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Meeting the Challenge of a Complex World

Photo of Joseph Bordogna

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation

Remarks, AAAS/NACME Conference
Washington, DC
January 15, 2004

Good afternoon. I am honored to be here today among the dedicated and compassionate stewards of our Nation's science and engineering enterprise. Your efforts have helped immeasurably to achieve our current progress in diversifying the science and engineering workforce.

We all share sincere gratitude to Shirley Malcom, who has dedicated her career to the important issues we have come here to discuss. Without her, and others like her in many fields, we would not have come as far as we have.

We can celebrate the progress we have made on many fronts. Yes, there is more diversity in the science and engineering workforce compared to thirty years ago, and many of you made that happen. However, in the words of Robert Frost, we know that we "have miles to go" before the task is complete.

Now, just what is this task?

In his paper entitled "Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania," printed in the year 1749, Benjamin Franklin said:

"The good Education of Youth has been esteemed by wise [people] in all Ages, as the surest Foundation of the Happiness both of private Families and of Common-wealths. Almost all Governments have therefore made it a principal Object of their Attention, to establish and endow with Proper Revenues, such Seminaries of Learning, as might supply the succeeding Age with [people] qualified to serve the Publick with Honour to themselves and to their Country."

He went on further to opine about the educational frontiers of the time, saying:

"That we may obtain the Advantages arising from an Increase of Knowledge, and prevent as much as may be the mischievous Consequences that would attend a general Ignorance among us, the following Hints are offered towards forming a Plan for Education of the Youth of Pennsylvania..."

Franklin then went on to describe a framework for a curriculum suitable for the future world he envisioned.

Today, in the year 2004, we can add to his framework that the diversity our Nation enjoys more than a quarter millennium later gives us more intellectual capacity and societal reasons for carrying out his admonishment to pursue that "surest Foundation" for success in our individual and collective lives.

We thus have to ask ourselves: Will there be a robust mix of knowledgeable U.S. citizens to meet the needs for S&E talent in our society? And perhaps the more important question – Is the diverse mix of U.S. students being taught and trained to take advantage of the increasingly sophisticated high-skilled jobs of the knowledge economy, many in science and engineering? Are we providing opportunities for them to participate in, and contribute to, their society and economy?

Let me make it clear at the onset that these questions and goals are not mutually exclusive of this Nation's historic pattern of welcoming foreign talent to our shores. In the past, this combination of homegrown and foreign talent has provided a productive and exciting balance for the Nation. Part of our responsibility is to ensure that the balance does not tip precariously in either direction.

Before I speak about the government's role in capitalizing on diversity, I want to explore, for a moment, a somewhat larger arc of thinking and perhaps spark some questions for the discussion to follow.

The philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it." NSF, in its many dimensions, has been an astute reader of the past as it attempts to carve out productive paths to the future.

Throughout the Foundation's more than 50-year history, and as we look forward, we keep in mind the words of Vannevar Bush in his 1945 seminal piece, Science: The Endless Frontier. To quote Vannevar, "...the frontier in science...is in keeping with the American tradition – one which has made the United States great – [and] that new frontiers shall be made accessible for development by all American citizens."

Vannevar Bush's thinking was in many ways a continuation of Franklin's frontier thoughts. As we all know, Vannevar Bush's frontiers were in science and engineering – but his intent was that those frontiers were open to all who were interested and willing to work hard.

The NSF was established to keep the Nation's science and engineering enterprise always "at the frontier," and open to all. We do this by making science and engineering investments focused on the furthest horizon, recognizing and nurturing emerging fields, preparing the next generation of science and engineering talent, and conveying an understanding of the value and contributions of science to society.

Although I list these components separately, they are, in fact, braided as one into the Nation's system of higher education.

Perhaps dissimilar from our European and Asian counterparts, our system combines research and education as two sides of the same coin. We explore the scientific frontiers at the same time and in the same place that we prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers. In this way, the dual functions support each other. And the reverse is also the case – if one part is diminishing in some way, it will begin to affect the other. With this as the context, let me try to address the government's role, in my case NSF's role, in capitalizing on diversity.

As both policy and practice, NSF encourages diversification across all funding programs. As a matter of policy, we return – without review – any proposal for funding that does not separately address broader impacts such as how well a proposed activity broadens, among other things, the participation of underrepresented groups and to what extent it will enhance the infrastructure for research and education in science and engineering. And so, we have incorporated the goal of diversity into our merit review criteria.

We also administer several programs specifically oriented at underrepresented communities. Their goal is to determine a set of "best practices" which could eventually be adopted throughout NSF and beyond – at all levels in the educational community, in private industry, and by other federal agencies involved with science and engineering or science and engineering education. Before discussing some of the individual programs, I should explain that although each program can stand on its own, as a group they fit under the rubric of an overarching theme: Workforce for the 21st Century. In the long term, the goal is to nurture young students into productive citizens, whose values and work advance the Nation as well as themselves.

We know that there is no better place to begin than with our children. Helping to ensure that every child can participate in the nation's prosperity and contribute to its progress is a major goal at NSF. All students will need increasing levels of math, science, societal and technical skills to thrive within today’s globally competitive, knowledge-based economy.

Improving science and math education is part of the Foundation's early mandate and has been a continuing thread through our mission. NSF's GK-12 Program places science and math graduate students in local schools to support teachers. The program pairs a graduate student with a K-12 teacher for roughly 20 hours a week. The student gains first-hand insight into the educational process while the teacher is in touch with the most current thinking in science and math that the student brings from lab studies. Both student and teacher gain a trusted partner in this 2-way traffic. Linking local schools with colleges and universities in this way builds a seamless educational web. Partnerships between different educational institutions is a theme that is repeated in many of NSF's programs.

Moving to the next level, we have several programs that partner community colleges, where a very large proportion of underrepresented minorities receive their higher education, with high schools and universities. This creates a contact and structure for those headed into community college and those moving beyond it. NSF's community-college-focused Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program is an investment in preparing a national technological workforce intended to be world class and the vital core for 21st century industrial and commercial leadership.

The Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program is a wonderful success story centered around the undergraduate experience. LSAMP develops strategies to strengthen the preparation of, and increase the number of, minority students earning baccalaureates in science and engineering fields. It partners research universities with both 2 and 4-year colleges.

Today there are nearly 400 institutions participating in LSAMP, and the program has produced nearly 200,000 minority baccalaureate graduates in science, engineering, mathematics and technology. In 2003 alone, there were over 22,000 baccalaureate graduates in these fields.

NSF's Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program (HBCU-UP) promotes continuing improvements of science, engineering and technology instructional and outreach programs. Typical project implementation strategies include course and curricular reform and enhancement, faculty professional development, supervised research and other active learning experiences for undergraduates in science and engineering programs.

HBCUs have a tremendous success rate, sending students on to study for advanced degrees in numbers disproportionate to their size. The HBCU-UP program tries to capitalize on this success.

At the graduate level, NSF funds the program for Integrative Graduate Education Research and Traineeships (IGERT). IGERT transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries by educating graduate students to do boundary-crossing research as partners with faculty. IGERT educates U.S. PhD scientists, engineers and educators with the interdisciplinary backgrounds, deep knowledge in chosen disciplines, and technical, professional and personal skills they need to become the leaders and creative agents for change in their own careers.

Another NSF funded program at the graduate level is the Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP). AGEP helps to increase the number of underrepresented minority students receiving doctoral degrees in all disciplines funded by NSF. The scarcity of role models and mentors in the professoriate constitutes a significant barrier to producing more graduates from minority groups. Capitalizing on the large number of LSAMP baccalaureate graduates, NSF is particularly interested in increasing the number of minorities who will enter the professoriate in S&E disciplines. Our vision is to enable the nation to have a robust pool of PhD graduates from which colleges and universities can draw their faculties.

NSF also sponsors the Centers of Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) program, which supports improvement of the research and training capabilities at the most productive minority serving institutions.

CREST makes funds available to promote the creation of new knowledge, enhance faculty competitiveness, and build intellectual, research and infrastructure partnerships.

That brings us to our Workforce for the 21st Century priority area. This initiative undergirds the very core of the Foundation's mandate and mission to advance the frontiers of science and engineering and to promote high quality science and math education from primary school through graduate education.

Workforce for the 21st Century takes all we have learned about educating a capable and diverse workforce, and integrates it strategically, across programs and across directorates. In a sense, NSF has been building toward this comprehensive workforce initiative over many years. Each of the previous programs mentioned were building blocks in a careful process of creating diversity and creative capacity for the science and engineering workforce.

We know that talent runs deep in America, in diverse streams of intellect and perspective. This offers us the tantalizing potential to accelerate our progress across the frontiers of science, engineering, and technology. We also know that wanting to broaden the participation of underrepresented minorities and women in science and engineering is just not enough. We must learn to take full advantage of our rich human resources, and there must be strategies and a plan for action that create a path for making this happen ... along with the hard, dedicated work that is needed to realize results.

As evidence of our work to date, today's student populations are more diverse. They come from wonderfully different economic, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. They arrive in our classrooms with varying levels of skills, and a wide variety of objectives. Many hold jobs while attending classes. Others return for retraining or to pursue a second career. Professional degrees are no longer a once-and-for-all preparation for productive work, but are now an introduction to a rigorous dynamic of shifting gears along exciting career pathways.

The fact remains that years of dialog and effort have not produced the surge in forward momentum that is necessary – and increasingly urgent – to reach our objective. Our country has neglected proactive recruitment of its domestic talent.

As a strategic, as well as equitable, manifestation of this intent for societal advancement, we unequivocally need more U.S. women and underrepresented minorities in the S&E workforce. If we don't encourage individuals from all diverse groups to enter into the complex and dynamic fields of science and engineering, we lose out on the opportunity to maximize the potential of our intellectual capital. The differences that abound in race and ethnicity in our society should be encouraged and embraced. They are a gift for our future and should be nurtured. The divisions should be erased. They are a drag on our energy and creativity.

We have moved into a whole new threshold of capabilities that breach with the past and that will catapult us beyond today's horizons. There is something more enabling about the era in which we live than any of the past. The advent of cyberinfrastructure has resulted in a potential leveling of the playing field – it has endowed many with the capability to find the information and tools they seek to educate themselves and make contributions. Cyberinfrastructure is an equalizer, an enabler. It will increasingly democratize education and opportunity. Despite such tools, though, there must be a desire and a drive in the individual. Capability alone will not lead to success.

This is where we come in. It is our job now to plant the seeds of curiosity, interest, learning, and the kind of education from which both present and future generations will sow the benefits.

There is growing clamor to recruit more of our native talent to the science and engineering fold. And believe me, you'll find NSF among the loudest! We need their talent and their perspectives. Without them, we will one day awaken, like the fictional Rip Van Winkle, to a world that has passed us by.

There is a deeper, abiding issue at stake. Similar to Franklin, James Madison in 1822 wrote:

"A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." Madison's words are still fresh and instructive today.

This is the most fundamental rationale for an open-door policy to science and engineering education. An open door policy that educates and enables our own citizens to be contributing participants in our great democratic system is essential to the endurance of the Nation. Continuing the successful policy of embracing those from abroad can only add to the richness of ideas and talent already here.

This new perspective on an old policy will make us a genuine welcoming nation to both talent from abroad and from the nation's women and underrepresented minorities. It can never be one or the other. They are not mutually exclusive. The Statue of Liberty's torch must light the way for those within our borders as well as those from outside. If we scientists and engineers aspire to be leaders, this is the challenge we must accept and meet.

We, here, as members of either AAAS, NACME, the Sloan Foundation, or the science and engineering community, have all been party to developing the building blocks of this workforce investment, in one way or another, over several decades. Now it is the time to integrate them. Now is the time to make the whole greater than the sum of the individual building blocks.

In closing, let me say that this process of including and embracing everyone in science and engineering does not have a beginning or an end. Nor can it be measured in 25-year increments. It must become the new fabric of science and engineering and endure throughout this new century.

Thank you.

Return to a list of Dr. Bordogna's speeches.


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