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Standing on the Knife-Edge: The Leadership Imperative

By Shirley Ann Jackson

Shirley Ann Jackson
Photo Credit: Mark McCarty

Shirley Ann Jackson
The events of the past several months underscore just how global is the reach-and how urgent the task-of science. The war in Iraq was premised on preventing the use of advanced chemical, biological, and possibly nuclear weapons against innocent people. And, the progress of US and British forces was supported by their use of advanced weapons and technology: laser-guided missiles, remote-controlled "packbots" to see into hostile spaces, new surveillance methods, and an array of special computers.

Science and technology will continue to advance; these are not genies that go gently back into their bottles. But there is a "knife-edge" to the advancement of science. Its misuse could take us to the brink. Yet, science also can lead us toward salvation.

Science is a neutral commodity, choosing no sides, offering no judgments, rendering no opinions, except with respect to the science itself. The results of research remain neutral, until they are ascribed meaning, or significance, through application. Yet truly controversial issues lie at the juncture of science and humankind, when new knowledge is applied in ways that may have unanticipated moral or ethical implications, where safety or security risks are introduced which must be balanced against the benefits achieved.

It is up to the science and engineering community, itself, to step forward and provide leadership: solutions, clarifications, or resolutions to what seem to be either/or propositions, but which often can be solved scientifically. But the scientific approach must dovetail with policy. In this way, knife-edge questions can be defused, enabling the development of technologies that can bring prosperity, enhance security, ensure an enduring peace, and safeguard the global community.

Take nuclear science, for example. Three decades ago, France, a nation with few coal and natural gas resources and virtually no oil resources, embraced a national nuclear power policy for generating its electricity. Today, France's 57 nuclear power plants generate almost 80% of that nation's electrical power and provide several billion dollars in annual revenues from sales of surplus power to other European nations. There has never been a nuclear power accident in France, and the nation safely reprocesses much of its nuclear waste. Because its nuclear energy produces no emissions, France has the lowest rate of carbon equivalent emissions in the European Union (EU), and is predicted to have the least difficulty among EU members in meeting its greenhouse gas emission goals under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

The environmental benefits of nuclear power also are recognized in the US, where the modest-but- respectable 20% of US electricity generated by nuclear power represents more than three-quarters of the nation's emission-free electricity production. Beyond nuclear power, approximately 10 to 12 million nuclear medicine imaging and therapeutic procedures are performed each year in the United States.

Nuclear by-product material is used in calibration sources, radiopharm aceuticals, bone mineral analyzers, portable fluoroscopic imaging devices, brachytherapy sources and devices, gamma stereotactical surgery devices, and teletherapy units. Radioisotopes are used to identify drug-resistant strains of malaria, tuberculosis, and other diseases; radiation is used in sterilizing bone, skin, and other tissues required for tissue grafts to heal serious injuries; and nuclear techniques are used to optimize malnutrition studies. Agricultural productivity is enhanced by the development of new plant varieties through radiation-induced mutation.

But then, the US government reported last year that 1,500 radiation sources were believed lost or stolen in the US since 1996. More than half of these were never recovered. In late March, The New York Times reported that police in the former Soviet Republic of Tajikistan had arrested two people who were in possession of?and attempting to sell?four kilograms, or about nine pounds, of radioactive mercury. In the Republic of Georgia, over 280 "orphaned" radioactive sources?that is, sources outside of regulatory control?have been recovered since the mid-1990s. Some of these sources have lethal levels of radioactivity.

We must add concern over how nations comport themselves internationally. On the Indian subcontinent, we have India and Pakistan sometimes in a stand-off, based on deeply rooted historical and ethnic divisions that overshadow the potentially devastating consequences of conflict between them.

Domestically, there is heightened concern over the safety and security of nuclear reactors. War in Iraq and fear of terrorist activity are fueling an intensified campaign to close the Indian Point nuclear power station, 35 miles north of New York City. State and local officials have declined to certify the plant's emergency plan because of fears of the release of radiation in the event of a major accident or terror attack. The area is densely populated?about 11.8 million people live within 50 miles?and its proximity to New York City makes it a potential terrorist target.

Biomedical technologies also exist on the "knife-edge" of life and death, and of policy differences. The transplantation of an electrical device into his diaphragm has enabled injured actor Christopher Reeve to breathe more easily. Yet, the nation was transfixed by the errors that occurred during a widely publicized heart/lung transplantation at Duke University Hospital this winter, which caused the death of a young Mexican woman because of the use of tissue of the wrong blood type. The incident forced hospital officials to confront some of the most troubling questions posed by our expanding biotechnology capabilities: that no matter how far biomedical science advances, doctors are still human, and the best laid plans can be confounded by the simplest of errors.

In each of these and other issues, resolution will require leadership on the knife-edge. The first leadership question is, who will do the science? Who will address the issues? Scientists and engineers comprise less than 5% of the total US civilian workforce, yet the societal, economic, and quality of life impact of their scientific discoveries and technological innovations throughout US history greatly exceeds their small number. They have given the US the world's strongest national economy, with the largest per- capita income and the highest standard of living.

Science and engineering are essential to our national economic and physical security. And yet, the cohort of scientists and engineers who have been responsible for propelling our nation to these heights of leadership, prosperity, innovation, and security, is soon to retire. Nor is it being replaced in sufficient numbers. The National Science Board's Science and Engineering Indicators 2002 find that, although the number of trained scientists and engineers in the national labor force will continue to increase for some time, the average age will rise, and retirements will increase dramatically over the next 20 years. This emerging loss is compounded because the aging cohort is not being replaced in adequate numbers. Graduate and undergraduate student populations in engineering and the physical sciences-and even in the computer sciences-are static or declining. The only positive trajectories have been in the life sciences.

In the past, we have imported the science, engineering, and technological expertise we needed. But in an era of turbulent global relationships and security concerns at home, this is beginning to be more difficult. International students and scientists have begun to choose to return home in greater numbers. Many jobs are moving overseas. Some have linkages to US companies, whose workers, living abroad, are well compensated. The economies in some third world countries are improving, creating more opportunities. At the same time, in the post September 11th environment, immigration is becoming more restrictive, especially for science and engineering students wanting to study certain technical subjects.

The good news is that we can do something. We have the talent. It resides in plain view, in the new majority comprised of young women, minority youth, and young people with disabilities?groups that, currently, are underrepresented in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. Taken together, these groups offer what I call an "affirmative opportunity" to construct the science and engineering workforce of the future. In a dozen years (by the year 2015), our undergraduate population will expand by more than 2.6 million students. Two million of them will be students from these underrepresented groups. If these young people are willing, if they are prepared, and if they are financially able, then we will have bridged the science and engineering talent gap.

Our challenge is to make this happen. This, too, will require that we "stand on the knife-edge." Why? Because of concerns about affirmative action. The debate about affirmative action is a red herring. The future scientific prowess of the US depends upon closing the talent gap, which we can do only if we mine all the talent. But, this takes more than post-secondary education remediation strategies, or making "merit- based decisions" about university admissibility. The fight cannot begin at the college classroom door.

Like scientific research itself, building a science, mathematics, engineering, and technology workforce has a lengthy lead time. To "build" or to "craft" a scientist or an engineer, we must begin in junior high school, at the latest. It takes as much as a decade or more to construct the interest and excitement, the background and preparation, the education and experience, needed to produce a future PhD in biocatalysis, for instance, or a nuclear engineer.

Yet the systems that enable this process often depend upon a mix of government policies, political climates, and economic constructs which operate on a fast scale, but which have long-term effect. Decisions debated today, enacted tomorrow, and implemented next year combine to set the tone and create the environment that will affect us for many years to come.

Decisions in these arenas impact students, their choices, and their support. They also affect broader science literacy and support among the general public. They affect how we raise and resolve the tangled ethical issues that advancing scientific research continuously places before us. These decisions and their impact cry out for real leadership. Because this issue affects the American future so broadly, this new leadership needs to be a coalition leadership, combining the science communities, the education communities, the corporate and industrial communities, and the full spectrum of government.

A second area of leadership that I believe is critical will be to focus the energies of the scientific community on those areas in which technological solutions can make the difference in resolving knife-edge challenges. Nuclear energy, for example, is an important transition fuel for the first half of this century, reducing our dependence on oil and petroleum products, supplying our growing need for power, and helping to resolve our global climatic and environmental concerns over greenhouse gas emissions.

The third element of leadership on the knife-edge must be communication to inform public policy. The public policy arena is not always an ideal forum for debate. It is a roiling marketplace where every voice has its own agenda, and where an issue can become veiled and confused. But, it is a public marketplace for ideas, it is democratic, and it is open. The public policy arena needs the reasoned voice of science itself?scientists who have no economic interest in the outcome of a decision, scientific organizations that can use their credibility to inform public policy debates, weighing in on knife-edge issues with the voice of reason.

The scientific community has the leadership, and the fortitude, to step up to this opportunity. We cannot stand on the sidelines and allow science and its contribution to human knowledge, to technological innovation, to economy, aid, trade and security to be held hostage to fear and misinformation, special interests, or bad policy. The scientific community must take a stronger hand in formulating policy. We must bring balance to the debate, and we must advocate the role of science, and of the scientific community, in addressing the issues.

We have a lot of work to do. There is a lot at stake.

Shirley Ann Jackson is president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She was Chairman [sic] of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1995 to 1999. The above is adapted from her AAAS William D. Carey Lecture of April 10, 2003. Used with permission.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette