FACULTY SYMPOSIUM AT COLORADO SCHOOL OF MINES
MARCH 6, 1997
I am delighted to be here today. As you can probably tell from the introduction, Colorado holds an important place in my personal history. I have many long-time research collaborators, colleagues, and friends here and I continue to cherish those relationships. Many of those good friends still wonder "where I went wrong! At some point most of us use the phrase, "the good old days," to connote a time in our lives that we savor in recollection. The "Colorado Days" were surely that for me. And it is always good to come back.
As I was thinking about a trip out here in early March, it crossed my mind that there could be big snow. I was reminded of a comment that the comedian Carl Reiner made about snow. He said, "A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water." I don't think Carl Reiner was ever a skier! When I was in Colorado Springs, the campus was closed several days due to snow. While I have been in Washington, the NSF has also closed a few days due to snow, but a month due to politics! What we do know is that Colorado is grand in almost any weather.
In several recent talks that I have given to academic research faculty, who generously were willing to listen, I have emphasized two or three issues that I believe are important to the future of American science and technology. And, if properly addressed, they can also favorably impact the long-term support for science. Let me first be very clear at the onset of these remarks. It is apparent to me, probably to you, and to many others that past federal support for research, in universities and national laboratories, has been a critical element in our nation's position of unquestioned world leadership and of continuous high standard of living. With the goal of perpetuating that strong record, today I want to discuss the issue of not only sustaining, but expanding, the role of science. And, here I include all fields of science and fundamental engineering.
Science in our nation, is often viewed from extreme perspectives. On the one hand, we in the research community have been known to think of it as the ultimate activity for a civilized society (I do not disagree). On the other hand, many in the electorate think of science, perhaps with the exception of biomedical research, as abstract and peripheral to addressing our societal needs. I think many of us would agree it is at neither extreme. It is neither peripheral to what happens in the nation nor is it the single-handed solution for our nation's success and prosperity. Rather, it is something else--a significant and integral enabler of what America's future will be.
I have spent the last two years speaking to groups of scientists about the necessity to actively engage in dialogues with voters and policymakers about the valuable contributions of research to our national welfare. I have, in fact, characterized projected cuts for federal R&D over the next five years as a "very risky national experiment" In today's budget balancing/government downsizing environment, any agency just holding its own is doing well. Any agency that receives even a modest increase is being described as a great success. I am pleased that in the President's budget proposal to the Congress, the National Science Foundation received a three percent increase. And science overall went up over two percent.
I am optimistic that this trend will be reflected in the final budget that emerges from Congress many months down the road. We must keep in mind, however, that the final budget will also reflect the commitment on the part of both the President and the Congress to balance the budget by the year 2002. And you have already begun to hear disagreement about the numbers! Accommodating diverse goals often requires complex compromises and this will surely be no exception.
How well science and technology can weather the budget wars is, in large part, up to the commitment of the rank and file research community, the universities, and industry. These three groups are, after all, comprised of the individuals who best understand research and its benefits. The task will be to articulate how scarce taxpayer dollars allocated for research in science and technology can translate into goals for the society as a whole.
It is easy to blur the distinction between the means to reach a goal and the goal itself. A budget, for science or anything else, must be understood as only a means to a larger goal. In fact, Einstein, in his wisdom, cautioned us of just such a dilemma. He said, "Our age is characterized by perfecting the means while confusing the goals."
The goal for the taxpayer-supported-science-and-technology-budget is to uplift and improve the nation and its citizenry through the discovery and application of new knowledge. A viable budget is a necessary part of the means to reach that goal. Equally important is the continued understanding on the part of the research community--scientists and engineers--that public funds support public goals. These dollars are intended to leverage solutions to problems common to our society. They must be viewed by the public as investments that pay big dividends, not as costs incurred in order to keep smart and curious people happy. That is our challenge.
I think I have come to understand more about the public and political perception of science and scientists from the vantage point of the NSF directorship. At least I face this issue often in my job. I am struck by the disconnect between some of those perceptions and the reality that I know. One hears a great deal about the dogma, and sometimes rivalry, of the disciplines, coupled with the sense that there are categories-even classes-of scientists, ranging from the most elite to the most pedestrian, depending on their work--a kind of pyramidal structure.
I understand how this characterization arises. But, I find it a very disturbing portrayal of a community of professionals I both respect and know to be among the most capable, hard working and right-thinking individuals on the planet.
Not infrequently, policymakers, perhaps reflecting a public's perception, express the view that "more money with fewer strings attached" represents the "goal" --even the expectation--of the research community. I think I know where this came from too. And, while I do not believe this is at all an accurate portrayal, such perceptions must be faced, and they must be changed in order for the reality to emerge. This task suggests that science and engineering researchers in America must realize a new role and reflect a new image.
I am frequently confronted with questions about why we are able to do increasingly outstanding, even breathtaking, science at the same time that many societal disparities and problems are also increasing. We in the research community would all agree that our long-held professional goals of teaching and research are surely of paramount importance, but perhaps they are not sufficient. Rather, a further goal I believe we should contemplate is to understand better what science and technology can offer in addressing the many physical and social problems that hold our civilization in the grip of numerous contradictions.
Many old timers like myself reminisce about the "golden age of science in America," the period after World War II through the 50s and the 60s. It was a time when public funding for science was almost open-ended and an agenda for science was rarely discussed. That was a unique period for America within the context of world history and world war. Our economic rivals were severely weakened by the war, and we had only one behemoth political/military rival whose foreboding omnipotence helped fill the coffers of science. All science was good. More science was better.
That economic era is long gone but it took our nation and its businesses and industries almost fifteen years to come to grips with the new economic era, with competition from a rejuvenated and robust Europe and Asia. The political/military period of so-called "peaceful co-existence" has more recently ended with the close of the Cold War in 1989. With it has gone the Cold War rationale for generously funding scientific research, primarily to keep us safe. We can debate just how strong this rationale really was, but I think we could agree it was substantial.
Many of us in government, industry, and academia know that investments, public and private, in research and development pay off handsomely in economic benefits. It has worked that way for decades, but until the last several years we primarily had anecdotal evidence. Now economists confidently note that industries as diverse as agriculture, aeronautics, computers, biotechnology, and medical equipment grew strong and dominant as a result of federal investments in science and technology. In fact, many leading economists now estimate that over the past fifty years innovation has been responsible for as much as half of our nation's economic growth [1995, then-Clinton Administration Chief Economic Adviser, Dr. Laura D'Andrea Tyson, in a statement on science and technology and the federal budget.] Even using conservative annual rates of return, like 20 percent consistently over decades, we are talking about a stockbrokers fantasy. So there is increasing recognition that science has never been peripheral to the process of societal progress.
But we must be pragmatic in recognizing that science is also not the lone superstar--by definition--the only player in that process.
The significant contributory role that science plays is often difficult to portray to the public. It is not enough that we know that research is a high-value investment. What matters is convincing those who pay our bills. The taxpayers are, in fact, the ultimate stockholders in this valuable venture. And so it is incumbent on the research community to neither portray science as a single-handed super-achiever, nor to portray itself as a community detached from, or above, the fundamental concerns of our society. We are, in fact, a critical partner in a comprehensive enterprise to achieve our nation's diverse goals. That proper portrayal is our job for now and for the future.
And in that near future, it seems to me that despite the threat of some more-than-dismal budget scenarios, science will be on the cusp of a new, albeit different, "golden era" in America." It will almost assuredly be an era that will break some of the old canons, but it will also expand beyond the limits of our traditional conceptions of a research enterprise. It will, I believe, be an era that resolves some of the contradictions of science in America today. Let me elaborate briefly on some of those contradictions.
There is no question that the pace of scientific advances has accelerated, almost exploded, in the last decade. Our capability to tackle problems of global and universal nature has progressed dramatically with advanced instrumentation, computing power, and communication. But, in spite of dramatic breakthroughs in almost every discipline, we have not as yet convinced the electorate, and those they elect to represent them, that federal research programs are critical "investments" and should be increased even under the constraints of balancing the Federal budget.
Perhaps one reason for this disconnect is that the electorate does not perceive science as concerned with society's problems but rather with abstract questions of nature and the universe.
Jacob Bronowski, the renowned chronicler of science, said more than two decades ago, "The world today is made; it is powered by science." But we have not been able to comprehend ourselves, let alone convince others, that a science degree--Bachelors, Masters, or Ph.D. --really is, or ought to be, an enabling degree for a vast spectrum of tasks that our society needs.
We educate and inspire our scientists to reach the very pinnacle of their disciplines. But we have not as yet been able to see that a society predicated on science and technology needs its scientists and engineers not only in universities and research laboratories but in every facet of leadership in the life of the nation.
In fact, sometimes we have failed to properly appreciate or credit one of our own who chooses to move beyond our strict definition of "scientist." I am thinking particularly of Carl Sagan who was, in many respects, a pioneer and real American hero. He recognized early-on the importance of public understanding of science and contributed considerably toward that goal in his lifetime.
His life and his work should serve as a cautionary tale for all of us as we enter the "new era for science." I believe that era will be a time in which scientists and engineers will move naturally throughout the society, leading with their unique skills. We must respect and encourage those who choose these new paths. We must value their contributions in present, as well as posthumous, perspective.
Sagan himself said of the teaching and learning of science, "When, through indifference, inattention, incompetence, or fear of skepticism, we discourage children from science, we are disenfranchising them, taking from them the tools needed to manage their future." (Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, 1995)
But here we have yet another contradiction. In light of such comments it should seem ironic to us that we take for granted that a law degree is a good background and foundation for doing almost anything in our society. And yet, that very society is totally infused with, and driven by, science and technology. Why then do we rarely think of a science degree in the same way?
Logic would almost surely suggest that the "enabling degree" of the 21st century should be one in science or engineering. I say this not to mollify science Ph.D.s, who are understandably frustrated, bouncing from one post doc to another but, rather because I believe it is what America will need increasingly in the coming century.
Why then is this not happening? Why do we not envision ourselves in this very way? To begin, we have not been educated to think that we are needed as leaders in other parts of the society. In fact, there has been a certain isolationism inbred in our training, a certain expectation that the university or prestigious research laboratory is the only truly valued place for Ph.D. scientists. There aren't so many of these jobs in today's downsizing environment.
Many departments are currently cutting back on their graduate enrollments. I believe this is a prudent step in the short term. However, taking the larger view for our society in the 21st century, we must not focus on educating fewer scientists and engineers but rather on educating them to see themselves on broader career horizons. It is primarily a matter of attitude. We must also teach our students not to wait to be asked but to step forward and propose the challenges. And we who are their mentors need to work with our university administrators and potential employers to help open new doors.
Does this mean that today's Ph.D. degree already prepares graduates for those possibilities? In some cases we know from experience that it does. Although as the larger societal role for scientists evolves, there will need to be more elasticity in the configuration of science and engineering degrees, including the Ph.D. This does not mean, for example, that every graduate education experience must be different from the past. We will always need gifted scientists and engineers, totally focused in their research quest, to make the great discoveries.
However, the future graduate degree experience must take into account the large number of graduates who will make other important contributions in education, business, government, and elsewhere in our society. And have no doubt, the society needs them in these tasks. We need to think of them in that larger role and teach them how to envision themselves there.
In the end, the system must encourage those who aspire to be the next Albert Einstein or Linus Pauling to go for it. The world will need them. But, we must be sure that those who choose other career directions are aware of the opportunities, have access to broader experience and skills while still in school, as well as career advice and mentoring. The latter will require new institutional responsibility and commitment on the part of the university and the department. Perhaps these have not been the tasks of the past forty years, but almost assuredly they will be part of the agenda for the next forty years.
Some of this is already happening on campuses and in collaborations across the country. There are many pockets within science departments that are bubbling with, what my generation might characterize as, "unconventional activity." Although these examples of innovation and change are still the exception and not the norm, they are exciting, diverse, and growing . They indicate a willingness on the part of the research community to move into new territory, try different approaches.
I think it is important to acknowledge and understand the direction of these efforts because, I believe, they are leading us to the future, "much broader golden era" for science.
As the role for science expands, the funding base for science will also expand and further diversify. We have already witnessed a substantial shift in the last twenty years of support for science. In 1976, the federal government funded 50 percent of all R&D performed in the nation. Ten years ago, that figure was 45 percent, and today it is less than 35 percent. The combination of balancing the budget and the goal of smaller government suggests a continued decline in the federal percentage and amount of R&D funding, including support for academic research.
In what I think of as a future "golden era" of science, the federal government will be much more a partner with industry, academia, state governments, and other parts of society. This unprecedented degree of partnership will be part of the continuing evolution of science in American society. And, increasingly, the doers and the users of science will be connected by yet to be established networks, through collaborations as individuals, groups, and centers. And those doers and users will perhaps at times even switch roles.
The face and the foundation of science is being pushed in this expanded, collaborative, and much more fluid direction by two powerful and diverse forces. The vast explosion of information technology and learning tools is one force. The dynamism of the global economy is the other.
We are living in the infancy of what scholars and song writers all term the "Information Age." Everyone seems to recognize the significance of this shift from an industrial era to an information era. There are, however, no adequate definitions of what an information age means. It is more than computing power, digital transmission, global communication, and multimedia integration.
It is perhaps useful that definitions and descriptions currently escape us. Information systems and learning tools are powerful but still somewhat enigmatic mechanisms. We know what they can do today but we cannot actually imagine what they will enable us to do tomorrow.
I am not exaggerating. I will only remind us of two prominent misjudgments of the future. Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM in 1943 said, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." And Ken Olsen, president, chairman, and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation said in 1977, "There is no reason for any individuals to have a computer in their home."
No one would question the intelligence or capability of either of these corporate giants, leaders, and visionaries. What their comments teach us is our own limited ability to imagine in an almost unimaginable way. The few who sometimes can are the science fiction writers and we never cease to marvel at their foresight and clairvoyance--and their income.
This new information era, whatever it turns out to be, without doubt calls for a new form of leadership and vision from the academic science and engineering community. We know from the history of medical imaging systems, the Internet, the World Wide Web, and countless other technological marvels that academic science and engineering has helped us develop the most visionary applications of the new tools and technologies.
The convergence of insights from studies in human cognition, linguistics, neurobiology, the science of computing and communication, and other fields will contribute to and will shape what we do with these new capabilities. I think few would doubt that these integrated information forces will have a powerful impact on both the economics and the sociology of the nation.
We must be careful to use them in ways that consciously eradicate the divisions in society between the "haves" and the "have nots." There is real danger that they could work in the opposite way, creating deeper divides in our population.
At the National Science Foundation we are using a multidisciplinary approach to explore this new territory. We have termed the initiative "Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence" (KDI). We will use it to stretch our horizons by supporting research that will help us raise the level of advanced computing, networking, digital libraries, data mining, and other uses of the technology to a qualitatively higher plane of capability and accessibility.
The second force changing the face of science in America is the dynamism of the global economy. For example, there is almost an explosion of manufacturing infrastructure and strong technological leadership coming from companies in China, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and Taiwan. These companies pose a formidable threat to many American companies. Information technology is a critical driver behind this growing technological and manufacturing capability.
In information systems alone, the numbers from China for example should alert us to be very attentive. There are 350,000 information technology engineers in China, right now as we speak. They are employed in research institutes, state companies, and universities.
I use this single illustration to portray the determination, skill, and dynamism that are indicative of the global economic environment. America will be confronted with aggressive competition in every field of knowledge, every industry, and every technology.
In order for this nation to compete, to retain and attract new corporate investment, to maintain and improve its standard of living, we must forge a flexible and innovative critical mass of knowledge, skill, and infrastructure. It must include public and private schools, colleges and universities, industry and small business, government at all levels, and the talented personnel from each sector. It must be guided by a collective vision of where we need to go and a collaborative spirit of how we can get there.
Science, and scientists and engineers, will be the consistent enablers on this team for the 21st century. Vannevar Bush, in his 1945 report, Science: The Endless Frontier, said, "Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team." I think his words become increasingly prescient. The new role and image of science is vastly larger than the World War II generation of scientists could envision. The world has changed since then and science in society must be science in this new, changed society.
It will not necessarily be an easy transformation for many institutions, including many universities. Much of the reward system is rooted in ground that will be shifting. Many of my generation will not agree with the new direction and directives. Many in my children's and grand children's generation will be the reconnaissance scouts.
But the hallmarks of this change will be a much more expanded role for science, and scientists and engineers, throughout the society, because the nation is increasingly dependent on their expertise and the fruits of their work. The competition from foreign economies, the global social and societal problems, and the continuous evolution of national security will demand of science new knowledge and solutions.
I believe that this new engagement of scientists in the mainstream of society will not damage their creativity, dull their insight, or destroy their focus. On the contrary, I suspect it will have an energizing, invigorating effect. Scientists will be in the thick of turmoil, in the forefront of seeing how societal problems evolve and escalate, and in the center of managing the dynamics of disparate forces.
With the inherent capabilities of a scientist's education and training--critical thinking, research skills, analysis, reliance on the facts--there can only be better insights and larger benefits to the nation. It will require some risk-taking. It may be a bumpy journey for those of us heavily grounded in the status quo. And for those younger and still timid of challenging the system, it will pose the dissonance of being caught between present and future, a tense change (no pun intended). But I believe that these hesitations or vacillations will be short-lived.
The more permanent result will be refreshing and stimulating to science and scientists in every field. It will raise science and engineering to a much more prominent and responsible position in America in the 21st century. A new golden era for science will open more opportunities for our nation among nations, and more opportunities for scientists and engineers in every facet of our national life.
We in science know that we are at a crossroads. There is an old road where the signposts and signals are familiar. They have guided us successfully for several decades. We have always done good work, and many times extraordinary things. But there is a new road where the altitude is higher, the visibility greatly expanded, and the signposts and signals as yet undetermined. I know we can master its challenge.