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The Four Guideposts of Science

By William J. Clinton, President of the United States
(Excerpted from his commencement address at Morgan State University on May 18, 1997)

I ask you to imagine the new century, full of promise, molded by science, shaped by technology, powered by knowledge. These potent transforming forces can give us lives fuller and richer than we have ever known. They can be used for good or ill. If we are to make the most of this new century, we must work to master these forces with vision and wisdom and determination. The past half-century has seen mankind split the atom, splice genes, create the microchip, explore the heavens. We enter the next century propelled by new and stunning developments.

Just in the past year we saw the cloning of Dolly the sheep, the Hubble telescope bringing into focus dark corners of the cosmos never seen before, innovations in computer technology and communications, and now cures for our most dreaded diseases - diabetes, cystic fibrosis, repair for spinal cord injuries. The sweep of it is truly humbling. Why, just recently we saw a computer named Deep Blue defeat the world's reigning chess champion. I really think there ought to be a limit to this. No computer should be allowed to learn to play golf. But, seriously, my friends, in science, if the last 50 years were the age of physics, the next 50 years will be the age of biology.

We are now embarking on our most daring explorations, unraveling the mysteries of our inner world and charting new routes to the conquest of disease. We have not and we must not shrink from exploring the frontiers of science. But as we consider how to use the fruits of discovery, we must also never retreat from our commitment to human values, the good of society, our basic sense of right and wrong.

Science must continue to serve humanity, never the other way around. The stakes are very high. America's future - indeed, the world's future - will be more powerfully influenced by science and technology than ever before. Where once nations measured their strength by the size of their armies and arsenals, in the world of the future knowledge will matter most. Fully half the growth in economic productivity over the last half-century can be traced to research and technology.

But science is about more than material wealth or the acquisition of knowledge. Fundamentally, it is about our dreams. America is a nation always becoming, always defined by the great goals we set, the great dreams we dream. We are restless, questing people. We have always believed, with President Thomas Jefferson, that "Freedom is the first born daughter of science." With that belief and with willpower, resources and great national effort, we have always reached our far horizons and set out for new ones.

Let us resolve further to work with other nations to deal with great problems like global climate change, to break our reliance on energy use destructive of our environment, to make giant strides to free ourselves and future generations from the tyranny of disease and hunger and ignorance that today still enslaves too many millions around the world. And let us also pledge to redouble our vigilance to make sure that the knowledge of the 21st century serves our most enduring human values.

Science often moves faster than our ability to understand its implications, leaving a maze of moral and ethical questions in its wake. The Internet can be a new town square or a new Tower of Babel. The same computer that can put the Library of Congress at our fingertips can also be used by purveyors of hate to spread blueprints for bombs. The same knowledge that is developing new life-saving drugs can be used to create poisons of mass destruction. Science can enable us to feed billions more people in comfort, in safety, and in harmony with our earth; or it can spark a war with weapons of mass destruction rooted in primitive hatreds.

Science has no soul of its own. It is up to us to determine whether it will be used as a force for good or evil. We must do nothing to stifle our basic quest for knowledge. After all, it has propelled from field to factory to cyberspace. But how we use the fruits of science and how we apply it to human endeavors is not properly the domain of science alone or of scientists alone. The answers to these questions require the application of ethical and moral principles that have guided our great democracy toward a more perfect union for more than 200 years now. As such, they are the province of every American citizen.

We must decide together how to apply these principles to the dazzling new discoveries of science. Here are four guideposts. First, science and its benefits must be directed toward making life better for all Americans - never just a privileged few. Their opportunities and benefits should be available to all. Science must not create a new line of separation between the haves and the have-nots, those with and those without the tools and understanding to learn and use technology.

Science must always respect the dignity of every American. We must never allow our citizens to be unwitting guinea pigs in scientific experiments that put them at risk without their consent and full knowledge. Whether it is withholding a syphilis treatment from the black men of Tuskegee or the Cold War experiments that subjected some of our citizens to dangerous doses of radiation, we must never go back to those awful days in modern disguise. We have now apologized for the mistakes of the past; we must not repeat them - never again.

Second, none of our discoveries should be used to label or discriminate against any group or individual. Increasing knowledge about the great diversity within the human species must not change the basic belief upon which our ethics, our government, our society are founded. All of us are created equal, entitled to equal treatment under the law.

With stunning speed, scientists are now moving to unlock the secrets of our genetic code. Genetic testing has the potential to identify hidden inherited tendencies toward disease and spur early treatment. But that information could also be used, for example, by insurance companies and others to discriminate against and stigmatize people.

We know that in the 1970s, some African Americans were denied health care coverage by insurers and jobs by employers because they were identified as sickle cell anemia carriers. We also know that one of the main reasons women refuse genetic testing for susceptibility to breast cancer is their fear that the insurance companies may either deny them coverage or raise their rates to unaffordable levels. No insurer should be able to use genetic data to underwrite or discriminate against any American seeking health insurance. This should not simply be a matter of principle, but a matter of law, period.

Third, technology should not be used to break down the wall of privacy and autonomy free citizens are guaranteed in a free society. The right to privacy is one of our most cherished freedoms. As society has grown more complex and people have become more interconnected in every way, we have had to work even harder to respect the privacy, the dignity, the autonomy of each individual.

Today, when marketers can follow every aspect of our lives, from the first phone call we make in the morning to the time our security system says we have left the house, to the video camera at the toll booth and the charge slip we have for lunch, we cannot afford to forget this most basic lesson. As the Internet reaches to touch every business and every household and we face the frightening prospect that private information - even medical records - could be made instantly available to the world, we must develop new protections for privacy in the face of new technological reality.

Fourth, we must always remember that science is not God. Our deepest truths remain outside the realm of science. We must temper our euphoria over the recent breakthrough in animal cloning with sobering attention to our most cherished concepts of humanity and faith. My own view is that each human life is unique, born of a miracle that reaches beyond laboratory science. I believe we should respect this profound gift. I believe we should resist the temptation to replicate ourselves. But this is a decision no President should make alone. No President is qualified to understand all of the implications.

These, then, are four guideposts, rooted in our traditional principles of ethics and morals, that must guide us if we are to master the powerful forces of change in the new century. One, science that produces a better life for all and not the few. Two, science that honors our tradition of equal treatment under the law. Three, science that respects the privacy and autonomy of the individual. Four, science that never confuses faith in technology with faith in God. If we hold fast to these principles, we can make this time of change a moment of dazzling opportunity for all Americans.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin