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Introduction by Dean Alexis Abramson:
Each year at Investiture, we honor a member of the greater scientific community for their distinguished achievement and service in the highest tradition of our School.
In 1870, then-Dartmouth President Asa Dodge Smith and our Founder Sylvanus Thayer hired Robert Fletcher as the school's first dean and professor. At the time, Fletcher was serving as a 23-year-old army lieutenant and an assistant professor of mathematics at the US Military Academy. When he arrived at Thayer, he served as the school’s only full-time professor, teaching 14 courses his first academic year and 36 courses during his second.
In the ensuing 65 years, Fletcher left a strong, lasting impression on generations of Thayer students. In addition to serving as Thayer's dean and professor of engineering, Fletcher designed and supervised construction of steel bridges across the Connecticut and White Rivers, and water-works for the Towns of Hanover and Enfield. During his tenure as dean, he advanced the importance of engineering education as a way to improve lives and better our communities.
The individual selected to receive the Robert Fletcher Award must possess the qualities exemplified in the life and work of this remarkable individual.
Today, we are honored to present the 2021 Robert Fletcher Award to former US Secretary of Energy Ernest Jeffrey Moniz.
Ernest Moniz is a renowned nuclear physicist and the 13th US Secretary of Energy. During his tenure under President Obama, he helped advance American leadership in clean energy technology, reduce threats from nuclear weapons proliferation, and expand our capacity for cutting-edge research.
Prior to his appointment as Secretary of Energy, he served on the faculty at MIT as the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems. He also served as the founding director for MIT's Energy Initiative and the director of MIT's Laboratory for Energy and the Environment.
Throughout his career, he also served in various advisory and federal policy-making roles for numerous Presidential administrations, including as the Undersecretary for Energy under President Clinton and as a member of President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the Defense Threat Reduction Advisory Committee.
He is currently CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and of the Energy Futures Initiative.
We are honored to have him join us today. Please welcome Secretary Moniz.
Remarks by Ernest Moniz:
Thank you Dean Abramson for the honor of the Robert Fletcher Award and for the kind introduction — and even more for your public service, both at the Department of Energy, where you helped advance the clean energy transition, and in the broader sense of public service as teacher and scholar at Dartmouth, continuously strengthening what is arguably America's most important competitive asset for the super-competitive 21st century — its research universities. I also thank the President and Trustees of Dartmouth College for the honor of joining this distinguished academic community with an honorary Dartmouth degree — and I'm especially pleased to join this year’s graduates of the Thayer School of Engineering who come here with their earned degrees.
Each year, sending off a cadre of incredibly well educated young people to make their way in and to shape a rapidly evolving world — and to make it a better place — is the ultimate act of renewal for them and for our society. It certainly is what kept me tethered to an academic career even as I wandered off from the campus three times to the hand to hand combat of the Washington political environment.
I was reminded of the existential pleasures of academic life just three days ago with an email out of the blue. A 1982 MIT physics PhD — one who I admittedly don't recall after forty years — wrote to me, for no obvious reason, an email entitled "An MIT memory." He wrote that, as a new MIT physics grad student in the late 1970’s, he was a bit full of himself but was doing poorly in a group theory course that I was teaching. He noted that, upon asking some basic questions, I replied, "this is difficult stuff and you will actually have to put in some hard work to understand this." It was a wake-up call and he went on to an A, adding that "of all the courses I took at MIT, I think I enjoyed Group Theory the best, for its sheer elegance…Thanks for your contribution to my education and work ethic." Those last two words — work ethic — were so important. This is the kind of random story that makes the academic profession so worthwhile. And then I found him on the internet. Successful multi-decadal career in industry and academic basic research. And best of all, now retired in Mexico and, in his internet words, "enjoying life." So it's all worthwhile from his perspective too. A well-off beach bum armed with group theory. This is the ecosystem of hard work and enjoyment that I wish for all of us.
But in addition to personal fulfillment, there's also responsibility for our collective good, for our sense of community. This falls on you and every other generation of graduates of this distinguished institution. Sending each graduating class out from the campus to a society in need of those talents is our university responsibility. My friend Bob Armstrong, former Vice President for Science and Technology at IBM, used to say that the best vehicle for technology transfer from academia to the private sector is the moving van, and that certainly applies to you as engineering graduates, mostly going into the private sector now or in a few more years after postgraduate study. But the same idea applies beyond engineering and technology to your role in society at large. You have extraordinary capabilities for raising the level of discourse, and we need it.
We have come through a period of heightened challenge to our expectations of fact-based, analysis-based, science-based debate — a seeming loss of understanding that data, analysis and science must be guardrails for the political debate. We used to have public arbiters setting the terms of debate — where are you Walter Cronkheit when we need you? The responsibilities are now placed on the individual citizen with access to every opinion and every version of the facts that one could imagine — delivered over media that are still remarkably young. Who's in the White House — he or she — will not have the prerogative to reset the way in which political debate is carried out in our country and beyond. Today's and tomorrow's technology will set the boundary conditions. This has the potential to pose catastrophic risk to our governance model and our core values if we don't change direction. I have great expectations that these graduates will assume the civic responsibility of helping restore fact to its place in political discourse while adapting to the modern media in ways that I know I can't. You will bring the combination of values and capability that are the hope of a restored political dialogue that rededicates our society to lifting the underserved as part of its collective advancement.
We also face more evident forms of societal catastrophic risk. Our convocation today comes as we hope to be emerging from the COVID global disaster. This was a grey swan event in the sense that it was completely predictable even if the precise circumstances and timing were not — a major risk in plain sight. Indeed, it was predicted by many. For example, the Obama Administration established a National Security Council office of pandemic preparedness, only to have it disbanded less than a year before COVID hit. The third coronavirus outbreak in two decades. Remarkably poor risk management by the country’s chief risk officer — the President. An organization that I'm part of, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, together with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, issued the first Global Health Security Index evaluating country-by-country pandemic preparedness late in 2019, just before the emergence of COVID-19. It concluded that the interconnected world was very poorly prepared to manage a pandemic, and the United States fell short in a major way on access to public health systems. Tragically this all played out over the last sixteen months.
But I will focus on a different lesson that emerged from our pandemic experience. First, we have discovered considerable personal agency to address these societal risks. Personal behavior, such as getting vaccinated and adapting to new ways of work and maintaining social distancing, have proved to be the effective path to collective response — despite some counterproductive behavior related to what we discussed earlier — fantasy-based discussions percolating chaotically throughout the discussion. Second, science and technology innovation did come to the fore in amazing ways. Specifically, the speed of getting to vaccines was unprecedented, with novel technologies such as messenger RNA leading the way for some of the most effective vaccines. This combination of technology advances and personal agency is a great story that must guide informed societal approaches to all manner of catastrophic risk management. It's simply not true that individuals must defer responsibility to government for managing systemic risk. Shared responsibility is what's effective.
One of the most urgent arenas for applying these lessons and engaging your talents is that of converting climate change risk to opportunity, while at the same time advancing social equity. We are paying the price for not sufficiently advancing social equity and addressing climate change for decades. And social equity in an interconnected world means not just in the US but also in the developing world. We urgently need to bring the combination of personal agency and innovation shown in the COVID response to bear on this challenge.
Climate change is another of those grey swan situations — great risk in plain sight. It's more of a slow-motion trainwreck in which we cannot anticpate with great precision what the societal consequences will be or when they will kick in, but the science is pretty clear about the nature and magnitude of the macro-impacts and that we are already experiencing material change, such as with a multitude of extreme weather events. As the February Texas big chill showed tragically, we're not good at understanding the fat tails of the climate risk distribution. Nor do we understand their differential impacts on the most economically vulnerable. Bad consequences will materialize increasingly unless we have a massive societal response.
The necessary objectives have become clear on the road to the major climate meeting in Glasgow in November — a meeting that must, for the first time, show a global commitment to climate ambition. The industrialized countries need to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century — a pretty short time when measured against historical time frames for dramatically turning over the energy system. The least developed countries need to evolve economically and socially to be part of the climate solution a bit further down the road as they meet their economic development needs in the face of demographic realities and massive urbanization. Without such development, women will not become central players in the developing economies sufficiently rapidly to drive environmental solutions.
Technology is a critical part of the solution. We have massive technology innovation needs — a 21st century IT-enabled electricity grid, electricity storage of much longer duration than is afforded by batteries, novel nuclear fission and fusion technologies, a hydrogen economy enabled by novel infrastructures, revolutionary low-carbon fuels, large scale carbon dioxide management including removal from the atmosphere and upper layers of the ocean. We are seeing encouraging signs that our government is recognizing the importance of a decade of supercharged clean energy innovation and hope that this will be realized now. What an opportunity for engineers.
But, as important as technology innovation is, this is not just a technology challenge. It's one that calls for deep innovation across the board — clean energy technology innovation, business model innovation, policy and political innovation, human development innovation. Every discipline printed on every one of the earned degrees across the Dartmouth community is needed. But it's still true that engineers, with but not constrained by their disciplinary pedigrees, will play a special role. Engineers solve problems. The track record shows that engineers will address the full range of innovation challenges, such as technologically enabled disruptive business models. Quite simply, we need you to face these challenges and capture these opportunities.
So just as I am welcomed today into this outstanding academic community, it gives me great pleasure and hope to welcome many of you into the community actively tending to the planet and to social justice by limiting and addressing climate change in a practical and inclusive way — and having a great time doing it. I know that Dean Abramson and the Thayer faculty are committed to this goal and see the hard-earned talents of today's graduates as their greatest contribution to our collective success in mitigating societal risks. Thank you again, and best wishes for your forthcoming contributions to a bright future for you and the planet.