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"The Dance of Science, Engineering, Technology and Public Policy"

Photo of Joseph Bordogna

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

Remarks, Carolyn and Edward Wenk Jr. Lecture in Technology and Public Policy
Johns Hopkins University
April 29, 2004

Good afternoon. Thank you, Dean Douglas, for your warm hospitality today and to you Professor Etienne-Cummings for your kind introduction. It is truly an honor to be hosted by the Whiting School of Engineering, an exemplary institution that adds outstanding strength to our nation's intellectual assets.

I spent several rich hours of interaction today prior to this lecture. Visiting Jerry Prince and Russ Taylor at their Engineering Research Center for Computer Integrated Surgical Systems and Technology was an exciting validation of the reputation this ERC enjoys. Lunch with engineering faculty gave me a solid view of what is on your mid here. And my meeting just now with NSF Grad Fellows was a treat, making me feel all is well for our future.

As he has told you, Ralph Etienne-Cummings was once my student. I am proud of you, Ralph. It was a wonderful surprise to get your e-mail, issuing the invitation inviting me to deliver the Wenk lecture! I also want to recognize Barbara Sullivan who ensured that I was well prepared to come and made sure I didn’t get lost along the way.

Dr. Wenk's career presents a highly successful combination of engineering, public service, and education—spanning the highest levels of government, exhibiting a deep engagement with pressing public issues, and exemplifying how engineering and science advance within a policy context.

The title of my talk today, "The Dance of Science, Engineering, Technology and Public Policy," expresses the dynamic engagement of scientists, engineers, and policy makers in a choreography of reciprocal relationships. From time to time this dance takes the cadence of a stately waltz, with the partners dipping and sweeping in a courtly manner; at other times it's the breakneck pace of a break-dance, with performers flipping themselves into the air in frenzied competition.

Sometimes this policy dance is like the foxtrot, in which the dancers' steps seem to imply movement, but nobody actually goes anywhere. At times, however, this dance most resembles a tango, where partners find themselves in dramatic, and unexpected, confrontation.

At such times, we can almost hear the words of Al Pacino, when he said, "The tango is the easiest dance. If you make a mistake and get tangled up, you just tango on."

Science, engineering and public policy are in continual motion, sometimes stepping on one another's toes, but always transforming one another. I would like to explore the place of this unruly and creative choreography in the education of engineers for today and tomorrow. First, I will look at society's expectations for science and engineering. Then, I will offer some thoughts on how we have begun to educate engineers to engage in this changing dance.

Finally, I will highlight some specific efforts at the National Science Foundation that exemplify the response of policy to societal needs, and complement and support your own efforts—our fellow dance partners at research and education institutions.

Society invests in the capability of science and engineering to pursue truth, along the same lines as Ralph Waldo Emerson's dictum that "The greatest homage to truth is to use it." Society has long held great expectations for the uses of science and engineering.

One way we use truth is through design. By design I mean what the architect and ecologist William McDonough calls "the manifestation of human intent." When we design we are expressing or manifesting our intent for our culture. A corollary is that we must periodically evaluate whether our designs have given form to what we intended.

This concept has an ancient context, and to show that I want to take us for a moment to an unexpected place and time—a cave on the southernmost tip of South Africa, at a time about 75,000 years ago. 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 to pierce the shells, or if they were first to discover it. We can be sure, however, that this was of profound importance to them, at once shaping human interactions and the evolution of culture, and also advancing technology.

I draw this story from research published just a little over a week ago by an international team of archeologists, 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 found.

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 the meaning 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.

The beads at Blombos illustrate this: From our earliest origins, human and social dynamics have shaped our technologies, just as technology has shaped our lives and our societies.

Today, the expectations are heightened. The historic expectations for the National Science Foundation were articulated by the renowned engineer, Vannevar Bush, in a letter to President Truman dated July 5, 1945. This was five years before NSF came into being.

"The pioneer spirit," Bush wrote, "is still vigorous within this Nation. Science offers a largely unexplored hinterland for the pioneer who has the tools for his task. The rewards for such exploration both for the Nation and the individual are great. Scientific progress is one essential key to our security as a nation, to our better health, to more jobs, to a higher standard of living, and to our cultural progress."

Bush's manifesto was a tall order, and almost six decades later, these expectations still hold true. Today, however, the global economic environment lends further urgency to what we must do to meet those expectations.

Earlier this year, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a report on sustaining the nation's manufacturing competitiveness, and it referred to the critical need to protect the nation's dynamic "innovation ecosystem." Elements within this system include research universities; a highly skilled workforce, including scientists and engineers; a legal context that encourages homegrown innovation; government-funded research; and private industry. All these in confluence nourish the overall health of the system.

Leading off the innovation report is a statement by the National Science Foundation entitled "Ensuring Manufacturing Strength through Bold Vision." Global success in manufacturing, we envision, will go to "those who develop talent, techniques and tools so advanced that there is no competition. That means securing unquestioned superiority in nanotechnology, biotechnology and information science and engineering." It is a policy choice to identify particular research areas for special investment, laying foundations for technological revolutions.

Society's appetite for high performance has expanded exponentially, in every sector, and engineering is no exception. We expect today's engineers to possess a daunting repertoire of skills.

We want them to be holistic designers, astute makers, trusted innovators, harm avoiders, change agents, master integrators, enterprise enablers, knowledge handlers, and technology stewards.

We expect them to be at ease in a globally connected world, in which change and complexity are the rule, in a world transformed routinely by new knowledge and the technology it makes possible.

No matter the discipline, this sort of education inculcates the skills that the 21st century requires. To pose a question in the words of Stuart Leslie, a technology historian right here at Johns Hopkins University: "What is the half-life of an engineering education?" When we educate for change, complexity and interconnection, we are indeed fostering adaptability, imparting skills to students who will experience a number of crisp iterations in career paths over their lifetimes, educating students who will continuously chart new territory—over an infinity of half-lives.

The scientists and engineers of the future will process unprecedented amounts of information. They must adopt a mindset for continuous learning to remain scientifically and technologically current long after completing their formal degrees. They will especially need to know how to work across boundaries, for the nature of how research is done and how knowledge is created is becoming more complex, requiring more intimate connections and more robust collaborations.

As we design and create, we need the broadest possible perspective, for innovation is a societal activity. "We are the only beings who create culture, even as culture is creating us," said Dan Hamburg, a former member of Congress. Sometimes it seems that technologies are foisted upon us, but nano, info, and bio don’t happen by themselves.

We have long recognized that the societal ferment surrounding new technologies is part and parcel of the dynamic dance of policy-making. What is different now is that, as we create, we operate as the master integrators, consciously keeping human beings at the forefront of innovation.

More than ever, we need to anticipate and mitigate the unexpected consequences of technology. It is a challenge to understand--in the words of the technology scholar E. J. Woodhouse, of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute--"how intelligent social decisions can be made in the face of great complexity, high uncertainty, and rampant disagreement."

Working together as teammates, sharing perspectives from the outset, we can reap the promise offered by the very rich common ground shared by engineering and the social sciences. Together we can learn new ways to frame questions, to integrate ideas, to ensure we are perceiving the issues well.

Today's engineers need to integrate across seemingly disparate boundaries, understanding the state of technology, the state of the economy, and pressing social issues—then, forge all of this into a workable design and a viable solution.

Social scientists, in turn, bring a heightened awareness of the vital roles that science and technology play in our world today. Their disciplines are expanding to deal with the new kinds of ethical dilemmas engendered by the new dance. Their research tells us, again in the words of Stuart Leslie, that the process of "scaling up" a technology typically has enormous consequences that are difficult to predict.

We frequently seek the optimal solution, but we learn that there can be a number of good solutions. A recent NSF-supported workshop on the social aspects of engineering design sought to "enlarge the current envelope of engineering design, now viewed as a technical activity of mapping from 'what' to 'how,' to incorporate a social dimension that addresses issues of 'who' and 'why' in engineering design."

Every engineer can offer a favorite case of a "solution" that somehow failed to put the "who" and "why"—the human dimension--at the forefront.

The technological dance must be choreographed with a full embrace of human diversity. Sociologists underscore that technology's uses and effects play out very differently in those of different gender, race and age.

Take the example of robots for health care--robotic companions for the elderly that are being tested as aids for independent living. What could be the downside to that? It turns out that people can react in surprising ways to their "caring robots." NSF-supported sociologists have found that an elderly person might ignore human visitors in favor of the robot. Social scientists and engineers working together, not alone, design the best to manifest human intent.

Programs and initiatives to "put people first" in design—and to enable engineers to engage with the social and behavioral sciences—have a long history at the National Science Foundation. Two nascent, cutting-edge, NSF investments exemplify putting people in the picture. They portray the dynamic and reciprocal relationships among science, engineering, technology, and public policy, and all have deep implications for educating future scientists and engineers. These investments are entitled Science of Learning Centers and Human and Social Dynamics.

We are about to announce the first several Science of Learning Centers in our attempt to accelerate progress in the emerging science of learning in its many dimensions. The components of how people think and learn operate at every scale, from genetic to digital to societal, and throughout the disciplines:

The social sciences investigate the nature of perception and memory, and the role of motivation and emotion in learning.

  • Biosciences cover the gamut from molecular to behavioral foundations of learning.
  • Cognitive neuroscience brings us insight into the neural basis of learning in humans and other species.
  • Engineering and the physical and information sciences create machines that learn.
  • Educational sciences cover pedagogy from schools to colleges to lifelong learning.

In essence, the science of learning probes the fundamental processes that underlie learning. A catalyst project already underway focuses on human vision, perceptual learning and brain plasticity. It is headed by Daniel Kersten at the University of Minnesota and co-principal investigators.

Human vision is highly complex, with ten million retinal measurements sent to the brain each second, where some billion cortical neurons do the processing. Human vision was long regarded as frozen in structure after a brief critical period, but--the team explains--we are now beginning to perceive vision as modifiable throughout the human lifespan.

For example, the ability to process faces—such as identity recognition and emotions displayed—only reaches maturity in early adolescence. Visual areas in the brain have now been mapped with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). The question is how the functional organization of these areas changes with diverse visual experience.

Another learning frontier is the territory of the Center for Neuromorphic Systems Engineering, an NSF Engineering Research Center at the California Institute of Technology.

The center's goal is to revolutionize the capability of machines, enabling them to imitate the ways animals sense and make sense of the world. Teams of biologists, neuroscientists, engineers and business people are drawing inspiration from biology, applying, for example, the principles of social behavior like bird-flocking or ant-swarming to groups of robots that perform collectively.

On the industrial front, the goal is to create a neuromorphic engineering industry—producing machines that are not passive tools but active helpers in a variety of settings, from electronic noses to novel tools for surgery to unmanned surveillance aircraft.

At quite another end of the learning science spectrum is the burgeoning science of neuroeconomics. Brainscans of people who are making economic decisions--whether bargaining, gambling or cooperating—show how brain chemistry affects those decisions.

Brain processes were formerly a black box to economists, who traditionally assumed rational motivations. Now we are beginning to see how economic decisions draw upon the chemistry of emotion.1, 2

Studies of cognition and behavior lead into the second major NSF investment, our new priority area on human and social dynamics (HSD). Recent change has accelerated in pace, making uncertainty and change into inescapable facts of life.

This newest priority area focuses on the nature of human change in a rapidly changing world—the fundamental insights that will develop our capability to anticipate the complex consequences of change. These insights will be engendered by engineers and social scientists, for both work in the human realm.

The HSD effort spans the scales of study from social institutions to individual human behavior, and investigates such forces of change with sweeping implications for public policy as globalization, democratization, economic transformation, and international migration.

For example, University of Chicago political scientist Carles Boix is refining models to predict how political institutions affect emerging democracies, with findings that could help in designing constitutions for new governments. He is surveying all sovereign nations over the past 200 years to assess the probability that a given democracy will collapse into a dictatorship.

Some states have had bouts of both democracy and dictatorship. Early findings show that a mix of federalism and a parliamentary form of government is least likely to revert from democracy to dictatorship.

Here at Johns Hopkins, Benjamin Hobbs leads another study—one with potential to shed light on another pressing issue: the dynamics of electric power markets. Our power grid has about 200,000 miles of transmission lines, 5000 power plants, and a complex distribution system. The growth in load is expected to increase by 50% over the next 10 to 15 years, while almost no new high voltage lines have been constructed in the past 20 years. Such investment faces an uncertain return as well as social barriers like "NIMBY" (not in my backyard).

The JHU researchers are developing dynamic, game-theory models of pricing and generation in power markets with transmission constraints. Here is a project with promise to help regulatory agencies and market operators to handle the myriad dimensions of real power systems.

To understand human dynamics in an era of greater uncertainty, we need to incorporate and expand risk assessment and risk science. Since 9/11 we have taken a sharper look at how to design for the unexpected.

Engineer Elise Miller-Hooks at the University of Maryland collaborates with social science graduate students to plan for the evacuation of tall buildings—and suggest that codes prescribing the number of stairwells should take into account the extremely varied characteristics of those who inhabit the building. These traits range from age, mobility, and gender to group dynamics and familiarity with the building. Here is a refreshing approach to design that embraces non-quantitative input to enhance the quantitative dimension.

On a related front, at New York University, the Institute for Civil Infrastructure Systems, funded by NSF, promotes new thinking and practice in civil infrastructure systems. Engineering proceeds with a focus on the needs of users and communities. The institute recently became the site of the first Homeland Security Center of Excellence, funded by Homeland Security Department. It serves as an example of how another federal agency is building on NSF investment to address pressing societal need.

All of these elements—the societal expectations for science and engineering, the skill and diversity needed by its practitioners, the fundamental knowledge about learning and human and social dynamics—swirl upon the stage of policy, till we may well ask, along with William Butler Yeats, "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" In the innovation ecosystem of our nation, the two are inseparable.

At a time when we can infuse a building or a bridge with sensors, embedding the Internet in the physical world, we have the tools and the skills to usher in "a new age of reobserving the world,"3 reinventing codes to embrace uncertainty, integrating insights across disciplines, expressing our holistic intent through design—in short, choreographing a new dance.

1 "Brain experts follow the money," NY Times article by Sandra Blakeslee, June 17, 2003.
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2 "How do you keep the public shopping? Just make people sad," Wall St. Journal article by Sharon Begley, Mar. 19, 2004.
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3 the words of Priscilla Nelson.
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Return to a list of Dr. Bordogna's speeches.


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