Remarks at a White House Luncheon for the New Pioneers

February 12, 1985

Thank you for being here, and welcome to the White House. To paraphrase an earlier President: This must be one of the most extraordinary collections of talent and human intelligence that is ever to come together in one room in the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. [Laughter]

To tell you the truth, I was a little nervous in the face of so much accumulated brainpower. As President, I'm often being awarded honorary degrees, which always, as I've said on a number of occasions, complicate -- or increases a sense of guilt that I have nursed for more than a half a century, because I always figured the first one they gave me was honorary. [Laughter]

So I was nervous, but then I realized that I was about to eat lunch with a group of people who spend their time doing things like investigating quarks, measuring the curve of space, engineering genes, and proving the existence of two different kinds of infinity. And that reminded me of a story -- [laughter] -- something always reminds me of a story. [Laughter]

This was an occasion when three gentlemen arrived at the gates of heaven, and St. Peter told them that there were certain limitations on who could get in, due to crowding. And he said they had decided that whichever one of the three practiced the oldest profession or avocation would be admitted.

And one stepped forward and said, ``Well, I think that's me.'' He said, ``I am a doctor.'' He said, ``We know that the Lord made Adam, and then He created Eve from a rib of Adam -- that required surgery. And so I guess that's the oldest.''

But before he could move on in, the second one said, ``Wait a minute. I'm an engineer, and,'' he said, ``before the Lord made Adam, all was chaos. And He spent 6 days and on the seventh day rested, after eliminating the chaos. So, I think engineering -- I go in.''

And before he could advance, the third one said, ``I'm an economist. Where do you think they got all that chaos?'' [Laughter]

Now, I can tell that story because my degree, that dishonest degree, was in economics. [Laughter]

I sometimes feel that the journalists who cover our everyday political affairs here in Washington have a tendency to miss the real news, the transforming discoveries and achievements that you and your colleagues are making every day. I remember just a little over 4 years ago, all the headlines were of shortages. Every morning it seemed that we read that there was some new scare story telling us that the Earth's resources were about to run out for good, leaving our world poorer and shrinking our hopes for the future.

But at the same time, largely unheralded, scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs in the computer field were molding silicon chips from sand -- one of the commonest substances known to man -- and in the process revolutionizing our lives.

It's been pioneering, such as you who have discovered new universes on a blackboard, have charted new continents inside the living cell and extended the boundaries of human mortality. Today space is just one more laboratory, and the idea that there are material limits on the mind of man has been shattered once and for all.

You understand that freedom is not a luxury, but a necessity; not a privilege, but the source of our life's bread. In science, just as in our economy, our object must be to maximize freedom, to open up new avenues of inquiry and new areas of experimentation.

I've asked Congress to approve funding for a permanently funded, manned space station. Despite the constraints of a freeze in program spending, there are few genuine cuts in our budget for basic science items. We're requesting a 6.7-percent increase for basic research in the physical sciences for fiscal year '86. And we're asking for increased funding for science and technology and basic research through the end of the decade.

I believe that our nuclear dilemma presents us with some of the major unfinished business of science. And we have begun research on a nonnuclear defense against nuclear attack. You, on the cutting edge of technology, have already made yesterday's impossibilities the commonplace realities of today. Why should we start thinking small now? In protecting mankind from the peril of nuclear destruction, I think we must be ambitious. We can't lock ourselves into a fatalistic acceptance of a world held in jeopardy.

In this area, most especially, we must approach the future with such vision and hope that reach for the greatest possibilities. Only if we try can we succeed.

Back in 1842 -- I was just a lad at the time -- [laughter] -- the royal astronomer in Great Britain studied Charles Babbage's new ``analytical engine'' -- the forerunner of the modern computer, and pronounced it worthless. His foresight was almost equaled a half century later, when the head of the U.S. Patent Office advised President McKinley to abolish the Patent Office, because ``we had,'' he said, ``everything that can be invented had already been invented.'' [Laughter]

Well, if science has taught us anything, it's taught us that -- well, it's not to be modest in our aspirations. That fact, I have to confess, is my secret agenda for bringing you all here today. After lunch is over, I'm going to ask all of you to turn your attention to the budget problem. [Laughter] Until then and while you're doing that, why thank you all again for being here. God bless all of you.

I have to take orders, and I think that I was told that my schedule called for me to run like a deer when I finished talking here -- that would prevent any of you from asking me any questions. [Laughter] But I think they have me scheduled that way. I've read some of these things that -- articles about the supposed power of the Presidency -- but I have to tell you, there's somebody here in the administration -- I haven't found out yet -- that every day puts a thing on my desk that tells me what I'm going to be doing every 15 minutes for the rest -- [laughter] -- for the entire day.

But thank you all again for being here now. Please excuse me.

Note: The President spoke at 1:02 p.m. in the State Dining Room at the White House at the luncheon for leaders in the fields of science, medicine, mathematics, engineering, and education.