Remarks by

Dr. Neal F. Lane
National Science Foundation


San Diego, California

March 15, 1996


I am delighted to be here and honored with the invitation to present a lecture in the Scripps Series. Inviting a physicist to speak could be a formula for (pardon the pun) dense matter. We physicists are not always known for our engaging ways. I am reminded of what the humanist and Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, wisecracked about science. He said, "Science is a good piece of furniture for a man to have in an upper chamber provided he has common sense on the ground floor."

In a more serious vein, I have titled my remarks today "Wisdom for the Millennium and Beyond: For Scientists and For the Nation." Jacob Bronowski, the great chronicler of science and civilization, wrote in 1958 in the Scientific American, "The most remarkable discovery made by scientists is science itself. The discovery must be compared in importance with the invention of cave-painting and of writing. Like these earlier human creations, science is an attempt to control our surroundings by entering into them and understanding them from the inside. And like them, science has surely made a critical step in human development which cannot be reversed. We cannot conceive a future society without science."

That's a mighty lofty and flattering description. None of us as scientists and engineers would disagree. I think, however, Bronowski is telling us something in addition to the importance of science in society. He does not say that once science came along that painting or writing or any other process by which humankind searches for control through understanding has become unnecessary or obsolete.

On the contrary, he makes the point that science was "discovered" in two periods--the great age of Greece (600 B.C.-300 BC) and during the Renaissance. Each of these periods is known primarily for its flourishing art and literature. He says, "The sciences and the arts have flourished together. And they have been fixed together as sharply in place as in time."

But modern science and technology and the humanities, the term I will use this evening to refer, broadly, to all study focused on the human dimension, have not flourished together. Instead, they have moved farther and farther apart until C.P. Snow depicted them as two separate cultures. As the gulf separating these two processes of understanding ourselves and our universe grew, science and technology became one of the most powerful driving forces in modern society.

It is, however, my belief that contemporary society has not benefited, and is even undermined by such a separation. Today, research scientists and engineers are in a pivotal but somewhat separate position. Their knowledge and expertise provide much of the leverage that propels our human activity. However, in order to acquire the necessary tools, their education and training has become narrowed and fragmented to a realm of sophisticated but somewhat esoteric detail. Today, our humanists are often drowned out by the din of computers, accelerators, and even sound-bytes. We do not look to them for the historical context of our actions or the other perspectives of defining our world that could help us understand an appropriate path for the future.

As important as science and technology are, they do not, and cannot, stand alone in determining a responsible and fruitful path for the millennium and beyond. In his book Beyond the Culture Wars, Gerald Graff depicts a scenario that serves as an apt metaphor for our separation of science and technology from the humanities and the impediment it creates in our overall judgment. I might add that the metaphor can be further extended into the fragmentation of disciplines, science and otherwise.

Graff says, "It is as if you were to try to learn the game of baseball by being shown a series of rooms in which you see each component of the game separately: pitchers going through their windups in one room; hitters swinging their bats in the next; then infielders, outfielders, umpires, fans, field announcers, ticket scalpers, broadcasters, hot dog vendors, and so on. You see them all in their different roles, but since you see them separately you get no clear idea of what the game actually looks like or why the players do what they do."

We do ourselves a disservice as a nation when we educate and train our scientists and engineers too narrowly in science and technology. The world in which their work bears fruit is a world of integration and overlapping consequences. It is a world in which the nonscientific social and ethical questions may be more difficult to grapple with than the scientific ones. Today, more than any other time in the history of humankind, our values and principles are needed to undergird and guide the increasingly sophisticated and powerful knowledge that flows from science and technology.

We know that scientists and engineers are people of high intelligence, strong analytical capacity, and personal determination. However, we could much reduce their needed potential for strong leadership by designing graduate, and to some extent undergraduate, education as if they needed to know about trees but with limited conception of the meaning of the forest.

Dr. Frank Rhodes, who is currently Chairman of the National Science Board and President Emeritus of Cornell University, said in a 1993 essay, "We should strive to produce not only competent engineers, for example, but also engineers who practice their profession with a keen appreciation of the social, economic, and natural environment in which they operate and with a sense of aesthetic scale and human proportion as well as economic costs and benefits. is to develop a person of judgment, discernment, and balance, with professional competence in some specific area."

So how do we proceed for the millennium and beyond with this vast scientific and technical knowledge and power? Perhaps, it is not just knowing how to do world class research and teach in science and engineering, but rather about understanding the physical, moral, and social problems that hold our civilization in the grip of numerous contradictions. Science and technology alone cannot bring us wisdom from even our vast and growing knowledge.

I am reminded of Einstein's admonition--long before World War II and in the deepest days of the Great Depression--in 1931 in an address he delivered at the California Institute of Technology. He said, "Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors, concern for the great unsolved problems of the organization of labor and the distribution of goods--in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations."

Einstein takes us back to our fundamental values as guidance, our concern for humanity and its fate. But how can we expect scientists and engineers to play this more comprehensive role if we do not educate them for that awareness? And how will they know that part of their professional responsibility should be to carry on a continuing dialogue with the humanists and other members of society on the resolution of society's most pressing problems? It is our job to prepare a new generation of scientists and engineers by our own example. We must begin the dialogue and lead the way. And we must always remember that this is a dialogue not just among scholars, but rather a rich and diverse conversation with the citizenry also.

Because the world today is powered by science and technology, scientists should be in a crucial, central position of leadership in our society. Right now, however, they are more frequently isolated from our philosophers, historians, poets, politicians, journalists, and other professionals on the one hand, and from the general populace on the other.

And yet the major problems facing the whole global society are, for the most part, human problems. Because we live first and foremost in a human society, our most pervasive influence is always the human reaction to circumstances--in economic systems, in nation states or as individual family members.

We abdicate our responsibilities as citizens if we as scientists and engineers do not understand our science and technology in the larger context of humanity and its great unsolved problems. In America, those problems are numerous. In other parts of the globe, they are myriad. We face urban physical and social ills, the dilemma of providing jobs while technological advances and corporate down-sizing shrink the demand for workers, and the need to sustain the global environment while supporting sufficient economic development to maintain growing populations.

The extended problems of safe and sufficient water, an adequate food supply with sustainable future production, a long-term global energy solution that respects our finite resources and assures dependable access, greater socioeconomic equity among domestic populations and among nations, a diminishment of societal violence and terrorism, and education--especially of women and girls--in developing nations--these are just the beginning of a global agenda for the 21st century.

An important component of graduate, as well as undergraduate, education needs to be devoted to this larger context in which science and technology have such strong influence. Again, we can be viewed as abdicating our responsibility as teachers and mentors of the next generation of scientists and engineers if we do not portray their task as larger than data banks and lab procedures, and more important than publication in prestigious journals. The sophisticated knowledge and esoteric understanding in which all of us delight is important, but it is not enough.

We must enter into the dialogue of economic and social goals for the nation and for the global population. If that dialogue is dormant, then it becomes our task to initiate it--to engage not only the humanists but also the lawyers and doctors, lobbyists and dramatists, futurists and farmers, and most importantly to include the populists.

Lest you think that my point is that only scientists and engineers are too narrowly educated, let me dispel that notion. In a world that is propelled by the forces of science and technology, the education of most non-scientists and engineers is almost devoid of any understanding of science and technology, and the nature of research. If we expect to have a meaningful dialogue across the chasms we have created, we had better enlighten each side to the knowledge and understanding of the other.

And if we expect science and technology to pervasively benefit the nation, we must also engage in dialogue the "anti-science" movement on many of our campuses and elsewhere in our society.

I hope that I make a convincing case for expanding the educational context for all technical professionals. Only with this background and guidance, can we look forward to a natural and on-going dialogue between C.P. Snow's "two cultures" until we can prove Snow's dichotomy invalid and obsolete. With this broader direction, we can anticipate a new pervasive leadership from scientists and engineers--a leadership that both America and the world needs.

I have spoken recently about the opportunity for a new "golden age" for science. Some have interpreted that to mean that there is, just around the corner, a bigger pot of gold for science funding. Although this might be the case some time in the future, it was generally not funding to which I was referring.

This concept of a "golden age" is more similar to the two periods that Bronowski referred to as "when science was discovered." Those two historical periods were noted for their art and literature. They were times of bubbling cultural stew in which all the ingredients were stirred together, flavored and influenced by each other. The result of the mixture was a rich eruption of creativity, discovery, and new thinking.

This is what I believe is possible to recreate in a new "golden age of science" at the beginning of the 21st century. We have all the ingredients but we've been cooking them in separate pots for many years. This seems to me to partially explain why we can be doing extraordinary things in science while at the same time we are experiencing worsening societal disparities and problems.

What I am suggesting cannot happen overnight even in the best of circumstances. For one, it flies in the face of the status quo. It suggests that the culture of separate, independent pots may not produce the best overall meal. (I have visions of this metaphor eliciting a flood of angry letters from master chefs.)

I don't want to mislead any of you into thinking that I have always believed this to be true. In fact, I am a product of the "separatist" education. I moved through the ranks of the research faculty structure in accordance with tradition. It was not until I was a chancellor and provost that I began to have a more comprehensive perspective. It was not until I came to the National Science Foundation that I could begin to assimilate the way in which states and national governments must grapple with the "great unsolved problems of humankind." Only then did I really begin to see the larger role for the science and engineering community, a role that society needs us to exercise but a role we are unaccustomed to assuming.

It seems to me that the public looks to science and technology for solutions to real world problems, and so we must engage in a dialogue about outcomes for all of us. We should not mistake this dialogue to mean an elitist discussion among scholars. On the contrary, the citizenry expects to be included.

In the focused effort to cut government spending and diminish the size of government, the competition will be intense for scarce federal funds. Based on the Congressional Budget Resolution, the AAAS has projected roughly a 33 percent cut in federal R&D by the year 2002. In this growing environment for hard accountability of public money, citizens and their elected representatives will need to be convinced that the investment in science and technology is worthwhile--that it contributes to our national growth and welfare.

It is true that the general populace is not well informed about science and technology or about the positive contribution they make to every aspect of our lives. This does not mean they are disinterested. Just the opposite is the case. We know from NSF surveys that the vast majority of the public believes science is a net good. A large number are fascinated with science, but only a small minority feel that they understand anything about science.

In fact, in a speech that I gave recently at the AAAS meeting, I posed a question to the science community. If the public loves science and yet has very limited understanding of that same science, doesn't this say more about us than it does about them? I think the answer is probably yes. And so, as we anticipate the prospect of a new golden era for science, it must not only be inclusive of the populace, but we scientists need to educate them to the debate.

At this point, I anticipate everyone thinking--and when does this guy expect us to do teaching and research? Where is the time for science if we are hobnobbing with the humanists and educating the public? This is a legitimate question that I would answer--more accurately avoid answering--in two ways. First, these dialogues and the integration of our knowledge with the understanding of other perspectives will not detract from the quality or thoughtfulness of our research. On the contrary, it cannot help but enhance it. It will, however, place more pressure on our time. Each of us will handle these balances in an individual way.

Second, not every single scientist and engineer will be out there communicating with the same intensity or involvement. Some of us will be better at this than others. For those who remain more in the background, the task will be to support enthusiastically those that are more engaged. That, in itself, will be a substantial contribution

Fundamentally, what I am suggesting is a process of integration. On our campuses, it will mean new kinds of integrated courses and new types of integrated research projects and experiences. How do we get this to happen? We encourage and cajole all faculty to work together on a new approach to the curriculum. Metaphorically, the goal is to enable students in the technical disciplines to walk in the shoes of the humanists, and vice versa.

Beyond the campus, it will mean the integration of the research community into the life of our own communities at all levels. We have a civic role to play for America. In a sense, I envision that we can become the chefs in a new, more hopeful societal recipe for the nation. I envision that as we move out among philosophers and politicians, teachers and entrepreneurs, we will be able to help create not just a "golden era for science" but for America in the upcoming century.

Thank you for the honor of allowing me to speak to you today.