Boston University’s 144th Commencement Baccalaureate Address: Mario J. Molina

Mario J. Molina

Nobel Prize Recipient, 1995

Baccalaureate Address, Boston University

Boston, Massachusetts

May 21, 2017

It’s a privilege and an honor for me to celebrate with you, and to congratulate all of you for the Baccalaureate degree you have earned at Boston University.

Let me start with some words of advice for all of you, who are receiving a degree today: the advice is to find out what sorts of activities, what sort of work do you enjoy most; it is a matter of trial and error.  The idea is that you can choose to continue pursuing those types of activities you like most, perhaps in your graduate studies, or perhaps in your future work.  The point is, if you enjoy what you are doing, then it is likely that you will become very good at it.  And my advice is, if you enjoy what you are doing, do it with passion, and you will like it even more.  Perhaps you enjoy science, say doing experiments, or perhaps you enjoy working with computers, for example, doing theoretical calculations, or perhaps you enjoy working as an economist, or as a social sciences expert, or even as a politician.  In my case, since I was a kid I enjoyed science; I enjoyed doing experiments, which often required a lot of patience and perseverance, but the rewards were enormous: finding out that I was able to contribute to the advancement of fundamental science, finding out how nature works, and then applying this knowledge for the benefit of society, became extremely satisfactory.

Now, I realize, of course, that not all of you have decided to become scientists.  Nevertheless, I believe that science has now become part of universal culture.  What I mean is not that everybody should be familiar with all sorts of science laws, but rather, that everybody should be aware of the enormous importance of science in modern society, particularly in these times when the importance of science is being questioned by various powerful groups.

Let me explain. Human civilization has progressed enormously in recent times, and it is mainly as a consequence of advances in science and its applications.   Life expectancy has more than doubled in the past 50 years; airplane travelling across the globe is currently not only feasible, but extremely safe; structures such as high-rise buildings no longer fall down merely as a consequence of large earthquakes; modern science has made it possible for a large fraction of the population to communicate with digital, hand-held phones; and so on. This age of deep transformation and revolutionary scientific discoveries was developed mostly over the past century, with extraordinary results over the last few decades: the quality of life has improved substantially for a large section of society, although it is important to recognize that a significant portion of the global population remains in poverty.

Science advances through basic research activities that rely on evidence-based observations and inquiry.  Scientific knowledge is created by reproducing experimental results and by testing hypotheses, which lead to a deeper understanding of how the world works. There are findings that we refer to as fundamental science, such as the Laws of Newton, the existence of electromagnetic waves, the existence of molecules, and the theory of relativity; it took some time after the discovery of these components of science to become well established, but they are now unquestionable.  An important aspect of the advancement of science is based, though, on skepticism: new theories must be tested, experimental results duplicated, etc., before they are accepted as part of modern science.

One complication connected with the development of science is the nature of the so-called “complex systems”, which leads to uncertainties.   One example is the human body: there are many spectacular scientific advances in biology and medicine related to human health, but there remain uncertainties associated with the results.  An example is the effect of medications used to cure diseases; they might work for a majority, but there is no absolute certainty that they will function effectively for all humans, because of the differences among them resulting from the complexity of the human body.

For these reasons, it is important to acknowledge that there are uncertainties associated with predictions involving complex systems; however, this fact by no means implies that society should ignore the projections of well-established science unless there is absolute certainty in such projections.  What should be done in such cases is to base societal actions on the risk involved, which depends on the science and on its uncertainties, as well as on the resources available to society to implement such actions, and on social and political issues.

It is crucial to highlight this last point.  Science itself does not tell society what to do, or how to progress; it can, however, predict with some confidence the consequences of different societal actions.  Science is neither good or bad; its impacts depend on the nature of the policies implemented by society, which in turn depend on economic and social considerations, on the availability of resources, etc., but most importantly, the policies also depend on ethical considerations, including societal values.  Fortunately, the international scientific community shares important values such as aiming for the improvement of the quality of life for the entire population of our planet.   In fact, for civilization to progress it is crucial for societal policies to be based on accepted ethical values, as well as to be consistent with accepted science, rather than to be based on irrational believes that disagree with science itself and that favor only a selected portion of the population.

Let me illustrate these ideas with a couple of additional examples.  In the human health realm, one example is the use of vaccines: despite some errors committed in the early days of their use by society, vaccines have saved millions of lives, and thus today it is unethical to prevent vaccination just because of irrational believes developed by certain groups.  Another example has to do with tumors: often a physician cannot tell for sure if a certain tumor is cancerous, but even if the probability that it is so is not very large, the most sensible recommendation is to remove the tumor with surgery, or to destroy it with radiation.

Let me know say a few words about climate change.  There is an unusual consensus among climate scientists, not only that climate is changing, but that there is more than a 95% probability that most of the recent change has been caused by human activities, mainly the use of fossil fuels.  There is no other reasonable explanation.   Now, the earth’s climate is a complex system, and because of that we talk about probabilities, and thus, projections of changes that might take place in the future for a given emissions scenario are uncertain.  Nevertheless, with the help of science, we can estimate, for example, the probability that the average temperature of the planet will increase to a certain extent in a certain time period.  And a very worrisome projection is that there is a roughly a one in five probability that a business as usual scenario, that is, if society ignores climate change, the average surface temperature of the planet might increase five or more degrees Celsius towards the end of the Century, with potentially catastrophic consequences for civilization – parts of the planet would become uninhabitable, the capacity for global food production would be enormously affected, massive migrations would occur, and so on.  But, thanks to modern technology, it turns out that such a business as usual scenario can be prevented at practically no cost and without reducing the number of jobs available to society, so that there is really no excuse whatsoever to accept the enormous risk to future generations associated with a business as usual scenario, something that is only supported by irrational believes.

In summary, scientific research improves our understanding of natural processes, which leads to remarkable benefits for society.  On the other hand, ethical considerations are crucial: science has to work together with government and business for the continued improvement of the quality of life of the human population, now and in the future.

But let me finish by giving you my perspective about some other very important changes that have occurred recently, connected with your future work, changes also caused by advances in scientific knowledge.  It is a fact that much of the routine work people were accustomed to carry out in the past, is now carried out automatically, for example, by robots.  This change is also a consequence of developments in science and technology, but in this case, it has to do with enormous advancements in solid state physics, as well as advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, that is, advances in digital globalization.  The other side of the coin is that these developments have led to a significant loss of old-fashion jobs, particularly in the developed countries. And here is the bottom line: the notion that what you learned in college is sufficient for your future work was an acceptable point of view in the past, but it is no longer valid.  The big change, as you are all probably aware off, is that you have to continue learning throughout your career.  This means that perhaps the most important skill you should have acquired in college is how to learn, how to become motivated to keep learning, that is, how to become a lifelong learner.

And once again, congratulations for receiving your Baccalaureate degree.  I wish all of you the best of luck in your future career.  Thank you.