Charles Vest
President, NAE; Fmr. President of MIT

Should there be limits on innovation?

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We should have full freedom to explore, but we should always keep in mind the dark side of science, Vest says.

Charles Vest

Charles Vest is a professor and President Emeritus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Vest earned his BS in mechanical engineering from West Virginia University and his MS and PhD from the University of Michigan. His academic work focused on thermodynamics and fluid mechanics. Vest joined Michigan's faculty in 1968, became a full professor in 1977, and was promoted to Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs in 1989. In 1990, he was appointed President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a position he held until 2004. Vest has served on both the Bush and Clinton Presidents Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and has been a director of DuPoint and IBM. In July 2007 he was elected to serve as president of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE) for six years. He has authored a book on holographic interferometry, and two books on higher education. He has received honorary doctoral degrees from ten universities, and was awarded the 2006 National Medal of Technology by President Bush. 


Question: Should there be limits on innovation?

Vest: Well I attended about a month ago a meeting in Japan . . . in Kyoto organized by a remarkable individual named Koji Omi who was, among other things, a finance minister of Japan for a while. And ________ has been holding this annual conference on science, technology and society. And he calls it Light and Shadow . . . Light and Shadow. A very Japanese way of saying science can shed light to extraordinarily positive things, but it also has a dark side. It creates shadows. This is true of anything – economic power, military power, and scientific power. They have a bright side. They have a dark side. We must be very aware of that. I’m a great believer that we should have as full freedom as conceivable for the human mind to explore nature and understanding. However we have to be aware of the consequences of some of the kinds of knowledge that we are beginning to develop. And I suspect that over this coming decade or so, that we’re going to face a lot of very deeply ethical questions as life science becomes more and more the basis of technology in action. We should never be afraid of learning, of discovery. But we need to be very cautious as we move into new technological areas because they move so fast. You know in the old days you could generally develop technology . . . It took a lifetime for the automobile to reach 25 percent of the public, whereas the World Wide Web did it in seven and a half years. So this pace doesn’t always give us the time to think through before we move. And we saw that in genetically modified foods which created a cultural furor in Europe that the people who were doing the original marketing really hadn’t stepped back and thought through. So the two areas that I think we’re going to have to think deeply about are certainly the whole world that’s beginning to evolve of synthetic biology, and of the increasing genetic knowledge we’re going to have of ourselves and others. What really is going to constitute wisdom? How are we going to decide what one wants to know? How do we start thinking about things when we begin creating life forms, which we’re doing? You know you walk up and down the halls of a place like MIT, you hear the kids talking about bio hacking. That means we are taking organisms, we are taking the stuff of life and we’re mixing it up and we’re playing around. I don’t think we’re creating monsters, but we’re doing things at a molecular level that we have to think through. What’s going to happen to the whole field of genetic counseling? What do you wanna know? Should you know? Should you know that you’ve got a very high probability of having Alzheimer’s later on? So I think most of the areas we have to think most deeply about are going to be driven by the infusion of life science into things that directly affect us – into medicine, into the production of materials and so forth. At the same time I don’t want to slow that because I believe within it lies a lot of the resolution of environmental problems and so forth, because we learn from nature to design and grow as opposed to physically manufacture materials. We can do it generally with a lot less energy, with more uses of natural materials and so forth, but we do have to think that through. A more understandable example – because we’re in some ways further down the path – is people have some legitimate concerns about nanotechnology. It’s a complicated area because “nano” just really refers to building things out of extremely small molecules and particles, and we’ve been doing this forever on one hand. But on the other hand we’re starting to take metals and various materials and put them in this very small form that can enter directly into cells, can be breathed in in different ways. Chances are 99 percent of it is not going to be dangerous, but we have to be willing to kind of make the investments as we go along between ___________ people who, by the way, cannot all be professional scientists and engineers. We need lay people and thinkers engaged and just think our way through some of these issues. But at the same time I believe in boldness and I believe in taking risks. It’s just that we don’t wanna take risks on scales and with people who don’t know they’re taking risks and so forth. We just need deeper thought in these newer areas because they’re moving so rapidly. And I think we’re gonna face some really tough ethical decisions in these areas, and they’re not gonna all be easily resolved. And going back to something you asked about earlier, it can’t just be science and engineering. You know we live in a democracy. We have political processes for making decisions. We just want those decisions to be truly well-informed and question-shaped in ways that really make sense and are appropriate. Recorded on: 12/5/07