Welcoming Remarks for 2009 Annual Meeting
Robert J. Zimmer
February 12, 2009
Good evening. I am very pleased to welcome you to Chicago and to convey greetings from your friends and colleagues at the University of Chicago.
It is common at most any time for speakers to refer to the uniqueness of the present moment and the particularly imperative challenges we all face. While one might grow weary of such statements, it is, I believe, abundantly clear that the current situation is in fact filled with urgent challenges—economic, policy, scientific, and international challenges—that we must confront. Our capacity—as individuals, groups, institutions, and societies—to address these problems that we can identify today will have a profound impact on the shape and quality of human life in the future.
The University of Chicago, which I am proud to represent, has had a very important impact on the history of science both because of the work done at the University and because of the significant number of leading scientists across the world who have been influenced by the time they have studied here. However, its name, in sharing the name of the city in which it is located, suggests another feature of the University, namely its impact on this city and more generally on society as a whole. This duality, being driven by scholarship and fundamental research with an approach to education embedded in this fabric of inquiry on one hand, and on the other hand understanding how this fundamental research is an essential component of societal advancement along many parameters, is one that we at the University of Chicago purposefully confront, and of course that others confront as well. Both aspects of this duality have played an important part in our thinking about the future of the University—with a focus on science planning and education to ensure the University's future contributions to science, but also by focusing on how an urban university interacts with the city in which it resides and brings the results of its multifaceted research to bear on the city and the world. Key to our thinking in both arenas is a systems perspective—both within science itself and in the integration of science, social science, and policy and the impact this can have on our society in many ways.
The duality I refer to is also explicitly recognized by the mission of AAAS, "to advance science and serve society". Many of us here today became scientists because we were driven to understand the natural world or the mathematical ideas that are abstracted from our experience of it. It has been the force behind our individual work and it is this drive that has led to accelerating increase in our understanding of the world over the past centuries. One aspect of this work that has taken on new meaning is an integrative systems approach, which many believe will be an important aspect of understanding the key problems that confront our society. One of the features of thinking about systems is that there are emergent properties, properties that one sees in the whole system that may not be evident or even inquired about in looking at the parts. Science itself is a complex system that exhibits this very behavior. Namely, even if many scientists are driven by individual understanding, the totality of the work of science shows the enormous impact of this work on concrete problems and on advancing the quality of human life.
Our approach to science in the public sphere, I believe, needs to reflect this duality as well. The importance of basic research and the importance of the concrete applications of science to the problems we face are not in opposition; applications are in part an emergent property of the basic research enterprise. Thus, the University of Chicago can simultaneously be the singularly focused research university that I know many of you appreciate and a university of this city. And science can simultaneously be the object of driven individual understanding and an extraordinary contributor to the quality of society and human life. As we address the wider public about the importance of science, it is both basic research and the capacity for improving the quality of human life that need to be emphasized as part of a single fabric.
The theme of this year's annual meeting is "Our planet and its life: origins and futures". The group that selected this theme for our meeting in Chicago was seemingly under the influence of a man who was an important influence on the design of modern Chicago, namely Daniel Hudson Burnham. Burnham famously remarked "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood" and the organizers chose no little subject. The scientific research connected to this broad subject, in many ways, illustrates the duality I have been discussing. Understanding evolution is now related to new approaches to medical issues, properties of bacteria to the world's energy supply, and sophisticated mathematical algorithms to addressing climate change.
Although the issues that will be discussed over the course of this meeting are simultaneously of great scientific interest and very daunting and complex as societal issues, there is reason for some optimism that we are entering a period of renewed attention to science in American politics. With a former University of Chicago faculty member as president of the country, there has been an explicit call for ideas over ideology and data over dogma. Politically and productively realizing this call, as we all know, will not be simple. But through basic and applied research and the contributions that science and only science can make to many issues that confront us, I know that the scientific community will answer this call with great energy in whatever way it can. I wish each of you an enjoyable and productive time here in Chicago. Thank you very much for being here.