Meeting of the Arctic Forum
June 2, 1997
Good morning. My thanks go out to Nick Flanders and the ARCUS Board for inviting me to join you today. I especially appreciate your flexibility in accommodating the unpredictability of my schedule. All of you have my sincerest thanks for fitting me into what I know is an already crowded agenda.
I've learned over the past few years that Washington gives rise to many terms that qualify as modern day oxymorons. I often hear people talking about "exact estimates" and "working vacations." I'm now getting the sense that we should add something having to do with "time management" to the list as well.
When we look around science and engineering, we find a multitude of events and situations that are confusing and difficult to reconcile. If we look at opportunities for leading-edge research and education, certainly including activities focused on the Arctic, things could not be better. But, when we look at the funding outlook, things are less good. This morning, I want to talk about ways we might be able to work together as a community and reconcile these seemingly contradictory trends.
When we look at the breakthroughs emerging in research and education, it's clear that we are in a veritable golden age of discovery.
Discoveries related to Scottish sheep and Martian meteorites have been dominating the headlines, but they are really just one small slice of the excitement surrounding us today.
Earlier this year, we learned that a team at MIT had created the first atom laser, which may one day make it possible to manipulate and focus individual atoms at scales that are smaller--much smaller--than the wavelengths used in optical lasers.
We also continue to marvel at the possibilities brought by new materials. Research directly related to the Nobel prize-winning work on Buckyballs has now brought us "nano-tubes"-- which appear to be many times stronger than steel but only a fraction of the weight.
In education, the results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study -- better known as TIMSS -- have given us a new gauge as to how our schools stack up in math and science.
A high level of excitement also surrounds research and education emerging from the Arctic.
Fossils residing in rocks recovered from Greenland's Akilia Island are helping us rewrite the history of life on Earth. This was the cover story from the issue of the NSF monthly newsletter, Frontiers, that was published this past March.
In August, I'll be headed back to Alaska for a trip centered around the 50th anniversary of the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory in Barrow. I've got my bathing suit, mask and snorkel packed. This will be my second trip to Alaska since coming to NSF. I had the opportunity to travel there three years ago, and was able to help dedicate new modern laboratory facilities for the Long Term Ecological Research site at Toolik Lake in the Brooks Range.
That was a memorable trip, and I'm greatly looking forward to my visit later this summer. I've always been taken with Alaska's innate natural beauty, and the quality of the research and education activities underway should make the trip doubly enjoyable. This is one time when I don't consider the term "working vacation" to be an oxymoron.
This brings me to my next topic, because by August, I imagine all of us at NSF will need a vacation -- even if it is a working one. We expect to have a busy summer, thanks largely to events on the budget front -- which don't look nearly as promising as the advances in research and education I've just cited.
You've all undoubtedly read that the President and the Congressional leadership have signed off on the blueprints for a plan to balance the budget by the year 2002. This is a major accomplishment. The agreement will help put the nation on a solid fiscal footing as we head into the new century.
For all of us who care about research and education, however, this long-sought agreement does not mean our work is done. Quite the contrary, our voices will be needed more than ever.
When it comes to the R&D funding outlook, I often tell people the devil is not just in the details, it's in the totals. The projections for the budget category known as domestic discretionary spending deserve special attention. This category includes most of what we think of as "government": parks, prisons, highways, food safety, and countless other functions, including NSF, NIH, NASA, Interior, EPA, NOAA, and other parts of non-defense R&D funding.
Thirty years ago, these activities accounted for nearly a quarter of all Federal spending. Now they are barely 1/6th of the total. Even more concerning is that this 1/6th slice of the pie will shrink to roughly 1/7th of the pie over the next five years.
That leaves us with our current conundrum -- opportunities for cutting-edge work in research and education are expanding, while our resources face ever tighter constraints. Many people ask me what we should do -- if there is anything we can do. While there are no magic bullets or simple formulas for success, I believe there are ways we can bring about a future that is much more to our liking.
From everything I have seen, your efforts here at the Arctic Forum and through ARCUS have already pinpointed what must be the centerpiece of our collective approach as a community. I'm speaking of your commitment to education in science and engineering, and specifically to linking research and discovery with teaching and learning.
The integration of research and education was one of the key themes to emerge from our strategic planning process at NSF. It has become a defining feature of programs throughout the Foundation. What sets NSF apart from other R&D agencies is our commitment to supporting research in an environment of learning. If you've seen our FY 1998 budget request, you'll see that activities with this focus -- such as Research Experiences for Undergraduates and the CAREER program for young faculty -- are all slated for major increases.
Polar science figures prominently into this overall effort. In fact, next year's celebration of National Science and Technology Week will focus on science and engineering in the polar regions, and it will demonstrate NSF's role in research and education specifically as it relates to polar programs.
We've chosen this as a theme because it illustrates NSF's commitment to linking research and education at every level of learning. Many of you already know that NSF has funded opportunities for middle school and high school teachers -- as well as some students -- to join polar scientists at their research sites. Last year, one teacher got to travel on an icebreaker in the Arctic Ocean, and this year teacher/student teams will join research projects at two sites in Alaska and one in Greenland.
As we look ahead to next year, my colleagues and I at NSF know that we will need your help to make the most of this ambitious plan for National Science and Technology Week. We've just begun developing our annual packages of education materials. These are hands-on teaching activities for use with students by teachers and parents and others. For next year, we are placing special emphasis on topics that convey the richness of polar science and engineering.
We are currently reviewing sources in all areas of research. In the social sciences, for example, one topic is related to linguistics and the languages of indigenous peoples. In addition to examining history and culture of Arctic communities, we are also hoping to give young scientists the chance to study the natural resources of Arctic regions and consider environmental issues.
All of this is just getting underway, and we still are on the hunt for ideas and suggestions. If any of you have ideas for areas to highlight, or if you would like to help develop activities that build awareness of the Arctic and its significance in science and engineering, then I encourage you to get in touch with us. The best way to reach our science week operation is via the NSF web page, and link to the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs, or go directly to the NSTW page (http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/nstw/start.htm).
Let me close on that note because one of my primary goals in joining you this morning is to hear from you. This is a confusing time for science and engineering in America. We're in a golden age for research and education, but the prospects for future funding are somewhat less than golden. I think we can change that by working together, and I'm anxious to get your thoughts on how we can continue moving forward collectively as a community.
Thanks again for this chance to join you today. I'll be happy to take a few questions if time allows.