FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

Remembering and Responding to 9/11

Richard M. Jones
Number 108 - September 8, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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Less than two months after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Rita Colwell, then the Director of the National Science Foundation, delivered a speech to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars entitled “Science: Before and After September 11.”  Selections from Colwell’s remarks, taken from an issue of FYI in December 2001, follow:

"It is abundantly clear that there is a concurrent need for increased scientific and engineering knowledge. In times such as these, we are acutely cognizant of living in a society defined by, and dependent on, science and technology.

"Every discussion about airline safety, contamination by disease, failure of communication links, poisoning of food and drinking water, assessment of damaged infrastructure, and countless other concerns depends on our 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. We know that science brings fresh knowledge of ourselves and our planet, and thus what is newly possible. That, however, is not enough."

"Today, sophisticated knowledge, powerful tools, and high-speed transportation and communication amplify that complexity.

"For the past 50 years, the federal government has provided continuous and growing support to develop the underlying science, technology, and knowledge that helped us build these capabilities. This began, in large part, as a result of the significant role that science played in winning World War II.

"Since then, our enterprise of scientists and engineers has been responsive to the changing context of society. We will need to strengthen the links between physical sciences and the social and behavioral sciences.

"Our accrued knowledge from decades of research-support is already serving new objectives brought about by the events that began on September 11th. The nation's science policy will move in the direction of national necessity.

"The late Congressman George Brown of California [chairman of the House Science Committee for many years] was science's best friend and most constructive critic in the Congress. In a 1994 speech at the National Academy of Sciences, he said, 'We must have ... a research system that arches and bends with society's goals.' The larger context determines the direction in which this movement occurs. The research enterprise arches and bends to national needs.

"In hindsight, there was a certain stability in the Cold War period -- with its recognizable foes and unifying ideals. The interval since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 has shown us the signs and signals of past fragmentation, the rise of old hatreds, and the burgeoning of new ones. In some sense, the fifty years of the Cold War was an anomalous period in the larger scope of human history.

"In that long sweep of civilization, science and engineering have had an ever-increasing influence in the life of society. We've used most of that knowledge to remediate an existing problem or to address a current need.

"We now recognize that we also need to 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 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.

"This must take place at the same time that the research community maintains a freedom and passion for new frontiers and the rigor of merit review.

"As all of you know so well, knowledge is our strongest insurance for preparedness. Without new knowledge we cannot develop foresight. As we evolve increasingly into a knowledge-based society, our economic growth, our national security, and our social well being will depend on the most advanced discoveries in every field. Knowledge is the bedrock.

"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.

"Everyone in this room knows that by solving a present problem 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 a lot 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.

"Despite our vast knowledge base, we likely still know very little of what there is to know. This should prevent us from being arrogant about what we do know. That doesn't always happen. In fact, we do ourselves a national disservice when we educate and train our scientists and engineers only in science and technology.

"The world in which our work bears fruit is a world of integration and overlapping consequences. Narrow knowledge can become incorrect knowledge.

"America has been fortunate to have leaders that understood the value of ongoing support for research. They have viewed research as an investment, not an expense. Just as a college education is an investment in an individual's future, support for research is an investment in the nation's future.

"Advances in physics, biology, chemistry - the core physical sciences - undergird all of the biomedical sciences on which we depend to understand disease, find cures, develop vaccines, and initiate preventive strategies."

"The alternative to not being at the forefront of science and technology is the alternative of being left behind. There is an ever-growing community of nations with equally capable workers.

"Globalization has proven this repeatedly in the last decade. There is a reservoir of talent in other cultures of which we know little. They too will join the ranks of competitors.

"In the 21st century, success will be determined increasingly by science and technology. Therefore, economic survival means being on the cutting edge of discovery and knowledge creation.

"Choosing otherwise is not frugal; it's just shortsighted. September 11 has taught us that terrorists also utilize sophisticated science and technology."

"This new era marked by the watershed events of 9/11 presents new directions for science and technology. As we incorporate the phrase 'homeland security' into our national lexicon, every sector of society, but especially the federal government, will be in the business of preparedness.

"Less than a month ago, we saw a glaring example of why it is so important to have a public educated to the issues of science and technology. The surprise emergence of Anthrax in the mail set in motion a race for information.

"It is vital that the public and all our leaders have a better working knowledge of the science and technology that defines our very existence. Although Anthrax is not an everyday occurrence, there were many, including public officials, who thought it was contagious.

"Without correct information, we breed chaos and hysteria -- neither of which fosters appropriate responses. We have a new battle to fight and that is to prevent man's deliberate turning back the clock of progress in public health.

"A citizenry literate about science and technology serves several goals. It gives the nation a workforce educated and trained to compete in the increasingly 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 science community to help us meet that goal.

"In multiple aspects, September 11 was a knife-sharp awakening for the nation and its leaders. Not the least of those surprises was how little people outside of the science community and those on the periphery understand science and technology issues.

"To a large extent, what we know and do not know as citizens is dependent on the media. The public increasingly relies on the mass communication of print and broadcast information.

"The science community must work in conjunction with the media to inform the general public on new issues that affect us all. We ignore this steep learning curve at considerable risk. We cannot protect ourselves if we do not understand the threats as well as the prevention.

"The National Science Foundation has made a scientifically literate citizenry and workforce a central thrust in all of our programs. We begin with teacher preparation and solid curricula for students in the K through 12 years.

"Today, knowledge of science and technology is necessary for everyone, not just those who become scientists and engineers. We know that there is an expanding need for technically skilled workers whose final degree may be a high school diploma or an associate's degree.

"In addition, our national need for scientists and engineers cannot possibly be fulfilled by the traditional white male population. We must focus on attracting women and our diverse minority populations to these professions.

"This poses a profoundly significant challenge that must be met in our primary schools and build from there a broader base.

"As we reflect on our knowledge-driven society, we all know that knowledge alone is not enough to make a better world. The Founding Fathers framed a set of primary values for our nation based on the independence of, and the respect for, individuals. Armed with these values, science becomes an important vehicle for human progress."

"With these values to guide us, we have made appropriate choices for ourselves as a nation. But we are not alone in the world.

"Let me share with you in closing comments that Congressman George Brown made in a 1993 at the National Research Council. We in the science community sorely miss his foresight and vision.

"I bring his words to you because you are an international community of scholars and public policy experts. As always he left us with important ideas. In a speech titled A New Paradigm for Development: Building Dignity Instead of Dependence, he said,

"'This work must begin first by viewing developing nations as partners instead of as step-children. Of all the many ways in which we can cooperate for the global good, the case for science and technology cooperation with science-poorer nations is perhaps the most compelling. To do so, we must abandon the instinct to judge others by their past accomplishments or to judge our own accomplishments as the proper path for others.

"'We know that science and technology are an important force to help balance the world's inequities. The job of the science community, and our nation's leaders is to find a host of mechanisms to make use of the knowledge and benefits working as partners.'"

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095