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

June 25, 1987

Thank you very much, and welcome to the White House. One of the pleasures of this job is being able to meet individuals who are contributing to our country and, yes, bettering all of mankind as well. And that is, of course, the ultimate goal of technology and science: a quest for bettering the human condition. So, today it's a great pleasure for me to honor some champions of progress, some American heroes of technology and science.

One of the advantages of being my age -- and believe me my birthday cake is beginning to look more like a celestial phenomenon every year -- [laughter] -- is that it provides a perspective that can't help but lead one to be optimistic about the future of our country and the direction of the human race. I've already lived some 23 years longer than was projected when I was born. That's a source of consternation in certain circles. [Laughter] But I'm still here, as are other people, because during the intervening years, men and women of science have made enormous strides combating diseases, bolstering health, lengthening the lifespan, and improving the quality of living.

I remember when I was in high school we were still being taught about the predictions of a 19th century economist named Malthus who calculated that by now mankind would be suffering catastrophic shortages of food and the necessities of life. Over the last 200 years there've been a number of experts like him who've made their reputation, earned a living, forecasting planetary gloom and doom. Well, the people we honor today are among those who make their living seeing to it that those dire predictions will never come true. You see, what the pessimists rarely take into account is the potential of human intelligence and ingenuity to overcome problems. The most vital factor in maintaining man's environment and ensuring that the needs of the Earth's population are taken care of is human freedom. It's freedom that energizes the creative spirit of mankind to meet the immense challenges of our modern age. If you believe in freedom and see what the people have accomplished in just one lifetime you can't help but be optimistic.

Our Founding Fathers were just such people, and as Jefferson wrote: ``I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.'' Benjamin Franklin once wrote: ``I have sometimes almost wished it had been my destiny to be born two or three centuries hence. For invention and improvement are prolific and beget more of their kind. The present progress is rapid. Many of great importance, now unthought of, will before that period be produced; and then I might not only enjoy their advantages but have my curiosity gratified in knowing what they are to be.'' Well, after reading of the accomplishments of those we honor today, I couldn't help but feel like Franklin and wish that I were going to be around to see where we're headed -- let us say 100 years from now.

It was just 50 years ago that Lindbergh flew nonstop from New York to Paris, a feat that was applauded the world over. It took him 33\1/2\ hours. Today we make that same run in a plane carrying 400 passengers and do it in about 7 hours. And now we're conducting research for an aerospace plane which will cover the distance in 45 minutes. Lindbergh, like Jefferson, was a dreamer, a man who pushed back the frontiers. There's a story about a father and his young son who visit the Air and Space Museum here in Washington. And there, hanging in all its glory, is Lindbergh's airplane, the Spirit of St. Louis. And the boy asked his father, ``Was it difficult for Lindbergh to fly across the Atlantic all alone?'' And his father said, ``It would have been harder with a committee.'' [Laughter]

The recipients of this year's National Medals of Science and Technology, I'm certain, have had to overcome a variety of obstacles. Yet with diligence and dedication, they persevered. They put their genius to work, and the results are phenomenal. This year's recipients include individuals who have made contributions in agricultural biochemistry, magnetic resonance imaging, advanced mathematics, causes and treatments of diseases, geotechnical engineering, semiconductors, communications satellites, and much, much more. These individuals have been on the front lines of the battle for national competitiveness and productivity. They and their colleagues are keeping America in pace and, in many cases, out front. These are the dreamers, the builders, the men and women who are the heroes of the modern age.

Our country's greatest asset is not our vast expanse of land and not our abundant resources or our temperate climate. Instead, what will serve America most in the years ahead, our most precious possession, is the genius of our people. It will be the inventions, the ideas, the innovations developed by our fellow Americans, like those we honor today, that will not only keep us competitive but enable us to beat the competition. That's one of the reasons we've taken care to pay them the tribute that they deserve.

Now, Secretary Baldrige and my science advisor, Dr. Graham, will now announce the recipients, and I will present the awards.

Note: The President spoke at 11:35 a.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House. Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige and William R. Graham, Science Advisor to the President and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, presented the awards.