today, sophisticated knowledge, powerful tools, and
high-speed transportation and communication amplify
Our enterprise of scientists and engineers must be
responsive to the changing context of our societies.
In the long sweep of civilization, science and engineering
have had an ever-increasing influence on the life
of society. We've used most of the knowledge gathered
to remediate an existing problem or to address a current
We now recognize that we also must draw on one of science's
most potent capacities -- prediction. If we can predict,
we frequently can prevent. The centuries of our accrued
knowledge can and should increasingly be directed
toward prevention. We are all familiar with the saying
- an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
We need to develop a broader, more anticipatory perspective
in our research. We need to increase our emphasis
on envisioning future possibilities, good or ill,
as a mechanism to predict. Undoubtedly, this will
open new vistas in our exploration and discovery.
As all of you know so well, knowledge is our strongest
insurance for preparedness. Without new knowledge
we cannot develop foresight.
Our ability to use foresight gives us a kind of early
warning system - a guard against unintended consequences.
Science can be an effective predictor. To prevent requires
more. The research community needs to find more effective
methods to use its capacity to predict to meet real
world needs through prevention.
By solving a problem today we can easily sow the seeds
of genuine dilemmas for the next generation. History
is replete with examples. When foresight directs our
actions and the use of knowledge, we are much less
likely to fix the present at the cost of the future.
But we can never think of our current knowledge as
a security blanket for the future. It will help us
in the present but as Whitehead again instructs us,
"Knowledge doesn't keep any better than fish."
New, more complete knowledge replaces it - a process
of constant renewal and at an ever accelerating pace.
This makes an unshakable case for consistent research
in all eras, at all times.
The world in which our work brings success is a world
of integration and overlapping consequences.
The current developments in nanotechnology, biotechnology,
information technology, and the cognitive sciences
clearly demonstrate this.
We've witnessed how information technology helps us
cross boundaries, allowing us to collect and manipulate
vast quantities of data, communicate new knowledge
instantaneously, and facilitate connections. Information
technologies have touched and transformed almost every
facet of our lives, our work, and our economy.
Sequencing the human genome has opened up a whole new
world of biomedical research and potential miracles
of diagnostics, prevention, and treatment.
The brief 30-year history of genetics has brought us
from the exquisitely simple design of the double helix
to the most precise identification of any human being.
And, at a scale even smaller than genes -- the Lilliputian
level of the nanoscale -- we are now arranging atoms
and molecules to build new materials, atom by atom.
The list of dramatic changes and choices that science
has triggered is so diverse it verges on the marvelous.
And, this only describes the present.
The future promises to be even more spectacular, as
current research conducted here at the Institute clearly
Your work on the new formula that could improve rain
prediction with the accuracy of exactly when and where
it may fall, and the possibility of future nano computers
operating within the human body, are truly exciting.
Israeli scientists have garnered praise and respect
throughout the world.
We also know that in addition to generating new knowledge,
it is vital that laypeople around the world and leaders
from every nation have a better working knowledge
of the science and technology that define our very
existence on the planet.
A citizenry literate about science and technology serves
several goals. It gives the nation a workforce educated
and trained to flourish in the increasingly demanding
and competitive global marketplace. It promotes good
judgment as voters on both issues and candidates.
It serves as strong defense against delusions of safety
as well as threats. I cannot stress enough the primary
importance of a scientifically literate citizenry.
I cannot stress enough the responsibility of the international
science community to embrace that goal and strive
to attain it.
As we reflect on our knowledge-driven societies, we
all know that knowledge alone is not enough to make
a better world. We require a set of primary values
based on the independence of, and the respect for,
individuals. Armed with these values, science becomes
an important vehicle for human progress.
Those of us who live and work in societies that have
already experienced the "knowledge revolution" must
remember that we are not alone in this world.
International cooperation with "science-poor" nations
may be the most compelling of the many ways in which
we can promote international partnerships. In this
way, science and technology can be an important force
to help balance the world's inequities.
Today, in the United States, we are eager to engage
our younger generation of scientists and engineers
in forming closer bonds throughout the world via research
We dare hope that international cooperation at its
best will catalyze partnerships among nations, even
into coming generations. More now than ever, we need
such efforts that transcend national borders and cultural
Now as keepers of a kind of Promethean fire we ponder
the flame we guard, remembering that "Prometheus"
literally means "fore-thought" -- thinking ahead.
Facing challenges on a global scale, we need that prescience
- to move from reaction to prediction at the frontiers
of complexity, and ultimately to prevention. With
the rich legacy of knowledge to build upon, and the
breathtaking promise of our science, I believe we
will meet the challenge.
Again, it is a privilege to be here and an honor to
receive this degree.
Thank you and Shalom.