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Remarks of Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers

Bauer Laboratory Dinner, Loeb House, Cambridge, MA

I thought I would just share four observations with you. First, from the perspective of a lay person who takes an interest in these things, we really are alive at a remarkable moment. I spoke this afternoon about how science is becoming interdisciplinary. It is becoming collaborative. It is becoming holistic. And it is a property of the exponential growth of knowledge that each year’s increment is greater than the last. And that is surely true.

Think about what we are on the brink of understanding over the next three decades. We are on the brink of understanding the genetic basis of disease and finding applications of that to disrupt disease processes. We are conceiving of materials, the likes of which people could not have imagined, let alone created two decades ago, that stop things that you want to stop, e.g. light; that move things that you want to move, e.g., superconductors; that are strong in the ways you want them to be strong; that are weak in the ways you want them to be weak. We are doing that on an unprecedented scale, and we are doing that based on a combination of practical knowledge and a deep understanding of the constituents of matter.

We individuals sitting in offices armed with legal pads and Internet connections are understanding what happened in the first millionth of a second of the universe billions of years ago, and are now getting more accurate understandings of the latter part of that millionth of a second versus the earlier part of that millionth of a second.

We are beginning to understand what it means to be conscious in a real and operational sense and to relate that traditionally metaphysical notion to hardheaded, verifiable experimental reality. And we are, as we work with computers, developing not just a tool that enables everything else, but a much more profound sense of the nature of systems and their interactions.

There have been many productive periods in science, but I believe not as productive as the next several decades are likely to be. And it is profoundly important to what I believe is the world’s leading university that we continue to lead and support the scientific endeavor in every way that we can. That’s why Steve Hyman, our provost, and I are going to focus with respect to not just the Faculty of Arts and Sciences but the entirety of the University on making sure we are doing everything we can to support Jeremy, to support his successor, in making sure that Harvard is as strong as it can possibly be in the sciences.

The sciences are profoundly important as an intellectual endeavor in ways that I just touched on. But I want to comment on three other aspects that I think are very important to Harvard’s mission.

The second observation I want to make is that it is essential that the university think hard and carefully about how to make sure that that which we know is used in the best way possible to promote human betterment. Now, to be sure, the university must always be a place for basic research. And if we know anything, it is that connections aren’t what you expect them to be. Mathematics is perhaps the most abstract branch of the sciences; number theory is perhaps the most abstract branch of mathematics; all your electronic commerce transactions derive from recent research in number theory that has supported encryption algorithms.

But some of what we learn, we know we’ll have applications. Genomics is perhaps the best example. And it will be essential for us to make sure that our work finds maximum application. Part of that is about making sure there are close collaborations between the parts of the University more oriented to basic science and the parts more oriented to application, between the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and our Medical School and our teaching hospitals. Part of this is a matter of finding the best approaches for the University to collaborate with others in the biological area. If ideas are to find expressions and cures to diseases, it is surely a major role for collaborations, closely defined, closely regulated; to be sure, collaborations with the private sector.

In each of these areas, we will have to think not just collectively within ourselves, but collectively between the University and the larger society. It’s why I was so pleased that our new provost brings a background not just in science, but in its application to crucial health issues.

The third essential issue is scientific education. We have tried very hard, we do try very hard, as do other universities, to instill basic science knowledge. I think one of the most important educational innovations of Dean Knowles’ reign was the addition to our core curriculum of a quantitative reasoning requirement that asks that all students have exposure to at least some form of quantitative reasoning during their Harvard education.

But I am also convinced that we have some significant way to go. It is still a society, and Harvard, I believe, is still a place, where it would be an embarrassment to admit that you had not read any plays by Shakespeare, but where professing some degree of confusion as to the difference between a gene and a chromosome is acceptable because that’s, after all, a technical subject.

And that is not OK in the world we are coming into. Just what the right answers here are, I cannot tell you. My own experience with economics curricula for college students developed by professional economists suggests that it may, with the greatest of respect, be a mistake to leave this subject entirely to professional scientists who may not be successful in putting themselves in the minds of the people who we are trying to reach. But this is a profoundly important issue and what we do here has a great deal to say about what it means to be educated and what we do in the sciences in that regard will, I think, be very important. And that’s why the Genomics Center’s contribution in offering what I gather will be the first undergraduate course anywhere in certain parts of genomics seems to me to be a very important innovation.

Fourth and finally, we are going to have to grapple with the social and ethical implications of all that is happening in science. And that is something in which scientists are going to have to play a prominent role. But if war is too important to leave to generals, this too is something that can’t be left only to scientists. It will require collaboration and thoughtful interchange between scientists and others.

If Doug Melton were not here, I might use stem cells as an example. But I hesitate to attempt to speak about that subject in his presence. So let me use two other examples that come to mind. I don’t know just where genomic research will go, but I imagine that it will be possible to gauge an 18-year-old’s susceptibility to disease, and at what point an 18-year-old is likely to suffer serious disease through a blood test. And I imagine — it seems plausible — that we might develop substantial predictive power with respect to development of the disease before we develop substantial curative power.

What has just happened to the life insurance industry? Its promise, which relies on ignorance, has just been removed. What has happened to the prospects of those unfortunate enough to be uncertain, to have a short life expectancy foretold, prospects of getting an attractive job? What kinds of efficiencies will our society seek? Will those likely to develop a dread disease in their 30s be given the opportunity to go to graduate school? Or will that be deemed inefficient? And if it is, what will those people do then? Will people inquire of prospective spouses? Should they? Will their parents inquire about prospective spouses what the prospects are?

I don’t know what our society will do. I don’t know how rules will be written. Maybe these technologies won’t be developed. That seems unlikely to me. But I do know that rules, policies, and approaches in this area will be much wiser if they are conceived by thoughtful people in reasoned debate than if they are devised by political reflex. And I do know that much of the activity of those — having been there — of those involved in the policy process, is in fact what might be called a snakes-in-a-tunnel activity. A tunnel in which everybody’s wriggling, shaped by the intellectual thought of the previous couple of decades.

There are other examples. Stem cells is one. Thinking about the problems of how we’ll provide access to all these new treatments and what we’re going to develop for all those in our society is another. Thinking about how we will regulate privacy when a byproduct of ordinary life will be a databank that has every phone number that we ever dialed, and every hotel room that we ever stayed in. These are profound questions. And good answers will likely not come from anywhere but universities. It is very important that we think about those questions.

Science and its impact on the larger society, education, the question of making sure that basic science and new knowledge finds application. The sheer joy of discovering and solving hard problems. This is what science is all going to be about, what we’re all going to be thinking about in the scientific area here over the next decade or two. I think it’s going to be very exciting. And Ted, you have shown us the way. Thank you very much. (Applause)