What Is NSF Doing for Industry?
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Remarks to the
International Council on Management of
Innovation and Technology
The Conference Board
October 4, 2000
Thank you so much for inviting me to speak with you
I know you've had a very interesting day touring the
Postal Service Engineering Center. So I thought I'd
begin by telling you a story that links the National
Science Foundation and the Postal Service.
As early as the 1970s NSF funded bar-code research,
which helped to perfect the accuracy of the scanners
that read bar codes.
Then, in the early 1990s, NSF supported research in
computer vision conducted at the State University
of New York-Stony Brook, that led to major advances
in the algorithms for bar-code readers. With these
algorithms in hand, private industry developed a new
commercial product line of bar-code readers that has
been described by many as a revolutionary advance.
Today these scanners are used everywhere. And here
is the link that joins NSF with the Postal Service.
These scanners are used in post offices from coast
to coast and around the world to help make operations
Of course, they are also used in millions of retail
stores and in hospitals and other service organizations.
They have even come full circle and are now being
used as tools by researchers in the field.
For instance, scientists researching the migration
patterns of Adelie penguins, have tagged them with
bar codes. Which helps make data gathering faster
and more precise.
This is just one story among hundreds that I could
tell you. It illustrates how the National Science
Foundation, university researchers, and industry all
interact to produce wide-ranging innovations that
transform our lives.
I know that my topic tonight is supposed to be: "What
is NSF doing for Industry?"
But I think it should really be: "What are NSF and
industry - together with our many university partners
- doing together to promote the kind of innovation
that leads to economic prosperity and social well-being?
My story about bar codes is an example of how the process
of innovation is increasingly a matter of cooperation
among many partners. It's one feature that has helped
make the American science and technology enterprise
the most productive - and the most envied - in the
world. It has rapidly become the new paradigm for
innovation around the globe.
I'm sure many of you are familiar with a very famous
quote that popped up once again, just a few weeks
ago, in the Economist Magazine. Recommending
that his office be abolished, the Commissioner of
the U.S. Office of Patents in 1899 said: "Everything
that can be invented has been invented."
He was speaking at the very end of the 19th
Century, a period not unlike our own in some ways.
There had been a tremendous flowering of innovation,
and an economic expansion that has been matched only
by the one we are enjoying in America right now.
I'd like to think we are wiser than the Commissioner
- though, to be fair, his remarks were taken out of
context. We are wiser, in part, because the links
between innovation and economic growth are now much
clearer to us.
Even though the breathtaking pace of innovation and
the change it engenders can be unnerving, we view
it with great optimism and hope. It holds the promise
of delivering greater economic benefits and a better
quality of life for all.
Of course, the Patent Office is alive and well. In
fact, it is patent data that tells us something very
important about what drives innovation.
You may be familiar with recent studies that indicate
a strong and growing linkage between patents granted
in the U.S. system and frontier research published
in archival journals. Nearly two-thirds of the patents
granted cited research supported primarily by public
funding. That is powerful evidence of the catalytic
effect new knowledge has on innovation.
Even more dramatic is the rate at which this dependence
is increasing. Over 100,000 of the patents granted
in the U.S. in 1998 cited scientific and technical
articles. That's a ten-fold increase since 1988 and
a doubling in just the two years 1997 and 1998.
In this new, knowledge-based economy, science and engineering
are sharing center stage with industry. In the words
of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan,
"Something special has happened to the American
economy in recent years...a remarkable run of
economic growth that appears to have its roots
in ongoing advances in technology."
Economists generally agree that advances in knowledge
have driven one-half of the growth in the U.S. economy
since the close of World War II. It's now clear that
the ability to create and use knowledge is a principal
source of competitive advantage in global markets,
of wealth creation, and of high-wage jobs.
This is most evident in the industries that have grown
directly out of cutting-edge advances in science and
engineering - biotechnology, and the information and
communications sectors. But the exploitation of fundamental
knowledge and technology is a characteristic of American
business and institutions from the Postal Service
to the trucking industry.
Lewis Branscomb, one of the deans of American science
policy, put it this way: "High-tech was once a description
of research-intensive industries... Today, high-tech
is a style of work applicable to every business, however
simple its products or services may appear."
This brings me back to the National Science Foundation,
where our principal business is investing in the fundamental
knowledge that is helping to drive the current explosion
Our vision is clear and simple: enabling the nation's
future through discovery, learning and innovation.
As this vision indicates, supporting the discoveries
that will fuel innovation, and even generate the new
industries of tomorrow, is only part - though a very
important part - of the picture of what NSF does.
Our aim is much broader and more complex.
I'd like to talk tonight about the last two of these
themes - learning and innovation. Though they can't
be separated from discovery, they are the aspects
of NSF's work that are the least known and appreciated.
So let me turn to my first theme, learning and
tell about some of the new initiatives NSF is undertaking.
The workforce is a key focus of NSF's work this year.
U.S. leadership in the innovation-led global economy
of this century will require a new kind of workforce
- one that is educated to unprecedented levels of
scientific, mathematical, engineering, and technological
We are developing an initiative called "The 21st
Century Workforce." Our goal is to generate a 21st
Century workforce that is second to none, and to bring
increased understanding of science, mathematics and
technology to citizens of all ages.
NSF's strategy is to approach the workforce problem
from a variety of perspectives - from critical research
that will help us understand the process of learning
to programs that address the need to broaden participation
in the science and engineering workforce.
The current situation is dismal - and one we must improve.
I don't have to tell this group how urgent this goal
is. U.S. students have been turning away from science
and engineering majors and advanced degrees, raising
concerns about the ability of the nation to lead the
world in innovation.
Let me illustrate this point. For years, the proportion
of 24-year-olds in the US that hold degrees in the
natural sciences or engineering has remained steady
at about five percent.
In contrast, proportions have increased rapidly in
other countries, notably in Asia. The figure for South
Korea is now nine percent, and for Taiwan it is seven
percent, and growing. In Europe, the UK with more
than nine percent and Germany with eight percent far
surpass the U.S.
In the past decade, growth in the number of Asian and
European students earning degrees in the natural sciences
and engineering has gone up on average by four percent
per year. During the same time, the rate for U.S.
students declined on average by nearly one percent
NSF's plays a key role in funding the training of the
nation's young researchers in university laboratories.
Twenty thousand graduate students and nearly 30,000
undergraduates are directly involved in NSF programs
and activities every year.
In fact, NSF supports nearly 200,000 people each year
- including teachers, students, researchers, postdocs,
and many others.
I believe that one of the best links between leading
edge scientific and engineering thinking and solutions
to real world problems occurs when a business hires
a college graduate who has had a chance to work on
an NSF funded research project.
Here's an example. We've conducted a number of surveys
of companies that partner with NSF-funded Engineering
Research Centers. We ask them about the benefits they
have received. Not surprisingly, a strong majority
of firms cite the new ideas, know-how, and technical
assistance they receive. Fifty percent also cite the
benefits of interacting with other firms participating
in the Center.
But here's the most interesting finding. Forty percent
of the firms say one of the most significant benefits
was hiring students who gained experience at the Center.
That's real tech transfer - the kind that walks on
Clearly, we need to be investing more in developing
the nation's science and engineering talent.
Of course, learning doesn't begin in college. We also
need to ensure that today's youngsters are getting
the science and math education at the K-12 level that
will prepare them for the demands of tomorrow's workforce.
Just this September, NSF made major awards to thirteen
U.S. cities to improve K-12 urban math and science
teaching. This is part of an ongoing NSF effort to
stimulate system-wide reforms in school districts.
Urban schools are accomplishing this through strengthening
curricula, providing improved education for teachers,
and putting programs in place to increase the skilled
workers entering the technological workforce.
Most importantly, they are innovating - finding new
ways to deliver the skills these children need.
Let me add that industry is doing a great deal to help
improve K-12 education - reaching out to local schools
and funding creative programs.
Now, on to my second theme, innovation. This brings
me back once again to the lesson that the story of
bar codes illustrates.
The National Science Foundation 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.
During the past 30 years, NSF has stimulated and participated
in partnerships with academe, industry, other federal
agencies, state and local governments and other sectors.
It's an alphabet soup of acronyms.
Some may be familiar to you, like the Small Business
Innovation Research (SBIR) Program, which NSF started
in the late 1970s. Some are relatively new - like
our networking infrastructure activities, and our
program in Innovation and Organizational Change. All
are, more or less, drivers of innovation.
That is also what NSF's new program: "Partnerships
for Innovation" is intended to accomplish.
But this program takes us in a new direction. The program
aims to foster creative partnerships designed to stimulate
local and regional economic development through innovation.
When we developed our request for proposals, we didn't
give detailed guidance about how to accomplish this.
We wanted to get the best ideas from the community,
and test them to see what works best.
The response we received to this initiative really
exceeded our highest expectations. The partnerships
involve strategic alliances among and between universities
and colleges, state and regional organizations, state
governments and the private sector.
The institutions that responded ranged from a two-year
college in Barrow, Alaska to Cal Tech, one of the
country's great research universities. Industry participation
included small start-ups as well as giants such as
GE, AT&T and Eli Lily.
Some of the projects focus on innovation in specific
areas, for example, advanced composite materials for
highways, for aquaculture, and for deep space flight
engines. Others are designed to assist communities
in developing the educational, cultural and physical
infrastructure necessary to take advantage of science
and engineering research.
The aim of all of them is to build on fundamental knowledge
to create economic and social benefits. We will need
this kind of broad participation in innovation, in
many communities, in order to compete in the global
Altogether, NSF awarded grants to projects in 20 states
and Puerto Rico. Our current investment in this program
is relatively small - just $14 million dollars. This
is a program that we hope to grow substantially in
the years ahead. This depends, of course, on the resources
available to do so.
And this brings me to my final point before I conclude.
U.S. investment in fundamental research has not kept
pace with worthwhile opportunities or with the pace
of America's global competitors.
Total national R&D funding has never been higher. It
now amounts to about $250 billion dollars. For some
years now government funding has remained nearly flat,
and the upward trend is due almost entirely to increased
In 1980, industry surpassed the Federal Government
as the leading supplier of R&D dollars. Since then,
industry's share of the national R&D performance has
been rising steadily.
That means the Federal share is down, and down
quite substantially - in 1999 the federal government
provided only 27 percent of all R&D funds in the US.
That's the lowest level since we started collecting
the data! A decade ago, the federal share was 46 percent.
Three decades ago, the federal share was 60 percent.
That presents something of a conundrum: while federal
investment in research wanes, industry is increasingly
dependent on academic research and other publicly
supported research at the frontier.
In this context, needless to say, we are still hoping
to see most of the FY 2001 budget request for NSF
funded. Realistically, it will only be a step in the
right direction. The long term erosion of the Nation's
basic research investment will take at least several
years to fix. And fix it we must. Thank you.