Ted Kennedy, "A Life in Public Service" Compton Lecture

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HOCKFIELD: Good afternoon. Thank you for joining me to welcome Senator Kennedy to our campus. It's a great pleasure to welcome all of you to today's Carl Taylor Compton Lecture. In a moment, I will introduce this afternoon's very distinguished speaker, but to put today's lecture into context, I want to begin with a few words about the Compton Lecture Series.

The Compton Lectures were established in 1957 to honor one of my predecessors, the late Carl Taylor Compton, who served as president of MIT from 1930 to 1948, and then as Chairman of the MIT corporation from 1948 to 1954. Carl Taylor Compton was one of the truly great figures of MIT's history. His legacy lives on here in more ways than I could ever mentioned today. We still at MIT and around the nation and the world, benefit from his pioneering commitment to the integration of the physical sciences with engineering.

That convergence between the physical sciences and engineering was of course accelerated by the investments of the federal government made during World War II. A radar was developed here at MIT, and of course was then played out in the modern electronics information and computer industries. From a different perspective, last fall we welcomed President Compton's great granddaughter, Holly [? Boccio ?] who is here with us this afternoon as an MIT freshman. Holly, where are you? There you are. Great.


The Compton Lectures are the oldest best known, and I would say, perhaps the most distinguished of MIT's lectureships. From its inception, the goal of these series has been, and I want to quote from the founding charter, "to bring to MIT some of the great minds on the world scene." and over the five decades since the Great physicists, Niels Bohr gave the first of the Compton Lectures, these lectures have brought to MIT figures of the highest national and international distinction in science, in technology, and public affairs, in education, and in the arts.

Our speaker this afternoon, the honorable Senator Edward M Kennedy, continues this history of exceptional Compton lecturers. I will not begin to attempt to rehearse the full details of the senator's exceptional public career, but I would remind you that Senator Kennedy is now the second most senior member in the United States Senate, having served a total of 43 years. And have won election to seven full terms.

The senator, in concert with his late brothers, has helped to set a new standard by example of commitment to public service in this country. The senator has been an eloquent and effective advocate for the causes he believes in. And fortunately for us, those causes include many that resonate with the work of MIT and in the tradition of the Compton Lecturers.

His tireless efforts on behalf of education, research, and innovation, reflect Senator Kennedy's driving focus on the future. Senator Kennedy has consistently sought to broaden access to education. He chairs the Senate Committee on Health Education Labor and Pensions. This committee has broad legislative jurisdiction over issues of education and workforce development ranging from Head start, No Child Left Behind, to higher education and Student Financial assistance.

Over the course of his legislative career, Senator Kennedy has worked tirelessly to expand America's talent pool by bringing more members of underrepresented groups into higher education and into math and science in particular. He has played a critical role in the development of many programs in this vein, including the Javits Fellowships for graduate study the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Teacher loan forgiveness programs, which credit teaching in low-income schools are vital subject areas as payment toward federal student loans, and the federal TRIO programs, which motivate and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Senator Kennedy has also played a critical role in the development of policies that support research and innovation. His committee, the Health Education Labor and pensions Committee also has jurisdiction over health policy and funding, and the senator has vigorously supported funding for research and development, understanding the important role universities can play as centers of innovation.

And the senator has coupled his support for research with a long standing commitment to help transfer the brilliant ideas that are generated at American universities into the marketplace, where they drive economic growth and improve our quality of life. Senator Kennedy's work on the small business innovation and research program of 1976 pioneered the establishment of government policies to foster technology transfer to small companies and startups.

In addition to the senator's strong commitment to education, research, and innovation, I have to mention one more reason we're particularly pleased to have him with us this afternoon. I hope many of you have heard of the Kennedy Scholarships. These scholarships bring graduate students from the United Kingdom to study at MIT and Harvard. And this year, we're marking the 40th anniversary of the program.

The program was established by a national appeal within Britain to honor the late President John F Kennedy. The Kennedy scholarship offers exceptional student's unique opportunities to broaden their intellectual and personal horizons in ways that are now more important than ever in our era that is defined by global interaction. Kennedy scholars have gone on to remarkable careers on both sides of the Atlantic, and it is MIT's great privilege to have four of them as senior faculty members here at MIT.

Senator Kennedy has long been a devoted supporter of this wonderful program, which so fittingly honors the memory of his late brother. So it gives me enormous pleasure to report that earlier today, president Bach of Harvard and I communicated to the center that our two universities have committed to expand this important living memorial to President Kennedy by raising endowments to support an additional two scholars on each of our campuses for the future.

Now I've already mentioned the senator's focus on the future, and I have no doubt that his reflections this afternoon will inspire each of us in our own aspirations to a life dedicated to improving the world around us. Please join me in extending the warmest possible welcome to this spring's Compton Lecturer, the honorable Senator Edward M Kennedy.


KENNEDY: Thank you. Thank you very much, President Hockfield for that extremely kind and generous introduction. Inviting me to be a part of the Carl Taylor Compton Special Lecturer series. I'm deeply honored for that opportunity, and I want to thank you as well for all of your help and assistance that you've given to the United States Senate in understanding and more completely, the importance of research and development that a nation investment in terms of the research and development not only something which is so basic here at this great university, but so important for us as a country and a nation, our economy, our national security, our future in terms of a world economy. All of us in the United States Senate have been very appreciative of the time that you've spent, and the way that you've gone around and met with us, and talked with us and helped us better understand the challenges that we are facing. And it's always nice to be with a president that I can agree with, as much as I do with President--


I was listening to President Hockfield talk about the time that I've been in the United States Senate. I remembered when I first ran for the United States Senate, I was 30 years old. I said at that time that what the United States Senate needed was a young person with new ideas and idealism. And the last time I ran, just last fall, I said there's nothing like age and experience account. Whichever works.

I was coming in the hall and someone came up to me and grabbed a hold of my shoulder, brushed right by and said, has anyone told you that you look like Ted Kennedy? And I said, yes, yes. Yes they have. They said, it must make you mad as hell, doesn't it?


In any event, I'm proud to be here. I'm Honored as President Hockfield said just a little while ago, we had a wonderful celebration of the announcement of these Kennedy scholars. When President Kennedy was in college at Harvard in 1939, he took the senior spring time off. He was invested and committed to politics and history. And when he was over in Great Britain, he met a wonderful friend and made a marvelous friend, David [? Ormsby ?] Gore, who was later the ambassador for Great Britain to the United States. And he formed an incredible relationship, they had a magnificent friendship.

And I think there never was a better relationship that existed between Britain and the United States. I mentioned to some of the trustees that are here, Emma Rothschild, who's ahead of the trust, and others who have been part of the trust, one of the most touching moments that I've had, really I think in my life, was when I went over to ask Harold MacMillan who had been prime minister when President Kennedy was president. And I spoke to Harold MacMillan and asked him to do this introduction to my brother Bob's book. This was in the early 1960s after the Cuban Missile Crisis on 13 days.

And Harold MacMillan after our lunch went over to a small room and in there where these cabinets and he pulled out October 1962, and he had 10 or 15 pages of handwritten notes on every page. Beautiful notes on it. You could have just taken those out and printed them in a book at that time. But he said the significance was that the fact that the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis, he called President Kennedy and asked him to send someone over to declassify the notes. To cross out the parts that were sensitive to American security, and President Kennedy said, your security is the same as our security and he had written these lines down.

And he said that was the basis of the friendship and the basis of the relationship, and it really is an indication about what can be in terms of Venetians, and certainly it is with regards to the United States and Britain today. I was doing my little oral history about the time that I'm in the United States Senate. When I first arrived in the United States Senate, I went over to listen to this debate that was taking place over there, I thought, well, I'll listen to the debate. Make my mind up. I don't have to read memorandum around these, I'll just make my mind up listening to the debate.

So I listened to the fellow from Virginia whose name is Willis Robertson, and he spoke very eloquently and passionately about this issue in favor of this issue. And I was persuaded, and the time came to vote they said, call the roll, and they came [INAUDIBLE] Kennedy of course comes from Fort Robertson, and Kennedy and I. And then they came to Robertson, and he voted no. And that kind of surprised me a bit and I went up to Willis afterwards. I said, I just arrived here. I listened to your speech, and I heard your vote, and he said well, Senator, my state of Virginia, people here are evenly divided. Those in favor of the issue I send my speech, those that are opposed, I send my vote.

And I said by the way, I went to that reception that evening, and we had Senator Green, who was from our neighboring state of Rhode Island, very elderly gentleman, and that he was at this reception. And I saw him reach in his pocket and pull out this little card most of us have it's your schedule. And I said, Senator Green, I'm Ted Kennedy. I'm a new senator, and that's nice, he said. And I said, are you looking at your schedule to find out where you're going? And he said, no, I'm looking at the schedule to find out where I am right now. And so a lot truer today perhaps.

Let me began with one premise, and afterwards, I'll respond to some of the questions that you might have. But let me begin with one premise I'm sure we can all agree on that MIT reflects the best traditions of our country. That's been true from its beginning. In 1859, Governor Nathaniel Banks proposed that the state donate land for education. The Citizens Committee, led by William Barton Rogers, proposed an Institute of Technology because they said, material prosperity and intellectual advancement are inseparably associated.

They also believed in what they called the happy influence of scientific culture on the industry and civilization of nations. The founders of this great university understood that the spirit of scientific inquiry could serve a model for a more enlightened age. And the result of their vision has been a remarkable century and a half of leadership by MIT in producing scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs who have changed the world.

The political leaders who founded this university embraced progress. They valued independent academic inquiry. They believed that politics should be influenced and informed by science. Not the other way around. They knew that a strong society must be an educated society. They understood that the never ending effort to form a more perfect union would always require a restless spirit that asked new questions and is not afraid of the answers. Oh, the good old days.

Today, it often seems that we live in less enlightened times. The nows that gave birth to MIT. We see governmental officials who reject independent academic inquiry, we find people in power who believe that political advantage and not scientific truth should inform public policy. We see leaders who undermine the human quest for knowledge by insisting that we stop asking questions and blindly follow the leader instead. With this warped philosophy of government, truth is taking a beating.

In fact, one aide to President Bush scoffed at those of us who are still part of what he called, the reality based community because we foolishly believe that solutions emerge from the judicious study of discernible reality. "That's not the way the world really works anymore, he explained, instead," and I'm still quoting here, "when we act, we create our own reality."

That kind of skewed thinking has spread like a cancer in our current administration infecting every policy decision that they make. Tragically and dangerously, the administration has developed a pattern and practice of ignoring or manipulating facts to achieve a desired political result. But no matter how hard they try to create this pseudoscience and pseudo reality, in the long run, they will not succeed.

The reality based community is alive and well, and we're fighting back. Just two days ago, I was proud to cast my vote in the United States Senate again in support of embryonic stem cell research and the hope it brings to millions of Americans. Yet this important research has been crippled for nearly six years by an administration with a policy that is flawed and frankly, nonsensical.

I want to say at the outset that I understand and deeply respect the religious and moral opposition that some have to stem cell research, but in my view, that's not what we're talking about here. When you look closely, the administration stem cell policy pays lip service to those concerns, but it does not truly reflect them. The administration would have us believe that their policy stems from a moral concern with the use of embryonic stem cells, but their actual policy allows federal funding for stem cell lines that were created before August 9th, 2001.

Moreover, the administration does not seek to outlaw stem cell research. It doesn't seek to close down fertility clinics, it doesn't seek to stop the fertilization and disposal of eggs in a laboratory. It just opposes the federal funding of stem cell research lines created since August 9th, 2001. And what's the scientific or moral significance of that date? Nothing. It's simply the date the president first addressed the nation on the subject of stem cell research.

Without question, the United States is being put at a serious competitive disadvantage by failing to expand federal funded research in this area. Our medical research capabilities have been the envy of the world, but we'll be left out and left behind, if we don't aggressively continue to explore this new frontier. As Prime Minister Tony Blair said last year, "If America does not want stem cell research, we do, and so do countless other countries. Who see the promise of this research and understand that as the founders of MIT did, that intellectual advancement and material prosperity are inseparable."

A strong majority in Congress favors federal support for stem cell research, but as of today, we do not have the votes to override the president's veto. So we look to you and applaud the commitment you've made through Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and we look to the Commonwealth and applaud the commitment that Governor Patrick has expressed. And we look to other states and institutions that have made that commitment.

But we all understand that to be truly competitive we need the leadership, the financial resources of the federal government. And we need federal leaders who do not allow political posturing to restrict scientific progress. In addition to preventing new breakthroughs in medical research, this administration has blocked patients from accessing existing treatments.

The most stark example of this intrusion is found at the FDAs consideration of the over-the-counter sales of the emergency contraceptive pill, Plan B. In 2003, the FDA professional staff recommended approval of over-the-counter sales of this drug. The relevant FDA scientific advisory committee also voted overwhelmingly that Plan B was safe and effective for women of all ages. But the White House allowed a narrow minority in its right-wing base to drown out this scientific consensus. And it was not until August of 2006 that the FDA finally approved over-the-counter sales of Plan B.

We should not have been surprised by this attack on the use of science to help family planning. Two days after he was inaugurated, President Bush signed an executive order banning federal funds from going to international family planning groups that offer information about abortion. This action has been followed by years of derailing and defunding efforts to improve international family planning, despite its enormous potential to improve the health and the lives of those in the developing world.

The threat to scientific progress is not limited to medical research and treatment. Look, for example, at global warming. There is a strong consensus that global warming is being accelerated by the burning of fossil fuels. But with the backing of its cronies in the oil and gas industry, the administration decided to create its own reality on global warming. And we now know from whistleblowers and investigators that scientific conclusions that did not match the administration's political agenda have either been rewritten or ignored.

As James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, and an early voice on climate change recently told us, "In my more than three decades in government, I've never seen anything approaching the degree to which information flows from scientists to the public have been screened and controlled as it is now." That process involved allowing former oil industry lobbyists employed by the White House to edit EPA documents about global warming before they were released. A House committee found earlier this year that those edits weakened critical conclusions about the scope and the causes of global change. They even deleted the statement that such changes are likely mostly the result of human activities.

The Office of Management and Budget then insisted that these scientific documents need balance because global climate change has beneficial effects as well as adverse impacts. Proving yet again, the old adage that you can't fool all of the people all of the time. The Supreme Court just last week rejected the administration's arguments for failing to regulate CO2 emissions, citing incontrovertible scientific evidence that greenhouse gases are contributing to global climate change. This is by no means the end of the story, but it is an enormous victory.

There are countless additional examples of the politicization of science. In just this morning's New York Times, Paul Krugman reports that a presidential appointee of NASA told a website designer to add the word theory after every mention of the Big Bang to leave open the possibility of intelligent design by a creator. The president himself has supported the teaching of intelligent design in our public schools notwithstanding the enormous weight of scientific evidence against it.

Unfortunately, we are fighting the war on truth on many fronts. Not just those public policy debates directly affected by science. The war in Iraq is perhaps the most prominent example. In September 2002, 33 international security scholars, among them four MIT professors representing some of the best minds in the world signed a letter to the New York Times explaining why war with Iraq would prove to be disastrous.

I agreed with them and proud to have spoken out and voted against the war from the beginning, as I've often said, it's the best vote I've cast in 44 years in the United States Senate.


But as we now know, even before the vote in Congress, President Bush decided to go to war with Iraq, and the administration officials were busily collecting and twisting information to support that decision. According to a confidential memo written by a member of the British government in July 2002, fully eight months before we invaded Iraq, Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action. The intelligence and facts were being fixed around that policy.

Just as with stem cell research and global warming, the decision to go to war was made first and the facts were retooled to support it. Those in the intelligence community or armed forces who refused to go along were ignored or fired, and too few in Congress asked questions or tested the administration's assertions against available intelligence or the actual testimony of the generals who appeared before Congress.

Perhaps most egregiously, the administration's political operation encouraged candidates to use the war as a political tool attacking the patriotism of those who opposed the war or the administration's rosy view of the situation on the ground. This manipulation of our intelligence and political institutions has resulted in tragedy of unspeakable proportions. Mission accomplished has become Mission Impossible, and yet the administration and its supporters continue to ignore the reality of a bloody civil war being fought before their very eyes. Fortunately, the American people and a bipartisan majority of both houses of Congress are facing reality and insisting that we begin to withdraw from Iraq.

Over and over again in the past six years, we have seen the triumph of politics over public policy, we've seen it at the Department of Justice, which has gone from being a bulwark of independents, to being a political tool. We've seen it when the mining industry executive was placed in charge of worker safety at the Mine Safety and Health Administration. We've seen it when the lobbyists for the companies who manufacture consumer product is named to head the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the list goes on.

This manipulation of governmental institutions for political gains, not only breeds cynicism and erodes trust, but it also threatens the very foundations of our democracy. But there is an antidote for this poison, and you've got it here at MIT. You understand that the answer to unquestioning uncertainty is not absolute certainty of our own, but a questioning spirit that seeks to find and follow the truth.

The opportunity for investigation and innovation is what attracts so many students and researchers to MIT each year. It's the idea that a major breakthrough, a revolutionary discovery, or a new vision of society is just around the corner. It's the idea that your intellect can be harnessed to make life better for others. That same kind of spirit is what attracts people to politics and public service.

It's the belief in the power of an individual to make a difference. It's the willingness to persevere and to work through complex issues. It is the ability to understand and build on all that we have inherited from those who came before us. As both politicians and scientists know, difficult issues are not solved in weeks or months or even years. They are often the work of a lifetime. That is why I so deeply regret the loss opportunities of the last six years, but I also have great hope for the years just ahead.

In Washington, we have begun to insist again on policies that are rooted in reality, rather than ideology. And I know that MIT will be our partner in making science and public policy partners once again. Together we will return to the great traditions that were at the heart of the founding of MIT a century and a half ago. At that very time, Alfred, Lord Tennyson was giving voice to the spirit that we must reclaim today to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. Thank you very much.