MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXI No. 1
September / October 2008
Silence of the Lions
MIT's New Supercomputing Network
Problems in Evaluating
Four-Year Colleges
Agenda Items: New and Old
An Update on the Educational Commons Subcommittee
Teaching this fall? You should know . . .
Moving From Two Degrees to
Double Majors
MIT 4th Best College,
Top Engineering School
Darwin Bicentenntial Events
Planned at MIT
What is the Global Education and Career Development Center?
The First Step Toward Solving Global Warming: Getting MIT to Listen
MISTI Announces the
MISTI Global Seed Funds
Workplace 2.0: Improving Generativity, Creativity, and Faculty Quality of Life
Why So Few Faculty
are Involved in Service
Research Expenditures by Primary Sponsor (1999-2008)
Printable Version


Silence of the Lions


As the U.S. Presidential campaign heads into its final weeks, we have been disturbed and disappointed that neither candidate has adequately addressed the future role of science and technology. Critical driving forces in the social and economic development of all nations, science and technology also play major roles in international competitiveness.

Perhaps even more surprising and disappointing has been the lack of effort by national research universities such as MIT to bring this issue to the awareness of the candidates, as well as to the public at large.

The Importance of Science and Technology

After World War II the United States correctly recognized the importance of science and technology, not only in national defense, but also as a major contributing factor to the economic development and competitiveness of the nation. This recognition came at a time when many other countries considered science and technology – especially science – as curiosities that should be left to those in academia or luxuries in which many developing countries could not afford to invest.

Over the past few decades we have seen the wisdom of that decision, and both the tremendous benefit that it has brought to the U.S. economy and its contribution to U.S. military security. Further evidence of the rewards from supporting science and technology include America’s leadership in information and telecommunication technology, biotechnology, aviation, pharmaceutical advances, and agriculture, to name a few.
During the two decades following the War, the U.S. government not only committed a relatively significant percentage of its Gross National Product (GNP) to research and development (R&D), but most importantly recognized the value of developing and educating the human capital necessary to promoting advanced scientific discovery and technological growth. Thus, the mechanisms necessary for meeting this dual objective – human and technological – were set in place.

Examples of this continued strategic success include sponsored research programs at the university level where not only science and technology are being developed, but future scientists and engineers are being educated, as well. The development of the NSF, DARPA, and the NIH are further examples of the success of this strategy. As a result, the U.S. has been able to develop a very large cadre of highly educated scientists and engineers.

Over the past two decades, many other advanced economies have replicated the U.S. model for success. Recently even many emerging economies such as those of China, India, and Brazil are expanding their R&D sectors and increasing the level of their financial commitment to science and technology. Although the gap between the U.S. and many of these countries is still very wide due to a lack of sufficient investment, the gap is being closed in some respects rather rapidly. (See, for example, “Innovation in Global Industries: U.S. Firms Competing in a New World,” published by the National Research Council.)

But times have changed. Investment in science and technology is no longer solely an investment in national economy or national defense.

The development of science and technology has become an issue of global common interest, requiring the leadership of the United States to rally other nations to develop global systems of science and technology R&D.

To some extent, elements of this global system are already in place, as exemplified by space stations, accelerators established in Europe, concern over global warming, water, agriculture, and many other issues.

This evolution of the globalization of science and technology behooves the current U.S. Presidential candidates to articulate their vision and their strategies toward them. But as mentioned above, the candidates have been virtually silent on these issues, as have the educational institutions such as MIT, which hold large stakes in this domain. Science and technology-based universities have not forcefully articulated the importance of R&D, nor fostered public awareness of the need for our political parties to address this major global responsibility of the U.S. Indeed, it is incumbent upon our major resource universities to provide guidance in the public discourse concerning future policies regarding science and technology. 

Given the importance of this topic and the fact that major educational institutions have been silent so far, we strongly urge the MIT administration to take a major lead in developing public awareness of the issue, as well as in working with the candidates’ staffs to develop future strategy for this neglected, but critical activity.

The Faculty Newsletter Editorial Board has concluded that a special issue of the FNL will be devoted to providing a forum to address these issues and to articulate clear strategies for the development of science and technology in the twenty-first century.

We applaud President Hockfield’s decision to make renewable energy one of the main thrusts of MIT’s research focus. We also need to go beyond this by developing a united front among major research universities in order to meet our commitment to society to develop public awareness and guide future research. President Hockfield’s recent Congressional testimony was a significant step in that direction.

Editorial Sub-Committee
Robert Berwick
Jonathan King
Helen Elaine Lee

Fred Moavenzadeh

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