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Remarks of President Lawrence H. Summers at the Dedication of the New Research Building

Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts

This is a really exciting day for this University and this is a spectacular and beautiful facility. I envy those who are going to have the opportunity to work here and I am proud to be part of the University that hosts this facility. I know that as a consequence of what happens in this beautiful building, many, many people at this University, in this city, in this country and around the world will be far better off. Dean Joe Martin, as we dedicated the building, I expressed my gratitude to you on behalf of the University for your great leadership in bringing us to this moment. I want to thank everyone who has been part of the Harvard Medical School community for their contributions — not just in recent years but over a long time. I see Dan Tosteson, who did so much to build Harvard Medical School to its current strength, right here. I want to especially thank the scholars and the students, without whom all the plans of presidents and deans would mean very, very little.

There are many difficult things about the job that I am so privileged to hold. One of them is that you’re asked to go from place to place and you’re called on to offer a few remarks at the beginning of things. And the various places where that happens often have very little in common. Sometimes it’s a seminar about the future of religion. Sometimes it’s a building that houses science. Sometimes it’s a seminar on law. There’s really only one common element I have been able to discern in all of those experiences. In every single case, everyone who is listening knows more about the subject I have been asked to address than I do. It gets rather daunting after awhile, but I shall push on.

I want to do three things. I want to reflect on why I’m convinced that what we are able to do, or not do, in the life sciences is as important as any other issue facing the University. I want to reflect on some of the key challenges we have of finding the right balance and making the right judgments as we set and carry out strategy in the life sciences. And I want to talk about major elements in the University’s strategy in the life sciences over the next three years, and then I’ll conclude with a more personal observation.

Why, of all the different fields of human knowledge, do I think of research in the life sciences as being so centrally important at this time? Here’s a first reason: it looks like it is about as important to humanity as everything else that is going on, at least in a material sense.

My economist colleagues have, in a number of different papers, studied a quite well-focused research question. That question is that if you look at human betterment, look at all the ways in which people are better off today than they were in 1950, or all the ways in which they’re better off today than they were at the turn of the century, there are many different elements of it. They have used a number of different sophisticated methodologies, which I won’t describe here, to reach a very vivid conclusion. And that is this: most of us would prefer to have had none of the improvements in material standards of living that have taken place between 1950 and the present, but to have enjoyed all the benefits of medical progress since 1950, than to have had all the benefits in standard of living since 1950 and to have had medical care and life expectancy comparable to that that people experienced in 1950. And if one does the same comparison over the course of an entire century, one finds the same conclusion even more strongly. That is a very powerful statement about a sector that is still a minority, albeit a substantial and growing minority, of our country’s economic activity. And it is even a more dramatic statement about that very small part of our economy that is the driver of progress in that sector, namely the carrying on of biomedical research. For us as a society, there is a serious case to be made that there is no higher return on investment than our investment in the life sciences and in biomedical research.

There is a second respect in which what happens in the life sciences is as important as any other issue facing the University. And that’s this: there are few, if any, areas of knowledge that are as pervasive in their impact on the missions of every part of the University as what takes place in the life sciences. I have been privileged over the last two years to have conversations with faculty members and to talk with students whose work spans a tremendous range: from those who are helping to ensure that our country’s national security is protected through a major biodefense facility, to those who are thinking about what Catholic religious doctrine means for stem cells. From those who are thinking about neuroscience and its implications for early childhood education, from those who are thinking about controlling health care costs. From those who are thinking about statistical methodologies that involve sequential sampling to make medical experiments more efficient, to those who are thinking about how we can develop health care infrastructures in Africa. From those who are thinking about the role of evolution in understanding human aesthetic appreciation, to those who are thinking about the central role of biomedical activity in the economy of this region. From those who are thinking about what has been a preoccupation of mine over the last several months — what we eat and how it can make you healthier — to those who are thinking about the direct application of medical care more effectively in clinical settings. There is a pervasiveness and a ubiquity to what is happening in the life sciences that touches every school in this University and touches almost every department in this University, and will surely touch the lives of every member of our University community.

There is a third reason why I emphasize the life sciences as an issue of central importance to our University right now. And that is that I have become convinced from my conversations with Joe, from my conversations with faculty members here at the Medical School, from conversations in other parts of the University, that we are also at a moment of unique opportunity in the life sciences.

At a moment of opportunity because of what information-based approaches to thinking about life scientific questions are opening up. Because of what is becoming possible with the application of new technologies in every area, ranging from large-scale imaging of brains to micro-imaging of the smallest cellular structures. Because we are enjoying what I would call a return to interdisciplinarity in the life sciences. It occurs to me that sometimes in our enthusiasm for the novelty of interdisciplinarity, we forget that the structure of DNA was deduced by an ornithologist collaborating with a physicist. We now are at a moment of enormous opportunity in interdisciplinarity, and because we are taking on an ever-greater range of problems in the life sciences. We are regarding the science of diseases that affect people in poor countries as an important part of our ambit in a way we have not before. We are regarding the role of evolution and the interaction of genetic and environmental considerations as central to a much wider range of inquiry than we ever have before.

For these reasons, because the moment is so special, because it is so pervasive to the University, and because the potential fruits of knowledge in the life sciences are so important, I am convinced that the choices we make in the life sciences are as central as any choices that we will make as a University in the decade ahead. As Provost Steve Hyman and I work with Joe, work with Dean Bill Kirby, work with Dean Barry Bloom, work with all of those involved in setting the University’s life science strategy, we are aware of the stakes and we are also aware of the complexity. Because making proper choices in an area like this requires recognizing very complex balances that must be struck if we are to succeed.

What are some of those balances? One, we must find the right balance between strategic direction and creative energy. On the one hand, when we are dealing with instrumentation that costs millions of dollars, we must make choices and must set strategy. On the other hand, if the history of scientific innovation teaches us anything, it is that the Manhattan Project is actually a terrible metaphor for success. That most of the great successes come not from a single effort focused at a single objective, but from a range of different efforts whose fruits cannot be predicted in advance. So we must find ways to assure collaboration, to assure sharing, but at the same time we must always assure that we are creating an environment in which creative energy can go in many different directions, none of which we will be able to predict.

We must find the right balance here at the University and at the Medical School between basic science and science that is making an immediate difference in improving people’s health. The long-term historical record is very clear on the power of basic science and the ultimately transformative impact of progress in the basic sciences. But we must also not forget that all of that creativity and all of that comprehension will not mean what it can if we are not assuring that thought moves from the bench to the bedside, and that it moves more rapidly in the future than it has in the past from the bench to the bedside. That’s why the collaboration between hospital research and Quadrangle research embodied in this building is so very important.

We have an obligation to be prudent in our use of resources. This University is fortunate in the resources it has, but even a University like this one cannot do everything that it wants to do. It cannot set every goal or achieve every target that appears desirable. But at the same time, we must not miss the tremendous opportunity that is inherent in this moment. Excellence has its cost. We are in a more competitive environment in biomedical research centers than we ever have been before. The cost of facilities, of the equipment that is necessary to be preeminent, has never been greater and it will only increase. And let me say also that integrity has its price and if we are going to enable ourselves as a University to set direction based on the creativity and the energy of our scientists and of our physicians, this too will require us to mobilize resources on a very substantial scale. The most important responsibility, that in many ways, people in jobs like Joe has, people in jobs like Steve Hyman has, people in jobs like I have, is to make sure that the limit on what we accomplish is the limit on the imagination of the wonderful scientists who are here at Harvard. And that is our commitment. And looking around this facility, I can see that some important limits that existed 12 months ago will not exist 12 months from now. And that is a great accomplishment.

As we think about a strategy for the University in the life sciences, I go back to the first point I made in terms of finding balances: the observation that we have to find a balance between coherence and strategic focus on the one hand, and allowing creative energy to flourish. If I might be permitted a metaphor that I think is right and I think comes from the life sciences, one thinks about different ecosystems. Ecosystems that are homogeneous are less sustainable, less enduring, and less successful. And ecosystems that are highly variegated are ecosystems in which more different types of organisms tend to flourish and in which the ecosystem itself is more ultimately sustainable. And it seems to me as we think about the different parts of the University and their collaboration and their coherence, we need to keep that metaphor in mind. We have a number of major initiatives underway, and I just want to comment very briefly on some of them, but there are many more underway than I can talk about, especially since you’d all rather hear Sidney, who actually knows something about the subjects you’re interested in, rather than me.

Yesterday, Joe announced along with Marc Kirschner the launch of our Systems Biology Department here at the Medical School but with very great aspirations for interaction in every part of the University, including especially with undergraduates. Marc can speak far more knowledgeably and with far more insight about its potential impact on biological science than I. But I am convinced that the kind of transition from reductionist thought to holistic thought that it represents has the potential to be transformative in the same way that the early introduction of physiology into medical school curricula was a very long time ago. I expect the Systems Biology Department to be an important force in knitting different parts of our University together and an important pole of attraction as we work to bring an ever-greater fraction of the world’s leading biomedical research scientists to the Boston and Cambridge areas.

We launched several months ago, with MIT, a collaboration that represents one of the largest collaborations between major research universities that’s ever taken place, and certainly represents the most significant collaboration in this area between Harvard and MIT, with the Broad Institute, which has as its objective ensuring that we are moving as rapidly as possible to take advantage of the genomic revolution, to find cures for major diseases.

We cannot predict the impact of what will come from either of these initiatives. But I am convinced that both will do significant things that will ultimately not succeed. Indeed, if they do not take enough risks that they do not have some failures, they will not have met my hopes for what they are trying to do. But I am also convinced that with very high probability, they will yield enormous benefits for human understanding. At the same time, in different parts of the University, we are expanding very substantially our capacity to address issues in neuroscience, to take advantage of what new technologies are enabling us to understand about brain functioning, here too making a transition from thinking about thinking in reductionist ways to thinking in more expansive ways. And here too, with Carla’s leadership on this side of the river, we are enormously fortunate in the way that different parts of our University are coming together to meet great challenges. We will in the months and years ahead increase substantially our commitment as a University to issues in global health: to the recognition that we have an obligation to use what we know to address the challenges of AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, which can be addressed with increased effectiveness and can, with the right will, be the objects of very substantial progress.

One of the many surprises I’ve had as I traveled around the University was a meeting I had with some of Dean Joe Martin’s medical students some time ago, in which I learned that nearly half of them, at some point during their four-year medical training, spent time in a less-developed country. That would have been unthinkable even 15 years ago, and it speaks to the fact that what we are doing here is not just local or national in scope, but has the potential to be global in scope.

I highlight these four areas as examples, but I do so and mean no disrespect to the intellectual entrepreneurs in those areas, in the confident conviction that it is as likely as not that when someone looks back at what happened in the Harvard Medical Area 50 years from now, and judges what was most important, it will be something that came from a researcher in some area that I have not mentioned. And that is always the way it is with scientific discovery. Anything where you can predict with accuracy what will happen is not likely to be the place where the greatest excitement will come. And that is why we will always remain open to very many approaches.

There is yet another aspect that this building will make an important contribution to and which is absolutely central to what we are about as a University. And that is our teaching mission. At Harvard College we are now engaged in a review of the undergraduate curriculum, which has thinking about how we can teach science more effectively, both to scientists and to non-scientists, as a central focus. With Joe’s leadership, we are thinking at the Medical School about both the case method as we apply it for medical students in their first and second years, and the very difficult challenges associated with assuring effective clinical instruction in an increasingly competitive and market-oriented clinical environment. And we are as a University, for the first time, moving towards common approaches to graduate training in the life sciences. And so we are recruiting and will recruit the very best students on a University-wide basis, and we will be seeking to offer them instruction that is not the best that one tub of this University can offer, but is the very best that this University can offer. We have invented so very much, we have discovered so very much at Harvard, I am convinced we can also discover how to collaborate across several-mile distances and I think we are making very great progress in that regard.

Let me just conclude with a more personal observation on the significance of what will take place in this building. Almost 20 years ago today, I had the necessity of being treated for a very serious condition in the hospital that Gary now leads. At the conclusion of my treatment, which as you can see was successful, I inquired about the scientific basis for my treatment, and I learned that it was the product of the biomedical research that had taken place between 10 and 15 years before that time. Many people may never know about this building decades from now, but there will be tens of thousands of them who will live longer lives of great joy because of it.