Dr. Neal F. Lane


Commerce Science And Technology
Fellowship Program

Washington, DC

September 10, 1996

I am very pleased to be here this evening; and I want to thank Dr. Mary Good for the invitation to speak to you. I know that the ambiance of the reception and the dinner have enhanced your desire, at this late hour, to listen to a physicist-civil servant on some facet of research and development. Sounds like a formula for a nap to me. I will be brief in my comments and hope that we can engage in a lively question- and-answer period afterwards.

As we enter the political heat of another election, I am reminded of similar wisdom expressed by two very disparate commentators. The futurist writer, Arthur C. Clarke said, "Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories." And John F. Kennedy said, "Our task now is not to fix the blame for the past, but to fix the course for the future."

Each of these very different thinkers understood that a significant role of government is to prepare a path for the nation's prosperous future. Each of you who is just embarking on your Science and Technology Fellowship, and each of the past "Comsci fellows" present tonight, knows that strong science and technology investments are a critical ingredient for our nation's prosperous future.

What is often overlooked when we describe the societal value and contributions of science and technology is that the support of these activities is not a one way exercise. The government role is not just to provide funds for gifted people outside the federal government to generate the results.

In fact, without the outstanding scientific and technical and managerial workforce WITHIN the federal government, our highly successful record as a nation in science and technology could not have been achieved.

I know that most of us cut our teeth on the simplified Vannevar Bush dictum that the federal government and the universities constitute a compact for the conduct of science in the nation--federal money and university expertise. None of us, however, has actually seen it work in just that way. This distillation of Bush's intent was too simple an interpretation when it was first articulated by some. As a concept, it has become increasingly less representative of reality. In fact Vannevar Bush himself said, "Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team."

Bush understood that the strength of American R&D could not rest in any single component of the system, either public or private. Rather that strength comes from the complex interconnection of all components. All through the arduous decades of Cold War tensions, and the almost 7 years since the Cold War's end, mission agencies, national laboratories, research universities, American industry, small business, and the public and private science and engineering workforce have all been integral players in the achievements of American R&D. The civil servants who perform and/or manage that R&D in the federal S&T enterprise are in no small way responsible for its success.

We have only to look at the most recent discovery--evidence suggesting that ancient microbial life might have existed on Mars. Please note that I say "might." We are a long way from verification.

This startling possibility is the culmination of a literal "stew" of diverse activity inside and outside the Federal government over many years. For over three decades, meteorite collection in the Antarctic has been a project funded by the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs. This project has now yielded some 16,000 meteorites, roughly half of the world's meteorite samples.

One can envision a team of researchers clothed in hooded parkas, huge mittens, and protective boots scouring the Antarctic ice sheets for meteorite morsels. This is not incorrect, it is just incomplete.

As complement to those doing the actual collection, there are also scientist/civil servants in the Office of Polar Programs who set up review panels, read proposals, monitor the work at the three NSF Antarctic field stations, and don't wear "abominable snowmen" gear when they sit at their computers. Neither group of people could accomplish the collection task without the other.

But as you know, there's much, much more to a given task than meets the eye. Since 1980, NSF, NASA, and the Smithsonian Institution have had a memorandum of understanding (MOU) regarding meteorite collection and analysis. The responsibilities are roughly divided up so that NSF does the primary collection, NASA does special curatorial handling, NASA and the Smithsonian share the task of classification, all three agencies share the task of disbursement to researchers, and the Smithsonian is in charge of long-term storage.

As a result of the sturdy federal R&D infrastructure and this on-going arrangement, the now famous Martian meteorite was found, its origin identified, its estimated age, and its carbonate clusters imaged by using scanning electron microscopes. But the path of science seems to let us open a window only to find another question.

We were at yet another crossroads. How can we penetrate these carbonate microstructures to determine their composition? This question carried us to Stanford University and Dick Zare who now chairs the National Science Board, NSF's board of directors. In his day job, Dick Zare is a physical chemist who gets support from NSF's program in physical chemistry as well as some from our physics program.

In the course of on-going research, Dick's lab had developed an innovative microprobe laser. Although this tool was designed for an entirely different avenue of research, it suddenly became the key to identify and map a particular hydrocarbon type found in the meteorite.

These hydrocarbons can arise for a number of reasons, including the breakdown of living organisms. High concentrations of these hydrocarbons in the Martian meteorite, along with other evidence, led the scientific team to postulate about early microbial life-forms on Mars. Although the mystery and the excitement of this possibility are tantalizing, they must be balanced by years of careful survey and analysis and a still-to-be determined ultimate outcome.

You may be wondering why I have belabored this description of a single discovery? I wanted to remind all of us, myself included, of the intricate, intertwined, and interdependent route we must navigate to make progress in science and technology. I wanted to remind all of us that this one revelation depended upon the long-term support of many scientists in diverse disciplines, the support of many agency programs, and the investment in state of the art instrumentation and equipment. All were necessary ingredients. All will be necessary for future achievements.

In this instance, like hundreds of others we might mention, a significant number of participants were people like yourselves, federal government science and technology personnel. Your knowledge, understanding, and expertise throughout our diverse federal science and technology structure are an integral part of America's science and technology success. I am not talking about dollars allocated, although they are critical, but rather decisions made by experienced and dedicated people.

As we once again remember Arthur Clarke's call for politicians to read science fiction and John F. Kennedy's vision to fix the course for the future, I want to thank all of you in the Comsci Fellowship Program for helping to prepare America for a prosperous future through its science and technology.