American Association for the Advancement of Science President’s Reception
Vancouver, Thursday, February 16, 2012
It is a pleasure to welcome all of you to Vancouver for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Let me begin by asking: why are you here today?
Aristotle once said “All men by nature desire to know.” Allow me to recast this statement for the 21st century and for this gathering. Today, we envisage a world in which all nations are eager to know.
Why is the sharing of knowledge so essential, and how are you contributing to this important effort?
Let me posit five propositions that answer these questions.
1. In our modern, globalized world, the well-being of nations will be defined by how well they develop and advance knowledge. In other words, knowledge—as opposed to military might or GDP, for example—will be the new currency and the new passport to success.
2. The opportunity to share information has never been so ubiquitous and so cheap. This sharing of knowledge—which I like to call the diplomacy of knowledge—can help guide the relationship between nations and foster our well-being in a global, interconnected world.
This sharing is made possible by the communications revolution brought about by the rise of the Internet, which took less than a decade to reach over half the globe. Compare this to the printing press in Western Europe, which took almost three centuries to reach a majority of the population.
3. Communications is so fast and easy—thus, so is change. We live in a time of great change, a time of risk and opportunity on a global scale. And because of this, we need to look for evidence—specifically scientific evidence—to help navigate change and inform our choices.
4. Ideas are improved when shared and when tested through action.
I often draw on Jefferson’s image of a burning candle when illustrating the importance of sharing our knowledge and experiences. In fact, I have crafted this image, along with that of books, which represent learning, into my coat of arms.
The candle symbolizes not only enlightenment, but also the transmission of learning from one person to another, and from one country to another. The sharing of knowledge collectively enlightens our societies and our world. And when you light your unlit candle from my lit candle, my light is not diminished, it is enhanced.
Besides sharing knowledge, we must also rigorously test and challenge our findings, in the classroom and labs, as well as the world at large. I often like to say that the most practical thing in the world is a good general theory, when continuously tested and refined against reality.
5. We must promote and defend the practices that have served us well, but we must also broaden what and how we learn.
The scientific method is one of the truly great innovations in human history, using evidence, hypothesis, proof and action in the quest for progress and truth. Not only is it a remarkable means of building scientific knowledge, but it has also proven useful in advancing understanding in many other domains.
When I think of the late Steve Jobs, I am reminded of the importance of overcoming the barriers between the categories in our education and training institutions.
Throughout his life, he stressed that we are better served when we reinforce the creative synergy of arts and science rather than reinforcing arts or science. And the complex issues we face today and beyond will require that we move beyond inter and multidisciplinary to transdiciplinary.
The scientific method is unparalleled in its ability to discover truths about the natural world. The fundamentals of math and science played an important role in sparking the communications revolution, from the printing press to the rise of the Internet.
In fact, it was 300 years of discovery in math and science from Newton to Einstein that laid the foundation for the creation of the Internet.
The basic building blocks of science and math will continue to shape our future, and so it is up to all of us to constantly make the case for science and ensure it is used as a force for good in our society.
Let me give you some evidence to prove my hypotheses.
1. The first comes to us from the journal published by this association: Science. This publication is a world leader in sharing knowledge, making it both innovative and accessible.
The journal has also been a leader in using the Internet to increase its reach. Science was one of the first journals of its kind to go online with full text in 1996, as well as among the first to have a digitized archive, dating back to the first issue in 1880.
Through its journal and through meetings such as this, this association is leading the way in discussing the important issues pertaining to today’s science, including those of professionalism, ethics, values and education.
2. My second point brings me back to the question, ‘Why are you here?’ Specifically, what can we discern from the fact that an American-based organization—with scientists representing some 60 countries—is holding its annual meeting in Canada?
The scientific and intellectual relationship between Canada and the United States is so strong, despite the disparity in our size. And in fact I think it no coincidence that our two countries enjoy one of the best bilateral relationships that exist in today’s world, with so many good things flowing from that. Our shared commitment to science and to learning has been a constant, showing the way for us on broader issues. For example, a number of important advances in the communications revolution I have talked about today are the result of close collaboration between Americans and Canadians.
Our relationship is a wonderful experiment in co-operation between nations.
Following your discussions here, I hope that you will take this experiment, this friendship supported by a shared commitment to the pursuit of knowledge, and try to replicate it throughout the world.
By gathering scientists from across the globe, this association is transcending boundaries through the universal language of science.
All of you here are looking beyond borders and engaging in the diplomacy of knowledge.
I myself look forward to continuing the dialogue between nations in April when I attend the Conference of the Americas on International Education in Brazil. I hope to take some of the lessons and conversations from this conference to Brazil with me to showcase all that we stand to gain by working together.
You are building a better world—a smarter, more caring world—based on the idea that all of us, all people and all nations, are eager to know.