Dr. Neal F. Lane


Keynote Address

Workshop on Graduate Education in Astronomy

American Astronomical Society

November 1, 1996

The Obvious and the Overlooked

Good evening. It is truly a pleasure and an honor to join you as keynote speaker for this first in a series of workshops on graduate education in Astronomy. My thanks go out to Andrea Dupree and Bob Milkey and the AAS's education policy committee for giving me this opportunity.

I appreciate that we have the full spectrum of the astronomy community represented here today. We know the success of our efforts hinges on hearing from everyone--students, faculty, recent graduates, industry employers, funding agencies, societies, and others. The fact that all of us are here and have taken time to participate in these workshops sows the seeds of success for our collective efforts.

For me personally, it is also especially gratifying to know that I share the marquee for this series with good friends and outstanding leaders like Marye Anne Fox and Phil Griffiths. I can't tell you how fortunate I feel that my talk comes first in this series. Following Phil and Marye Anne would be like being asked to apply a second coat after Michelangelo painted the ceiling!

As I was preparing for this talk, I stumbled across a story that underscored one of the ironies of life in today's world. It seems an assistant high school track coach had set up a make-shift office in the team's equipment shack. His job was to record the runners' times and distribute them to other coaches. The shack had no electricity, so computers and copiers weren't an option for data entry and communicating the results--not unlike some observatories I've heard about.

For this reason, the coach ended up relying on the tried and true system of a manual typewriter and carbon paper to produce multiple copies of his tabulations. One of the student-athletes saw him lining up the carbon paper and pecking away and said, "Wow" "That's amazing stuff. Soon we won't need copier machines anymore."

This story, in addition to highlighting a modern-age generation gap, also reminds us of the astounding pace of progress in our world today--which brings me to the subject of my talk today.

My remarks are entitled, The Obvious and the Overlooked. I want to focus on two topics--one obvious, and one that we often overlook. The obvious and sometimes obsessive topic is change--specifically changes in the so-called compact between science and society. We need to approach these changes in a thoughtful manner, recognize they are real and probably irreversible, and appreciate their implications for graduate education.

The second topic I will address--the one we often overlook--is the opportunity presented by this period of change, specifically the opportunities brought by the advent of a new age of information and knowledge, an age of advanced computation, communication, and information technologies. These have immense implications for all fields of science and engineering, astronomy in particular, and engineering and their role in our society.

My message today is that we must explicitly factor both of these topics into our thinking and our recommended course of action. Far too often, our instincts are to focus too narrowly on responding and adapting to change. As important as this is, it is not enough. The greater challenge--less distinct but certainly more rewarding--is to position ourselves to pursue the opportunities emerging at this, the dawn of the 21st Century.

I have a particular interest in these issues as they relate to astronomy. Throughout my career, in my own work and experience, I have seen time and again that astronomy is a source of inspiration, motivation, methods, and technologies, and insights for much of science and engineering. Astronomy is, without question, a key to progress for our entire enterprise. Our innate desire as humans to understand the cosmos has fired the creative genius of our brightest minds for generations. That will certainly always be true.

I once had the honor of writing a chapter on the contributions of my long-time mentor, Alex Dalgarno of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center, to atomic and molecular physics--structure, collisions, and interactions with light. The experience was very pleasant but at the same time frustrating given the enormity of the contributions Alex has made and the paucity of pages I had been allotted to describe them.

As I was reviewing all this work and, more generally, the many connections between the atomic, molecular, and optical sciences and astrophysics, I was once again struck by the power of astronomy and astrophysics in motivating and stimulating scientific discovery across the broad sweep of time and virtually all fields.

Equally striking examples of these connections were highlighted just two weeks ago at a major event here in Washington. The five Americans awarded the 1996 Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry came here to spend a day in the media spotlight. It gave them the chance to showcase their achievement and discuss the value of science and the role of NSF and other Federal support in their success.

Hugh Van Horn, NSF's Division Director for Astronomy, reminded me of an interesting storyline that emerged from their presentations. The breakthroughs that earned them the Nobels were inspired in large part by questions emerging from astronomy.

Rick Smalley and Bob Curl of Rice University, who shared the Chemistry award with Harry Kroto of the University of Sussex, made this very point. They told of how Kroto's interest in the long-chained carbon molecules detected by radio astronomers first led them to apply their laser-supersonic cluster beam apparatus to carbon. That led them to the buckeyball, and the rest is history.

The physics laureates, David Lee and Robert Richardson of Cornell and Douglas Osheroff of Stanford had a similar story to tell. They described how their initial interest in the superfluidity of Helium 3 was inspired by questions about the behavior of Fermi liquids within neutron stars.

These examples underscore the importance of our gathering here today and of this series of workshops. It is vital that we sustain and nourish the astronomical and astrophysical sciences, and ensure that they remain rewarding and inspiring fields of scientific endeavor and education. As these examples show, this works to the benefit of the entire science and engineering enterprise and our nation as a whole.

Our workshop planners may not have known this, but it is highly appropriate that November 1 was chosen as the opening day for this session. Forty-four years ago today, the first H-Bomb test was conducted. That's an anniversary that may trouble some of us, while reassuring others. It nevertheless also provides an indelible reminder of the role science has played in our national security, and conversely of the role national security has played in justifying public support for science. That brings me to the subject of change.

All of us here today know better than most that the Federal government's significant role in the support of science grew from the contribution American scientists made during World War II--not just in applications of nuclear science but in countless other areas as well. Although in many nations the scientific community has been called upon to help with a war effort, only the United States, through the articulation of Vannevar Bush, adopted a genuine pact between science and the rest of society.

The agreement outlined by Bush was reinforced, especially in our attitudes and rhetoric, by the significant demands of forty years of Cold War. It is debatable, and hotly debated, how important the Cold War was to Federal support of science. But, most would agree that Bush's agreement garnered much of its legitimacy and sense of irreversibility from the nation's overarching national security needs.

Since the end of the Cold War six years ago, many in our community have been debating the tenets of the compact between science and society. Does it need to be revisited, reformed, reconstructed? The implication being that a simple rewrite and update of the compact could usher in a new golden era.

Reality, of course, is not so simple. In a very real sense, this debate was eclipsed before it began. A more divergent perspective on science and technology has taken hold -- a perspective that I believe we need to understand and articulate. It seems to me something very different from the "compact" has been emerging in practice over the last 10-15 years while many of us have remained wedded to the old rhetoric. The initial compact of the Vannevar Bush era has evolved, perhaps without our conscious attention.

What has taken shape, I believe, is a more expansive and multifaceted arrangement that encompasses the larger R&D enterprise in the nation, both public and private. This includes, of course, industry, small business, national laboratories, mission agencies, research universities, and state and local economic development councils. These, and others I have not named, are critical components of the new, and as yet unbaptized, arrangement that has grown from the original compact.

And so, as we continue to speak with reverence about the compact between science and the federal government, we are, in fact, thinking of the past more than the present. I want to emphasize strongly that I am not suggesting we lessen or eliminate the Federal role in support of fundamental research, primarily in our universities. I believe just the opposite. Rather, I am suggesting that this new perspective is a way to recharacterize the roles and positions of all participants in the national research and development system, as the system has evolved and matured. It is accurate to say that our once narrow compact has blossomed into a cornucopia.

And so for those who are threatened by imminent changes in the old compact, I would comfort them with reality--the reality that those changes have been in play for some time. The current R&D enterprise that has evolved from the old compact is not now, and never will be, a cemented set of dogma. Rather, time and events have fashioned a dynamic and sometimes even spontaneous system. There will be no reversal of this momentum.

The reality of these changes--and their irreversibility--is most apparent in the focus of our discussion today: graduate education. There was a time, not very long ago, when newly minted Ph.D.s were often considered disappointments if they had to venture beyond academe or a small set of eminent research labs to secure employment. Today, it is folly to try to turn back the clock and ask whether there will be enough faculty openings and traditional research positions for tomorrow's Ph.D.s. That is too narrow a way to think about graduate education.

I noticed that the background materials prepared for these workshops included a number of references to what's commonly called the "COSEPUP report on graduate education." This report does deserve our attention, in part because it makes clear that a structural change has occurred. It notes that, "Among recent PhDs, there is a steady trend away from positions in education and toward applied research and more diverse, even non-research employment."

We see this trend in virtually all of science and engineering. It is perhaps most acute in the mathematical and physical sciences, though no fields are immune. Where 20 years ago, the majority of PhDs embarked on academic careers after graduation, today a majority pursue careers outside the academy.

Our friends at the American Chemical Society and the American Mathematical Society tell us that a sizable fraction of new Ph.D.s are encountering prolonged and increasingly frustrating job searches. Over 20 percent of Ph.D. chemists report being unemployed up to six months after graduation. Over 10 percent of new Ph.D.s in mathematics report being unemployed a full year after graduation.

The situation is virtually the same in astronomy. The Survey of Earned Doctorates sponsored by NSF's Division of Science Resources Studies testifies to this.

The bottom line is that 7 out of 10 recent PhDs in astronomy have not obtained what most of us would consider stable or satisfactory career positions.

We've all witnessed this feed a vicious cycle of frustration and even resentment for many of America's best and brightest. You may have seen the New York Times Magazine article that ran in late September entitled, "How to Make a PhD Matter." The author is a professor of English, but his opening observation matches much of what we are seeing in the physical sciences. He writes: "Getting a PhD today means spending your 20's in graduate school, plunging into debt, writing a dissertation no one will read--and becoming more narrow and more bitter each step of the way."

Most of us find more than a small measure of irony and incongruity in this state of affairs. We all recognize that the frustrations are real and the discouragement profound. But, we also know that the research itself remains a hotbed of excitement and amazement. Everything that attracted us and continues to attract young people to research remains as abundant as ever.

In just the past year, we have witnessed the discovery of planets orbiting stars beyond our solar system, gained new insights into dark matter, and viewed images of the birth of galaxies. We have even been tantalized by the prospect of ancient microbial life on another planet. While the jury is still out on that last finding, it nevertheless helps to fortify and elevate the sense of optimism and opportunity surrounding astronomy.

Indeed, I believe this sense of optimism and opportunity belongs at the center of our deliberations on the future of graduate education. We cannot afford to have it otherwise--or to overlook these opportunities. We may be witnessing the emergence of a new era of discovery and progress for science and engineering in America. Leadership from the research community--astronomy in particular--will determine whether we realize the opportunities it offers.

Consider, for example, the data on U.S. economic growth since World War II. Our GDP has grown by a factor of six over the past five decades, thanks in large part to scientific and technological progress. Economists have concluded that innovations emerging from science and technology account for roughly one-third of all economic growth over the past half-century. That's an amazing accomplishment--one in which we should all take great pride.

But I would argue that the best is yet to come for science and technology. Our role and our contribution will be even greater in the future. We have now entered what many are calling "the information age," and it promises to be an age where progress and success are shaped by scientific and technological endeavors.

This potential for progress emerges in large part from advanced computing, communications, and information technologies, such as those related to the World Wide Web. This has revolutionized physics, astronomy, and virtually every field of research. It's changed how we conduct research, post results, access data and images, develop and debug code, and search for jobs and explore career options. We can even read Ap. J. Letters weeks before it arrives in printed form.

All of this, as powerful and revolutionary as it is, represents just one small hint of the potential impact of these emerging technologies on our society. This impact is so profound that it may well redefine how we view terms like "school," "classroom," "laboratory," "university", and "career in science and engineering."

In a trilogy of speeches delivered in February of this year, Vice President Gore suggested the metaphor, "distributed intelligence," to describe this new age of intelligent systems. It is a complicated metaphor, based on applying the principles of parallel processing and networking to social challenges and economic progress. It is noteworthy in and of itself for the Vice President of the United States to discuss things like massive parallelism and broad bandwidths. That's almost certainly a first in our history.

Distributed intelligence rests upon one key concept: shifting information and control away from centralized systems to the individual. It's a notion we've been discussing at NSF for some time, even before the Vice President introduced the metaphor.

One could say that this involves all of society getting wired, except that it won't always involve wires. This may yield an age in which the sharing of information is instantaneous and ubiquitous. We are already gaining a few glimpses of its potential impact on both science and society:

At NSF, we are exploring how to approach this concept in ways that maximize both its scientific potential and its benefit to society, and we are still grappling with some of the basic terminology. We are currently developing approaches that come under headings like "learning and intelligent systems" and "knowledge networks." These include such activities as data mining, visualization, pattern recognition, improved human/computer interfaces, and learning technologies. We believe all of these hold immense benefit both from a scientific standpoint and as drivers of economic growth and social benefit.

When we view graduate education in the context of these activities, it points out the fundamental dilemma we face.

Fortunately for all of us, countless efforts are underway to remedy this dilemma. Most of these are department and discipline-based. At NSF, we have developed a number of mechanisms designed to encourage these grass-roots efforts.

None of these efforts provides the magic bullet for the challenges we face. We know that. It will take much more--and most important of all it will take a commitment to working together and testing and exploring new approaches.

To conclude my remarks this evening, let me first say that I know I am asking a lot of you. I am asking you to do more than just respond to change, but also to exercise leadership that will help position the entire science and engineering community for new opportunities. That is a tall order, but I can't help but to recall the last time I spoke to an AAS gathering--last January in San Antonio.

Those who were there caught the full throttle of my frustration over the government shutdown and prolonged budget battles. I called upon the astronomy community to lead and help spread word about the importance of stable funding for research. You delivered, and the entire science and engineering community followed your lead. I believe it is no coincidence that this year NSF's budget was in place prior to the start of the fiscal year.

Today, while I don't quite bring the same feelings of frustration or messages of immediate demise, we still face an uncertain future. The long-term threat to science is just as real as I described to you last January. We know that the drive to balance the budget will bring some rocky times. This gives all of us good reason to feel apprehensive about the future.

But as I've said throughout my talk today, we can't let this apprehension slow us down. I believe we will have a future golden age of science. It just won't be the same as in past years.

I believe that scientific research will continue to explore the most fundamental questions of nature. Clearly, this includes astronomy. And, doctoral-level graduate education will continue to prepare the nation's brightest and most capable students to make the major discoveries of tomorrow.

I nevertheless predict our system of research--including university research--and education will do much more than this. In a future golden age, research will also emphasize the integration and dissemination of knowledge beyond publishing in journals and presenting papers. We will rely on yet-to-be established networks of discovers and users. This new partnership will make the benefits of research more apparent and, at least some of the time, more immediate.

Graduate education at the doctoral and masters level will include valuable knowledge and skills, such as communication, teamwork, management, and leadership, that will enable scientists and engineers to excel in a wide range of professions. Why is this important? One reason is to ensure better jobs for science graduates.

But perhaps more important is the fact that future leaders in the world of business, law, medicine, and politics will need to understand science and technology to a degree society has never recognized and certainly not required before.

Will all of this come to pass? I don't know. But it will not come to pass unless we expand our views of research, of the university, of connections and partnerships involving the doers and users of science, and of graduate education.

This is why, as in January, I bring high expectations for leadership from all of you. Your efforts can once again show the way for the entire science, engineering, and technology community. We know that dramatic change is upon us, necessitating a thoughtful and appropriate response. We also know, but sometimes overlook, that even more dramatic and rewarding opportunities await us as well.

Your efforts through this series of workshops hold the key to success on both of these scores, and I once again have full confidence that you will deliver.

Thank you and thanks again to the AAS for inviting me to join you this evening.