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Photo of Joseph Bordogna

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

Opening Remarks Lemelson-MIT Invention Assembly
National Academy of Sciences
April 23, 2004

Thank you, Bill and good morning to all. I have the great honor of providing some opening remarks to this distinguished group gathered for the Lemelson-MIT Invention Assembly. The National Science Foundation is entitled to some pride of ownership in the Invention report that we are here to celebrate and to discuss. We supported several of the workshops that shaped its final content, and have looked forward to this day with great anticipation.

The anticipation is over, and our expectations have been met. The study takes a bold approach appropriate to understanding invention and inventiveness. It culls history for clues, explores the links between cognitive science and education and invention, considers the role of the nation's patent regime, and asks significant questions about how to make invention sustainable.

One of its most daring features is signaled by its title: Invention—Enhancing inventiveness for quality of life, competitiveness, and sustainability. These are global goals, worthy of our best efforts not only to unravel the puzzle of creativity and inventiveness, but most importantly to work hard—very hard—to ensure that invention serves our future as it has enriched our past.

Following the intrepid example set by the report, I'm going to begin my remarks in a seemingly unlikely place—a cave on the southernmost tip of South Africa. The time is 75,000 years ago, more or less. Humans physically very like us have established an enterprise in the cave. They are at work producing ornamental beads from mollusk shells gathered on nearby shores. We do not know the technique they used for putting holes in the shells, or whether they were the first to discover it. We can be sure, however, that this was an invention of profound importance to them, at once shaping human interactions and the evolution of culture, and also advancing technology.

I've drawn my story from research published just a week ago by an international team of archaeologists, supported in part by NSF. During excavations of Blombos Cave on the shores of the Indian Ocean, the team found perforated shells—arranged in clusters by size—that appear to have been strung as beads. The beads are believed to be some 30,000 years older than any personal ornaments previously identified.

There is widespread agreement that personal ornaments are evidence of the use of symbols by early humans—what researchers call "symbolically mediated behavior." Although we may not know the meaning attached to the beads, their use seems to indicate that those who used them had sufficient language to communicate it to others.

Now fast-forward to the 21st Century. We are in a nanofabrication lab. Humans of all ages and from diverse origins, now easily recognizable as our contemporaries, populate cave-like clean rooms. There, they employ crude tools to manipulate atoms and molecules. I'll leave it to the nanotechnologists among us to draw an appropriate analogy to putting holes in beads! The tools are considered crude because we can already envision what the next generation of tools will be like and even imagine what we might invent with them.

Although we marvel today at the speed and complexity of technological change and how it entwines in every aspect of our lives and reaches around the globe, much remains the same! The French have an expression for this phenomenon, "The more things change, the more they remain the same."

The beads at Blombos illustrate an important point. From our earliest origins, human and social dynamics have shaped our technologies, just as technology has shaped our lives and our societies. The meaning we embody in our culture and our institutions—our contemporary beads, if you will—has a dynamic inseparable from our technology.

The nanofabrication lab is equally illustrative. Even though some things remain the same, much is also different in our contemporary situation. We have made progress—thanks in large part to the continuing, mutual interaction of technology and human creativity. As we anticipate our next steps, we can design a future that we want and that meets are new societal needs.

The Invention report takes us in the right direction by casting a broad net. Understanding creativity and inventiveness will surely require us to cross many boundaries—among cognitive science, psychology, linguistics, history, and philosophy as well as in engineering and the natural sciences.

This holistic view of the mutual interaction between human and social dynamics and technology is vital if we intend to shape change. On a large scale, what we mean when we speak of shaping change is simply "policy"—the methods and principles we design to help us achieve our larger goals. This includes educational policy and science and technology policy. Now, thanks to the Invention report, we can include policies aimed at fostering a sustainable capacity for creativity and inventiveness.

We are surely at the beginning of a great endeavor that can open wide the doors of creativity and inventiveness. Although we are certainly not the first generation to nurture this hope, we may be the first to realize it!

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


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