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Commencement Communique

Raajnish A. Chitaley


May 1, 1998

TO: President Bill Clinton

FR: Raajnish A. Chitaley '95

RE: MIT Commencement address

Dear Mr. President:

As an alumnus, I am very pleased that you will speak at MIT next month. We are honored to have you visit the nation's foremost center for science and technology. Your visit is particularly significant as technology plays a central role in shaping the next century. In that context, let me kindly suggest some topics for your address to the graduates:

1. Who will pay for science in the next century? For the last fifty years, American universities have relied on the federal government for support. In the environment of the Cold War, government support for science was easy to defend. With the end of the Cold War, MIT and other research universities have suffered in the era of "small government." The private sector cannot muster the level or intensity of resources of the government; their incentives are different. Mr. President, tell us who will pay for science in the next century. And who will decide where our science dollars should be spent? Will the best science win?

2. How can we improve the "technology equality"? As technology becomes critical for jobs, the gap between the technology "haves" and "have nots" is widening. Today, your average Electrical Engineering and Computer Science graduate will find a better job than 10 years ago, but what will happen to the millions without basic technology skills? Who is training the "blue collar" technology workforce of tomorrow? The Internet has expanded access beyond academics and corporate America. But what percent of low-income American adults have access to the Internet? What should MIT do to bridge the "technology equality" gap?

3. What is America's next great challenge in science and technology? Yes, I'm hoping for something Kennedy-esque: a national commitment for the next 10 years. Think about the power of national purpose: the Manhattan project, the moon race. What's next? The cure for cancer. Or maybe pollution-free, inexhaustible, cheap, fusion energy. Let's be bold.

4. How should American democracy change in response to technology? The Constitution was written in an era when it took weeks to deliver a message across the colonies. Today, it takes seconds to communicate across the globe. Are we using the right model of democracy? You hold many "town meetings" to encourage and inform "public discourse." What about real direct democracy through electronic town meetings?

5. How will law and ethics keep pace with science and technology? From Dolly the sheep to DNA testing, ethics and law are years behind technology. And the pace of technology evolution continues to increase. We will see more fundamental conflicts between the law and technology. Some conflicts, like software architecture and monopoly law (e.g., U.S. v. Microsoft), are top of mind. Others, like cryptography and the nature of privacy rights, are more obscure. Will we ever get a "step change" in ethics and law to reflect our modern reality?

6. What is the public duty of America's technology elite? America's intellectual elite has traditionally felt the pull of national service - such as during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and during the Great Depression. During World War II, public duty meant the Radiation Lab and the Manhattan project. Dr. Vest is skipping his usual "Charge to Graduates." Take the opportunity to give America's technology elite their charge. What is their public duty?

7. Can scientists and engineers make great leaders? Very few political leaders have had a science or technology background. Jimmy Carter, a nuclear engineer in the Navy, was an exception. Your administration has been especially active in science and technology issues. Will scientists and engineers, as opposed to politicos and corporate leaders, ever exercise significant influence over public thought? Why didn't you choose a science or technology field for your career?

These are big topics, but you're the president. And you'll be speaking to some of the world's newly minted science and technology cognoscenti, who will also be new college graduates. Your speech should be as memorable as the happiness of Commencement day for graduates and families. Some final advice. On length, the shorter the better. And learn the words to "We are the Engineers." I look forward to hearing you sing in June.

Raaj Chitaley '95, a former Opinion Editor, is a management consultant in Boston.