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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
Challenges for NSF in the 21st Century:
Cacophony and Heterogeneity as Elements of the Symphony
Florida International University
Miami, Florida

February 22, 2002

It gives me great pleasure to celebrate Engineers Week here with you at Florida International University. Although only 30 years old, Florida International University has distinguished itself as a young, energetic, and large institution who's College of Engineering holds as its goals to educate, to innovate, and to serve. More generally, you are a university in continuous evolution - conscious of the changing world and arching toward those changes so that your students have skills to match the times. And being young, you have great agility to capitalize on opportunities to innovate with contemporary flair and futuristic spirit. Great things are happening here in the Sunshine State; thank you for involving the National Science Foundation and me.

Engineers Week is a celebration of the achievements of individuals and the profession, and a chance to share with others what engineers do and might do.

As we celebrate Engineers Week here in Miami, our nation's capitol is celebrating both engineering and music. This month, the National Symphony Orchestra is performing the music of immigrants who came to America seeking freedom, safety, and opportunity to express themselves. Entitled "Journey to America," this two-week festival is showcasing the works of composers who were not born in the United States but who were attracted here by our exotic rhythms, the multi-cultural folk tradition, and audiences hungry for music - in concert halls and on the radio and through other media.

Celebrating diversity in music, engineering, and science forms a base for my subject today, "Challenges for NSF in the 21st Century." I have titled my remarks "Cacophony and Heterogeneity as Elements of the Symphony." I hope that gets everyone's attention. In more ordinary words, it is a celebration of an enhanced role of engineers and scientists in society built on what they do best intellectually. It is also about the evolving role of the university in research and education, to wit: the creation, integration and transfer of knowledge. And it's about people, without whom there is no knowledge.

So, let's do some imagining about the future: The societal role of scientists and engineers has always been exciting; now it grows more formidable. What are its key contemporary elements that impel us to formidable deeds? What is it that ensures we will do the right thing as well as do things right? What is the 21st Century envelope within which we do our work and have our fun? I start by dissecting the title of my remarks. Cacophony is typically defined as "dissonance" or "disharmony," but for us it describes a bantering of ideas. Cacophony for us is a wild discussion, brain storming, or heated debate at the knowledge frontier that leads our thinking to new ideas, breakthroughs, and intellectual disruptions.

As for heterogeneity, it implies "diversity", "dissimilar constituents," "non-homogeneity". This definition serves us well. Heterogeneity depicts teams of disciplinary - trained participants - maybe engineers, psychologists, chemists, programmers, and social philosophers, for example - addressing a common boundary-crossing issue. It also describes an eclectic group of these folks along with students and schoolteachers forming a community of learners and achievers.

And my third key word, symphony, is synonymous with masterpiece, a work of art, an opus. That is the tune that engineers and scientists are humming today - the symphony of people functioning together holistically to learn, discover, and innovate.

Cacophony, Heterogeneity, and Symphony describe the successful conduct of societal advance in today's technologically based world. As the Industrial Revolution matured in the mid-twentieth century, our societal elements of separateness and career homogeneity began to crack.

Now, careers evolve throughout a person's lifetime. Instead of just mastering a profession and working within the limited walls of a sole discipline, today's workforce takes the tools of their individual disciplines and expands them outward to new endeavors and cross-boundary interactions, changing the character of their disciplines in their wake.

These migrations through workplaces and applications truly require building upon the fundamental training and thinking ability that are garnered from a solid education. The expertise of a well-educated engineer or scientist is portable through sequential careers possibly in government service, academe, and industry.

We are all engaged in lifelong learning and, in today's world, increasingly able to collaborate with colleagues from across disciplines and other boundaries. This is like a symphony, where the beating drums, light sounding flutes, and heavy bases are orchestrated into a wonderful and unique production.

A key word in science and engineering today is transformation. People and ideas are evolving along with the tools that people use to create their ideas and realize them in service to society.

Those my age look back and recall how technology advanced from the vacuum tubes that comprised electronic circuits of the 1940s, to miniaturized transistors of the 50s, through integrated circuits and into the micro-circuits of today.

Only some of us here today have ever held a vacuum tube, but any of us can still view them in antique shops and in physical or on-line museums. Vacuum tubes ranged in size from that of a thumb to a fist and much larger, and many were needed to operate a TV or radio and they were fragile. Can you imagine hooking your headphones into a musical device the size of a microwave oven and dragging it around to listen to classical music, Salsa, or Rap? NO WAY!
Scientists and engineers laid the groundwork for consumer products like WALKMAN and M3P players. Global citizens now carry hundreds of tunes in the palms of their hands. As megabytes of music fly through the Internet, "download" has replaced "record."

Music listeners anywhere and anytime, can access the innovations of icons like composer Aaron Copland who blessed us with "Fanfare for the Common Man;" trend setters Gloria Estefan, Madonna and Jennifer Lopez; guitar player Jerry Garcia and the cherished Grateful Dead; or song writer and performer Michael Jackson and his earth shattering Moon Walk. The creativity of these diverse and talented music makers is enjoyed across the globe because of knowledge created, integrated, and transferred by scientists and engineers.

Let's take an historic look at how all of this became possible: Astronomers tell us that the universe is about 10-15 billions years old. The Earth is about 4.5 billions years old, so geoscientists say. Organized civilization is on the order of several thousand years old. The industrial Revolution is about 200 years old. The electron was distinctively discovered only a mere century ago. The automobile, airplane, and radio have been with us for about a century, TV about a half century. The all-electronic digital computer is about 50 years old; so, too, is the transistor. Recombinant DNA about three decades. The Internet about a decade and so on...

The pace of technological change is hastening, prompting, for example, the slogan for this year's Engineer Week: "Without Engineers, the World Stops". Certainly, the availability of the world's finest music to all of its inhabitants would not have even begun without the innovations made possible by scientific discovery and engineering integration, both interacting in a fine symphony melded of cacophony and heterogeneity.

The pace of this change presages the 21st century as a distinctly global age. There are new opportunities, new threats, new frontiers, and new constraints. There is a growing need for partnerships and collaborations across a variety of boundaries.

The global integration prompted primarily by technological innovation creates a set of realities for government, industry, academe, and the population in general that is different from the past.

Our national security is very much based on alliances and cooperation with other nations. Instant communication and advanced transportation make our world integrated, porous, attached, and overlapping in every way.

For industry, the global marketplace is a wish list of opportunity along with a reverberation of economic woes. The accelerated pace of new knowledge and technological obsolescence is simultaneously invigorating and daunting.

For academe, the constant churning and change in society makes us unnervingly alert to staying ahead of the curve. We are compelled to think about success, potential, and opportunities. These challenges coalesce with the concepts and priorities in NSF's agenda and I am sure they must fit into your vision for the university and form a conglomerate for framing the future.

Making decisions in this complex mix amounts to making good judgement by being well informed, with a good dollop of imagination thrown in.

I return now to the key elements of this new global symphony and add strategic elements that NSF believes to be grand challenges, at least through the start of the 21st century.

These are:

  • Cacophony and complexity
  • Heterogeneity and holism
  • Cognition
  • Nano, and
  • Tera

These are shorthand for the new capabilities in science and engineering we believe will transform society. They will also change and reinvigorate our nation's system of higher education.

In what better root could scholarship lie?

Cacophony's companion is complexity. Science writer, author, and physicist, Mitch Waldrop, wrote in his book Complexity, 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 quo..."

You need cacophony to understand that complexity can hold 'a space of opportunity,' a place to make a marriage of 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 commercial institutions. It is also needed to understand how best to move higher education into a new era.

If we operate with this awareness we will be able to identify and capitalize on those fringe territories that have so much potential. Complexity teaches us to look at places of dissonance or disorder in a field as windows of possibility.

When we come to heterogeneity - or eclecticism - 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 integration 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 a heterogeneity of participants. We need diverse perspectives, different beliefs, varied cultures, numerous approaches in training, and even "rule breaking" across the board. This may sound like a formula for disaster but, in fact, it is probably the surest path to innovative solutions. The goal is to bring the chaos and disorder together in a fresh way to create not discordance, but rather, form a different and unique "whole," to create a distinctly different harmony, a grander symphony.

Cognition may sound like the odd one out in this list. It not only fits but it is the very beginning of the process. The dictionary defines cognition as the mental process by which knowledge is acquired. Most of us would simply say, this is learning. Learning is the foundation territory of all other capabilities, human and institutional.

Our understanding of the learning process holds the key to tapping the potential of every child, empowering a 21st century workforce, redesigning education from K through 16, and, even in maintaining our democracy.

The social philosopher and leader, Marian Wright Edelman wrote in her thin volume, The Measure of Our Success, "...America cannot afford to waste a single child." President Bush calls his education initiative, "No child left behind." From the last 30 years of research, we know that people, both young and old, absorb and assimilate knowledge in different ways, and in more than one way.

We know that cultural experience, social interaction, and communal participation are primary forms of learning. By the time a child enters school, these cultural norms and values are already in place. We know that being an expert does not guarantee your ability to instruct others about the topic. That has important implications for training teachers.

We know that more than any other species, humans are configured to be the most flexible learners. Humans are intentional learners, proactive in acquiring knowledge and skills, although much of what we learn is outside of any formal instruction. And, it turns out that we are more successful learners if we are mindful or cognizant of ourselves as learners or thinkers.

Cognition is a critical inquiry into all aspects of how people learn. To date, our knowledge of the "science of learning," is probably just the tip of the iceberg of what we have yet to learn. Our ultimate goal is truly [not] to waste a single child and to teach and train a workforce that is well prepared and can adapt and change.

Of the five capabilities that form the cluster of my remarks, two are advanced technologies - nano and tera. Without the least exaggeration, I can say that they will catapult society into a new and unimaginable era.

Nano is short for nano-science and engineering and it has the potential to eclipse everything we can do in manufacturing today - from airplanes to pharmaceuticals, from the smallest to the largest tools we use to learn and create.

At nanoscale, things are portrayed at the molecular and atomic level of things, both natural and human-made. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter. Until the scanning/tunneling microscope was invented twenty years ago, we could not observe molecules on a surface. Soon, our micro world will become a nano world. We will connect nano-machines to individual living cells. Nano capability will allow us to build a "wish list" of properties into structures large and small. For cars, trucks, and airplanes nano-particle reinforced materials will allow lighter bodies, self-repairing coatings, and non-flammable plastics.

In electronics and communications, it will be possible to vastly increase data storage capacity and processing speeds. This will produce lower costs and improved power efficiency as compared to current electronic circuits. We can expect a novel, smaller generation of "music machines" out of nano that will satisfy the cravings of music lovers everywhere.

In pharmaceuticals, health care, and life sciences, we will see new nanostructured drugs and drug delivery systems targeted to specific sites in the body. Researchers anticipate biocompatible replacements for body parts and fluids, and material for bone and tissue regeneration.

This new nano capability brings together many disciplines of science and engineering to work in collaboration. The scope and scale of nano create an overarching, enabling field not unlike the role of information technologies today. We are witnessing the start of a nano revolution.

Enter terascale computing, a power-driven tool that will boost all disciplines and give wings especially to our nano pursuits.

Terascale computing is shorthand for computing technology that takes us three orders of magnitude beyond prevailing computing capabilities. In the past, our system architectures could handle only hundreds of processors. Now we work with systems of thousands of processors. Shortly, we'll connect millions of systems and billions of 'information appliances' to the Internet.

When we dramatically advance the speed of our capability in any area we give researchers and industrialists and scholars the mechanism to get to a frontier much faster or, better yet in terms of NSF's mission, to reach a frontier that had been, heretofore, unreachable, as well as unknowable. Terascale computing will launch us to frontiers still without names.

The revolution in information technologies connected and integrated researchers and research fields in a way never before possible. The nation's IT capability has acted like 'adrenaline' to all of science and engineering. A next step was to build the most advanced computing infrastructure for researchers to use, while simultaneously broadening its accessibility.

NSF is presently deeply in the process of enabling this distributed leading-edge computational capability. This decade will see extraordinary advance in our capacity for visualization, simulation, and robust handling of enormous sets of data - the latter being labeled with the moniker "Big Data."

Together, these capabilities will have increasing impact on the nature of society in the 21st century. We know how the recent revolution in information technologies has already connected and integrated researchers and research fields in a way never before possible. These capabilities will have the "wow" effect.

We, the scientists and engineers, have a grand challenge before us. It is to create the masterpieces of discovery and innovation that will be society's future. Discovery and innovation in the 21st century are riding on an express train whose rapid pace may sometimes boggle our minds, but also dares us to do our best.

At NSF, our challenge is to put the right people, ideas, and tools at the controls of this technology express. How does NSF determine which rails of discovery to support? We ask ourselves three critical questions: Will this be an investment in intellectual capital? Does it soundly integrate research and education? Does it promote partnerships among those individuals and disciplines that are key to success? If the answers are yes to all three questions, then NSF embraces the research and education and it's value for our future.

By now, some of you must be thinking, gee I'm on this train and having some trouble hanging on or some of you may be anxious to get on this train. A good part of this scenario has to do with perspective - the way we think about things. Attitude, approach, and astuteness will count a great deal. Putting together teams of people that can elucidate each other's thinking instead of just agreeing with it will be critical.

You need to gather unlikely partners whose theologies, ideologies, and psychologies seemingly don't match. Create a brouhaha of thinking. Take educated risks. Believe in yourselves. Make good music.

As you embrace this yeasty journey, I leave you, as members of and visitors to the greater Miami society with its rich base of artistic flair, educational substance, innovative accomplishments, and, yes, superb music, with this guiding principle from the writings of Mark Twain: "You can't depend on your judgment when your imagination is out of focus."

Thank you.



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