Dr. Neal F. Lane
National Science Foundation
AT AAAS COLLOQUIUM ON SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY POLICY
APRIL 19, 1996
A DEVIL'S PARADOX: GREAT SCIENCE, GREATER LIMITATIONS
It is a pleasure to appear once again at a AAAS event. For two decades, the AAAS has attracted some of Washington's most sophisticated policy gurus to this spring conference. This colloquium comes in a year when Washington has set a record for unpredictability in both weather and politics which has provided an endless variety of topics for discussion and derision.
In thinking about my own remarks today, I was reminded of a comment by James Roosevelt, son of F.D. R. He said, "My father gave me these hints on speech-making: 'Be sincere...be brief...be seated.'"
And Alben Barkley who said, "The best audience is one that is intelligent, well-educated--and a little drunk." Well at least we've got two out of three here today.
In early February at the annual AAAS meeting, I spoke about what I believe the future role for the science community must be. When I used the word "future" I did not mean some dreamy distant time but rather from that day hence. My concern for such immediacy was that scientific discovery and the funding support for its continuance are currently entwined in a "devil's paradox." In fact, I have titled my remarks this morning A Devil's Paradox: Great Science, Greater Limitations.
I believe that we are poised on the cusp of a new "golden age of discovery." The possibilities in science and engineering are both multitudinous and wondrous, not just in one discipline but across all disciplines. At the same time, as all of you know, the electorate and their representatives are demanding a serious reduction of both the size of government and the amount of government expenditures.
I credit Al Teich and his colleagues for their astuteness in choosing downsizing as the focus for this gathering. We are in fact meeting just a few days after Doonesbury completed a two week run on this very topic. I know that's no coincidence. It's just one more reminder that we should never underestimate Al's influence on current events.
A few people have commented that the increases provided for R&D in the President's FY 1997 request make all this talk of downsizing and one-third cuts little more than much ado about nothing. They say all we're really doing is crying wolf, and that these deep cuts will never come to pass. I hope they are right, but I cannot let myself join in this sort of bliss-filled denial, if not outright ignorance.
From NSF's standpoint, the delay in getting our FY 1996 budget has been unsettling, to use the mildest word I have used so far. About the best we can hope for would be level funding at last year's level which, of course, would represent a cut when adjusted for inflation.
Furthermore, even when we look at the very positive numbers in the President's FY 1997 request for NSF, those close cousins of downsizing--namely devolution and reinvention -- are readily apparent, and important for all of us to note. The NSF request very clearly reflects the larger national debate on Federal vs. state roles in providing public services.
It is very apparent in the headlines on topics like welfare reform, Medicaid, and education, that there is a growing consensus on shifting power back to the states. The debate is not over the merits of devolution; only over the mechanisms. The recent education summit in New York testifies to this point.
The same debate appears, albeit in much less dramatic form, in NSF's budget priorities for FY 1997. We've assigned highest priority to those activities where NSF has a clear role and unique mandate--namely supporting activities that extend the frontiers of research and education in science and technology. We're increasing spending for research and education across the board, and making crucial investments in major national facilities like the U.S. research station at the South Pole.
In areas where leadership is best provided by states and institutions, such as the renovation of laboratories, we are reducing our role, as has been recommended by the National Performance Review. You may already know that NSF's FY 1997 request contains no new funds for the laboratory renovation portion of the academic research infrastructure program, which is currently funded at a level of $50 million. The instrumentation portion of the program, another $50 million, will be maintained, but is being folded into the research and related activities account.
This makes clear that there is no denying the forces of downsizing in science and technology. Its influence is felt even in budgets that grow modestly, and this influence will likely increase as the push to balance the Federal budget intensifies. We cannot ignore or deny this reality, and it compels all of us to assume a larger role in the national debate.
Our vast potential in science and engineering can only bear fruit if the science community becomes a "civic force" across the nation to build a broad constituency for the support of science. We know that one of the major reasons for the supremacy of American science over many decades has been the steady federal commitment to fund scientific research at our universities since the end of World War II. With the end of the Cold War in 1989, the rationale for assured funding for science was weakened. And the recent initiative to balance the budget over seven years has put all public money, including that for the support of research and development, under the microscope of value, contribution, and accountability.
The days of "just give us the money and trust us to deliver" are history. It is not that science didn't deliver in so many ways over so many years, but rather that different times demand different kinds of accountability. In the past, support for science was easily assured through the consensus of policy makers. But the ballooning of the budget deficit in the 1980s along with the economic drain of interest on the federal debt energized the electorate to demand greater accountability of all government investments, including science and technology. The public wants a leaner and keener, not necessarily meaner, government. They are demanding smaller but better.
This new political and economic environment will require an extensive public and civic role for scientists in all sectors. The science community must begin to build that broad constituency for science among the taxpayers who ultimately pay the bill for federal science and technology support.
In Carl Sagan's new book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark, Sagan speaks of a society based on science and technology and a public almost entirely ignorant of those same forces. He writes, "We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology."
In an atmosphere, where "almost no one understands science and technology," you cannot expect the public to measure the subtle and complex potential of R&D funding against other government expenditures with more direct tangible results. Under these circumstances, science and technology and the long-term sustainability of the nation could be the losers. The science community must not only engage the public in the debate on the value and contribution of the R&D investment, it must educate the public to that debate. This task may be even more demanding than doing the actual research. In the long run, it will be equally as important.
At this point, you might ask about the role of NSF in this new environment. First and foremost, the NSF, like many other agencies and institutions, is an integral part of the federal government. As such, it is tasked with an agency specific mission but also with a more pervasive mission. We are the only federal institution whose mandate is solely to support research and education, and in essentially all fields of science and fundamental engineering. But the welfare and progress of the nation is our reason for being and for having a $3.2 billion budget to invest. The nation's populace is our constituency. And the larger science and engineering community, primarily in the nation's colleges and universities, is the means by which we accomplish our mission.
Some in our community might argue with that conception. They might, in fact, see the academic research community as NSF's constituency. If this were the case, then our mission and final goal would be only to insure the welfare and progress of academic researchers, confident that their brilliance and hard work would take care of the needs of the nation. Without a doubt, we cannot improve the quality of life for Americans without a viable, well-supported research and education community to perform its work to that end. If, however, our larger goal is the national well being, then part of our responsibility is to help lead that community of researchers and educators in the most beneficial directions for itself and the nation.
All well and good for such a bold pronouncement, but how do we proceed? Leadership is not doing everything, or even most things, ourselves, but rather inspiring and motivating others in appropriate directions. Leadership is articulating perspectives that the status quo often masks. Leadership is initiating dialogues on topics that are necessary to address but usually avoided at the risk of breaking ranks; it is informing the science community on shifts in public perception and attitude that will affect their work. It is creating programs at NSF that will move the direction of science and technology toward outcomes that may not occur without incentives and new criteria.
Leadership is about change, pushing the frontiers in many directions, trying new approaches, nudging the system, and taking some risks. Leadership on the part of NSF does not mean top-down dictates from government to community, but well designed and articulated programs and policies that develop from ongoing dialogues.
Our goal must always be to innovate, to demonstrate, to evaluate, and to embrace the successful. Conversely, our goal must also be to abandon, without remorse, even the most precious ideas, projects, programs, and facilities if they appear counterproductive or simply less productive than other approaches in accomplishing our mission. This is never easy. It will be even harder from here on out.
Why do I believe that the road ahead is even more challenging than it has been in the past? Let me project for a moment beyond the constraints of budgets and accountability. Despite the extraordinary things we are doing in science and technology today, we are at the same time experiencing increasing societal disparities and problems. This is true as a nation, and it is true of a world filled with political strife, an expanding population, and finite natural resources.
This is not a trifling observation, rather it notes a serious disconnect that will test society and science and technology in entirely new ways. The science and engineering community will not be able to avoid being intimately involved in society's efforts to deal with its most vexing problems. If it tries to avoid that involvement, it will pay a price in terms of decreasing public understanding, appreciation, and support.
There are many reasons for a disconnect between scientists and engineers doing path breaking research while the nation is experiencing increasing societal problems--too many reasons to list in fact. But I think they would include the way that we educate our scientists and engineers and, conversely, the way we educate everyone else. We do ourselves a national disservice when we train scientists and engineers only in science and technology. I do not mean that chemistry and electrical engineering students do not take some courses in the arts, social sciences, and humanities. What is really missing is any synthesis or integration of these fields. The science and engineering courses spend little time on historical or social context and the humanities courses are entirely devoid of science and technology. And what is true of courses is even more true in research.
And yet, the world in which the work of scientists and engineers bears fruit is a world of integration and overlapping consequences. It is a world in which the nonscientific, social, and ethical questions are often more difficult to grapple with than the scientific ones.
If the mandate for NSF is not only to promote the progress of science, but to advance our national health, prosperity, and welfare, then the Foundation ought to be a leader in helping to bridge the chasm of great science and even greater societal problems.
Science and engineering are frequently taught in a vacuum. Yet society expects these powerful forces to address the larger context of humanity and its great unsolved problems. But how can we expect scientists and engineers to play this more comprehensive role if we do not educate them for this awareness?
What then am I suggesting? For starters, graduate, as well as undergraduate education in science and engineering, needs to reflect this larger human context in which science and technology have such strong influence. This broadened educational context for a science and engineering degree will provide more expansive perspectives to also help graduates pursue career options beyond academia and research labs. We should actively encourage such a direction.
The Foundation needs to explore new ways to engage many of our brightest scientists and engineers, and their students, in research and educational activities that address society's most daunting problems. We must do this by working in partnership with universities and colleges, with industry, and increasingly with states and cities. Our decision to support a consortium on violence research is an excellent example. To further our efforts in encouraging the integration of research and education, we have just established a new activity, Recognition Awards for the Integration of Research and Education. These awards are aimed at identifying and recognizing research intensive universities that have shown bold leadership and accomplishment in linking research and education. The more cogent point is that we must be open and alert to further opportunities.
This should not be interpreted to mean wholesale reorientation of the research community's efforts or NSF's programs, but it does mean real change. Much of it will occur by consensus, some by new focused programs, and some by forces beyond any of us.
Let me close by reiterating that the projected budget reductions in civilian R&D, I believe, pose serious threats to the U.S. science and technology enterprise. The public, for the most part, is unaware that this will present a profound long-term problem for U.S. growth, prosperity, and quality of life. And in the words of M.R.C. Greenwood, the newly named Chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz, "If we are going to have science in the national interest, we are going to have to have a national interest in science." The task ahead for the science and technology community and, I might add, for all of us in this room will be neither simple nor quick. In fact, it will be an ongoing educational dialogue for all participants. NSF intends to be an outspoken promoter of that discussion and outreach, and I hope you will join us.