"Trends in Science, Engineering, and Technology Policy"
and Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation
ABET Annual Meeting
October 28, 1999
I am delighted to be here today, and I'm very enthusiastic
about all that is new in ABET's plans.
When thinking about our gathering here, I was reminded
of an item I recently saw making the rounds on the
"net." It was called, "Life before the Computer,"
and it contained a few gems. A program was a TV show...A
virus was the flu...A cursor used profanity...A keyboard
was a piano...A CD was a bank account...A mouse was
a creature the cat chased...
And, memory was something you lost with age!
Needless to say, times have changed and terms have
Much has changed in ABET over the last several years.
The philosophy and vision have kept pace with the
times. And, the composition of the ABET Board speaks
very much to the increasing connection between academic
training and economic growth and also the partnerships
that are becoming so common between industry and academe.
These changes have advanced the process of engineering
and technology accreditation. It is no longer just
counting the trees. Now we envision an eclectic forest--one
made up of different and very healthy trees.
You are to be congratulated for raising accreditation
to a new level--a strong leadership level for the
entire engineering community.
It is very exciting that the most recent change--integrating
ABET and CSAB accreditation--is on its way to completion.
This is yet another sign of productive evolution,
a very important, positive achievement.
Today, I want to talk about the nature of our challenges
in science, engineering, and technology policy, the
context in which we should address those challenges,
and the robust innovation that we hope to generate.
This discussion offers a framework for thinking about
what lies ahead.
The trajectory of science, engineering, and technology
over the last half century has consistently moved
toward greater complexity. This escalating complexity
is powering us to a greater focus on intellectual
integration. Understanding the characteristics of
the whole demands more than knowledge only of the
Let me begin with some broad, and sometimes irreverent,
definitions of terms I will reference throughout my
"Inflection points" in the trajectories of technological
change are subtle signals in the larger context. These
are to be read with more care than mere supposition
from reading the remnants of tea leaves. An astute
understanding of inflection points enables us to judge
better where to steer policy for science, engineering,
"Innovation" is the task of breaking the rules and
being rewarded, over and over again. In a more formal
sense, Peter Drucker tells us that innovation is the
process of applying new knowledge to tasks that are
new and different.
Continuing innovation is the relentless process of
renewing the nation's new knowledge bank and envisioning
always new applications.
And what can one say about policy? With some levity
of definition, policy is a facile term, especially
in Washington where anything becomes a policy if it
gets mentioned on the evening news.
These somewhat irreverent definitions help to make
the point that the new trends in science, engineering,
and technology policy are breaking some old traditions
and some stubborn myths.
As I expand on these ideas, I hope to paint a picture
of a science, engineering, and technology future that
is vibrant, multifaceted, and purposeful.
Let us start with policy itself. The objective of policy
is to move us toward our desired goals.
Thus, the first task in framing science, engineering,
and technology policy is to articulate what goals
we expect it to move us toward.
It is easy, but not very instructive, to say for example,
that, as a nation, we want the United States to be
preeminent in the world in science, engineering, and
technology so that economic prosperity will reign.
The prestige of the best science and engineering will
not automatically result in a beneficial "economic
Some of that can occur randomly, and has in the past,
even when our primary goal was to survive in the face
of the Cold War. But, we all know that the global
economic environment today is too intense for randomness.
We need to think strategically and holistically. We
need to learn to read patterns and trends from the
larger context to envision the future. We need to
educate our engineers and scientists beyond their
technical expertise and prepare them for what is to
come, not what is. The best technical training must
be combined with an understanding of how that expertise
fits into the larger societal environment, into our
overriding national goals, and, indeed, into the goals
of other nations.
This may all sound too elementary to discuss with such
a well-experienced audience; so let me crystallize
it by an example:
Danny Hillis is a noted computer philosopher and designer.
He helped pioneer the concept of parallel computing,
and in 1996 he became the vice president of research
and development at The Walt Disney Company. He shares
this story from his past.
"I went to my first computer conference at the
New York Hilton about 20 years ago. When somebody
there predicted the market for microprocessors
would eventually be in the millions, someone else
said, 'Where are they all going to go? It's not
like you need a computer in every doorknob!'"
Years later, Hillis went back to the same hotel. He
noticed that the room keys had been replaced by electronic
cards you slide into slots in the doors. There was,
indeed, "a computer in every doorknob," as well as
sensors and actuators--and other hardware to make
the software sing.
Danny Hillis may have seen that future for microprocessors
but at that computer conference two decades ago, that
insight was in short supply. That's probably why Danny
Hillis is now head of R&D for Walt Disney.
There is an important lesson hidden in this example
which is far more than just ironic or amusing. In
fact, there is a responsibility here for us.
We know that very smart people often make, what in
hindsight, are not very insightful comments. Even
as prognosticators, we tend to think of what is in
front of us but not what is also around us.
This microprocessor-in-the-doorknob is a classic example.
It tells us of a group of people who saw in present
time and without reading the larger, surrounding context.
They did not imagine that the future could or would
be much different from the present.
The future is never easy to "see." But the chances
of having good vision are much better if you understand
the larger context in which you work--the sector,
the society, and even the time in history, the moment
in civilization. Learning to read the larger context
gives you a path for imagining the future.
Peter Drucker put it best. He says: "I never predict.
I just look out the window and see what is visible,
but not yet seen."
At our universities, we have the opportunity and responsibility
to help students learn how to "see" the larger context
of society and extrapolate good insight from those
pictures to project the future.
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan put it this
way last February, "Critical awareness and the abilities
to hypothesize, to interpret, and to communicate are
essential elements of successful innovation in a conceptual-based
In the United States, we are, for the moment, economically
stronger than we have been in decades. Service workers
dominate in our workforce, and partnerships among
our various sectors--government, industry, and academe--are
fashionable and increasingly effective. A new inter-organizational
way of business and academic life is forming.
Corporate entities are transnational. The most talented
and highly skilled workers in every country comprise
the modern phenomenon of a global and mobile workforce.
They can easily gravitate to where the best jobs are
located. But information technologies have also made
it possible for them to stay home and yet work abroad.
Colleges and universities are facing information-age
transformations with virtual centers and institutes,
shared infrastructure, collaboratories and long-distance
learning. The future portends even more.
Science and engineering are moving toward interdisciplinarity
at the same time that they become steadily more complex
and vibrant from within.
And, accountability for publicly funded research is
a now familiar criterion.
Public understanding of science and technology has
permeated the lexicon of the science and engineering
community. However, there is still a great chasm between
"talking the talk" and "walking the walk" in this
realm. All of us must do better.
K through 12 education in science and math is not improving
fast enough for an information society that will be
increasingly dependent on those skills. All sectors--higher
education, industry, and government must assume greater
responsibility for achieving our K through 12 goals.
Young people today will have a number of distinctive
iterations in their career paths over a working lifetime.
Life-long education has become a necessity.
Demographic projections indicate a continually changing
America. Immigration is projected to become more important
to U.S. population growth than natural increases through
birth and death rates.
In industry, environmental concerns increasingly influence
product development. And there is likely to be continuous
movement toward sustainable manufacturing and construction,
not just ethically, but because astute vision here
can create new wealth as well.
This is not necessarily a complete "context" but it
serves as example and as a beginning. I'm sure each
of you would have important additions. In any case,
the point is that "context" is not window dressing
or peripheral knowledge; it is, instead, a set of
clues and guideposts.
These clues and guideposts serve as subtle signals
that give direction and insight to our decisions.
We live in a global environment where new competitors
and partners are emerging like weeds after a spring
rain. The ability to read the subtle signals will
often make the difference between being the industrial
leader or laggard in a field.
At the time when Hillis heard that ill-considered comment
about microprocessors in hotel doorknobs, there was
a lot more lead-time in the global economy to recoup
from such a miscalculation than there would be today.
Grasping inflection points in seemingly solid trends,
that is, astute reading of tea leaves, is not just
for mystics anymore. It's job one for mentors, managers,
Broader insight brings me to the innovation piece in
our science and technology policy. I cavalierly described
innovation at the start of my remarks as the task
of breaking the rules and being rewarded, over and
This is true, but let me raise the discussion to a
different plane with a comment by Einstein. He said,
"Imagination is more important than knowledge."
Imagining is at the heart of innovation. As we learn
to read that larger context which I have been discussing,
imagination allows us to envision projections of a
future from a comprehensive perspective, and not from
what we see just directly in front of us. Here, imagination
has a great deal to do with integration. The disparate
pieces of a context tell us nothing in isolation,
but they tell us many things in relationship to each
In our expanding knowledge about the universe, the
human mind and body, the cycles of ecosystems, the
patterns of climate, the paths of infectious diseases,
the dynamics of economies, and the perturbations of
global politics, we see repeated evidence of integration
and interrelationships. There seem to be few, if any,
disconnections as we deepen our knowledge. What it
comes down to is being able to picture a completely
new way of seeing or doing something.
Our contemporary technique for producing sound, the
compact disc, is a good example of this imagining.
We rename it technological innovation when it occurs
in industry but the CD was a completely new way of
audioization, a totally new type of device. It was
not an improved version of anything already in existence.
The February 20th issue of the Economist magazine
included a major examination of innovation. One of
the sidebars to the text reads, "Innovators break
all the rules. Trust them."
The Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, developed
a rule-breaking theory of economics in 1942 in which
he described a "creative destruction" of industrial
The Economist article on Innovation described
Schumpeter's work saying, "[according to Schumpeter]
a normal healthy economy was not one in equilibrium,
but one that was constantly being disrupted by technological
Disruption is an important characteristic of innovation.
As would be expected, it causes losses in its path
of making gains, creating the dynamism of healthy
economies. In fact, the disruption caused by an innovation
can bring down a whole industry, while simultaneously
creating new opportunities for growth.
Transistor technology disrupted the vacuum-tube industry,
HMOs shook the foundation of the health insurance
industry, and the CD killed the needle in the groove.
As experienced practitioners, you will surely recall
other examples like the ones just mentioned. But students
can also learn the process of innovation, risk taking,
and rule breaking from models taken from our collective
experience and long before they are sent out into
We should give them the opportunity to learn the path
of creativity taken by artists, musicians, dancers,
and photographers. Art and artists, by their very
definition, breach barriers, define new perspectives,
and advance the frontiers of their field. Impressionism,
cubism, free verse poetry, jazz and rock music--every
field of artistic endeavor can teach us something
about unique perspective, creative envisioning, and
And to understand and imagine the nature of the "future,"
we also need to study the past. History offers us
a window on the constancy of human nature over centuries,
a description of social change, examples of mistakes
and miscalculations that altered the course of events.
Lastly, it tells us how the environment or culture
of a time or place can make it ripe for dramatic changes.
Governments have a positive role in all of this. They
can develop policies that create fertile environments
and encourage positive behaviors. Policies should
not be designed to control the process of getting
to the goal but rather to allow the process to work
at its best, to create the best atmosphere for progress
The federal government, and I might add the National
Science Foundation in particular, has developed a
strong record in promoting partnerships--making marriages
among some unlikely partners--to move us toward our
science and technology objectives for the coming decades.
Partnerships are yet another aspect of integration.
They introduce a different dimension to the process
of promoting science, engineering, and technology
because they bring to the table participants with
different expertise and resources, and a diversity
The federal government has provided strong leadership
here. For much more than a decade, we have been advocating
public-private partnerships in federal research and
development. In the beginning we merely exchanged
favorable rhetoric about the importance of partnerships.
Slowly we took steps to form genuine working arrangements.
Further down the path, we began to see results. Reality
suggests that the mix of partners will skew, in a
positive way, the perspective and objective of our
visions and stabilize the important disruption of
Our greatest strength may be in the very diversity
of combinations and partners. We should always view
these combinations as creative arrangements. They
are not formulas to be automatically replicated but
rather new patterns to be ingeniously enhanced each
time we create the next combination. As one example,
the very diverse set of NSF-funded Engineering Research
Centers attest to this.
It is useful to remind ourselves that the context and
environment in which we have to operate will always
change and so will the competition. Part of building
a continuum of success in science, engineering, technology,
and in entrepreneurship is retaining the ability to
"see" and act upon a changing context.
Twenty years ago, the global economy was far less "global."
Our own domestic economy had a very different mix
of industries, and our workforce was far less service-oriented
than it is today. In addition, in every era, new enabling
technologies quickly influence our methods of commerce,
of manufacturing, of service, and even the very social
order of our society.
History gives us many examples of this influence--the
steam engine, electricity, and air transportation.
Today's composite of digital, electronic, and optical
technologies is reframing society as concept-driven
We can already calculate the impact. Again to quote
from the Economist:
"America gets more than half its economic growth
from industries that barely existed a decade ago--such
is the power of innovation, especially in the
information and biotechnology industries."
Few envisioned the significance of information systems
and the revolution being created by the biotechnology
The astute "readers of the context" for the last several
decades have proven to us that envisioning is a worthwhile
I began these remarks with trajectories, inflections,
and innovation. This short journey that we have taken
along all three paths brings us to a conclusion that
speaks to connections, integration, interrelationships,
and overlapping consequences. There is something quite
beautiful in that intricacy, like a mathematical equation
or a poem that leads us to its central place without
ever naming the place.
There is also great challenge here for the nation and
the world in the next few decades. We must understand
that supremacy in research and education, in innovation,
and in competitive entrepreneurship is an enduring
quest, an on-going process.
There is no peak that we can reach that will assure
continuing success. It is not a matter of sticking
to the task for the long haul. It is the "haul."
We will always need to keep improving the process with
fresh ideas and a fundamental commitment. We will
need to break the right rules and take the right risks.
It will be demanding, exciting, and a bit precarious,
as the unknown always is.
ABET will play an increasingly important role here.
Engineers have always designed and redesigned our
evolving world. And today information technologies
are becoming the new infrastructure for all research
and applications. I look forward to a continuing partnership
with all of you. The challenges ahead are exciting,
if not somewhat daunting. Our collective insight will
be required for our continuous success.