Lawrence Summers

KAI RYSSDAL: We don't often reference the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on this program. But there's an item online today about some new research from Rockefeller University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute. It shows stem cells from adult mouse skin can be used to clone whole animals.

I won't pretend to understand how that works. But it's a scientific innovation many Americans have come to take for granted. Commentator Lawrence Summers says the United States has some work to do if it wants to stay on that leading edge.


LAWRENCE SUMMERS: Physics shaped America's 20th century.

Just think how different things would be if Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia had developed nuclear weapons first. Or if Japan had come up first with the transistor, then the semiconductor, software and the Internet.

Biology will shape the 21st century. This century, life sciences are likely to help us to conquer the deadly chronic diseases: cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular conditions. Bio-fuels will be central to any national energy policy. And the increasingly ubiquitous "drugs that help you study," used by college students here at Harvard and elsewhere, are just a precursor of the mental steroids coming down the road.

But whether the 21st century will be American depends on what we do in the life sciences.

Evolution theory is central to progress. Yet nearly 70 percent of the American people and one-third of American high school biology teachers are not comfortable with it. And worse, we have a president who regards evolution as just one of several alternative theories.

Why do we cut research funding, as we did last year for the first time in 40 years? Why do we drive researchers overseas by denying federal funding for stem cell research?

No. To build a future, we need to build American magnets for the world's life sciences talent.

We have major regions of strength in the United States, here in Boston, in New York, Washington and the Bay Area. We have to help them flourish. That means assuring rapid translation of research from the laboratory bench to the bedside.

We can do that only by shoring up university research. Fostering partnerships between universities and businesses. And providing infrastructure for clinical tests of new therapies.

We rightly worry about the immediate: the war in Iraq, the budget deficit, and the next election. But let's not let the urgent crowd out the truly important.

RYSSDAL: Lawrence Summers was Treasury Secretary for President Clinton. He used to be the President of Harvard University.

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