"Leading the Way as Full Diversity Partners"
Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation
Remarks, American Society of Civil Engineers Workshop
May 11, 2004
I want to thank the American Society of Civil Engineers for its leadership
in embracing diversity as an element of advantage for meeting our responsibilities
as engineers. Including a broad range of perspectives in decision-making
for the increasingly complex, open-ended project formulations facing today's
engineers, is fundamental to our professional tasks. This intellectual integration
derives from a good sense of the value of broadening participation.
Broadening participation in the workforce and in education is
a focused activity for the science and engineering community and
thus for the National Science Foundation, the federal agency where
I work. I recall my formal introduction to this capacity building
agenda back in the 1970s when the engineering community banded
together and created the "Blueprint for Action" guidance
and NACME to point the way.
Three decades later, while there has been real progress, broadening
participation still stands painfully tall in the "unfinished" column
of our national agenda. We have yet to marshal the strengths that
a fully utilized population could contribute to our human and economic
purpose. Capitalizing on our diversity could be our nation’s
greatest competitive advantage.
Understanding that diversity is vital to the science and engineering
enterprise as well as to the overall future of the nation is why
we are here today. At NSF our strategic plan attempts to reflect
this intent. Our vision is to "enable the nation's future
through discovery, learning and innovation" and we pursue
four goals and three strategies to contribute toward this end.
The goals are people, ideas, tools, and organizational excellence.
The strategies include investing in intellectual capital, integrating
research and education, and promoting partnerships.
Diversity is right up front in our people goal: "a diverse,
competitive, and globally engaged U.S. workforce of scientists,
engineers, technologists, and well-prepared citizens."
We are taking a number of steps to help shape an effective future
workforce, as are all of you in this room. These steps include:
crossing boundaries between disciplines and professions; accelerating
the capabilities of leaders who enjoy success in broadening participation;
including diversity throughout all our investments; increasing
access to the tools needed to realize ideas; and looking hard at
the way we are organized to allow agility and multifaceted approaches
to reach our goals. NSF invests in joint initiatives with universities
and with industry to advance each of these areas.
I'd like to discuss three concepts that underlie these activities
and could facilitate our efforts to become leaders in developing
the nation's human capital. They are:
- embracing the changing nature of society;
- emphasizing teamwork and partnerships; and
- being open to changing the rules.
CHANGING NATURE OF SOCIETY
Increasingly, complex technologies pervade our lives at a breathtaking
pace. In combination with our changing demographics these technologies
are profoundly changing the way we live and work.
Our terascope, nanoscope, and holistically-enabled capacities,
place a premium on the ability to communicate, to cooperate, and
to work across disciplinary, organizational and cultural boundaries.
Tomorrow's workforce will need an astute grasp of how to interact
within a multitude of boundary crossings.
These changes accelerate the demand for a broad range of perspectives
in our decisionmaking institutions. To ensure that no segment of
society is left behind, we must employ the talents and skills of
all ages; all skill levels; and all economic, cultural and ethnic
backgrounds. We can't afford to leave a single idea unexpressed
or a potential solution unexplored.
Bill Wulf, director of the National Academy of Engineering, once
said that, without diversity, "...we limit the set of life
experiences that are applied, and as a result we pay an opportunity
cost – a cost in products not built, in designs not considered,
in constraints not understood, in processes not invented."
Happily, our eclectic population brings to our society an assortment
of skills, a variety of objectives, and a polyglot of perspectives – all
of which are necessary to rationally address a complex frontier
of constant change, for which there is no crisp algorithmic approach.
As leaders in broadening participation, we must adopt the concept
that, if we are to understand the changing needs of a complex,
interconnected society, the talents of all of our citizens are
essential and must be robustly embraced. We must encourage a plethora
of ideas and a diversity of training that will open our eyes to
possibilities not yet imagined.
This presents an extraordinary opportunity, one that we must meet
By broadening participation of underrepresented minorities, our
engineering workforce will be ever more capable and competitive.
Industrial innovation will be ever more robust from the benefits
of diverse perspectives from a diverse set of engineers. Society
will be served ever so much better.
I should like to make the case for these claims by addressing
two key elements underlying the swift current of change in which
we are engaged today, two elements I believe match well with the
background material prepared for your workshop, namely:
- Cacophony and complexity
- Heterogeneity and holism
Consider these as shorthand for new capabilities that are impelling
societal transformation and as underpinnings for engineering careers
in all disciplines during the next couple decades.
Let's start with cacophony and complexity. Cacophony is typically
defined as "disharmony" but for our purpose, it describes
a bantering of ideas. Cacophony is a wild discussion, brain storming,
or heated debated that leads our thinking to new places, breakthroughs,
and intellectual disruptions.
Cacophony's companion is complexity. Mitch Waldrop, in his book
Complexity, writes about a point we often refer to as "the
edge of chaos." That is, "where the components of a system
never quite lock into place, and yet never quite dissolve into
turbulence either...The edge of chaos is where new ideas and innovative
genotypes are forever nibbling away at the edges of the status
You need cacophony to understand that complexity can hold 'a space
of opportunity,' a place to make a marriage of seemly unlike partners
or disparate ideas. You need cacophony to identify how to mobilize
that locus where chaos can be reshaped or transformed. The awareness
of 'complexity' makes us nimble and opportunistic seekers not only
in our science and engineering knowledge but in our industrial
and academic institutions as well.
If we operate with this awareness we will be able to identify
and capitalize on those fringe territories which have so much potential.
Complexity teaches us to look at places of dissonance or disorder
in a field as windows of possibility.
Now, let's take a look at heterogeneity and holism. The dictionary
defines heterogeneity as diverse, varied, and non-homogenous. Heterogeneity
depicts teams of diverse professionals – maybe for example
engineers, chemists, programmers, psychologist, and social philosophers – addressing
a common problem.
The growing diversity of the U.S. population offers us a unique
advantage to marshal the perspectives and wisdom of different cultures,
thought patterns, beliefs, and behaviors.
Holism, the companion of heterogeneity, teaches us that combinations
of things have a power and capability greater than the sum of their
separate parts. Holism is far from a new idea. We have seen it
work in social structures since the beginning of civilization.
Something new happens in this integretive process. A singular or
separate dynamic emerges from the interaction.
Although holism, the process of integration, is an ancient dynamic,
what is new is that it can be applied to the vast accumulated knowledge
of science and engineering and the new knowledge that is burgeoning
as we speak.
To gain the most powerful advantage from holism we need to have
heterogeneity of participants. We need diverse perspectives, different
beliefs varied cultures, numerous approaches in training, and maybe
even rule breaking across the board. This is a formidable task
but it is probably the surest path to innovation solutions. The
goal is to bring the intellectual chaos and disorder together in
a new way to form a different and unique "whole," to
create a distinctly different harmony. The frontier of engineering
presents an unimaginable set of opportunities; engineers have a
responsibility to create a symphony from these which will enable
us to enjoy a better society. This certainly is a task for which
engineers should be well prepared.
TEAMWORK AND PARTNERSHIPS
Another path to greater diversity of thought, concept, and action
is through getting more people, communities, and organizations
on the team.
Our new knowledge-based society places a premium on ensuring that
the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Data, instruments, equipment, skills--all aspects of research,
development, manufacturing, and service--are becoming too complex
and interdependent for one worker, one company, or one nation to
realize their full integrated potential. It is imperative that
we focus on a reliance on complementary skills and make a commitment
to working together toward common goals.
Cooperation must be as prevalent as competition.
A team thrives on diversity. Differences in race, ethnicity, and
gender are a positive force to spur creativity and dynamism, to
ensure the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts. Divisions
only hold us back and sap our energy.
A greater role for highly inclusive teams and partnerships among
students, faculty, institutions, and industries can synergize the
tasks and end the isolation that people might otherwise experience
as minorities in a majority context. This can apply to a white
native-born man in a graduate school heavily populated by foreign-born
students as easily as it can to an African-American woman in a
traditionally white male profession.
There is no better place to begin than with our children. Through
the national Math and Science Partnership program, NSF brokers
partnerships between universities and local elementary schools
and secondary schools. This is not merely an attempt to improve
pre-kindergarten-through-12th-grade math and science education.
It is a way to retrain students and faculty at all levels to reach
out to underrepresented populations and to think in terms of what
each person and each level has to offer the community. The whole
is greater than the sum of the parts.
NSF also funds a program entitled "Integrative Graduate Education
Research and Traineeships." This program teams graduate students
and faculty to conduct research at the intersections of traditional
disciplines, further breaking down barriers between people and
Our role, as leaders, is to make the desire to participate in
eclectic teams and partnerships important in the decisions that
drive career choices, companies, and national goals.
CHANGING THE RULES
Finally, we must be open to changing the rules and procedures,
particularly the tacit ones, that govern students, faculty, graduates,
agencies, businesses, professions, and nations.
The rules set up by the traditional, industrial complex, for example,
as pointed out strongly in your background material, include the
concept that time is linear, and that getting the job done posthaste
is the cultural norm. We must be open to the possibility that other
paradigms may be more successful in meeting the diverse needs of
a complex society.
Again, one of the most important venues for change is education.
Peter Senge, an MIT management guru, once remarked, "Schools
may be the starkest example in modern society of an entire institution
modeled after the assembly line."
When it comes to broadening participation, the complexities of
the future call for a range of diverse approaches to education--not
an assembly line.
The NSF initiative called the Science of Learning is broadening
our knowledge of how people learn, make choices, and view the world.
Research on learning is telling us that people have various styles
of absorbing and processing information. Accepting a variety of
styles, rather than squeezing people into a common learning box,
might be the next breakthrough in education.
We must not hesitate to apply new knowledge, even when it means
relinquishing the familiar or overturning the status quo.
I want to mention one NSF success story in promoting diversity.
The Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation was established
to increase the number of minority students earning baccalaureate
degrees in science and engineering.
The program is successful in that nearly 400 institutions are
participating, and the program has produced nearly 200,000 minority
graduates in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology,
now at a clip of 25,000 per year.
What I want to highlight, however, is the path to the final destination.
The program creates partnerships between research universities
and 2-year and 4-year colleges, aiming to remove the barriers between
education and research, and the barriers between undergraduates,
graduates, and professionals. The program provides role models
at each level.
While the precise methods vary in different regions of the country,
the underlying premise of the Louis Stokes program is consistent:
changing the rules of traditional education can lead to more successful
I want to applaud each of you—for the curiosity that drives
you to explore a rapidly changing society, and for your wisdom
in seeing the value of a more inclusive and integrative professional
The National Science Foundation is a willing partner in creating
leaders and role models to meet the diversity challenge.
Our statutory mandate includes the responsibility to broaden participation
in science and engineering research and education. Our larger responsibility
is to support a broader and more diverse knowledge base and technological
capability among the entire population.
Together we can help expand educational opportunities, create
wealth and prosperity, and meet the unfulfilled diversity goals
of our national agenda.
Return to a list of Dr. Bordogna's speeches.