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"The Future of Science as Public Service"

Release Date: March 14, 2011

Cambridge, Mass.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Introduction: How Science Draws You to Service

Thank you Dr. Hockfield for that introduction. Thank you all for your welcome, and thank you to MIT for having me. I have to say it is a tremendous honor to have the opportunity to deliver the Compton Lecture – and also to be the first woman speaker in the history of the lecture series. I know that I am following in the footsteps of some great scientific minds.

The first Compton lecture was delivered by Niels Bohr, to whom we owe much of our understanding of the structure of the atom. In 1978, the lecture was delivered by one of Bohr's students, Linus Pauling, who charted advances of a similar scale when it came to chemical bonding and the nature of molecules.

Two years ago my Cabinet colleague, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a brilliant experimental physicist, delivered it. You might say I am the odd one out here for not having a Nobel Prize. True. Although I, myself, do not have a background in science, I do come from a family of scientists.

My father is a Ph.D. in anatomy who worked throughout my childhood as a researcher and educator. Later, he served for many years as Dean of the University of New Mexico Medical School. My mother's college degree was in zoology.

Some of my most vivid childhood memories have to do with my father's life as a scientist. I remember all the Saturday mornings my brother and I chased blue-tail lizards around the mesa that surrounded his laboratory at the University of New Mexico, while dad was inside checking on his experiments.

Blue-tail lizards have detachable tails, and Dad would pay us a nickel for every lizard's tail we brought him. This was big money for a little kid. In fact, here at the Sloan School, you might even say we were actually pioneers in the "monetizing" of lizard tails.

My older brother received his bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering right here at MIT. He is a Ph.D. computer scientist at the Sandia National Laboratories site in Livermore, California. My younger sister has a master's degree in audiology and has helped children who have received cochlear implants.

But I fell off the science truck...and became a lawyer. So you may be wondering: Is Janet the black sheep of the Napolitano family? The answer actually is no. My family and I share at least two things that bind all of our interests – things that would probably ring true to many of you.

The first is the love for a good challenge. It is probably safe to say that you would not be here at MIT unless you relished tackling the kinds of problems that stump almost everybody else. The second is seeing one's work as a way to be part of something larger than oneself – to use one's knowledge to confront the challenges of our day and, hopefully, to make us all better off.

Science, Public Service, and Homeland Security

The title for this lecture, "The Future of Science as Public Service," is actually a theme that has been with us for a long time. In remarks at MIT in 1949, Winston Churchill recognized the importance of moving science from the abstract to the concrete, declaring that "logic, like science, must be the servant and not the master of man."

In fact, right around that time, we saw an interesting example of man seeking to put science to work for the public good...right here in town. In preparing for this lecture, I read a letter from 1948, just a year before Churchill's visit. It was from the mayor of Boston to Karl Compton, who was then MIT's president.

The mayor wanted to see if "a competent group of engineers" could help address the problem of accumulating snowfall. And he wondered if MIT could help melt the snow, "whether it be by the use of flame throwers or chemicals or otherwise." Today, I can tell you we are not looking for flame throwers. But we are looking for other imaginative solutions to tough problems.

The founders of MIT, of course, understood this well when they created an institution that could address the challenges our nation faced in a world undergoing rapid change from industrialization. That commitment to service – to solving the world's challenges – has only grown. I was astonished to learn, for instance, that your campus Energy Club has something like 2,800 members.

At the same time, we must acknowledge these challenges are constantly changing. They do not remain static. Therefore, our public policies must be sufficiently agile to understand these changes...and to adapt. And those who implement these policies – our public servants – must be agile as well.

This is all the more true in the areas of homeland and national security. Here, the threats of the networked world – as well as the opportunities – emerge and evolve faster than ever.

The work of DHS is rooted in several fundamental shifts we have witnessed over the past few decades. The United States is no longer isolated by two oceans. Our major belligerents are not necessarily the militaries of other nations. And a technological revolution has made societies more interconnected than anyone thought possible.

The reality of national security today is that small groups of people can use ordinary technologies to injure or kill; to despoil the environment; or to strike our economy, and our society as a whole, by attacking infrastructure critical to our security and wellbeing.

There is also the possibility that small groups of people can use more advanced technologies to do even more permanent damage using biological, chemical, and nuclear or radiological weapons. These small groups of adversaries take many forms. Some are al Qaeda-style terrorists, or those inspired by their propaganda. Some follow other violent ideologies. Some extremists are homegrown, their radicalization often accelerated by what they read and watch online.

Truth be told, we must take care not to focus on any single group...any one country, religion, or ethnicity. There is no one, definitive profile of a terrorist. Indeed, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security was a response to these new-generation challenges – challenges that were made so painfully clear on 9/11.

When Congress combined 22 agencies and departments to create DHS 8 years ago, it was the largest reorganization of the Federal government since the Department of Defense was created in 1947. The belief was this: that you could only tackle a problem as complex as securing the homeland if you brought together the different kinds of expertise and multiple resources that exist across government.

In one sense, it is similar to "MITie," the major energy initiative here on campus, where you have all your disciplines working on a large and complicated issue. And while we've made some considerable progress, we have a ways to go to thoroughly integrate our functions and capabilities. Perhaps some of you here like those kinds of challenges.

At DHS, we are constantly asking, and trying to answer some important questions: How do we keep travel and trade flowing across borders while at the same time enhancing security? How do we secure our nation's critical infrastructure when the vast majority of it is in private hands? How do we meet these goals while being good stewards of our public trust and support? How do we ensure our nation's response and recovery capabilities, what we refer to as our nation's "resilience"?

How do we do our job of providing security without violating civil rights and civil liberties? And what about the proverbial needle in the haystack? How do we address the risk of potentially catastrophic events – a major earthquake or attack – when we do not know where or when it could happen, or what, exactly, it would look like?

The answers to many of these questions involve harnessing science and technology to better meet our homeland security needs. We have a long tradition in our country of creating problem-solving partnerships between government and our research and development enterprise. Innovation is an important aspect of President Obama's strategy for economic growth and international competitiveness.

The largest and most prolific of these relationships have often involved national security, and have had their foundations in the military. For example, many individuals who delivered the Compton Lecture in the past worked on the Manhattan Project. In recent decades, these R&D partnerships have evolved to support emerging fields like alternative energy and the biomedical sciences.

Today, we have to expand government's collaboration with science well beyond the areas where collaboration already is strong. A deeper, broader partnership on homeland security must be one of these areas.

The Challenges Before Us

Let me be frank. We need the minds and talents of individuals who are excited by coming into an emerging field. The Department of Homeland Security is the third-largest department in the federal government. It is telling that when DHS was created, our Science and Technology Directorate was one of only a few components to be created anew.

MIT, of course, is the source of one of the great national-security collaborations, in the form of the Lincoln Laboratory, which currently works with DHS on several projects. I have seen a good example of an impressive DHS-MIT project, which is called the Imaging System for Immersive Surveillance – or "ISIS." The prototype camera, which is at Boston's Logan Airport, greatly expands our ability to spot suspicious objects and quickly analyze any breaches in security.

We have a pressing need to cultivate and create new partnerships like these – across a wide range of issue areas – in order to better secure both our hometowns and our homeland. For example:

Achieving greater security and awareness in the aviation domain

None of you would be surprised to learn that aviation security is an important part of what we do at DHS. I am sure all of you have had to take off your shoes and remove your laptops as you go through airport checkpoints.

We do not enforce these requirements just for amusement. We know that terrorists have repeatedly sought to use airplanes as a means to take innocent lives – with the 9/11 attacks, of course, being the most horrific example. Based on recent attempted attacks and the latest intelligence, aviation continues to be a preferred target.

The United States has the largest aviation industry in the world. We process 2 million passengers a day through some 370 airports in the U.S. Every security measure we have must, as a matter of implementation, be scalable to a size not seen in any other country. Our adversaries continually alter their tactics – looking first to liquid explosives, and then to the non-metallic explosive PETN, used in both the attempted bombings of a U.S. bound airliner on Christmas Day in 2009 and in cargo planes out of Yemen last October.

So, as terrorists look to explosives that are difficult to detect, we need not just to respond to the most recent threats. We also must look ahead to potential future threats, and how technology can help us leap ahead of them.

Better explosives detection is important. But, in fact, it is just one layer of security in a multi-layered system that includes multiple tactics, both seen and unseen. And into all of this we must factor in the potential for human error.

The challenge is not just to roll out new technologies. The heart of the challenge is to apply technology to make this process as effective and as smooth as possible for passengers and for cargo. And this means that technologies not only have to be effective, they also must be fast, complementary to each other, and as non-intrusive as possible.

Because aviation and the cargo supply chain are global systems, in order to really secure the system, we also need to look toward security solutions that can be applied across the globe – which means they have to be flexible and cost-effective.

And, of course, technologies must support our commitment to protect the privacy and civil liberties of our citizens. DHS already is testing a range of new technologies to make the passenger experience quicker and less intrusive while still maintaining security. And we are exploring the human and behavioral dimension to gain a better understanding of behavioral indicators of danger.

Our overall goal is to have an integrated checkpoint that allows passengers to keep their shoes on, reduces the need for physical searches, and maximizes the likelihood that we will prevent another attack on aviation. I think of this as "the airport checkpoint of tomorrow."

But to imagine, design, test, procure, and eventually deploy the "checkpoint of tomorrow," we need new kinds of expertise. We need managerial and operational expertise to move existing technologies "to task." And as we plan for the technology we will need 5, 10, 20 years down the line, we need the scientific and engineering expertise to turn this idea into a reality.

The "Big Data" problem

A second homeland security challenge is what is sometimes referred to as the "Big Data" problem. Many of you probably deal with a version of this in your own work: your research brings in reams of data, but what is essential is the ability to glean insight, and discern patterns and trends from a mass of information.

This is something that DHS deals with every hour of every day as a member of the Intelligence Community. Again, we first go through a rigorous process to make sure we are protecting individuals' privacy and civil liberties. And we never take our eye off that ball. But intelligence is not just a matter of having information — it is also about what one does with that information, and how one figures out what it really means.

It is about discerning meaning and information from millions – billions – of data points. And when it comes to our security, this is one of our nation's most pressing science and engineering challenges. I mentioned the two million airline passengers we process every day. Now add the more than 50,000 cargo containers that come every day through hundreds of air, land, and sea ports.

At the same time, DHS is part of the nation's Intelligence Community, which receives more terabytes of data each day than the entire text holdings of the Library of Congress. The National Counterterrorism Center's 24-hour Operations Center receives 8,000 to 10,000 pieces of counterterrorist information every day.

We receive data about all of this, and it is clearly too much to suggest that the simplistic "connect the dots" analogy accurately represents what an analyst must do. Very quickly, you can see that "Big Data" – more so than the lack of data – becomes the most pressing problem. At the same time, the threats implicated by the data are not static.

We therefore cannot overstate the need for software engineers and information systems designers. We need communications and data security experts. And we need this kind of talent working together to find new and faster ways to identify and separate relevant data. Then we need to organize the data in ways that analysts, agents, screeners, and guards can use, and we need to get it to them securely, and in real time.

Nor does the Big Data problem apply only to incoming intelligence. As threats continually evolve, we need to get smarter about what anomalies to look for, and therefore, better algorithms to spot them. Simply spotting, say explosives or radiological material, is not enough, however. We then need to be able to use that detection capability out in the field, for example, to identify a small, fast-moving boat carrying illicit cargo in a crowded port.

Securing our civilian cyber networks and critical infrastructure

I also want to mention some of the challenges around making our society more resilient, so that we can bounce back quickly from any kind of crisis event, from a terrorist attack to a natural disaster. The "trifecta" of tragedies in Japan – an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear crisis – illustrates vividly why resilience is so basic, and so important.

We know there is always more we can be doing to protect things like our cyber networks and our critical infrastructure. Right now at DHS we are asking how we can ensure the industrial control systems that run our water treatment and power plants are safe; how to use the distributed nature of cyberspace as a strength rather than a liability that makes it more difficult to defend.

The need for greater resilience goes beyond cyberspace, of course. In fact, 90 percent of Americans live in an area where there is a moderate or high risk of natural disaster. An almost equally large percentage of our critical infrastructure rests in private hands.

And so our FEMA Administrator, Craig Fugate, has been at the forefront of exploring ways to use social media to achieve a number of critical goals during a disaster – from reaching people during an emergency, to locating necessary supplies and moving them where they are needed most.

We know we can do more to make homes and buildings more secure and resilient. We can speed the commercialization of innovations in the field of nanotechnology that can help put more resilient building materials on the market – allowing builders to create structures that can better withstand an earthquake, flood, or explosion.

We can move newly-developed building materials, often based on research in nanosciences, which are strong and lightweight – such as ultra-high performance concrete – into widespread commercial use.

There is a wide array of science and engineering challenges in other areas, as well – ranging from detecting nuclear radiation at seaports to designing public health responses to potential pandemics. We need our best scientific and technical minds to help address these problems.

What Needs to Change? What is DHS Already Doing?

The array of scientific challenges facing us means that our country's need for scientists and engineers is greater than ever. It also means that those – like you – who are receiving an education in science or engineering must also have an understanding of how research needs to be applied in the field on a real-time, scalable basis.

Research and Development

We need a research and development system with the flexibility to absorb and use talents that are located in the R&D enterprise across the nation – inside government and out – in order to help meet our homeland security needs.

This Administration is dedicated to advancing research and development on a whole host of issues, as the President made clear in his trip to Boston last week. We know that strengthening these efforts is essential to our nation's continued security and prosperity.

There are probably a lot of you who have great interest in working on scientific issues for the public benefit, but perhaps you have never considered the idea of government service. Sometimes, the technical career paths in government may not appear as appealing as they are in academia or the private sector. If government service at a place like DHS has never been on your radar, you might not appreciate how challenging, and rewarding, it can be.

This Administration is committed to making scientific careers in government just as challenging and fulfilling as careers in the private sector or academia. These are important efforts already underway in this area:

The Science and Technology Directorate at DHS recently issued a solicitation for research that creates incentives for academia and the private sector to propose novel ideas and approaches. DHS is supporting the President's commitment to strengthen education in the STEM fields by granting nearly a hundred fellowships, scholarships, and internships to students in these fields.

We just announced a Loaned Executive program, and we are launching a new Cyber Workforce Initiative to help attract and then retain the very top cyber professionals available in the U.S. Looking ahead, we want to become better at inviting talented scientists into government – across a wide range of agencies and missions.

Outside of government labs, one absolutely critical aspect of our vision for the Department is the development of a strong research "community of interest." And the heart of this community will be the faculty – and the up-and-coming young scholars – at MIT and other leading institutions. I hope you will share with us your best advice on how DHS can support that community.

Management and procurement

However, it will not be enough just to have people who are brilliant bench researchers. We need people who not only know the science, but who also know how to get things done – how to design, manage, and bring big projects to completion, how to apply findings from the lab in the real world, and how to navigate complex systems.

Organizations like ours have to imagine and develop, to operate and procure. We need to see ahead, and we need scientists to help do this. Since I became Secretary, we have taken many steps to build our procurement workforce. At a place like DHS, procurement programs can have huge long-term budgets, stretching into the billions. They can affect the capabilities of government for decades.

These are big, complex projects. We need people who are familiar with technologies and their capabilities – but also where technology is going, and where our needs are going. We cannot be content if we just have scientists in the lab.

Vision for science in government

In sum, we need a model where there is more scientific knowledge deployed across government, and more knowledge of government and public policy in our science and engineering communities.

So, I want to paint a bit of a picture for some of the younger students here about what science in government should look like by the time you are 40. By that time, it should not be unusual for a top scientist to take a leave from academia or the private sector and spend a couple of years in government – and hopefully, at DHS – working on solving important technological problems.

This happens to an extent today. Right now at DHS we have top academics in biosecurity, systems engineering, cyber security, and behavioral science. But not nearly to the extent we need. It is not unusual for a lawyer, an economist, or even political scientist to leave private practice for a time, or take a sabbatical from academia, to work on a particular policy issue at a government agency.

We need to do a better job at making a similarly worthwhile and workable path for top scientists to serve the public interest, and to help make our nation more secure. We need to work with academia and the private sector to help ensure that a stint like this is seen as a period of valuable service – not as a gap in a resume or a distraction from important projects.

And to build this community of talent, we need to work with scientists in order to better understand and remove the barriers to this kind of exchange. This is the picture of what science as public service should look like – a place where scientists are empowered; where the technical needs of government are fully addressed; where government service and scientific career paths have greater flexibility; and, where there are many ways to contribute, even from outside government.

DHS is a great place to help this vision get underway. We are a relatively new department. It is a place where all of us – including you, the young scientific leaders of our country – have the opportunity to come and have a profound impact.


We have tremendous scientific resources in this country. In fact, we lead the world in scientific and technological innovation. This is a good thing, because we have lots of difficult problems for our brilliant scientists to solve. And, perhaps most importantly, we also have young scientists who are engaged, and who want to use their talents in this way.

We have to continue taking advantage of this kind of talent and providing scientists an outlet for these goals. But the way we do so must change with the times, because public service must change with the times. Today, deep scientific and technological collaborations are required across an ever broader range of government activities. And DHS needs people like you to join a new generation of Americans in the fight against the new generation of threats to our homeland.

I know, as do you, that science and technology alone cannot guarantee security. Nor can any government agency simply deliver security to the people it serves. Security, in the end, flows from our hometowns and our communities. It requires people to embrace a sense of shared responsibility.

But the nature of today's threats – some which have their origins in previous periods of scientific advance – mandates that we embrace the benefit that the best of science can offer us. That, to me, seems like a pretty good definition of "science as public service." Our country needs for this to happen. And I am looking forward to this kind of engagement with you, and with our shared future. Thank you.

Last Updated: 09/20/2018
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