Wednesday, November 27, 2013

JFK's Scientific Legacy, Part III: Increased Appreciation for Science and Education in the US

I wanted to put up one final post about JFK and his relationship to science.  I mainly want to share some of his own words from one of the last speeches that he gave as well as the final speech that he never got to give.  These words express some very wise and very eloquently stated views on the role of science, education, and reason in domestic affairs and foreign policy.

In today's society, we often see people make the mistake of confusing a belief or an opinion with a fact.  Kennedy recognized that logic, reason, and science need to play a key role in society and the decisions it makes.  As I've said before on this blog, it is very important that all members of society have educated opinions about important issues.  Uneducated opinions, though, can be quite dangerous to progress.  

The first passages that I want to share come from a speech that he gave on October 22, 1963, just one month before he was assassinated, at the 100th anniversary convocation of the National Academy of Sciences.  The US National Academy of Sciences in a non-profit organization created by a congressional charter signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1963.  The National Academy of Sciences serves as a de facto advisory committee, and election to the National Academy is one of the highest scientific honors in the US.  Addressing the academy members on the 100th anniversary of its founding, Kennedy remarked:  

But if I were to name a single thing which points up the difference this century has made in the American attitude toward science, it would certainly be the wholehearted understanding today of the importance of pure science. We realize now that progress in technology depends on progress in theory; that the most abstract investigations can lead to the most concrete results; and that the vitality of a scientific community springs from its passion to answer science's most fundamental questions. I therefore greet this body with particular pleasure, for the range and depth of scientific achievement represented in this room constitutes the seedbed of our Nation's future.


If science is to press ahead..., if it is to continue to grow in effectiveness and productivity, our society must provide scientific inquiry the necessary means of sustenance. We must, in short, support it. Military and space needs, for example, offer little justification for much work in what Joseph Henry called abstract science. Though such fundamental inquiry is essential to the future technological vitality of industry and Government alike, it is usually more difficult to comprehend than applied activity, and, as a consequence, often seems harder to justify to the Congress, to the executive branch, and to the people. 

But if basic research is to be properly regarded, it must be better understood. I ask you to reflect on this problem and on the means by which, in the years to come, our society can assure continuing backing to fundamental research in the life sciences, the physical sciences, the social sciences, our natural resources, on agriculture, on protection against pollution and erosion. Together, the scientific community, the Government, industry, and education must work out the way to nourish American science in all its power and vitality.


I can imagine no period in the long history of the world where it would be more exciting and rewarding than in the field today of scientific exploration. I recognize with each door that we unlock we see perhaps 10 doors that we never dreamed existed and, therefore, we have to keep working forward. But with all of the tools now at our command, with all the areas of knowledge which are waiting to be opened up, I think that never in the short history of this Academy or in the far longer history of science has the time been brighter, the need been greater for the cooperation between those of us who work in Government and those of you who may work in far distant laboratories on subjects almost wholly unrelated to the problems we now face in 1963. I hope that that cooperation will remain intimate and that it will remain beneficial to both science and to the people as a whole.

Science has made all of our lives so much easier and happier in the last 30 years. I hope that the people of the United States will continue to sustain all of you in your work and make it possible for us to encourage other gifted young men and women to move into these high fields which require so much from them and which have so much to give to all of our people. So the need is very great. Even though some of your experiments may not bring fruition right away, I hope that they will be carried out immediately.

It reminds us of what the great French Marshal Lyautey once said to his gardener: "Plant a tree tomorrow." And the gardener said, "It won't bear fruit for a hundred years." "In that case," Lyautey said to the gardener, "plant it this afternoon." That is how I feel about your work.

The other passages come from the speech he intended to give on November 22, 1963, the day he was assassinated: 

...leadership and learning are indispensable to each other. The advancement of learning depends on community leadership for financial political support, and the products of that learning, in turn, are essential to the leadership's hopes for continued progress and prosperity. It is not a coincidence that those communities possessing the best in research and graduate facilities -- from MIT to Cal Tech -- tend to attract new and growing industries....

This link between leadership and learning is not only essential at the community level. It is even more indispensable in world affairs. Ignorance and misinformation can handicap the progress of a city or a company, but they can, if allowed to prevail in foreign policy, handicap this country's security. In a world of complex and continuing problems, in a world full of frustrations and irritations, America's leadership must be guided by the lights of learning and reason -- or else those who confuse rhetoric with reality and the plausible with the possible will gain the popular ascendancy with their seemingly swift and simple solutions to every world problem.

Sources and Further Reading


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