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MIT professors offer New Year's advice

Four MIT professors were among the experts asked to play White House science advisor for the online publication Edge, which invited them to write a pretend memo to President Bush answering the questions: "What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?"

Professors Rodney Brooks, Seth Lloyd, Marvin Minsky and Steven Pinker responded. Excerpts from their responses are below. Their complete memos can be read at the "World Question Center" of the Edge Foundation Inc., a nonprofit organization promoting inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic and literary issues.

"The great universities of the U.S. ... act as an engine of creativity that feeds the scientific needs of the U.S. and the world.

"As science advisor I would urge you to ... set aside perhaps a billion dollars to fund new fellowships for graduate students from predominantly Islamic countries to come and study science (broadly construed) in the United States.

"Once I have convinced you to follow this advice I will get to work on some more radical ideas ..."

--Rodney Brooks

"My advice to our highest elected official is to keep science public ... By keeping the science public, your agencies are dramatically speeding the development not only of quantum computers, but of a wide variety of other quantum technologies, ranging from enhanced lithography to more accurate atomic clocks, to precise global positioning. The frontier of the very small offers huge space for development: keep this frontier open to all."

--Seth Lloyd

"My idea is that the whole "Homeland Defense" thing is too cost-ineffective to be plausible. The lifetime cost of, for example, preventing each airplane-crash fatality will be the order of $100,000,000--and we could save a thousand times as many lives at the same cost by various simple public health measures.

"Conclusion: what we really need is a 'Homeland Arithmetic' reorganization."

--Marvin Minsky

"First and foremost, we must apply a scientific mindset to the educational process ... What is the mind of a child inherently good at? What is it bad at? ... The goal of education should be to provide students with the cognitive tools that are most important for grasping the modern world and that are most unlike the cognitive tools they are born with."

--Steven Pinker

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 29, 2003.

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