Frank H. T. Rhodes
CONCLUDING REMARKS IN RESPONSE TO PRESENTATIONS AT THE
My purpose in these few remarks is to respond briefly to Dr. Neal Lane and then to summarize one or two aspects of our lengthy discussions which seem to me to be particularly timely.
First let me comment on the challenges that Neal Lane has provided for us. I found the Director's talk to be stimulating, provocative and constructive, and I want to thank him and his colleagues for the superb leadership that they give to the Foundation, day in and day out. I want also to thank members of the Board for the long term concern that they have for the well being of the Foundation and for the consistent commitment they have shown to promoting its activities.
Dr. Lane has asked us to undertake four assignments. First, to produce a statement of values; second, to reconsider the question of relative priorities within the overall budget allocation of the Foundation; third, to address larger issues and priorities and to develop models and demonstrations; and fourth, to become more proactive and less reactive in our promotion of science, mathematics, and engineering. It seems to me that, though challenging, all these are proper functions for the Board, and I believe we should accept the challenge that they represent.
The questions I raise are chiefly concerned with process, rather than substance, but without effective process we are unlikely to be able to provide much substance in our work. But suppose, for a moment, that there is unanimous agreement by members of the Board to accept this fourfold agenda that the Director has proposed.
My first question concerns the time required to do these things. Typically, the Board meets for a couple of days, seven or eight times a year, and much of that time is devoted to presentations which are made to the Board and its committees. During those two days we are likely to be exposed to literally hundreds of viewgraphs, several pounds of paper, details of, perhaps, fifty or sixty proposals and descriptions of anything from one to half dozen major projects of the Foundation. Frankly, I see little hope, given our present committee structure and the time that we now devote to Board meetings, that we can begin to accept the challenge that the Director has offered, without major changes in format. We have already streamlined our meetings, reduced the number of items that need to come to the Board for approval, and delegated an increasing volume of work to one or other of our committees.
It may be, of course, that we can still further trim the work of the Board, but I believe there is a limit to which it is prudent to do this. The only alternative, if we are to accept Dr. Lane's challenge, seems to me to increase the time devoted to Board meetings. But can we do that? Is this a realistic prospect? So that's the first question: How do we add to the present full agenda time to consider the major policy questions that have been proposed?
The second question concerns the challenge of establishing priorities. A number of speakers have urged us to suggest priorities beyond the Foundation for science and engineering as a whole, and I believe that is an appropriate role for the Board. But I am skeptical that the Board is willing to devote the time to do this, skeptical that it has the necessary balance of expertise to do it, and skeptical that, even supposing it could provide a statement of such priorities, the statement would have any significant influence on those in authority.
I have to say, in candor, that I think the experience of the Board over the last two or three years in discussing priorities has been wholly discouraging. A Board committee, under the chairmanship of Ian Ross, has devoted many hours to this task. They have made several attempts to discuss this with the Administration and they have not been encouraged in their offer to develop these priorities. In spite of the ineffectiveness of this activity over the past few years, I believe there is still genuine interest on the part of the Board in pursuing it. The question is, to whom should such advice be given and in what way should it be undertaken? This is something we need to discuss.
The third question I wish to raise concerns adequate staffing if we are to adopt the challenges that have been proposed. We have, at present, one executive officer who is superb, hard working, creative and wholly committed to the work of the Board. I salute Dr. Cehelsky for that. But, if we are to tackle some of the policy questions that have been proposed, we shall need far more significant staff support than anything now available to us. This is something that we should discuss with the Director. Those are three questions that I hope we shall pursue, not only in this meeting, but also in subsequent gatherings.
Let me now attempt to give you my impressions of some of the highlights of this meeting. In doing this, I feel a little like the Chinese student who was sitting for the examination that was once given to those wishing to enter the old Mandarin Chinese civil service. One question was, "Describe the universe. You may use both sides of the paper." In highlighting this meeting in just a few words, I feel a keen sympathy for that student.
We have been taking stock of the state of science for a day and a half. And that is an important activity, for overall reviews from time to time are necessary to give a general sense of direction and progress. Corporations provide them with annual reports. The President does it with his State of the Union message. I suppose the whole human population of our planet, as it now approaches the end of the century and the close of the millennium, is now engaged in a kind of in de siecle review of its own progress.
But, constructive as this is, there are always two problems. The first is superficiality; flying over a landscape at 35,000 ft. disguises the problems, frustrations, failures and successes of those who live in the cities and towns below. You simply cannot appreciate the details which go to make up the landscape, and this may expose us to the danger of elevated optimism.
But there is also another problem, and that is the danger of despairing pessimism. During some of our discussions there has been a sense of nostalgia for the good old days of Vannevar Bush when the Nation showed a sense of commitment and confidences in spite of the challenges and obstacles that it faced. Today we are more conscious of the frustrations and disillusionment than we are of successes and the challenges. At the time of Vannevar Bush, we were part of the alliance which had triumphed over an oppressive enemy. Now, we have fewer allies than we have economic competitors. Then, there was high trust in government and confidence in its programs. Now there is a sense of cynicism, despair and distrust. Then, science itself was seen as an agent of positive change. Today, it is seen as a much less benign influence for good. For, while acknowledging its benefits, our society also regards it as a threat if allowed unrestrained support. From industrial pollution to atomic warfare, science and technology are seen as double edged swords. It seems eons ago when President Lyndon Johnson, in the University of Michigan stadium, declared that the answer to all our national needs was to be found in education. It is now education that is seen as the cause of many of our problems, and not as their solution.
Some of our discussion has suggested that the Vannevar Bush model is one Which is no longer appropriate, that it has grown obsolescent with the passage of time. Nor is this all, for in a sense, all the old verities all the old assumptions are now on trial. Yet I want to suggest that the requiem for the Vannevar Bush model, and the assumptions on which it is based, is premature, and that, although the model may be strained, its assumptions remain valid. The challenge for us is to apply the pursuit of science and its benefits to the well being of society.
This is not to deny that the Board must continue to provide steady and careful service in reviewing particular Foundation activities, in supporting particular proposals, in helping to develop particular scientific priorities within or beyond the Foundation. But it must also assert, more clearly than it has, in the midst of a time of confusion and uncertainty, that science, and the technology that derives from it, are the best hope for human progress. They are, in fact, the only hope for material human progress, a vital foundation for societal well being. Without them, there is no such foundation. They are the essential basis, not only for national security, but for economic security, societal security, and personal security. Yet they are also more than that. They are the reflection of the greatest human creative achievement that we have ever seen. We have been slow to celebrate science as a triumph of the human spirit, an activity which, though it involves both discovery and invention, also involves sublime moments of creation.
Our task, as a Foundation, and as working scientists, must be to present science in those exciting and challenging terms. It is the necessary key, not just to our own survival as a species, but the survival of every other species with which we share this beautiful, vulnerable, blue planet. It is the intellectual capital on which the welfare and well being and prosperity of all nations, including our own, depends.
This is not to assert that it is the only key or the only foundation. Palm held supercomputers will no more guarantee the elevation of public taste than did television a few generations ago. But we must assert that, without science and technology, there will be no foundation for human improvement.
And so I submit that we have to reassert the assumptions of the Bush report. It is the players that need to change, not the assumptions of that report. And we've heard over the last two days ways in which those players must change: industry, the universities, the Foundation itself and government in a larger sense. I believe there must be change, and change soon.
It has been suggested that we need new partnerships. I agree that we do. But we also need new alliances, and I distinguish a partnership from an alliance. A partnership is a sharing of effort by two or more partners with a specific, but limited, goal in mind. An alliance is a more comprehensive banding together of individuals or institutions with a larger purpose and a more encompassing cause. It involves a level of mutual trust and respect which is not necessarily present in a partnership, and an openness and commitment which are not based on short term convenience. I believe we must now reach out and establish new alliances. We shall, of course, continue to need partnerships, but beyond that, we must create a number of alliances, committed to the larger interests of science itself and the society which supports us and whose interests we serve.
I regret that doesn't give us a magic bullet. It doesn't give us an instant solution. It doesn't give us a snappy 30-second sound bite. It is going to be a long, hard task to convey that message. It is going to involve a change in our mind set. But that means it is no less important, no less vital.
I like the story once told by President Kennedy of Marshal Lyautey, the great Marshal of France and a veteran of many North African campaigns who, in the golden years of his retirement, walked around his garden and said to one of his gardeners, "That tree needs to be replanted. I want you to do it today." And the gardener said, "But, Marshal, that is the most slow growing tree that we have. It will take 100 years for it to reach its full stature." And the Marshal replied, "In that case, there is not a moment to lose. Plant it at once."
I view that as the challenge that awaits us on the Board and in the Foundation.