Spring 2012 Initiation Address

The Alpha of Florida Phi Beta Kappa Chapter
Spring 2012 Initiation Address
Dr. Eric J. Barron
University President, Florida State University
April 15th, 2012


First, let me provide my welcome and my warm congratulations for your induction into Phi Beta Kappa.  We are very proud of your accomplishments.
If you don’t mind, I would like to step back a generation – (interestingly it is the same place I started last year but my direction is different) – okay - to that period from the end of World War II to the shortly after the launch of Sputnik.  Imagine the inability to counter the missiles invented by the Germans, the overwhelming threat of the atomic bomb, and the potential threat of Soviet technology when the first object began to orbit in space.  
The reaction of this nation was powerful – the President’s first science advisor (Vannevar Bush) wrote “Science: The Endless Frontier” – a road map for post war science and technology – citing the central role of technology innovation and entrepreneurship in our economic and geopolitical security.  The National Science Foundation was born.  So, also began the birth and growth of this nation’s great public universities.  The return of veterans and the GI bill, in fact, marked the transition of the Florida State College of Women to Florida State University.
The impact of America’s public universities, the investment in science and technology, and the transition of innovations to the marketplace by American companies has been nothing short of remarkable.  A recent analysis by a blue ribbon panel of corporate CEOs, educational leaders and policymakers connects the investment in education and technology to an overwhelmingly large fraction of tremendous advances in our well-being.   I don’t think you need me to make a list.
But, I will summarize what I think – our vitality, both economic and geopolitical security, our quality of life, is derived from the productivity of well-trained people.  People like you.
But, I am also more than a little worried.  
Our investment, our commitment as a nation (and it isn’t just us), appears to depend on whether we feel threatened.  On whether we can point to a Sputnik. 
Today, all the threats are contested, or they have been repeated so many times that they have lost their impact, or they are far enough in the future that they aren’t yet real enough, or we are simply not yet aware of their presence.  
Perhaps some examples from my personal experiences:
For more than two decades, scientists warned that a hurricane strike in New Orleans was inevitable and that the dikes in place would not protect the city.  No response.  The cost of repairing those dikes was far less than the cost of the damage and we still had to repair the dikes. 
The U.S. basically invented modern day weather forecasts using computers as well as the observing systems that protect life and property.  The savings in life and property are billions and billions of dollars more than the cost of providing Americans with the weather service.  Today, we rank, if I am generous, maybe third in the world in our weather forecasting ability.  I remember issuing a report on how we lost our edge and when I presented the report in Washington, one of the responses was:  “The testosterone of scientists who want to be number 1 is not a sufficient reason for this country to maintain the budget of the weather service.”  Today, we live in a world in which the payoff needs to be quick.
If I have to see the payoff instantaneously, then the steps I am willing to take into the future will be small indeed.
I remember I went to visit a potential donor in West Virginia and he took me to visit his port and barges on a nearby river.  He told me that the year before he had sold the barges to a major company (which I will decline to name) for about $1.2M.  I was confused because clearly he still owned them.  He told me that the end of the fiscal year for the company came about and they didn’t think they had enough profit to report to the shareholders so they decided to increase their profit report by selling the port and barges.  The gentleman said he brought them for a little more than $600K.  He laughed and said in a couple of years they will realize that they still need them and I will sell them to the company again.   
We need a new paradigm.  Does our investment in education and technology have to depend on whether we feel threatened?  Are we capable, in this nation, of the longer view?  The weather service story, that I told, can be told for a hundred different areas in which this nation was a leader – investment in public higher education is a good example.
It reminds me of the story about the frog and heated water.  Put a frog in boiling water and it will jump right out.  Put a frog in room temperature water and slowly bring the water to a boil and the frog will expire from the heat.  Is that us?
You are the best and the brightest that this University has to offer.  We know that you will go on to be leaders in this nation, covering the breadth of the disciplines represented in this room.  It will be your wisdom and vision that will govern future quality of life.  
Lately, my generation has been making a bit of a mess of it.   We don’t seem to be able to respond unless there is an obvious and immediate threat.  I guarantee that we will discover, perhaps the hard way, that is not good enough.
So, I ask you to remember:  the vitality of this nation and the world is derived from the productivity of a well-trained people.   May you be extraordinarily productive.  
And congratulations again.