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Welcome Remarks at the Annual Meeting of the AAAS

Boston, Mass.

As delivered

Thank you, Dr. Fedoroff, for that very kind introduction. And many thanks to President Press for inviting me to offer brief remarks this evening.

First, my warmest greetings to all of you. Since its founding in 1848, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has held its annual meeting in Cambridge or Boston on fourteen occasions. With this meeting, we’ve now tied Washington for the most times hosting the world’s largest scientific society—and for very good reason. The Boston metropolitan area boasts some of the world’s finest research universities, a highly educated and dynamic workforce, and an economy driven by entrepreneurship and innovation.

The theme of your meeting—The Beauty and Benefits of Science—speaks to the future of this city and it reflects our shared history. In 1880, Boston hosted its first annual meeting of the “triple-A-S.” The astronomer Asaph Hall, who began his research career at the Harvard College Observatory before discovering the moons of Mars, addressed in his remarks to the Association the creative tension between basic and applied research.

He repeated to the audience a question often asked of him: “Of what use is astronomy?” For Hall, and I quote him, “great benefits on navigation and on commerce” represented only part of astronomy’s value. “It is,” he said, “the spirit of honest, unrelenting criticism, and impartial examination…that makes astronomy honorable and attractive.” The chief benefit of astronomy in particular—and of science in general—was, to him, the cultivation of this spirit, the tradition of breaking paths and of seeking truth.

What are the uses of science? How do we explain its “unreasonable effectiveness” and its “beauty” to a larger society? In the nearly 133 years since Hall spoke here in Boston, the question has been answered with discoveries that have deepened humanity’s understanding of everything from the building blocks of life to the outer reaches of space, and with applications of knowledge that have improved human health, extended human life, and advanced human possibility.

Yet now more than ever science must vigorously make its case. Last month, NIH Director Francis Collins described looming across-the-board cuts to the federal budget as a potentially “profound and devastating blow” to medical research at a time when our desire to ask fundamental questions is matched by our ability to answer them.

The genomic revolution, the computational revolution, the acceleration of discovery in so many fields make this an age that rivals the 17th century’s Scientific Revolution in its promise for new understanding and human betterment. It would be worse than a tragedy to waste this moment full of promise, to leave answerable questions unanswered. It is all of our responsibility to ensure that this does not happen.

Addressing this Association upon her retirement in 1972, President Mina Rees called on scientists and universities to champion research, reaffirming, as she put it, that “[the scientific estate] is a major glory of the intellectual life of this nation.” We must ensure that our schools and colleges prepare all students to be science-literate citizens and that they produce as well the biologists, chemists, physicists, engineers and others who will create the foundation for the next generation of scientific discovery. And we must secure the federal research support critical to the future of our nation and of the world.

The scientific estate, as Rees put it, is more than a major glory of the nation’s intellectual life; it is a major driver of the nation’s economic livelihood. Science, as your program emphasizes, is about beauty and benefits. Both must be supported. 

At this critical moment, we must raise our voices to combat all too real threats to the purposes the AAAS has so long championed.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science must work to prevent the American Congress from becoming an American Association for the Retreat of Science. We all owe this to the future.

Welcome to Boston.