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It s the World, Stupid

It s the World, Stupid

Remarks delivered to the National Academy of Engineering s Earth Systems Technical Symposium Washington, DC October 24, 2002

Good morning. I am highly flattered that Jack Gibbons was willing to stick his neck out in the belief that I might have something useful to say to this august gathering. I am delighted to be here to talk a bit about the challenges of getting a more solid base of science and technology into our nation s foreign policy, and specifically, what the engineering community can do to help. During my twenty-three years at Texas Instruments, I had the good fortune to spend five of them in Japan. One thing I learned there was that a Japanese normally begins a speech with an apology, usually along the lines that he realizes he is unfit to speak on the subject about which he will ramble on for at least an hour or more. In the U.S. it s different. In a desperate attempt to rouse the audience to at least a semblance of attention, the speaker usually begins with a joke.

As an American speaking in Japan, I wondered what I should do? Well finally, drawing on the depths of my modest diplomatic experience as a Science Attaché in Europe, I decided I could bridge the cultural gap by telling a bad joke and then apologizing for it. Any of you who have tried to tell an American joke in Japan know well from the sea of blank stares why one needed to apologize.

Since this is an NAE event, I also have to make a confession. In college I was a chemistry major and I must admit that we looked down on engineers. They were this slightly strange lot of guys (no girls in those courses then) with pocket protectors and dangling slide rules. Their building was way across campus, sort of out in the boonies. They had no room in their schedules for English, history, foreign language, or philosophy. Admittedly, we chemists had acid holes in our clothes but we wore them as a badge of honor, because we were doing pure science, and were in pursuit of fundamental knowledge. Engineers always seemed to have kind of an academic grease under their fingernails.

My epiphany began when I joined the Humble Oil Company (now part of Exxon) and found that the chemists were outsiders, whose ideas usually were dismissed by a management that grew up in the oil patch. It was engineers that really ran the place, turning sulfurous black crude into gasoline and those petrochemical feedstocks that feed the national economy. Later, I joined Texas Instruments, where the entire culture was one of engineers. Even the chief financial officer had been a double-E in college.

And two weeks ago when Jack St. Clair Kilby, a modest former TI engineer without a Ph.D. and revered friend, was honored with the Nobel Prize for his 1958 invention of the integrated circuit, my false chemist pride was dashed forever. So I stand here today, humble and respectful, in this hall of engineering accomplishment; and add my congratulations to this year s new Academy members.

But let me start today by apologizing for using a rather crude title for these remarks, namely, It s the World, Stupid.

Actually, I stole it from a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times by William Safire. I did so out of a kind of frustration and disappointment that, even as the present election campaign reaches a crescendo, the vital issues of U.S. foreign policy have hardly been a subject for discussion. One could conclude that the American people have not been interested. America today is the only superpower and the richest nation in the world. The mantle of world leadership is on our shoulders, if for no other reason, by default. How we exercise our world leadership, and our wealth and our military strength, and how we conduct our foreign policy will be prime determinants of whether this shrinking globe will achieve the sustainable society that is talked about--and yet seemingly so elusive as a goal.

This election is not just about America; it is also about the world. The problems that we need to address like climate change, disaster mitigation, the spread of infectious disease, safe drinking water, food security, the dramatic loss of species, protection of critical infrastructure, terrorism, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction--and I don t mean just nuclear weapons--these are all global problems. They do not stop at anybody s border.

When an incinerator in the lower forty-eight is putting dioxin into the air, which then finds its way through seal meat into the bodies of Inuit peoples in the Arctic, one sees how small this complex and varied world really has become. A Russian cosmonaut said he realized that we are all sailing in the same boat, when he saw an orange cloud formed from a dust storm over the Sahara reach the Philippines and settle there with the rain. The Ebola virus incubates in four days in its victim. In four days, a 747 can take that person a very long way, to many different countries. We need to write global, over these problems in big capital letters.

I commend the Academy s concern for these issues and I welcome this symposium on the complexities of earth systems engineering. I strongly believe that we must find among our science and engineering resources the necessary bases for addressing the world s major problems. But I was also pleased to see in the summary notes from your summer workshop the recognition that, even though science and engineering are essential, they will not provide solutions to all the equations that bear on the huge non-linear systems that are involved in these complex issues.

Cultural, social, political, even religious factors--all of these with coefficients varying radically from nation to nation--must be assessed and worked into the calculations. They could turn out to be more important than the technology.

Now, this is my thirty-fifth day on the job as the first ever Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State. People today like to talk of new paradigms. I was happily retired and doing my own thing when this extraordinary chance for a full-time job at State was offered to me. I just could not resist taking it, but if you want to talk about paradigms, wow!

Government seems harder to work in than it was thirty years ago; there are many more rules today and they are much more complicated. The bureaucracy is greater, and although many of the issues are the same, they are often more acute. More important is that with the end of the bipolar Soviet-U.S., standoff, we do not have a New World Order, but a new world of inordinate disorder.

Just how disorderly is that disorderly world? Well, it has today 6 billion people, increasing at the rate of 80 million per year. That rate implies, as many as 9 billion people by 2050. These people live in 191 countries (including Taiwan). They speak three to four thousand different languages. It seems they cannot print new world maps fast enough to keep up to date.

In the business world, there is a new mega-merger almost weekly as even the biggest companies come together to serve global markets. But in the political world, centrifugal forces prevail. Ethnic tensions and nationalist ambitions continue to divide the world s peoples at a remarkable rate. Intelligence sources count some 120 shooting wars in progress at the present time (although the Pentagon says there are only 37). There are over 14 million refugees. Infectious diseases are killing 40 to 50,000 people a day. And every day the world consumes 78 million barrels of oil. Carbon release to the atmosphere is 6 billion tons per year. And many are convinced that world climate is already showing the effects. There is much to do. You engineers have a key role to play and so do the diplomats.

The function of the Department of State (although there are many other actors in the process, not the least being the President) is to formulate and to execute the foreign policy of this country. Earlier this year, the National Research Council completed an excellent study on science and technology in the State Department, which by the way, led to the establishment of my present job. In that study, it was noted that of the sixteen stated strategic goals of U.S. foreign policy, thirteen of them encompass science, technology, or health considerations. And the report gives examples where, an understanding of these elements in specific foreign policy issues has been essential to achieving the nation s goals.

I am very gratified to see that one of your sessions today deals with the policy dimensions of these global challenges, and not just the technical alternatives. The primary mission of my new office is to assure that science and technology considerations are fully integrated into the foreign policy process. And we want to find a way for you to participate effectively in the formation of policy, not just in posing the technical options.

Now I am very humble about what one has-been chemist can do to influence U.S. foreign policy, and I have decided what the number one priority for my office has to be. It must be to build the closest possible links between the foreign policy community and the men and women of science and engineering.

I want to have a super conducting bus-bar, between this building and that big one across the street. I want a seamless mechanism that will assure that the Department of State can readily draw on the best possible science and engineering talent and data available for inputs to U.S. policy.

We have begun this process and it is working, but there is a long way to go. And even though we may have excellent transmitters in the S&T community, we need to work hard to assure that there are good receivers at State for your messages. That is not always as easy as it may seem.

There are several attendant challenges in this process. One, is that we would like to be ahead of the curve, not limping along behind, trying to catch up. In other words, we would like an early warning system for problems to alert policy makers in advance. But, if the warnings are too early they will not be heeded and the effort is nor very useful.

A second problem is that rarely does one have all the scientific data available that one might like before making a decision. Furthermore, scientists and engineers often differ in their analyses and interpretations of the data that are available. That is a huge dilemma for the policy maker. Whom does one believe?

I am convinced that if you want a role in policy, as you provide your advice and counsel, you must tell us where facts stop and opinions start, and educate us about the reasoning behind the opinions. You also need to help us understand the risk/reward ratios for a given set of actions. And finally, one must not ignore in our democracy how the public views the policy. Policies that do not ultimately have the support of the people will fail.

Educating the public is an area where I think the science and engineering community has to do much more. On a complex issue, it will not be enough just to tell the policy wonks at State what they should do. For instance, today in Europe, political pressures have escalated the concept of precaution, to the point where policy makers are demanding zero risk in decisions on genetically modified foods, environmental pollutants, new energy sources, etc. There is nothing that is zero risk--not even going out the door and crossing the street. And I guarantee you, there is definitely not zero risk in entering that building across the street and trying to influence the elusive and often chaotic process of formulating our nation s policy.

Yet that is just what we want you to help us do. But I also think that you must give more attention to seeing that your views and the technical bases for them are explained in the popular media so that the public can be better educated to the nature of rational choice.

There is perhaps one more useful thought about risk. Scientific American in their Winter 1999 issue on Extreme Engineering had a couple of comments which you might ponder in your deliberations on complex global systems. The first is that Engineers and managers of technology, being human, can come to believe in themselves and their creations beyond reasonable limits. Such projects result in failure. But once the failure is understood and the sting of tragedy is sufficiently remote, engineers want to pick up where they left off in pursuit of greater goals, which then are often attained.

However, in the same article there is also a sobering aerial photograph of Pripyat, the abandoned town near Chernobyl, a ghostly and ghastly gray under a powdering of snow and lowering winter clouds. The caption reads, Colossal accidents happen when overconfidence and complacency prevail. That s a useful reminder in any discipline, including even foreign policy.

Just one final point, In this new world of great disorder, the definition of national security, I believe, has to change. Today there is more to assuring our nation s security than the intelligence community and the military can provide.

The front line of national security is diplomacy and our embassies and consulates abroad. That is where our diplomats are, seeking negotiable solutions for political unrest, negotiating global treaties to protect or reclaim the environment, trying to stimulate economic growth and development, helping to ease the burdens of disease that can inhibit economic progress and lead to regional instability, and working on countless other ways to build and sustain peaceful, constructive relationships among the world s nations.

We are not always successful. Diplomacy is a lot more than sipping tea and attending cocktail parties. It is the last line of defense before war. This is a time in the history of humankind when war (despite its popularity among both despots and the desperate) on a global scale, is no longer a viable option for mankind. In the broadest sense, the Department of State is a vital instrument of national security and needs to be seen as such.

But as an institution, over the past decade the Department has not fared well in annual budget wars up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. Since 1985, the total international affairs budget of the U.S. is down about thirty-four percent in real terms. In the last five years the budget for State Department operations is down seventeen percent.

Over the same period, we have had to add new embassies abroad as new countries emerged from ethnic conflict or collapse of authoritarian regimes, but without additional and, in fact, declining resources. We have had to strengthen our buildings abroad against increasing terrorist threats, and resources have been slow to come or non-existent. The Department has had its own casualties. And finally, as the NRC report points out, the limited resources have constrained our ability to adequately coordinate the international S&T initiatives of the government, often a significant part of our diplomatic gestures toward other countries. This situation has also limited the staffing of technically qualified people in the Department who can be effective agents for your advice and counsel in the policy process.

And finally, the lack of resources has delayed deployment of the latest 21st century communications and computer technology for handling the flow of information vital to effective diplomacy.

These are real issues and they need real attention. This time, at least, I guess William Safire was right, it s the world stupid.

I wish you great success in this symposium and look forward to your conclusions. Thank you.


© Scoop Media

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