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Two Important Tools for Advancing Science and Technology

Remarks made at the inaugural symposium
of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology
Thuwal, Saudi Arabia
By Steven B. Sample
President, University of Southern California
September 24, 2009

I’m honored to be a panelist in this session of the symposium. As an engineer, professor, and university president, I feel a special kinship with the founding faculty and the inaugural class of graduate students of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). Collectively you constitute the world’s newest community of scholars. On behalf of the community of scholars that I lead – the University of Southern California – I congratulate you on being a part of this magnificent Bayt al-Hikma, a House of Wisdom.

The mission of research universities is to teach, create, discover, and innovate. Educated citizens are crucial to the world’s prosperity and progress. Science and technology also have a major role to play, and research universities are in the vanguard of creating new ideas and new technologies. However, the health and well-being of our planet and its peoples will also be determined to a great extent by our ethics as individuals and by our dedication to the building up of ethical communities. That’s why it’s important that in addition to cultivating your intellectual prowess, you take the time to nurture two other key attributes: first, your own moral compass, and, second, a sense of duty and interconnectedness as global citizens.

Let me begin by focusing on the cultivation of your moral compass. As an electrical engineer by training, I understand that those who develop and apply technology must think deeply and constantly about ethical factors. After all, the goal of engineering is to solve people’s problems and to expand their potential. Thus, the work of engineers is always tied up with moral values. Many of us want to think that science and technology are somehow morally neutral. That’s nonsense.

Now let me make it clear that I am not suggesting that scientific and technological research should be restrained to serve a particular set of moral values. I am, however, saying that the two are tightly and inevitably intertwined. Just recall the moral anguish suffered by many of the scientists and engineers who developed the atom bomb after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Of course, much of what scientists and engineers do is morally uplifting. We find better ways to clothe and feed people. We design greener buildings and machines, and we create new medicines and medical devices for improving the quality of human life.

I was drawn to engineering because I wanted to make a positive difference in the lives of people. It’s been more than 40 years since I was a graduate student. Much has changed – to say the least! For example, I was trained to do calculations with a slide rule. I’ll bet no student here has ever even held a slide rule in his hand, let alone used it to make calculations.

Our ethical values, however, unlike our technologies, should remain constant over time. They are visible in the actions we take and in the way we treat one another. The famous 19th-century philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “Your actions speak so loudly I cannot hear what you say.” Our ethical values give us purpose and strength. They guide us toward wisdom, encourage us to be honest and prudent, and keep us respectful and compassionate toward other people.

The second quality that is important in our work as scientists and technologists is an awareness of our common humanity. Increasingly, what happens in one corner of the world affects people elsewhere. The recent recession is proof of that. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Through our scientific genius, we have made the world a neighborhood.” It’s a neighborhood economically, politically, and socially.

Thanks to enlightened leaders such as King Abdullah, geographical divides are being bridged over, tunneled under, torn down, or flown across. Only a humane moral compass and a sense of global community can build bridges of understanding that can bring us together as neighbors to solve our most pressing challenges and to ensure that the needs of future generations will be met.

So in the final analysis, it is primarily to the next generation that I extend my best wishes. Students, the world and its future are rapidly moving into your hands. As you study and conduct research here on this sparkling new campus by the Red Sea, I encourage you to do what is right, to embrace your connection to all mankind, and to use your talents and your moral values to make the world a better and more beautiful place for all of us.