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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
AAAS Colloquium on Science and Technology Policy

April 11, 2002

Thank you Howard [Howard Silver], and good afternoon to all of you. I'm delighted to be here once again to talk with you about the National Science Foundation. I'll keep my remarks brief, because I hope we can have a lively exchange about issues or questions that are on your minds.

Spring in Washington is the crazy season. It's the time when a young man's or woman's fancies turn to-not love-but the Budget.

Spring is also the beginning of the baseball season, and I'm reminded of one of Yogi Berra's famous comments. It sums up the Washington budget season perfectly: "It ain't over til it's over!"

With that wisdom in mind, let me begin by saying that NSF is grateful to AAAS for convening this annual colloquium on science and technology policy. This is a unique opportunity for us to step back from the fray and look at the big picture. From that perspective, we're often able to see patterns just beginning to coalesce out of the chaos of current issues. We might say that we could see the forest without losing sight of the trees.

Today, I'll sketch some of those patterns and say a few words about how they link with NSF's current priorities.

Most of you are familiar by now with NSF's three strategic goals: People, Ideas and Tools. They set our sights on results at the heart of the research and education enterprise: a world-class science and engineering work force, the generation of new knowledge across the frontiers of discovery, and the tools to get the job done efficiently and effectively.

They also crystallize our thinking about what makes the nation's science and engineering enterprise the most innovative and productive in the world. And they suggest touchstones to measure our progress as we continue to build world leadership in the decades ahead.

Let me begin with "People". There can no longer be any doubt that minds are as important as machines for the nation's economic and social prosperity. That's why building a highly skilled, diverse science and engineering workforce is NSF's top priority.

Overall, the number of graduate degrees in science and engineering fields is rising for the first time in many years. That growth, however, is due largely to an increase in foreign-born graduates. As other countries beef up their science and technology programs, more and more of these students will be returning to their homelands. We will need to tap the entire talent pool here in the U.S. to meet societal demand for scientifically and technically trained workers.

We can make progress toward this end by identifying and removing disincentives that deter even highly motivated students. Pitifully low stipend levels are a huge stumbling block. Increasing them for graduate fellowship students to $25,000 is a beginning and a top priority for NSF this year.

We will need to go further. The average size of NSF grants has barely changed since the 1970's. That puts significant constraints on funding for graduate assistants and post-docs. The average NSF grant covers three years, which is just not long enough for a student to complete a Ph.D. program. The financial insecurity many graduate students face is a strong deterrent, and we're losing students because of it. NSF aims to increase the average size and duration of grants to alleviate this problem.

Increasing the number of scientists and engineers is important, but by itself, it's not sufficient to ensure our nation's continued leadership. We know that cutting-edge science and engineering have changed our times, but they have also changed with the times. Today's students need a new set of skills for this new era of exploration.

Let me fast-forward to an imagined snapshot of a future workforce possessing these new capabilities. They will adapt easily to rapid change, and tolerate increasing complexity.

They will venture into unfamiliar intellectual territory often and with ease, crossing borders between disciplines, or inventing whole new fields.

They will learn continuously over their lifetimes.

Dexterous collaborators, they will seek out and work productively in a variety of partnerships-spanning academe, industry, and government. They'll feel at home working with anyone from anywhere in the world.

Above all, they'll possess a flair for imagination, a knack for innovation, and a healthy appetite for risk taking.

This workforce of the future will be drawn from the nation's entire pool of talent, so it will be more diverse than today's.

When we consider workforce issues, our biggest challenge is to discover how we can engender these complex skills in today's students, and how our institutions must evolve to foster them. We need a robust knowledge base on how people think and learn.

NSF aims to address this need through new Science of Learning Centers. These Centers will build on a growing national research competency in cognitive science. And they will take advantage of integrated progress made by teams-of psychologists, neuroscientists, computer scientists, linguists, and engineers, to name just a few-to build an integrated, multidisciplinary research effort that will deepen our knowledge about how people think and learn.

The results of this research could boost achievement for every citizen, and produce a workforce able to meet the challenges of rapid scientific and technological change.

Of course, we can't lose sight of the basics. To produce a world-class workforce, we need to start early and do a better job with K-through-12 science and math education. NSF will continue to implement the President's Math and Science Partnership initiative. The goal is to provide all children with the higher levels of math and science skills they will need to succeed in the 21st century workforce, in consonance with the President's desire that no child be left behind.

I've already mentioned increasing grant size and duration. This is as fundamental to generating new knowledge as it is to ensuring a world-class science and engineering workforce. Let me explore this briefly, because it is central to NSF's second goal, "Ideas."

Today's climate for discovery is sizzling with potential. We haven't seen the end of the knowledge explosion in information technologies. The biosciences are on an upward trajectory, and nanoscale science and engineering is just beginning its take off.

The power of these new capabilities is immense. By bringing together the fruits of research from many fields, they give us new ways to tackle complex problems that seemed beyond our grasp only a few years ago. This integrative approach is both deeper and broader than our past research efforts. It often calls for innovative and wide-ranging collaborations, and for programs that are high risk, but also high reward.

We will need to be alert to such emerging areas of high promise, and be sure we have the funding levels to foster them.

Mathematical science is such an opportunity, and it will be a full-fledged priority area for NSF. Mathematics is both the workhorse that pulls our research wagon and the thoroughbred that speeds us to new discoveries. An emphasis on the mathematical sciences can also help us boost math literacy in our workforce.

We know that the interplay between knowledge, technology, and our human actions and institutions is becoming increasingly complex-and sometimes chaotic. September 11 is a tragic instance. NSF will seed a new priority area in the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences that brings new tools to the exploration of these issues.

All of us recognize that programs of this nature need continual nourishment from research in the core disciplines. We know that fundamental progress in any field may precipitate a revolution across the entire science and engineering spectrum. NSF is committed to balanced support for the core. In fact, a generic and strategic reason for investment in priority areas is to bolster the efforts of the disciplines to continuously refresh themselves.

Finally, we can't breech the frontiers of discovery without the tools to take us into new terrain. The need for widely shared and accessible databases and tools is growing in step with the growth of our knowledge. Over the coming years, we will need to make significant investments in the sophisticated infrastructure necessary to do world-class science and engineering.

Let me highlight one tool that puts this new way of working into practice: distributed terascale computer-communications. NSF has invested in terascale capability for several years, but this year's budget takes the terascale revolution a giant step forward.

The aim is to link the power and reach of terascale computing and communications with disparate and heterogeneous research tools and databases. The result will be a seamless, distributed cyberinfrastructure for the future. The emphasis is on comprehensive coverage and pervasive access. This is a tool that can lead to new applications, surprising synergies among databases, cross-fertilization among disciplines, and much more.

I've barely skimmed the surface, but I'll conclude now with a final thought. Each year at this time we are preoccupied with the bottom line. It's also worth asking ourselves every year if we're headed in the right direction. I think we are.

Thank you. Now it's your turn!



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