Dr. Neal Lane




July 25, 1996

Thank you. I am so pleased to be here today. We are Arlington neighbors and I hope this will be the first of many visits back and forth. I would be delighted if some of you would visit the National Science Foundation in the near future.

I know we are all excited to have Tom Dolan as our Arlington neighbor. He has brought Olympic Gold medal glory to our community and the nation.

The philosophy and code of the Rotarians is "service," a path I both admire and have spent a good deal of time speaking about to members of the science and engineering community. I commend all Rotarians for your service in community and civic work. Your particular club, I know, has made Arlington a more hospitable and congenial place to live and work.

For me, this visit marks the beginning of what I hope will be an on-going dialogue with you. I want to learn about how, as Rotarians, you promote the sense of service that is the hallmark of your membership. And I want to become more familiar with your activities in the Arlington community.

I must confess that I considered today's meeting such an important event that I wrote an editorial for the magazine, American Scientist, that I entitled "The Arlington Rotary Club." I think that a fellow member of the Rotary Club, John White, actually picked up some copies to distribute to you.

The title, The Arlington Rotary Club, attracted considerable attention, as I had hoped, in a magazine which has probably never published those three words before, in any combination. Few things strike more fear into the hearts of scientists--who are otherwise supremely confident--than the prospect of speaking to an audience of many non-scientists. And so the article seemed to get a pretty careful reading.

Scientists, as you probably already know, like to talk to each other. We have our conferences, workshops, and seminars where we converse in a jargon that can sound like its own form of "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind."

I am a physicist and I have been told that physicists are a bit odd. About a year ago the wonderfully witty journalist with the Washington Post, Joel Achenbach, wrote a tongue-in-cheek description of a physics conference. He said, "When you picture a physicist you should imagine a person in darkness, holding a remote-control device, lecturing,..." frankly, I don't see what is so strange about that! It's how I grew up! I hope I can offer some thoughts today with the lights on and the language accessible.

In my editorial in the American Scientist, I spoke of the importance of scientists getting out of their labs, off their campuses, away from their computers, and into a dialogue with the American public. I used myself as an example of someone who lacks frequent experience in talking about science to audiences that are not scientists or specialists in science policy.

In fact, in the editorial, I mentioned that if any of the subscribership had given talks about science to a Rotary Club or were Rotarians themselves that I would welcome their advice. And, I gave my e-mail address. Well, I was inundated with advice, much of it helpful, some of it contradictory, all of it good natured--and highly complimentary about Rotarians.

Someone suggested that the subject of money was always a good hook. Money is actually a practical reason to start a dialogue between us. No, I'm not going to ask you for a Rotary Club contribution to the NSF budget, although our budget has not been insulated from the recent budget battles in Congress. But on the subject of money, I do feel some obligation to tell you briefly how many of your tax dollars go to NSF and what we do with them.

We are a small agency by Washington standards, just over 1200 employees, with a budget of roughly $3.2 billion and very broad responsibility. We use our resources to fund research and education projects in all fields of science and engineering as well as science and math education from kindergarten through PhDs. In any given year, we support on the order of 20,000 projects that involve about 200, 000 people. I often say that NSF is involved in everything from elementary schools to elementary particles, and it's not clear which are more complicated or more challenging.

We don't directly operate any laboratories or facilities. In this respect, we differ from the National Institutes of Health in Rockville. Instead we support faculty in universities, many of whom operate or work in laboratories. We are able to keep our administrative cost very low--less than 5 percent of our total budget. Ninety-five percent of our funds go out the door to support research and education projects. We rely on a highly competitive review process for proposals. They are rated by panels of experts in the various fields. In this way, the best people with the most promising ideas are funded.

In a sense, NSF gives grants to people who pose probing and insightful questions and then relentlessly test the answers till they create new kernels of knowledge and understanding. These kernels are like pebbles tossed into a pool of water. They generate an ever expanding series of circles--circles of open knowledge for others to contemplate, add to, and combine for amazingly varied and practical uses.

The Nobel prize-winning physicist, Charles Townes, proved the concept behind the laser in the 1950's. [He was not supported by NSF but by our Wilson Blvd. neighbor, the Office of Naval Research (ONR).] This discovery was the pebble that eventually led to commercial lasers that read compact disks, perform eye surgery and burn away blood clots, and pulse phone calls and computer data through thousands of miles of optical fiber. It is speculated that there are many more circles to come from this one pebble. And so you might say that we and our fellow science agencies are in the business of funding "pebble shooters."

Although the laser theory and its development have brought us numerous applications, the political satirist Mark Russell said that the scientific theory he likes best is that "the rings of Saturn are composed entirely of lost airline baggage."

That quip is genuinely funny and meant to amuse. But what worries me a great deal is that public exposure to real scientific understanding is limited and uneven. I recently heard about an unidentified homeowner who had tied his household electric wires into knots to reduce his utility bill. (NSF is not supporting research to see if this works!)

At NSF, all of our surveys show that the public is interested in science, and believe science is important but nonetheless those surveyed also believe they have very limited scientific understanding. When I mention this to scientific audiences I suggest to them that the survey results perhaps tell us more about the science community than about the American public. I have pointed out that this disconnect between the public being interested in science yet feeling that their knowledge is very limited should give all of us something to ponder.

There is no doubt that scientists are intense about what they're doing and the minutia of their particular discipline or sub field. And yet everyone, scientists included, should be able to explain what they do and make it sound sensible or relevant. If I were a surgeon, or a plumber, or a journalist, or even a musician, I could report on the kind of surgeries, leaky faucets, news stories, or compositions I had worked on. When you're a scientist, the things that you do on any given day in the laboratory are not very interesting even to your spouse, although you find them completely absorbing. I know this from personal experience.

And so there is this odd contradiction because almost all people are interested in how things happen or why they happen or how they work, but there is a narrow and minute level of detail that most scientists work at that can quickly baffle or bore even other scientists. A partial solution to this disconnect is to educate scientists on how to be better communicators not only about their particular work but about the role and value of science and technology to society. Some scientists are skilled communicators--Carl Sagan, Stephen Gould--but the number is small.

While on the one hand, science seems very remote to most people, it is, on the other hand, completely pervasive in our lives. The world is so infused with the stuff of science that we often don't recognize how it permeates every detail of our daily routine. In thinking about this talk today, I decided to pay attention to some of the science, engineering and technology that is woven into my own day.

Awakened by a transistor radio with a quartz clock, I didn't need to get any further than a hot shower in an air conditioned house, and a shave with a teflon-coated electric razor, shirt and suit of unwrinkled resistant blends of material, followed by chilled orange juice from concentrate and microwaved instant-cereal while I watched the morning news beamed via satelllite even before I got into my car full of computers and cellular phone. The evidence of science and technology in my moment to moment existence and yours is overwhelming. And yet, I must confess, even as a scientist, I don't pay much attention to these things that are so integral to the fabric of my day. Undoubtedly, I, like all of you, would not want to give up electricity or indoor plumbing or even my VCR, certainly not my TV remote clicker. In a way, science is so much a part of us, we don't even take note of the fact that it's science; instead, we take it for granted.

So, why do I think it is important for scientists to get out of their labs and engage in a genuine dialogue in their communities. It is not because I think that they have the only important things to say, but rather that they need to hear what everyone else has to say, as well as offer their own information and opinions. Will this make them better scientists? Probably. I have frequently pointed out that in America we are able to do outstanding science at the same time that many societal disparities and problems are increasing. Maybe the most important goal should be to understand the physical, moral, and social problems that hold us in the grip of numerous contradictions. Surely we can only do this together, through regular and open discussions.

Who better than the Rotarians to engage in these discussions. You know your community, you know its problems, and you know a lot about solutions.

Now, am I suggesting by my comments that science is not important or inherently useful? Just the opposite. The contributions of science and technology to our society translate into high economic and social value. Economists of all political stripes have estimated that our national investments in support of science and technology activities yield rates of return in the range of 20-30 percent. I wish I could find a broker who would promise a similar return, an honest one.

One need look no further than the streets of Arlington to find high-tech industry. There are major players like MCI and American Management Systems. Just as important, however, is science and technology as a driver of small business development. I know I can rely on you to provide me with the best examples from your own experience.

Suffice it to say that all these returns flow back to our society in new industries, high-value jobs, and highly competitive products and services for the domestic and global marketplace. They bring us better health care, a cleaner environment, and an improved standard of living. Despite this, science by itself cannot answer the hardest questions.

The most fundamental problems in all societies are human problems and they are similar on the local and global scale. How can we nurture and educate all children, inhibit violence, provide meaningful work for all? Science can help solve these and myriad others that exist. But science is only one of numerous components that are needed.

I am asking scientists and engineers to actively reach out in their communities and engage in a genuine dialogue. I am asking you to reach out to scientists, and technical professionals as you have done to me, and share with them the problems and issues of concern in this community. Rotarians, especially, have the gift of reaching out. Together, we can keep talking and moving toward beneficial solutions.

It has been a pleasure to be here today. Perhaps this is brash of me, but I look forward to a next time. Thank you.