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Restoring The Foundation: Reviving the U.S. Science, Engineering, and Technology Enterprise

On April 30, 2015, at Rice University, the American Academy cosponsored an event hosted by the Baker Institute as part of the Civic Scientist Lecture Series. Jonathan Fanton was introduced by Neal Lane, the Malcolm Gillis University Professor at Rice University and Senior Fellow in Science and Technology at the Baker Institute. Professor Lane is the Cochair of the New Models for U.S. Science and Technology Policy Project, which in 2014 issued the report Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream.

In his opening remarks, Jonathan Fanton introduces the mission of the American Academy and, in particular, the Restoring the Foundation report. Dr. Fanton also shares examples of the connections that the Academy has had with Rice University and with Texas through the years.

Thank you, Neal. It is a pleasure to be here, and I am grateful for the warm welcome that you have provided to me and the Academy. Neal is well-known and highly admired for his long service to Rice University, and he has also been a great friend and wise advisor to the American Academy. He served on the Academy’s Council for many years, including as its Vice Chair, and still chairs the Oversight Committee for our Initiative on Science, Engineering, and Technology. He has also contributed to several Academy reports on science policy, most recently as Cochair of the report Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream which Neal and our other speakers will describe shortly.

I very much look forward to this evening’s program, and to hearing from the report’s second Cochair, Norm Augustine, retired Chairman of Lockheed Martin, and from former U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steve Chu, who was an active member of the project committee.

This is the first time that I have had the pleasure of visiting this great university, but it is by no means the first time a president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has traveled to Rice. Indeed, in 1912, the Academy’s then-president John Trowbridge, a Harvard physicist, attended the inauguration of Rice’s first president, Edgar Odell Lovett. Lovett used his inaugural speech to lay out his vision for the future of Rice as an institution of both “technical and liberal learning,” remarking:

The new institution thus aspires to university standing of the highest grade, and would achieve its earliest claims to this distinction in those regions of inquiry and investigation where the methods of modern science are more directly applicable. For the present it is proposed to assign no upper limit to its educational endeavor.

Certainly, these words still ring true at Rice, which has no limit to its ever-rising distinction. They also hold a special relevance for the American Academy. Our purpose, as described in our Charter of Incorporation, is “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”

We pursue the goals of our charter through two primary functions: first, by honoring excellence in a broad range of disciplines and professions through election as a member of the American Academy; and, second, by exploring challenges facing our nation—indeed, the world—as opportunities, and by bringing high-quality, objective research to bear on policy-making. We convene studies in four broad areas: 1) The Humanities, Arts, and Education; 2) Science, Engineering, and Technology; 3) Global Security and International Affairs; and 4) American Institutions and the Public Good.

Our members contribute to these studies in numerous ways, including by serving as members of advisory committees, participating in the preparation of policy reports, and writing for our quarterly journal, Dædalus. Our ability to draw on experts from around the world and from every discipline and profession is the Academy’s biggest asset in providing thoughtful, independent advice to the nation and beyond.

The Academy’s interest in Texas goes back to its earliest days as a state. On February 13, 1855, G. P. Bond, a Harvard astronomer and Academy Fellow, presented a portion of the U.S.-Mexico boundary survey at the Hall of the American Academy in Boston. This survey began right after the Mexican-American War and took seven years to complete. The report detailed accounts of topography and botany—both written and through vivid illustrations—and captivated the audience. Professor Bond’s presentation was requested by another Academy member, Major W. H. Emory, a military engineer, astronomer, and surveyor who had led the Boundary Commission.

The Academy’s ties to Texas grow stronger as members of the Rice faculty are elected to its membership. This past fall, the Academy welcomed its 234th class at our annual induction ceremony in Cambridge, which included a distinguished scholar from Rice: Pol Spanos, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and of Civil Engineering.

Professor Spanos joins a distinguished group of seventeen Academy members at Rice, including three members elected in 2013: John Mendelsohn, former President of the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center and now a Fellow in Health and Technology Policy here at the Baker Institute; Bonnie Bartel, the Ralph and Dorothy Looney Professor of BioSciences; and Richard Tapia, Professor in the Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics. I hope that we will include still more members of the Rice family in the coming years.

Both of tonight’s featured speakers, Norman Augustine and Steven Chu, are also members of the American Academy. I am delighted that they are here to offer their perspectives on the issues raised by the Academy’s Restoring the Foundation report. Released last September, Restoring the Foundation encourages a greater emphasis on long-range planning in the area of science and engineering. It encourages funders and policy-makers to robustly support basic research that may not yield immediate results, but that may ultimately prove transformative.

The study builds on the Academy’s previous reports, Advancing Research in Science and Engineering I and II, which recommend increased support for early-career scientists and high-risk, high-reward research, and which suggest steps to strengthen transdisciplinary research collaborations among universities, corporations, and government agencies.

Restoring the Foundation has found early and strong backing in both the public and private sectors, including endorsements from the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Business Roundtable, and several members of Congress. Most recently, the Academy organized a roundtable discussion with several members of Congress—Republicans and Democrats from both the Senate and the House—to identify mechanisms for bipartisan cooperation in support of science and engineering research, particularly the basic, curiosity-driven research that forms the foundation for American innovation.

The Academy is also building support through the creation of a coalition of NGOs that is working to advance the report’s recommendations. And we are convening our members at universities around the country to discuss how to engage the greater public in support for science and engineering research. We will have traveled to Texas three times this year, and look forward to adding your ideas to this conversation.

I would like to leave you with words spoken by another Academy member, Karl Taylor Compton, at the 1947 inauguration of Rice’s second president, William Vermillion Houston:

The conviction is this: that scientific progress is essential to the maintenance of a rising standard of living; that the public therefore has a great stake in scientific work; that the public interest therefore demands increased support of scientific research and of its practical applications.

This conviction runs throughout Restoring the Foundation, and I encourage you to join Neal, Norm, Steve, and me as we carry this message to the policy-makers in Washington, to universities and corporations across America, and to the general public where they live, in Houston and beyond. Thank you.

At this point, Dr. Fanton turned the program over to Neal Lane, the Malcolm Gillis University Professor at Rice University and Senior Fellow in Science and Technology at the Baker Institute, and Cochair of the New Models for U.S. Science and Technology Policy Project.

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