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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation
Engineering Research Centers 2000 Annual Meeting

November 6, 2000

See also slide presentation.

Good morning and thank you for the kind introduction. It is a pleasure to be here because I have had a passion for NSF's ERC program since its inception.

This is an exciting time to come together in Washington D.C.-the day before Election Day-with the closest presidential race in years. Let me say right up front that I have no intention of making any comments about this year's political fight. As Sir Winston Churchill said, "Political skill is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow ...And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen."

Fortunately for us, we don't find ourselves in that position today. We have come together to celebrate the rich 15-year history and undeniable extraordinary success of the Engineering Research Centers.

The ERCs have become recognized as flagships of a new form of engineering education and research synergized by partnership. In this context, I'd like to give my perception of ERC history, highlight some of the ERCs' greater benefits to society, encourage discussion on the challenges of extending the ERC culture of collaboration across the U.S. scientific and engineering enterprise, and close with a suggestion of contemporary capabilities that will foster future collaboration and scientific and engineering advancement.

The deadline for the first NSF/ERC proposals was in October of 1984. The language in the first program announcement was full of the tenor of the times. It recognized the nation's need for reaching the next rung on the ladder of evolution in engineering research and education. The goal was clear: to boost U.S. competitiveness in the world marketplace.

We all remember what was shaping the larger context. Throughout the early 1980s, U.S. industry was being battered by foreign competition in nearly every sector. The Japanese were rapidly gaining market share in the automotive, computer, and consumer electronics industries. They did it by capitalizing on the prevailing knowledge base with more innovative design, more agile manufacturing, greater productivity, higher quality, and lower prices.

The seminal document was the NAE's 1984 report with the Guidelines for the ERCs. It told us to look in the mirror: part of the problem was the engineering education system. Students had an inadequate understanding of the engineering process-they lacked the integrative training to convert engineering knowledge into real gains for society.

In the 1980s, American companies were spending six months to a year formally training newly hired engineers. This was just to acquaint them with industrial practices and technological innovations. It would be another two years before industry expected them to transform knowledge into new products. Industry and academe, both, needed a new systems-oriented, integrative perspective.

That's the beginning. An important facet of that first step was the expectation that an eclectic set of ERCs would result, based on the genesis of each through wide-open competition. And though different in breadth and scope, they were to share overarching, defining characteristics.

A cultural focus was for each center to foster collaboration and cooperative learning for industry, academe, and government, based on mutual respect. This vision has been realized so well that the ERC program sets an international example for such collaboration in today's roiling marketplace.

We certainly can't claim credit for inventing university-industry partnership. (We're not running for President.) But together, we have carried it to new heights. Our strategic approach has lead the way.

The facts speak for themselves, as shown on the screen:

  • Industry support for the Centers is about 28% of the total.
  • Twenty-one percent of all ERC industrial members are now small companies.
  • Fifty-eight companies have been spun off by ERCs over the last 15 years.
  • To date, ERCs have unveiled over 600 inventions, and procured over 300 patents and 1,400 software licenses.
  • In 1999 alone, ERCs transferred over 200 different technologies to member partners that impacted their business.
  • And lastly, we've graduated almost 7,000 students.

Employers say that Center students understand industry better, get up to speed more quickly, communicate better, and are more adept at cross-disciplinary approaches. And we are all proud of their contribution to today's global economy.

With all of these components, we've reversed the situation of 20 years ago. Other nations are emulating us. The culture of the ERCs is well matched for our fast-paced, technology-based economy.

It is valuable to contemplate the ERC success in a larger framework because the set of ERC innovations influenced the "big picture" over time. Thus, let's raise the bar even higher-let's move to the next rung on the ladder. Our challenge is to get these cultural changes adapted, embraced, and understood by all of the science and engineering community.

This requires our reflection once again, as we did in 1984, to examine the overall context.

Our "new" era is a perfect match for an old theory. It dates to the Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter. In 1942, Schumpeter developed the "rule-breaking" theory of economics. He described the hallmark of technological innovation as "the perennial gale of creative destruction."

According to Schumpeter, a normal healthy economy was not one in equilibrium, but one that was constantly being disrupted and transformed by technological innovation. The ERCs are catalysts for healthy disruption.

They guide change by fostering collaboration across sectors and an interdisciplinary approach to engineering education. The present set resulted in an untraditional infrastructure, both intellectual and physical, with themes that are now contemporary priorities.

This new type of infrastructure expanded our nation's engineering and technological capabilities. But infrastructures must constantly change and have flexible components. Or, we run the risk of an antiquated system dragging us into obsolescence.

Cyberspace has rapidly become the newest infrastructure territory. Our traditional infrastructure included physical facilities, instrumentation, and research platforms.

We now have up-and-coming advanced terascale computing systems, digital libraries, shared data and information bases, and distributed user facilities. Indeed, we are entering an age of robust access to rapidly growing knowledge bases. This connectivity influences our conduct, commerce, manufacturing, service, and even the very social order of our society.

As leaders in the engineering community framing the next 15 years of partnerships and engineering education and research, we have to ask if we are paying close enough attention to the far reaching implications of our changing infrastructure?

Cyberspace will allow everyone, including traditionally underrepresented portions of our society, access to realize their ideas. In turn, we can "mine" ideas from new sources. As we have seen from the success of the ERC network, society benefits from shared infrastructure and collaboration.

In order for the United States to continue to compete in the global marketplace, we must forge a critical mass of knowledge, skills, and infrastructure. In essence, NSF's strategic goals reflect this philosophy. They are summed up by three key words: people, ideas, and tools. We continually help break new ground through the research and education we support, but we can't let the knowledge generated lie fallow.

NSF is as much about preparing a world-class workforce as it is about discovery. That's a primary benefit from our support of research and education. Tools open new vistas and frontiers for learning and discovery for everyone.

These strategic goals move us to the realization of our vision, which is simple and clear: "Enabling the nation's future through discovery, learning, and innovation."

It is our job to keep all fields of science and engineering focused on the furthest frontier, to recognize and nurture emerging fields, to support the work of those with the most insightful reach, and to prepare coming generations of scientific and engineering talent. A big and important job! A job to which ERCs are well-suited.

ERCs will continue to meet the challenge of educating engineers for the 21st century by shaping the future of engineering with new capabilities. Let's discuss a few.

First, terascale. This new technology takes us three orders of magnitude beyond prevailing computing capabilities.

In the past, our system architectures could handle hundreds of processors. Now, we work with systems of 10,000 processors. Shortly, we'll connect millions of systems and billions of 'information appliances' to the Internet. Crossing that boundary of 10^12th-one trillion operations per second-will launch us to new frontiers.

One example: protein synthesis within a cell. It takes 20 milliseconds for a nascent protein to fold into its functional conformation. It takes 40 months of processor time on current systems to simulate that folding. With terascale systems, we'll reduce this time to one day, a thousand times quicker.

We have also been examining ways to enhance our investment in nanoscale science and engineering. This will take us three orders of magnitude smaller than most of today's human-made devices.

Nanotechnology is the ability to manipulate matter one atom or molecule at a time. Nanostructures are at the confluence of the smallest of human-made devices and the large molecules of living systems. Microelectromechanical systems are now approaching this same scale. This means we are now at the point of connecting machines to individual cells.

Next, let's turn to complexity: a new and encompassing approach to studying our world. Problems can no longer be attacked from solely a reductionist approach. Only through mapping and nourishing linkages between components within a system can we truly reflect and probe the wholeness of the world that we study.

John Muir saw the same truth mirrored in the natural world. His words were: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." Science and engineering research now crosses many scales and disciplines. ERCs are wonderfully credible examples.

Because of advances in areas like nanotechnology, terascale, and complexity, we are on the verge of a cognitive revolution that may dwarf the information revolution. New tools and technologies lay the foundation for progress in many areas of cognition, like understanding the learning process. We are also on the verge of building human-like computers and robots and designing networks capable of cognition.

The last capability listed on this chart is holism. This refers to putting things together-integrating seemingly disparate things into a greater whole. This includes social as well as physical and engineering systems. This is the core characteristic that stabilizes each new rung in the ladder of evolution in engineering education, research, and practice.

I believe the hallmark of the modern engineer is the ability to make connections among seemingly disparate components, and to integrate them in ways that are greater than the sum of their respective parts.

In summary, we now have faster, smaller, and smarter capabilities to lead us to the newest frontier.

I would like to close with a quote that has very special meaning to me. It is from the poet and philosopher, George Santayana.

To me this quote evokes some wonderful imagery. We cannot see very far into the future. It is indeed unknown to us. Yet we suspect it's likely to be quite different from the present.

All of us here today relate to this, ERCs have prospered in this eclectic and disruptive milieu. We've made connections, established partnerships, and integrated the parts of the innovation process for the common good.

With the help of Santayana's torch of smoking pine, we are now lighting the way into even newer paths, into our future. We once again look to the ERCs to catalyze healthy disruption and an improved society for all.



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