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Monday, November 25, 2013

Tom Still: Fifty years after his death, JFK’s science and technology legacy endures


By Tom Still
The wave of remembrances tied to the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination have necessarily stressed his role in pushing the frontiers of space exploration, but his contributions to innovation in other realms of science and technology reach well beyond.

From human health to telecommunications to environmental studies, Kennedy left his stamp on a nation that was on the verge of economic transition – from a manufacturing and agricultural model to a society grappling with the challenges of a new information age.

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth," said Kennedy in a May 25, 1961, address to a joint session of Congress.

It was an audacious goal, influenced more by the urgency of the Cold War than pure scientific inquiry. (Later that same year, JFK advised American families to build bomb shelters and Ok'd resumed atmospheric testing of atomic weapons.) His "man on the moon" speech was nonetheless galvanizing for a generation of scientists and engineers who were thrown into a mega-project that required more innovation than most people thought was possible.

The commercial spinoffs of the space race are almost legendary, from memory foam to free-dried food and hundreds more. A larger legacy may be that the space race validated the concept of interdisciplinary science, the notion that scientists and engineers from varied backgrounds could collaborate to meet common goals.

That idea was taken to the next level when Kennedy established the White House Office of Science and Technology, a nod to the fact that policymakers should hear from different disciplines and find ways to channel or even exploit their ideas for public good.

He also understood that American science was global science. Speaking to the National Academy of Sciences in 1963, Kennedy noted: "As science, of necessity, becomes more involved with itself, so also, of necessity, it becomes more international. I am impressed to know that of the 670 members of this Academy, 163 were born in other lands."

As a U.S. senator in the 1950s, Kennedy became convinced that physicians could benefit from greater exchange of information, especially those practicing in parts of the nation that were removed from urban centers and universities. That led to the creation during his presidency of the National Library of Medicine. It featured one of the first examples of "health information technology," a state-of-the-art computer system called MEDLARS, which stood for Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System.

Kennedy also helped to change how the nation studied and treated mental illness and developmental disabilities. In early 1963, he proposed a national program to combat both. It's a program that led to the birth of the UW-Madison Waisman Center.

In fact, just two days before he was killed in Dallas, Kennedy sent a telegram to UW President Fred Harrington to mark the opening of the Joseph P. Kennedy Medical Laboratories at the UW Medical School. "My special good wishes go to Dr. (Harry) Waisman on the culmination of his dream and to the many young people who, through his efforts and that of the University of Wisconsin, will now be able to enter and soon conquer the vast field of mental retardation and its attendant problems," Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy also signed a bill creating the world's first commercial communications satellite system and advocated for more vigorous environmental studies, particularly those tied to bodies of water. The Cape Cod National Seashore Act in 1961 indirectly led to the designation of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in 1970. That campaign began with Kennedy's helicopter tour of the region in 1963.

He was no scientist or technologist himself, and history has and will record many of his foibles. But Kennedy's sense of how science and technology can drive innovation was instructive – even a bit prescient.

As he told a group of scientists a month before his death, "I can imagine no period in the long history of the world where it would be more exciting and rewarding than in the field today of scientific exploration. I recognize with each door that we unlock we see perhaps 10 doors that we never dreamed existed and, therefore, we have to keep working forward."

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

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