Subcommittee On Va, Hud, And Independent Agencies House Committee On Appropriations
March 6, 1996
Chairman Lewis, Mr. Stokes, members of the subcommittee, it is a pleasure to appear before you this morning.
I am accompanied by Dr. Anne Petersen, Deputy Director of NSF, and by the Foundation's senior staff. Also with me this morning is Dr. John Hopcroft, representing the National Science Board. With your permission, I would ask that Dr. Hopcroft be given an opportunity to summarize his testimony to the Committee at this time. (Dr. Hopcroft speaks.)
Dr. Lane continues.
Mr. Chairman, my message today will not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the research and educational opportunities that are before us. As a result of the rapid progress that we have seen in the past half century, we are on the threshold of a truly revolutionary era of discovery--ranging from the origins of the universe to the discovery of a new state of matter to manufacturing microscopic machines. Paradoxically, we are entering this era at a time when federal resources for investments in research and education in science and engineering are stretched to the limit.
Last month I addressed the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As you may know, the AAAS is the umbrella association for professional scientists, engineers, and science educators. Its membership includes tens of thousands of researchers, educators, and students in every scientific and engineering discipline, researchers in industry, at universities, and in government.
My message to the members of AAAS was simple--if the science community is to solidify public support for research that we have built since World War II, it is not enough that we provide a convincing case of the importance of fundamental research to Congress. All members of the science and engineering research and education enterprise must make clearer to the public the return on investments that come from Federally sponsored research, in particular how the outcomes of research and education help all Americans to lead better lives.
NSF invests in research and education today to prepare for a better tomorrow. We need to do a better job of describing the benefits of past investments so the public enthusiastically supports today's investments. This is not to say that every research project that NSF funds needs to be understood and embraced by every citizen. The voters and tax-payers must appreciate the real connection between the research that we support and the creation of new knowledge and advanced technologies that help create new jobs, fuel the engines of economic growth, contribute to a cleaner environment, develop the foundations for better and more affordable health care delivery, and in general improve the overall quality of our lives.
Members of the research community fully appreciate that we are living in an extraordinary era. Researchers continue to be amazed at the rapid advances along many research frontiers, and they recognize the possibilities for breakthroughs in every discipline. They also appreciate that their success is in large part the result of solid support for Federally funded research that we have enjoyed over the past 50 years.
At the same time, they share the apprehensions of many who recognize both the need to reduce Federal spending overall and the effect such reductions may have on the national research effort. They want to know that spending cuts are being made with an eye to the future.
We have at our fingertips today an array of experimental instruments, computers, and information networks that enable us to design and carry out research that would have been impossible just a few years ago. Over the next decade, the potential for rapidly increasing our understanding of both the natural world and that shaped by humans--and applying new knowledge and technologies resulting from research--is staggering.
In his most recent annual report, Charles Vest, President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, made a point of highlighting how answering fundamental questions through basic research is critical to addressing real world concerns. Included in his admittedly incomplete list were research on the nature of information storage in the brain; the practical and efficient conversion of solar energy; the genetics of cancer growth and suppression; the sources of sustained economic growth; how the geometry of proteins affects the ability of viruses to cause infections; and the classes of earthquakes which may be predictable.
On this last point, you need look no further than the recent earthquake in Kobe, Japan, which took 5,500 lives and resulted in $150 billion in damages. Even a partial understanding of the underlying causes of earthquakes that would allow for better predictions can pay tremendous dividends in the future.
One could imagine a world in which fundamental research would be supported without public sector funding. But every industrial nation recognizes that it is unrealistic to expect the private sector to make the long-term and risky investments required to pursue these lines of research. This is particularly true when the outcomes of the research may be in totally unexpected areas--areas that any given industry may not be capable of applying profitably.
It was only fifty years ago that the ENIAC computer, widely viewed as a prototype for today's digital computing revolution, was developed with Federal funds. It could add 5000 digits per second, or in that same time multiply fourteen 10-digit numbers. About 25 years ago desktop computers became a reality, and these have been superseded by laptops. Today the entire circuitry of the ENIAC can be compressed on a computer chip smaller than a stick of gum.
It has been only in the past five years or so that computer networks have become widely available. These not only allow researchers to access supercomputers from their offices, but open a constantly expanding realm of informational opportunities to anyone with access to a phone line and a computer. At each step along the way, researchers supported by NSF have helped make possible this revolution in how we deal with information. These contributions have come not only in fundamental computer science and engineering research, but in applications of that technology in ways that advance science and engineering in virtually all fields.
We are in the midst of a "golden age" of scientific discovery where frequent breakthroughs are occurring in virtually every field, from astronomy to materials science to genetics to elementary particle physics. Moreover, the research often moves so seamlessly into applications that we fail to notice the transition. Current research NSF supports in optical and electromechanical systems has potential applications in areas as varied as sensors that detect wear and tear in bridges and roadways, medical devices that allow doctors to conduct surgery without leaving visible scars, and new techniques for manufacturing integrated circuits.
The fact that cutting edge technologies like these are being developed at U.S. universities and laboratories is no accident. Our national capacity for research at the very frontiers of science remains the envy of the world. It forms the heart of a science and technology enterprise that keeps the U.S. competitive in the global economy.
In recent months the science community has become attuned to the need to be more active in making the case for the value of research, both to the public and to national policy makers. Researchers understand that the reason the Federal government supports their work is because it benefits the American people, today and in the decades to come. But it is important that scientists themselves help carry the message to the public.
Earlier I alluded to the fact that education was also a beneficiary of the effects of the information revolution going on around us. NSF has implemented a number of programs that integrate learning through inquiry and discovery with new educational technologies. We have made the integration of education and research a major theme in our planning. We are in the final stages of a comprehensive examination of the current state of science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education at the undergraduate level in the nation. This project will offer an overview of the needs and opportunities for all undergraduate students and examine how science literacy for the entire country is related to undergraduate education.
Another initiative under development are awards for excellence in integrating research and education. The purpose is to encourage colleges and universities to develop innovative programs that involve all students in research and inquiry-based learning and get our best researchers more actively involved at all levels of science and engineering education. We envision this as a very prestigious award, one we are hopeful would endow the winners with the same level of recognition that the Malcolm Baldrige Award has in the private sector and encourage them to share their ideas and experience with other institutions that are coping with change.
We feel that undergraduate education is a critically important starting point for developing a more science and technologically literate society, even for students whose formal education might end at the high school level. Elementary and high school teachers who are not inspired by their college science and math courses are unlikely to inspire their students. And if we fail to develop in our children the satisfaction of being able to tackle and solve a mathematics problem and provide the sense of wonder that is integral to learning science and mathematics, we not only limit their job prospects, but we handicap their imagination for the rest of their lives.
Even under the most favorable circumstances, we recognize that we will be faced with a very difficult priority-setting exercise. Just as your committee must make choices among the competing interests of very important programs, we too must choose among an ever growing set of scientifically compelling proposals. This challenge will only increase in the coming years as we respond to the ever growing rate of major scientific discoveries.
Before closing, I want to express my personal appreciation for the work that members of the Committee and your staff have done on our behalf. It has been a difficult year for NSF in large part because planning and decision-making have been hindered by the stop-and-start nature of the budget negotiations. We are hopeful that we can achieve some closure on our FY 1996 budget soon and that we can begin the important work on the budget for the coming fiscal year.
Thank you again, and I am pleased to respond to any questions that you might