Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Commencement

I want to congratulate my fellow honorees. It’s a great personal pleasure to be on the same platform with Robert Conrad and Joe Juneau and Dr. Paul Volcker, three people who exemplify the tradition of excellence and commitment to making a difference. I know that this university has made a difference.

The nation’s oldest technological university since 1824, the mission of Rensselaer has been to apply science to the common purposes of life.

I was never very good in science. I thought for a very short period of time, when I was a very young girl, that I wanted to be an astronaut, so I wrote off to this new agency called NASA, and asked how a twelve-year old girl could become an astronaut. I got an answer back saying, “We’re not accepting women into the astronaut program.” I was later somewhat comforted by my mother who told me that my eyesight was much too bad anyway.

I next decided that I wanted to be a nuclear physicist. Now that’s something that President Jackson actually became. But for me, there were a few obstacles along the way, you know, like the periodic table, and things like that. Then I decided I wanted to be a doctor, and I took all of the science courses in high school, planning to be a doctor, until I actually had the opportunity to shadow some doctors in our local hospital and passed out at the first sight of sickness. So clearly, there wasn’t anything left for me than to become a lawyer.

But perhaps because of my early fascination and interest in science, that I’ve always thought that no matter what you become, no matter what walk of life you pursue, whether it has anything directly to do with science or not, that we all have a stake in supporting scientific inquiry, and those who do the work of science and research and technology. Because as was stated so many years ago here in Troy, New York, the mission of this university is to “apply science to the common purposes of life.”

We’re living in an exciting, maybe even unprecedented, era for discovery. And for the entire history of the United States, starting with Benjamin Franklin and his scientific experiments, our country has believed in the power of science and research to serve humanity, to make it possible for more people to live healthier lives, to transform processes and agriculture and industry to put more people to work, to make work more rewarding, to create more wealth. In fact, I recently read a speech by your President, and President Jackson said, “The role which science and scientists play in society has been vital to our success as a nation, nearly on a par with our democratic principles and ethical precepts.”

I agree with that, because at the root of democracy is free inquiry, open debate and dialogue. What happens in a science class or a laboratory where people are searching for answers to difficult problems has to happen in a democracy.

How do we deal with the new problems of the 21st century? This is a class that arrived on campus shortly before September 11th, bringing not only a horrific attack on our nation, but new challenges. New challenges at national defense and homeland security, but also more subtle challenges about how we will better understand and relate to people who seem so very different from ourselves, how we pursue progress and peace in a world that is so complex, where people halfway around the world can literally –with the flick of a mouse — know what we’re thinking and saying, follow our news. So it is always at the root, not just of science but also of democracy, that we are willing, even eager, to ask hard questions, to face unpleasant and difficult truths.

There are two very strong pillars that have fostered the astonishing the American scientific advancements of the last 216 years. First, there has been an absolute commitment to truth in science. We have demanded that our scientists be objective in their research, that they analyze data critically and accurately and without prejudice. And we have insisted that the public patrons of science respect this free inquiry and receive the results with open minds. I am concerned that today this important and proud American tradition is threatened.

In recent years, scientific integrity, specifically with regard to public policymaking, has been under attack, under almost constant criticism. Interference in and abuse of publicly funded science, suppressing or disregarding scientific evidence, manipulating scientific advice, politicizing scientific advisory panels, are all on the rise. Oftentimes today it feels as though there are some among us in powerful positions who would like to turn Washington, D.C. into an evidence-free zone, where the facts are subordinate to opinions and beliefs. My great predecessor in this extraordinary opportunity I have to serve as a senator from New York was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a man unafraid to follow the evidence and facts wherever they led. He once said that, “everyone, everyone of us, is entitled to our own opinion, but no one is entitled to his own facts.”

I raise this here on this glorious morning in this beautiful setting on the campus of this great university because we cannot afford, in the 21st century, to undermine scientific inquiry, to turn our back on what may be, from time to time, inconvenient and disquieting facts. The betrayal of our scientific tradition would have long-term, lasting consequences. We would limit our achievements and our innovations. We would chill free inquiry and discovery. We would see the triumph of personal beliefs, ideology, and politics over science and research. Now there are so many examples, unfortunately, to choose from. Let me just mention a few.

This is not or should not, at least, be a Democratic or Republican or conservative or a liberal issue. This is, at root, an American issue. Every one of us has a stake in the future cures that could be found, in the future advances, in the protection of the environment, in new technologies that could revolutionize the way we live and work.

One of the clearest examples of science being caught up in politics is global climate change. The facts are no longer in dispute. CO2 levels, which have been stable for hundreds of thousands of years, are rising. They are predicted to double in the next 100 years. Land and ocean temperatures are rising. Last August, I went to the arctic with Senator John McCain, someone with whom I work and admire, someone who is unafraid to go where others fear to tread. He’s become very concerned about global climate change, both because of the effects on the environment but also because of long-term security challenges. The Pentagon recently did a research report about what will happen to the United States and to the world if global climate change continues to proceed apace. They sketched out some very dark scenarios. Instead of the report serving to stimulate debate, it was ignored.

So Senator McCain and I and a few of our colleagues decided we would go to the arctic—we would go to the furthest, most northern inhabited place on earth, the island of Svalbard, part of Norway, and meet with and listen, listen, to the scientists who’d been studying the arctic, listen with an open mind, listen and learn about the challenges that we as a people, as the human race, confront.

The greenhouse canary in the coalmine can be found in glaciers: in their retreat, in their melting at an unprecedented rate, in the movement of wildlife and plant life from and to places that have never been found before, in the northward march of disease, moving further and further into climactic zones where it had never been found before.

And yet there are some in our country, in positions of responsibility in both the public and the private sector, for whom this scientific issue is uncomfortable. It might cause them to change the way they produce energy or use energy. It might cause them to rethink what they invest in or what we value. And that is both disheartening and concerning. We need to be willing to face up to scientific facts and not permit them to be distorted or spun or rendered irrelevant. We are a great nation because we have always acted in the face of challenges. The public has demanded action. It’s difficult for the public to act if they information is suppressed or discredited despite its weight of evidentiary intent.

We also know that there are some unfortunate manipulations of science relating to our health.

The recently issued mercury pollution standard is just one example of how we are now seeing cases where we rely on distorted science to feed a political agenda.

Mercury is a neurotoxin that can cause brain damage and harm reproduction, in humans and in wildlife. Very reliable studies have demonstrated that as many as 60,000 children born in the United States could have neurological problems because of prenatal mercury exposure. Now do we know all we need to know on this? No, we don’t. Should we be investing in it, putting money into trying to determine what the facts are? I believe we should. Do you ever wonder why we have increasing numbers of children with attention deficit disorder on the autism spectrum in special education classes?

Well, we know it has to be some combination of genetics, environment, and behavior. We do a great job in our country with acute illnesses but we have not yet done the research that we need to do to look into chronic illnesses and to link up the environment with disease to get to the bottom of some of these studies and these important areas of inquiry. We know that emissions from coal-fired power plants are the nation’s largest source of mercury, emitting about 48 tons of mercury each year. We know there is a recent alert telling us not to eat the fish from many, many of New York’s rivers, lakes, and streams. We know that China, which is rapidly industrializing, is pumping thousands and thousands of tons of mercury into the air and joining the nations that have contributed to the pollution in our oceans and our lands. We should be addressing the challenge of mercury both within our country and internationally. Instead, we’ve ignored the science.

In February 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency’s own Inspector General reported that agency scientists, some of you may be in that category in the future, had been pressured to change their scientific findings. A Government Accountability Office independent report found that the EPA, under pressure, had distorted its analysis of the health impacts of mercury on brain development in children and fetuses. Now you ask yourself, “Why?” Well, let’s be really honest about this. There are a lot of powerful interests that don’t want change the way they produce energy. So instead of using the creative minds of these graduates to look at ways we can improve and enhance technology, to lower and eliminate emissions, to go to different sources of energy, we try to distort science to try to pretend that it doesn’t tell us what it does, and act as though it somehow just doesn’t matter.

You know, the American public, not just decisionmakers in Washington, rely on the integrity and honesty of scientific research. And we expect our government to be impartial. We may have debates on the findings, but let’s agree, at least, that we should put forth scientific findings without distortion.

A national survey conducted last fall by the Integrity of Science Working Group indicated that the vast majority of Americans, over 84% believe that the federal government has an important role to play in scientific research and that the government should insulate science from politics. It is one of the most pressing issues, although it will not be in the headlines, that we face today. And we must stop the misuse and politicization of science.

The second pillar of American scientific advances has been our willingness to invest in science and innovation. Funding for basic research or development is not an extravagance or luxury; it is an investment in our future. It is good for our society but it is also a major engine that drives our economy.

In fact, the National Academy of Sciences estimates that nearly one half, one half, of our nation’s economic growth since World War II can be attributed to advances in science and technology. So our future competitiveness depends upon our ability to stay ahead of the scientific and technological curve. And we have to ask ourselves, “Are we doing enough to support science and research?” And I’m afraid that the answer, at this time in our history, is no.

We are cutting back in federal investment in basic science and research. Funding for research has remained flat over the past few years. And this year, the federal budget submitted by the administration actually calls for the first decrease in real dollars for federally funded research. Now most of the R&D increases that were in that budget were for new defense weapon systems, not for basic research and electronics—nanotechnology, computing, energy, physics. I think that’s a mistake. Obviously we need to be investing in whatever is necessary to protect ourselves, and to protect our troops, but we cannot do it at the expense of investments in basic science and research.

A perfect example of this was given in a recent editorial in Science, which described the essential role of government-sponsored, university-based research in producing innovations in information technologies. I remember Sputnik, I’m old enough to remember that. I remember my teacher telling us in 1957 that we had to do more math homework because our President, President Eisenhower, wanted us to. Well, that sounded like a pretty big deal. I didn’t like math very much, but I started doing more math homework because we were enlisted on behalf of our country to help produce scientists and researchers that would win the Cold War. We created, in 1957, something called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It’s known as DARPA and it funded long-term, non-classified information technology research in academia, in places just like this.

Over the past four decades, the resulting research has laid the foundation for the modern microprocessor; and yes the Internet, which was a federal government creation; the graphical user interface and the single use work station. Virtually every aspect of IT that we rely on today is descended from federally sponsored research. Despite this tremendous history of success, over the past 3 years, DARPA funding for IT research at universities has been cut nearly in half. IT research by other major science agencies like NASA and the Department of Energy or the National Institute of Health has also been downsized or completely eliminated from the current budget.

We’re also seeing scientific programs such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration being cut. The Department of Energy’s Office of Science budget for research and development being cut in programs in physics, fusion, biology, and energy science.

This goes to the heart of whether we will remain competitive as a nation. Think about this: it took 55 years for the automobile to spread to one quarter of the country, 35 years for the telephone, 22 years for the radio, 16 years for the personal computer, and 13 years for the cell phone, and only 7 years for the Internet.

Because technologies are being adopted so quickly, it’s even more important that we invest in science and research. We have to stay ahead of the competitive curve. We know that institutions like RPI are absolutely essential, as is the rest of our educational system.

We do have to do a better job of teaching math and science in grade school and high school. And yet, we’re also seeing a proposed cut in the National Science Foundation funding, of programs that reach hundreds of thousands of elementary and secondary students, that link university science and engineering departments with local school districts. That’s not a smart decision. We need to be doing more in math and science, not less.

Finally, we are hurting our competitiveness by cutting back on the number of students from other countries who are able to come here and study in the United States. We have seen increasing delays in processing visas and discouraging foreign students and scientists who have historically been part of the great scientific enterprise in America. Consequently, applications to U.S. graduate schools declined by 28% last year, with those from China falling by 45% and those from India falling by 28%.

The rest of the world is not standing still; they see a competitive advantage. So in Asia and Europe, universities are creating centers of innovation and recruiting students from other countries. We need to be focused on making it possible for legal immigrants to have student visas to come back to our universities to help us continue to replenish our intellectual capital.

53% of the research papers published in Science and Nature this year from Chinese laboratories are co-authored with American scientists. If we leave the field to European and Asian institutions, we will fall further and further behind. Obviously we have to make sure our homeland security needs are met, but that can be done in an appropriate manner without shutting the door to legitimate students and faculty.

So as I look out at the Class of 2005, I know that this is a place that has not only honored science and research in the past but is part of the future we’re trying to create. RPI has over 40 million dollars in current annual research funding, much of which comes from industry. I was pleased to be a partner in helping to obtain federal funding to enable RPI to invest by purchasing high-speed computers needed to do today’s complex biological research, to attract new faculty members like Dr. Garcia, a renowned theoretical physicist in biomolecular research. And I thank RPI for giving me the opportunity to have Dr. Frank Luk, a former technology fellow in my office in Washington, to help us deal with these science and technology questions.

Rensselaer has developed world-class entrepreneurship programs, including the Incubator and Technology Park. And you’ve seen the results. The Crystal IS Company, born here, has thrived in that incubator program and recently has announced it would stay in the Capital Region.

So I want to congratulate you on what you have achieved and I want to thank you for coming to this demanding university to pursue your dreams, to obtain a world-class education, and to put that education to work, on behalf of yourselves and on behalf of our nation and the world.

And I hope you will bear in mind that today truly is a beginning; it’s a place along the road you’re traveling that really marks accomplishment and achievement. But you will not always be successful in everything you try. And I believe that it is often your failures, your mistakes, that will teach you more, so long as you remain resilient and committed to being all that you can be to live up to your God-given potential.

I hope you will bear in mind Albert Einstein’s wise reminder that, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” I know here at RPI you’ve tried many things. You’ve succeeded, you’ve had setbacks but you’re here today. You’re graduating from an extraordinary institution with an education that will enable you to keep up with the changes that face us in the future because you have learned how to learn.

So I hope you will face that future with courage and grace, with a commitment to doing what you can on behalf of the democratic principles that have made this country the greatest human experiment in the world. And I hope that you will, whether or not you’re a scientist or a researcher, work in any technical field or like me, just look at that from afar. I hope you will always stand up for science and research, for open and free inquiry, for investments that will make us richer and safer and smarter and stronger in the years to come.

Congratulations Class of 2005 and Godspeed as you leave this campus

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