Commencement Speech, May 2001

by C. Judson King

Dr. King is Provost and Senior Vice President-Academic Affairs at the University of California and continues as Professor of Chemical Engineering, a position he has held since 1969.

We are gathered here today for commencement exercises—the traditional finishing touch to the process of getting an academic degree. Your work for this degree has taken a substantial portion of your life.

But, even though it’s the end of your degree program, the very name “commencement” bespeaks something else. The word, in fact, does not mean an ending, but instead means a beginning. But, the beginning of what? Well, yes, the rest of your life, but also the beginning of that period of life when you put to use the thinking habits and the knowledge that you have gained during your time at Berkeley. You will now build your record of accomplishment and experience, based upon what you have learned here.

At this point, you have a good, hopefully even a very good, working knowledge of chemistry or chemical engineering. You are a graduate of an excellent and well-recognized university. You are, I hope, able to communicate well with others. You are a good problem solver and you have developed your creativity and innovation skills. If you are a PhD graduate, you have honed your creative skills to a fine edge. And, most important of all, you have learned how to learn. That is the most important thing of all, and that is something that you will—and must—keep doing for the rest of your life.

Now, how should you take advantage of all of this preparation? Most of you will probably go into the world of business and industry. Some will work for government in a public-sector role. Others will work for the benefit of society in other ways, including some who follow an academic career in a university. But my main point today is that you will find that, whatever you do, your chemistry or chemical engineering degree is not enough. Your scientific and technical knowledge will be valuable and essential to you. It will be an important background that most others do not have. But it is still not enough.

First, let’s consider the big item in the news of the day—California’s energy situation. In California, energy demand often exceeds energy supply, and therefore the costs of procuring have gone up. Because of the interaction between our deregulation and the short supply, the spot cost of acquiring energy at times goes way up.

You might think that the answer to the energy crisis is simply to increase supply by designing and building more power plants, or to decrease demand by conserving. Or both. These are important steps, and well trained chemical engineers are certainly useful for accomplishing them. But those needs are just part of the story. Instead the crisis pivots on other factors. We have to find a way to carry the partial deregulation decision of several years ago to a workable end state. We have to go either to full deregulation where prices to the consumer travel with the market, or we have to go back toward regulation of price to the provider as well as price for the consumer. We have to find political, economic and sociological paths that enable us to let the price of energy to the consumer increase and thereby provide workable, market-based incentives for conservation. That’s not so easily done!

To increase energy supply, we have to gain social acceptance for siteing of power plants. They can’t all be rejected through “Not in My Back Yard” or NIMBY logic. NIMBY comes about not just because power plants are not beautiful. People know that power plants that burn coal, oil and gas have large stacks, from which pollutants come. Chemists and chemical engineers are good at conceiving and designing pollution control devices and modifying processes to make them less polluting. But environmental issues have gotten more complex than that.

And then there is carbon dioxide. We are faced with stronger and stronger proof that the activities of man on earth are a cause of global warming. What can we do to reduce our contribution to global warming? The fundamental answer is that we must put less carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. What are to be the incentives for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases?

Alternatively, we can switch from fossil fuels to other forms of energy production A notable possibility is nuclear energy. But to use nuclear energy more requires overcoming a national phobia of things nuclear. And we have to come up with politically and perceptionally viable means of sequestering nuclear waste. Or we can think of hydro, solar and wind power. But there are only so many descending rivers. And enough solar collectors to generate a lot of power would take a very large amount of land area. Wind is inconsistent and limited in location, and windmills aren’t exactly scenic.

The point of this energy discussion is that while we, as chemists and chemical engineers, have important technical knowledge, we must bring that knowledge to larger dimensions. We need to build bridges to other disciplines and link intimately with them. And it isn’t just other scientific disciplines. It’s also those areas studied by humanists, social scientists, and other professional practitioners.

Let me take another example from the business world. One of the reasons for the rapid recovery of the California economy from the recession of the early ’90s was the growth of the biotechnology industry. Incidentally, the University of California had much to do with the growth of that industry. Wondrous things are possible through biotechnology. Genetically modified organisms promise an abundant food supply and important medical advances. But the fears about genetically modified organisms, known now as GMOs, seem to be going in the same direction as those about nuclear energy. There has to be public acceptance for the products if the promise is to be realized. Is tampering with organisms inherently a bad thing, because it may offset the consequences of eons of evolution? How can we find answers to that question? It is easy to say that we should put the scientific truth about GMOs out there, and then everything will be OK. But it is hardly that easy. Our science and our production technology have become interwoven with the evolutional biology of very long time scales.

Let’s consider next another trend of the modern world—the movement toward globalization. If you work for a major corporation, it will in all likelihood be a multi-national corporation. You will find yourself traveling to other countries and interacting with colleagues of very different backgrounds and cultures. Indeed, in this information age, you can find yourself interacting with them continually, through electronic communications interspersed among visits. Americans are typically not well prepared for these interactions.

And then there is the political world. Many political issues have a scientific component, yet there are always surprisingly few scientists or engineers in the Legislature, the Congress or high government executive posts. The reason, I think, is that the scientific mind tends to be uncomfortable with the political world. But, if so, that is all the more reason for scientists and engineers to build bridges to the body politic.

Finally, some of you will devote your lives to fundamental research —discovering, expanding and codifying knowledge in your fields. That role is vitally important to society and the economy, and can be intellectually very rewarding. And you may say that such a world frees you from the need for the bridge-building that I am talking about. But that is not so. The best research often lies at the boundaries between classical disciplines. And even the ivory tower has permeable walls. It must connect with the rest of the world in intimate and multi-dimensional ways. Research must have meaning and promise, and furthermore the large costs of research must be covered somehow. Those costs are typically borne by the federal or state government, a private company, or a consortium of companies. And the governments or companies concerned must be convinced of the ultimate worth of your research for the benefit for society or the company’s bottom line. The potential benefit must be worth the cost, allowing for the risk and uncertainty inherently present in research. So the researcher and the academic, too, must connect with other fields and society.

How best to build these bridges? One approach is for people of very different backgrounds to work in interdisciplinary teams. That has been an avenue to success in our national laboratories and many of our more innovative companies. But another approach is to expand one’s own base of knowledge, through far-ranging reading, through continuing education, through frequent interactions with persons of other backgrounds and through an ever-widening backlog of experience. That’s by far the more powerful avenue, because it can bring all aspects of the matter into a single human mind—your mind. Lifelong learning in many fields and a variety of experience are key.

So keep yourself in a lifelong learning mode, bridge to others of very different backgrounds, and always look for ways to broaden your knowledge. It can even lead to a very fulfilling sequential career, where you branch into policy or government or—heaven forbid—university administration.


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editor@cchem.berkeley.edu

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We need to build bridges to other disciplines and link intimately with them. And it isn’t just other scientific disciplines.

 

 

 

Your scientific and technical knowledge will be valuable and essential to you. It will be an important background that most others do not have. But it is still not enough.

 

 

 

 

 

We have to find political, economic and sociological paths that enable us to let the price of energy to the consumer increase and thereby provide workable, market-based incentives for conservation. That’s not so easily done!

 

 

 

 

 

Many political issues have a scientific component, yet there are always surprisingly few scientists or engineers in the Legislature, the Congress or high government executive posts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The best research often lies at the boundaries between classical disciplines.