We are, I believe, present at the creation of something that is truly and profoundly important, something that I believe represents a very important step for Harvard University. Why do I say that? Let me answer at several levels.
Here’s the first one. When the history of our time is written 250 years from now, there’s not going to be a great deal that people are going to remember of what happened in this quarter century. But I’m convinced that one thing they will remember is the revolution that took place in the life sciences, that this was a period when we went from a crude empirical set of notions to a real understanding of life processes, with profound implications for disease. That just as the first half of the 20th century was a period when our conceptions of time and space and matter were revolutionized, the first half of the 21st century will be a period when our understanding of life, its development, its sustenance, and its continuation will be revolutionized. There is probably nothing else that will be as significant in intellectual life for as long as what is going on in the life sciences. And that makes it essential that a university like Harvard be centrally focused on these questions in the most creative and the most imaginative ways that it can be. And we do that in many ways, through our commitment to our very strong departments in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and in the Medical School, through a number of important University-wide initiatives in systems biology, in conjunction with MIT, in the Broad Institute, to focus on genomics, and especially in this initiative, in focusing on stem cells. Why are stem cells such an important object for our study and such an important initiative for the university at this point? I would suggest that there are at least four reasons that make this project a compelling one.
The first is one that I am not going to speak about at length, and that is the profound intellectual importance of the topic. If you look at the process of developing organisms, if you want to understand what is, after all, a central biological question, even given that there is this map, that there is this code, that there is this book that is embodied in every cell that we have, that represents a full description of Michael Sandel or what Michael Sandel is going to be, there is still the question of how there are all the different parts of Michael Sandel that come from that very same map, and that is the question of development biology, and it is one where stem cells are a very important part of understanding the answer.
But the intellectual significance of stem cells goes far, far beyond the biological sciences. One of my greatest joys as president of the University is the dinners I host every three or four weeks that bring together a number of members of the faculty from all different parts of the University to discuss a matter of common concern. I make only one rule for those dinners, which is that nobody is allowed to discuss budgets or parking or space or any of the other daily concerns of a university president. Perhaps the most interesting of those dinners that I’ve had in a very long time was the one that David Scadden and Doug Melton convened on the topic of stem cells, and there was a brief period after that dinner when I could have passed an exam on the social and ethical aspects. But what was very clear was that to think in a rich and sophisticated way about this topic, yes, one needed biologists, yes, one needed doctors, but one also needed ethicists, one also needed lawyers, one also needed those with theological concerns. One also needed those who, because they understood the world of commerce, could engage with the topic of how basic knowledge was going to be translated into practical effect. And one needed those who could think about health and biological problems, not in their individual aspect, but in their collective aspect, for all of us. In short, one needed the input of virtually every school at Harvard. So this is a matter of the most important intellectual significance, and that is a first reason why we should be so greatly concerned with it.
A second reason why it is so important is that it represents an example of a very important principle about scientific discovery, one that I am convinced is probably under-recognized in academic life. It’s not a universal principle, there are probably more exceptions to it than there are examples of it, but it is a very important principle. And that is that science is a collective endeavor and an endeavor that depends on new tools. We all learned a version of the history of science when we were in high school, and the version and the story we learned was all about inspiration and paradigm shifts. There was this guy called Newton, he was sitting there, he was under a tree, the apple fell on his head, he sat there and pondered, he looked up at the moon, and, you know, the apple fell and the moon went around the earth and maybe those were the same phenomena, and it was called gravity, and he wrote it down, and it was brilliant, and everybody changed their minds about the question, and then people did research for a while, and they did research for 300 years, and it was great. And then there was this guy called Einstein, and he got to puzzling about the measurements of the speed of light, and then he had another great inspiration, and then we changed our conception of how time worked. And that history, experiment and inspiration, is much the history of science. But as our own colleague, Peter Galison – one of the most important historians of science of the last several decades – has demonstrated, most recently in his book that brings together the problem of the same time zone across Europe and general relativity, actually the history of science is as much dependent on the development of tools and the widespread use of tools as it is on the presence of new inspirations. That, with all the inspiration in the world, we weren’t going to do too great in astronomy without telescopes. That the ability to understand the structure of DNA actually would have been impossible without the development of X-rays and X-ray diffraction that provided the information that let Watson and Crick apply their genius.
One could go on and on, in other fields, to cite examples, the accelerators in physics are yet another example, of where the way in which scientific progress was made possible was the development of new tools and new measurements that permitted new theorizing and new inspiration. Those kinds of collective efforts cannot happen without collective effort. They are beyond the scope of an individual investigator or an individual laboratory. Doug Melton’s work, that has single-handedly more than doubled the number of stem cell lines available in the United States to researchers across this country, is an example of the provision of a very important research tool. Now it is a feature of tool-based research that it cannot arise spontaneously. It will not come into being from individual investigators writing individual grant proposals to grant funding agencies, as productive as that is. It is an area where great and fortunate universities like Harvard have to take the lead. And this is a second reason why this research is so profoundly important to the University.
The third reason why I believe this is so very important for Harvard is that there has been an abdication of national responsibility in this area. For reasons that are sincere, but that I believe are deeply misguided, the federal government has made a decision that, despite its traditional role as the major funder of basic research in the biomedical sciences, not just in the United States but in the entire world, that this is an area from which it will withdraw. It has made that judgment based on a set of ethical concerns. That it has made the judgment underscores the importance of our taking every possible precaution with respect to ethical matters, of our exposing them to the most rigorous and disinterested possible scrutiny, and we will. But, that for the first time, the federal government has withdrawn from funding so central a scientific area, imposes, I believe, a great ethical obligation on the very, very small number of institutions within our country that have the capacity to fill that gap. That’s why I believe this is an especially important initiative for Harvard at this time, and that’s why I believe that a particularly important aspect of this initiative is the commitment of all of the investigators involved to make their results, their tools – the lingo I’ve learned is their lines – available to investigators around the world. Filling in a gap like this is a highest and best purpose for a university like ours.
There is a fourth reason. We are a worldly university, a worldly university with great professional schools. We value truth for its own sake, but we also value truth because understanding can make a profound difference in this world and a profound difference to millions of people’s lives. I know this very well myself. Some 20 years ago I spent no small amount of time in one of Harvard’s great teaching hospitals, being treated, with the ultimate outcome in some doubt for a time. My treatment worked out very well. David Scadden, whom I’ve just seen again in the last few months, was one of my doctors at that time. And when that course of treatment ended, I asked a question.
I asked: At what point in the development of science, what point in the development of the relevant research, had the discoveries been made that had made possible my treatment? The answer was, about 10 or 15 years before I was treated. By the way, by that time it felt like quite a routine treatment at Harvard, though it would not have been in some other places. And I thought to myself, wasn’t I fortunate that that research program had been pursued as aggressively and as quickly as it had. There are 150 million people in the United States alone who suffer from diseases that are potentially amenable to treatment from stem cells. Whether it is heart disease or cancer, major nerve degenerative diseases or diabetes, the process of cell division and emulation is, we now believe, at the center, and stem cells can make a very great difference. And that, too, is a critical reason why this is a very important principle for the university.
It does not surprise me that there are so many people in this room. It does not surprise me that this is one of those interfaculty initiatives where we have to keep people out rather than bribe people in. It doesn’t surprise me that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of undergraduates and graduate students who want to be part of this initiative. We have the potential to make this place, right here, within two miles of this hotel, the center of research in one of the most important and significant, if not the most important and significant areas, of the life sciences, one of the most significant, if not the most significant, areas in all of intellectual life. With the help of everybody in this room, I think we’re going to do that.