May 15, 2020

Moulton Addresses Georgetown Students

Congressman calls for moral leadership in the biotech and digital revolutions

WASHINGTON — Today, Rep. Seth Moulton addressed students completing their studies for Master’s Degrees in Biohazards Threat Agents and Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Biomedical Science Policy and Advocacy Programs at Georgetown University. Moulton is the co-chair of the House Armed Services Committee’s Future of Defense Task Force.

The transcript is below:





Good morning,

It is good to see you and an honor to be with you, virtually that is. I am sure you wish we were on campus today, and I can assure you that I do, too.

My wife Liz graduated from Georgetown and she’s a loyal alumna, so

One absolute requirement of success in life—whether it’s

          Turning a great business idea into a successful company
          Getting elected to Congress on your first try
          Hitting a grand slam in baseball or even hitting the ball, period
          Or bumping into your future husband or wife a the Tombs.

is timing; having the right timing.

Well, you all have incredible timing. You may not have much of a spring semester or a graduation party circuit, but nobody can argue with your timing.

Like the nurses and doctors graduating today, you’re practically heroes and saviors virtually as you walk across the stage to accept your diplomas. And let’s not forget, like the orderlies and sanitation and grocery store workers who keep showing up to work every single day in this pandemic.

Another great saying in life, that we all know to be true, is that it’s better to be lucky than good! But for today, we’ll just assume you’re all the latter. I love it when people assume that about me.

Now the reason I am speaking to you today, more specific than good luck and timing, is that my team reached out to one of your professors, Dr. Erin Sorrell, for some advice as this virus spread to the United States. Thanks to her, we became the first Congressional office to go to remote work, to form a scientific advisory panel for the novel coronavirus, and to tell all our constituents to prepare aggressively, out ahead of CDC guidelines.

When we asked Dr. Sorrell what was working in other countries, I passed along Italy’s experience with COVID-only hospitals to the Governor of Massachusetts, and Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to establish one. That’s just one example.

Because you have chosen this field of study, all of you will one day find yourself in a position where the advice you provide, and the decisions you influence will change the course of lives, potentially millions of them.

I know the value of your degree. You know the value of your degree. Literally billions of people know the value of your degree now. The question, for you, is what are you going to do with it.

Although we are all-Corona, all-the-time right now, as they say, the opportunity you have is much bigger than this virus. And the responsibility that comes with that opportunity is, I believe, bigger than you may realize.

You’re stepping into a world where a much larger evolution in the relationship between the science you study and the policy I practice is taking place.

It began a century ago. World War I ushered in a revolution, tragic at the time, of how we can apply chemistry to life. Chemical warfare was so horrific, so obviously immoral, even by the gymnastic standards of morality in war themselves, that the world joined together and banned their use shortly after they brought a gruesome end to so many young lives. Humans recognized that science had changed warfare too much, gone too far, and so science became an important partner for government in reigning it in.

Then came World War II, and once again our wartime leaders turned to scientists. What is remarkable about the history of the Manhattan Project, among many other things, is how scientists wrestled, very early on, with the great moral and ethical dilemmas they were creating. Their hope was that scientific progress combined with ethical leadership could not just end wars, but prevent them from happening again.

And most importantly, they worked relentlessly in the postwar years to ensure these ethical guidelines were established, practiced, and enforced. They helped ensure the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations were established; their work led directly to arms control treaties like the Test Ban Treaty, SALT and START; and students of this generation of professors will tell you that the ethics of nuclear energy was always a large part of their teaching.

They weren’t entirely successful: We do not live in a world safe from the use of nuclear weapons today. But we do live in a world that hasn’t used a nuclear weapon since their generation’s war, and that is thanks to their tireless work.

The next technological revolution came at the hands of yet another generation of American scientists working for the Department of Defense: the information technology revolution we are still very much in the midst of today. Al Gore is a great leader on climate, but he didn’t invent the internet: scientists working largely for the Department of Defense did.

Information technology is so intimately interwoven into our lives today. We certainly wouldn’t be seeing each other this morning if not for their work.

But largely absent from their work, from this generation of scientists, was any serious effort to understand the moral implications, and contain the moral hazards, of their extraordinary inventions.

As a result, people die through use of the internet every single day. From online abuse to human trafficking, from criminal fraud to terrorist recruitment, from disinformation campaigns to outright attempts to undermine democracy, the “wild, wild west” of the internet has grown with precious little regulation from people in my position or anywhere else. As Mark Zuckerberg told me once, ‘Would you rather have a group of employees I pick and and put in a dark room, or elected officials who are at least accountable to the people they represent, deciding what’s legal or illegal to be on Facebook?’

Society is only just waking up to this responsibility, and far from leading the world, the U.S. Congress is trailing behind it. One of the only reasons it’s starting to change is because a new generation of leaders is starting to lead and influence our government.

But frankly I think policy-makers will always be behind. Because most of them are old and somewhat out of touch and don’t fully understand the implications of the science. That’s why we need our scientists to do more than just science.

Now the world, as you all know, is moving rapidly into a grand, new scientific revolution, the biotech revolution. And although not as driven by defense technology as its predecessors, I can tell you as a Member of the Armed Services Committee, and one of the few Members of Congress as a whole with a degree in science, that the military implications are massive. It’s a huge part of why our chief global competitor and military adversary, China, is working so hard to win this revolution ahead of us.

Democracies won World War I and set the rules of the road for chemical warfare. America won the race to build the atom bomb, and then led the way in setting conditions for the peaceful use of atomic technology. We won the information technology race as well, but we failed to set moral guidelines, and now who wins the biotech revolution is very much up for grabs.

Just think about what would have happened if nuclear technology had spread and proliferated from the defense industry, even for perfectly well-intentioned purposes like carbon-free energy, without the institutional guardrails, painfully constructed over decades and often between outright enemies, to govern its use.

If we are to take any lessons from our recent history, it’s that society cannot count on policymakers aloe to do their job. We policymakers, we Americans, we citizens of our sometimes frighteningly close global community, need to rely on scientists even more. And we need to rely on science not just for technological leadership but moral leadership in using technology.

You find yourselves today at the intersection of all of this, and my case to you, is that we need your leadership more than ever—true leadership, moral leadership.

Georgetown is a remarkable institution, that had prided itself on moral leadership throughout its history. It’s relied on students and faculty to ensure that the school’s moral leadership evolves with the times and keeps up with the times, but now you’re leaving the hallowed halls of Georgetown and will have to provide that leadership, yourselves, for all the rest of us.

Throughout your time here, Georgetown has pushed you, tested you, challenged you in different ways, and asked you a hundred times a day, “What do you think?” Now the question for all of you is “What are you going to do about it?”

Good luck, and Godspeed. You have a lot of work to do.


Broadcast quality audio of the event is available by contacting