April 2, 2008

Science and engineering leaders outline
the challenges facing the U.S.

The greatest challenges affecting U.S. science and technology leadership – and the greatest opportunities for success – lie in the areas of energy, climate change, healthcare and education, the presidents of the National Academies told students at SMU on Tuesday.

Charles M. Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering
Charles M. Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, speaks to students at SMU.

Speaking at the Turner Construction Student Forum, Ralph J. Cicerone, Harvey V. Fineberg and Charles M. Vest said they had come to SMU "to instill a greater sense of urgency in all of you about the importance of (maintaining) leadership in science, medicine and engineering in this country." The three were on campus as part of SMU’s 2007-08 Tate Distinguished Lecture Series.

Cicerone is president of the National Academy of Sciences and chair of the National Research Council. Fineberg is president of the Institute of Medicine. Vest is president of the National Academy of Engineering. The National Academies bring together committees of experts in scientific and technological areas to advise the federal government and the public on critical national issues.

Following are highlights of their question-and-answer session. A video of the Forum also is available.

Alternative fuels and transportation resources are a hot topic right now. How are the National Academies working together to address these issues in relation to the environment? What research is showing some promise?

Cicerone: I’d really like to know what some of you think about wind power here in Texas. I’ve learned recently that Texas is the national leader in wind power. There’s a huge need for alternative fuels right now, whether you think about how much it costs you to buy gasoline or whether you think about where that money’s going. The United States ships about $500 billion a year overseas to buy imported oil. The climate effects, the geopolitical concerns – there are many, many factors making us all realize we’ve got to get in this together. We need to replace as much oil as we can with other fuels. And it’s not going to be easy, because the United States depends on fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – for about 83 percent of our energy. Wind and solar power are only small benefits right now, but we have to exploit all of the alternatives as much as we can, along with energy efficiency.

What [the National Academies] are doing together is a major study to analyze where the United States is getting its energy and measure our prospects in the next few years for maximizing energy efficiency and renewable energy, for reinstituting the U.S. nuclear power sector in the safest way possible, and so forth. Sometimes we get a lot of attention for our reports. We hope that if we do a solid enough report, then people will pay some attention to our findings.

Vest: It’s clear that we all understand that there’s no single solution. It’s going to take all of these components. I would make two additional points: One, that this is a worldwide problem. The United States cannot solve this issue on its own. We have to have new ways of cooperating and planning and thinking together with people and institutions all around the world. We hope to lead this, but we all need each other.

The second thing is that particularly in some areas like alternative fuels, believe me, there is still room for scientific and technical breakthroughs. We hope that some of you young men and women are the ones who are going to do it.

What do you consider to be America’s role in public health policy, especially in the international field?

Harvey V. Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine
Harvey V. Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine

Fineberg: Global health is becoming a wider interest among students everywhere in the United States. There’s so much need, and there’s tremendous opportunity. One of the exciting things is to see how, in the U.S., there’s growing interest among both public and private sources to get more involved in global health. For example, we have a major emergency program for AIDS treatment that President Bush initiated, and we also have foundations like the Gates Foundation applying private money to the same programs and solutions. Universities all over the country are either starting or strengthening their programs in global health.

The United States has a vital interest in global health. Our well-being depends both directly and indirectly upon the health of people everywhere. A healthier world is a safer world. Our ability to protect our own population against emerging infections and the spread of infectious diseases is a very important reality for us. And health is a really positive way to reach out diplomatically, to build bridges among peoples everywhere and to provide a base for the kind of relations that could also, for example, strengthen cooperation on energy and the environment. It’s a great field, it’s a burgeoning field, and I hope students will continue to be interested in it.

Last week, SMU’s School of Engineering honored an alumnus, Dr. Aart de Geus, the current CEO of Synopsys. In his speech, he passionately described the need for leadership in engineering and sciences in high schools. Would you like to comment on that?

Vest: The primary reason the three of us are here today is to try to instill a greater sense of urgency in all of you about the importance of leadership in science, medicine and engineering in this country. We’re going to be very rapidly subjected to very powerful forces of globalization that will challenge the leadership America has had in these fields, that has driven at least 50 or 60 percent of our economic growth since World War II. We’re now in a world where we must compete and cooperate. Our mission is really to urge the need for investment by both the federal government and the private sector in education, in research and learning in these fields all the way from kindergarten to graduate school.

But having said that, I believe the real reason you all and many more like you should seriously consider studying science or medicine or engineering is because of your passion for the unknown. This is really the most exciting era in human history for science and technology. I can’t think of another time in which these areas were more important or more interesting and more challenging. We’ve been blessed to spend careers in these fields. We’ve seen wonderful rewards for ourselves and our families from the work we’ve done, and we hope you will share that passion for discovery, for creating, for healing, for learning.

What do you think is the most important thing for the public to understand about climate change science?

Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences
Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences

Cicerone: That climate change is actually a scientific question. Too many people think that politics is involved. In fact, what’s going on is quite surprising. The measurements around the world show changes that frankly we didn’t expect to see. I started working on climate science in the early 1980s, after working on the chemistry of the atmosphere for 10 years, and most of my colleagues said we just didn’t expect to see this run-up in temperatures everywhere in the world. We know that historically there have been times when different parts of the world warmed up and cooled down, like the so-called Little Ice Age in North Central Europe and the Medieval Warm Period here and there. But the record shows that there’s never been this kind of a warming observed everywhere, in a sustained way. Sea levels are rising – whether we measure that by primitive methods, such as pounding stakes into the ground in coastal areas, or by remote sensing via space-based satellites with radar altimeters. We’re finding ice melting, longer growing seasons everywhere.

Now, have I used the words “computer modeling” yet? No. This is not trying to predict the future, this is what we’re actually measuring with all kinds of scientific methods. Unfortunately, with the momentum in these systems, it looks as if the changes are going to continue and intensify the more we build up greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which are due to human activity. It’s a serious issue scientifically, and we have to learn how to deal with it, to slow down the problem and learn to adapt. The countries that have the most scientific and technical background and the most capital to invest – the most ability to see into the future – are going to have an easier time adjusting than the countries that don’t have an educated population or the technical know-how or the capital. This is an issue for all of us, probably for the rest of our lives.

What do you believe is the greatest challenge facing healthcare in the United States today, and what steps can we take to face it?

Fineberg: If I were to pick a single challenge, I’d have to pick the problem of lack of insurance coverage. We have 47 million Americans who do not have health insurance, and the number who lack adequate insurance at some time during the year because of job changes or other reasons is about double that. That’s a lot of people. When you combine that with the problem of the cost of medical care and the affordability of care, we’ve got a tough dilemma: how to get more people covered and how not to waste money in the system.

And here’s the irony: These are not trade-offs in which you do more in one and so have to do worse in the other. Actually, it costs us a lot to have people lack insurance. They don’t get the basic care they need, and when they get really sick, they go to emergency rooms. They have much more costly ailments at that stage than they would have if they had been treated promptly and given the preventive care they would have access to if they had adequate insurance. So I would say that this pairing – the lack of insurance and the high cost of care – are the two biggest challenges today.

Do you have any parting advice you’d like to give to students?

Fineberg, Vest and Cicerone (l to r) prior to the Forum.

Fineberg: It may seem banal, but I think the opportunities today are unlike anything your parents’ generation had before. The challenges we have in society, the opportunities as individuals to make something of our lives and really contribute to others – I think it’s unparalleled. And I would probably trade places with any of you in a heartbeat.

Vest: Follow your own passions and do what you think is important. Don’t make all your decisions about your career by what you see on television, or by what you read in the paper will pay the most money. Do what you think is important and what you believe in.

Cicerone: I want to repeat what Dr. Vest just said, because it’s absolutely true. The best advice is to do what you really enjoy. If you do that, you’ll find that what you’re doing is not work. Choose something you really want to do, and you’ll find you’re getting paid to do something that other people consider work. That’s what you want to go for.

Related Links:
 • The Dallas Morning News: National scientists push for including evolution lessons
 • The Daily Campus: Academy heads discuss problems facing U.S. education

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