Science Should Influence Policy, Says Sen. Kennedy

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Senior Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), the 2007 Karl Taylor Compton Lecturer, discusses science and public policy in a filled Kirsch Auditorium on Friday, April 13.
Willam Yee—The Tech

Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D) spoke to an MIT audience recently about the Bush administration's current science policy, including the restrictions it places on stem cell research and its handling of global warming. Kennedy, who is the 2007 Karl Taylor Compton Lecturer, drew a crowd to a packed Kirsch Auditorium last Friday, April 13.

Kennedy praised MIT for its leadership over the past century and a half in "producing scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who have changed the world." He began by describing the nature of the creation of MIT by founders who "understood that the spirit of scientific inquiry could serve a model for a more enlightened age." Kennedy described the founders as those who "believed that politics should be influenced and informed by science ­— not the other way around."

In describing the current administration, Kennedy was very critical of President George W. Bush. "We find people in power who believe that political advantage — and not scientific truth — should inform public policy … But, no matter how hard they try to create their own pseudo-science and pseudo-reality, in the long run, they will not succeed. The reality-based community is alive and well."

Throughout the speech, Kennedy criticized the administration's attempts to influence scientific findings for its own gain. Kennedy referenced the Bush administration's delay of the approval of the emergency contraceptive pill Plan B until August 2006, despite recommendation for approval by the FDA's professional staff back in 2003.

Kennedy also described his frustration with President Bush's stance on stem cell research, which currently "opposes the federal funding of stem cell lines created since August 9, 2001." Kennedy questioned the "moral concern" that Bush has with stem cell research, stating that the choice of August 9, 2001 was arbitrary and not scientifically or morally significant.

Earlier this month, Kennedy voted in favor of a bill to allow federal funding for stem cell research, called the HOPE Act. The bill was approved in the Senate and is currently in committee in the House of Representatives.

Kennedy also saw the conflict between politics and science in the administration's actions towards global warming. Kennedy described how Bush allowed "former oil industry lobbyists employed by the White House to edit EPA documents about global warming before they were released … [which] weakened critical conclusions about the scope and causes of climate change."

Regarding intelligent design, "the President himself has supported the teaching of intelligent design in our public schools, notwithstanding the enormous weight of scientific evidence against it."

"This manipulation of governmental institutions for political gain 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."

Kennedy expressed hope that "MIT will be our partner in making science and public policy partners once again" and continued by appealing directly to the MIT community. "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 next corner. It's the idea that your intellect can be harnessed to make life better for others."

Following his talk, Kennedy answered questions from the audience. Unsurprisingly, Kennedy was asked his opinions of the current field of candidates for the 2008 Presidential election. "We need leaders that are going to talk about where we're going, and to challenge us" said Kennedy, in discussing what qualities he feels the next President should have.

Kennedy currently serves as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. In response to a question regarding the No Child Left Behind Act, Kennedy stressed the importance the goals of the program, but felt that the administration has not gone far enough to provide assistance to schools falling behind. The result is that the lack of funding has "left 3.5 million [children] behind." In response to a question on genocide in Darfur, Kennedy said he felt that military intervention was necessary, and he was impressed by efforts "that are taking place at the grassroots level" at universities like MIT.

Kennedy addressed the issue of health care in the United States, expressing his frustration over how the industry has maintained high administrative costs in order to gain larger profit. He specifically mentioned several members of Congress who have blocked efforts to bring technology into the health care system, an act that could, in his opinion, save billions of dollars.

Kennedy also spoke about the country's space policy, reaffirming his strong belief that no weapons should be put into space. In terms of the challenges that the space program faces, Kennedy cited economic issues. "Unless you're going to have individuals themselves that are involved in the program itself, you're not going to be really able to capture the imagination of the people in this country to give it the support".

The talk was a revival of the Karl Taylor Compton Lecture Series. Compton served as MIT's President from 1930 to 1948, retiring to become chairman of the MIT Corporation until his death in 1954. The lecture series was established in 1957 to honor Compton, and "to bring to MIT some of the great minds on the world's scene," according to MIT President Susan Hockfield. Past lecturers have included Physicist Neils Bohr, Chemist Linus Pauling, and U.S. Vice President Hubert Humphrey.