Remarks at the Presentation Ceremony for the National Medals of Science and Technology

March 12, 1986

Thank you, 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 has ever come together in one room in the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. [Laughter]

You know, a favorite story of mine is about one of the first times the White House played host to an event concerning science and technology, and that was back in '76 -- 1876. A demonstration of a recently invented device was put on here for President Rutherford B. Hayes. ``That's an amazing invention,'' he said, ``but who would ever want to use them?'' He was talking about the telephone. [Laughter] I thought at the time when I heard him that he might be mistaken. [Laughter] We've come a long way from those times. But I sometimes feel that, just like President Hayes, some of 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 5 years ago when all the headlines were of shortages. Every morning it seemed we read 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, scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs were mining the most abundant resource in the world: the human mind and imagination. Men and women such as you, with the spirit of discovery, enterprise, and achievement, have been opening up new worlds of possibility and transforming all our lives for the better.

Whole industries have sprung up around what were only, years ago, merely ideas in the minds of scientists and inventors. New grains and agriculture techniques have alleviated hunger. New vaccines have conquered some of mankind's most dreaded diseases. Quantum leaps in technology are making possible greater prosperity and personal fulfillment than mankind has ever known. In the computer industry, for instance, miraculous advances in productivity are now almost commonplace. Let me give you an example, although I'm sure you could provide many more. In one semiconductor plant in Pennsylvania in 1957, each worker produced five transistors a day for $7.50 apiece. Today each worker produces over a million semiconductors every day, each one costing a fraction of a penny.

Some say that about 90 percent of all scientific knowledge has been generated in the last 30 years alone, and we'll likely double it by the end of the century. Such an explosion of knowledge creates an unprecedented opportunity to expand the global economy, to bring prosperity and hope to those corners of the world that for too long have known only deprivation and want. The United States must take the lead in making this happen. And you who are on the cutting edge of human achievement understand that freedom is not a luxury but a necessity. Freedom to think, freedom to imagine and create, these are not privileges, but the very source of our life's bread and the hope of mankind's future. How can government aid the cause of human progress? Well, in 1985 alone we invested over $49 billion in research and development. Now, this is an important role, but it's even more important to knock down the barriers to progress that government itself has created. And that's why we've rolled back needless government regulations, cut tax rates -- and we plan to cut them again.

I can't help but remember an incident back when I was an adjutant on an airbase in World War II and learned of a letter that bucked all the way up to the top of the military command asking for permission to destroy some records that were just filling the file cases and that were no longer of any use. And when the mail came back down with permission from the person in the top command, it was permission granted to destroy those records, providing that copies were made of each one. [Laughter] But our tax cuts, I believe, revitalized the entrepreneurial economy, creating over $20 billion in new venture capital, over $25 billion in new public stock offerings, and an explosion of new business creation with over 600,000 new companies forming every year for the last 3 years in a row. Now, this represents the application of knowledge to human needs on a massive scale, much of it made possible by the breakthroughs of you and your colleagues.

But as we look at the record of scientific achievement, there remains one area crying out for attention. I believe that our nuclear dilemma presents us with some of the major unfinished business of science. We have begun research on a nonnuclear defense against nuclear attack. As I said before, yesterday's impossibilities have become commonplace realities today. Why should we start thinking small now? In protecting mankind from the peril of nuclear destruction, we must be ambitious. We can't lock ourselves into a fatalistic acceptance of a world held in jeopardy. In this area, more especially, we must approach the future with vision and hope that reach for the greatest possibilities. Only if we try can we succeed. You know, people who say it can't be done -- they remind me of a story, too. At my age practically everything reminds me of a story. [Laughter]

Back in 1842 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 equal to a half-century later when the head of the U.S. Patent Office advised President McKinley to abolish the Patent Office because he said, ``Everything that can be invented has already been invented.'' [Laughter] Well, if science has taught us anything, it's taught us not to be modest in our aspirations. The fact, I have to confess, is that fact is my secret agenda for bringing you all here today. I'm going to ask all of you to turn your attention to the budget problem.

Well, congratulations! You're all heroes in the cause of human progress. God bless you all. And now I will step away from the podium, and we shall have the awards.

Note: The President spoke at 1:40 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. John P. McTague, Acting Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, assisted the President in presenting the awards. Recipients of the 1986 National Medal of Science were Solomon J. Buchsbaum, Stanley Cohen, Horace R. Crane, Herman Feshbach, Harry B. Gray, Donald A. Henderson, Robert Hofstadter, Peter D. Lax, Yuan Tseh Lee, Hans W. Liepmann, Tung Yen Lin, Carl S. Marvel, Vernon B. Mountcastle, Bernard M. Oliver, George E. Palade, Herbert A. Simon, Joan Argetsinger Steitz, Frank H. Westheimer, Chen Ning Yang, and Antoni Zygmund. Recipients of the 1986 National Medal of Technology were Bernard Gordon, Reynold B. Johnson, William C. Norris, Frank N. Piasecki, Stanley D. Stookey, and Francis VerSnyder.