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Photo of Dr. Subra Suresh

Dr. Subra Suresh
National Science Foundation

Doctoral Commencement Address at

The Georgia Institute of Technology

Atlanta, GA

May 6, 2011

Photo by Sandy Schaeffer

Thank you, President [Bud] Peterson, for that introduction.

To the 138 doctoral recipients, I am honored to be part of your graduation program. I very much appreciate the opportunity to share in the celebration of your achievements.

You have reached this joyous occasion with your families and friends after a long journey. You have come here from different parts of the country. And 44 percent of today's graduates have come from different parts of the world. As someone who first came to the United States, to Ames, Iowa, to do graduate work, I can fully understand the paths many of you have taken to reach this day. Now you know how I acquired my Iowa accent!

Many of you are leaving academia with your PhDs to take up jobs in various segments of our highly interconnected global society.

As you know, I also recently moved from leading a large engineering school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to leading the National Science Foundation in Washington, DC. A number of my friends have asked me: "How does it feel to be outside of academia, especially in Washington?" I was reminded of a story I heard about the same question posed to Dr. Woodrow Wilson. You may know that Woodrow Wilson was the President of Princeton University before he became the President of the United States. When a reporter asked Mr. Wilson, "Why did you leave the comfortable surroundings of academia to come to Washington, DC?" President Wilson responded: "So I don't have to deal with politics anymore."

I will begin with the dictum of someone we would not instantly think of as a philosopher, Dr. Jonas Salk.

Salk, credited for his creation of the polio vaccine, said, and I quote, "Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors." Whether you are receiving your doctorate today in Liberal Arts, Science, Engineering, Management, Computing, or Architecture, your achievement begins your path toward personifying Jonas Salk's words.

Of course, you are making your transitions from graduate school to the next chapter of your lives. This transition reminds me of an exchange between a graduating student at MIT and the former dean of engineering, Gordon Brown. When the student told Dean Brown that he was leaving MIT to go into the real world, Dean Brown responded: "Young man, this is the real world." As a leading institute of technology, Georgia Tech has taught you how to apply the fundamental scientific principles and concepts to tackle real-world challenges that will have significant impact on global society.

While "Technology" prominently and appropriately adorns your diploma from this esteemed institution, our nation's cultural sustainability and leadership is a function of achievement across the entire spectrum of scholarly pursuits. Achievements and capabilities in science, math, engineering, and technology occur within a cultural context, and it is this context that renders these achievements meaningful and sustainable.

So, when Jonas Salk spoke of our collective "responsibility to be good ancestors," this has meaning for each of our disciplines. To be successful in science, we need a social and cultural foundation for math, engineering, the arts, and literature. Each discipline has important lessons and teachings for the others, forming an interdependence akin to the integrated web of life.

The National Science Foundation, which I now head, is unique in that it is the only federal agency that supports all fields of science and engineering, including social sciences. This gives us a unique window into the scientific and innovation ecosystem of our country. It also gives us a unique opportunity to support the synergistic exploration of the frontiers of science by integrating fundamental discoveries with economic, political, and social perspectives. If you consider major societal challenges of this century, involving clean and sustainable energy and environment, or urban infrastructure and transportation mobility, natural sciences and engineering discoveries need to be combined with social sciences and human behavior to arrive at optimal decisions.

NSF-funded research not only examines the planets and outer edges of the solar system, our galaxy and beyond, it also tackles important questions about the earth and its environment as it relates to the human condition, history, and economic policies. We not only support research into the biology of a single molecule in the human brain, but also the psychology of the human mind. We oversee a research station in the South Pole ice in Antarctica where opportunities are created for pioneering scientific discoveries more than two miles beneath the polar ice, and to ask fundamental questions in physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, and atmospheric sciences. Such possibilities have created unprecedented opportunities for science at this point in time. This is what I call the new "Era of Observation" and the "Era of Data and Information." Organizing and executing all of this is very challenging and complex work, more challenging and complex than even organizing an Indian wedding.

We live in a time when severe economic uncertainties have invariably created questions and discussion on the utility of scientific research with respect to immediate pay offs in the form of job creation and financial gains. It is very important, especially at times like this, to be clear about the national need to support, nurture, and strengthen our long-term research and innovation ecosystem, which has been the fuel for our scientific and economic leadership as well as national security. In this context, I want to tell you a story narrated by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in her recent autobiography. She describes an encounter between the scientist Michael Faraday (famous for his experiments that first produced electricity) and the former British statesman William Gladstone. When asked by Gladstone whether his research in electricity had any value, Faraday promptly replied, "Sir, one day you will tax it."

And, tax they did. In the 61 years of its existence, NSF has sponsored research that has led to taxable returns to our country, many, many times the original investment. I am sure that the research work you did at Georgia Tech for your PhDs, some with NSF support, will also lead to financial returns to our country, many, many times its original cost.

Now, you must be wondering how this relates to "being good ancestors." It suggests not only that we leave a planet with clean air and water, fertile soil, and thriving plant and animal species, and of course, a sound economic balance sheet (and no huge national debt!). It suggests that we must also instill a greater insight into the multitude of mysteries still beyond our scientific and technological grasp and leave a legacy of human thought and experience, discoveries, art, and architecture that will inspire a new generation to advance those creations.

In his youth, the famous composer Leonard Bernstein told his father that he wanted to devote his life to music. His father was said to have been furious at his son's aspiration. Many years later, when his father was asked to defend his attitude toward his son's early passion, he said, "How could I have known he'd become 'Leonard Bernstein'?" So, if your parents annoy you with a question: "You are doing what after graduation? Are you crazy?" remind them of the Leonard Bernstein story!

Sticking to your passion is a path to being a good ancestor. I know you had a great education here at Georgia Tech and will make an excellent contribution to the world, no matter what you choose to do in your career.

Thank you, again, for the honor of sharing this celebration with you. Good luck in your journey. I am sure that future generations will thank you for being great ancestors.