Skip To Content Skip To Left Navigation
NSF Logo Search GraphicGuide To Programs GraphicImage Library GraphicSite Map GraphicHelp GraphicPrivacy Policy Graphic
OLPA Header Graphic

Dr. Bordogna's Remarks



Acting Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
The Technology Business and Government
Distinguished Lecture
University of Pennsylvania

April 14, 1999

(As prepared for delivery)

I am delighted to be here and honored by the invitation to deliver The Technology, Business, and Government Distinguished Lecture at the University of Pennsylvania. The old cliche, "home is where the heart is," surely holds true for me. My heart is always here at this great and benevolent university. And wherever I go, it will be "home."

The title of my talk today, Trajectories, Inflections, and Innovation: Trends in Science, Engineering, and Technology Policy, is a quirky set of words that don't link together in a traditional linear way. It was my intent to assemble some terms that seemed odd bedfellows. This is to reflect the current trend in science, engineering, and technology policy, which is bringing together some unlikely partners in some untraditional arrangements.

Let me spend a moment on each of these terms individually. The trajectory of science, engineering, and technology over the last half century has consistently moved toward greater complexity.

This escalating complexity in all three areas is powering us to a new eventuality. Increasing complexity brings you to eventual integration. I will return to this point later.

The inflections in my title represent the subtle signals in the larger context around us that we must read like tea leaves to know where to steer policy for science, engineering, and technology.

Innovation is the task of breaking the rules and being rewarded, over and over again.

And policy is a facile term, especially in Washington where anything becomes a policy if it gets even peripheral mention on the evening news.

These somewhat irreverent definitions help to make the point that the new trends in science, engineering, and technology policy are breaking some old traditions and some stubborn myths.

As I expand on these ideas, I hope to paint a picture of a science, engineering, and technology future that is vibrant, multifaceted, and purposeful.

Let us begin with policy itself. The objective of policy is to move us toward our desired goals. The first task in framing science, engineering, and technology policy is to articulate what goals we expect them to move us toward.

It is easy, but not very instructive, to say that, as a nation, we want the United States to be preeminent in the world in science, engineering, and technology. During the four decades of the Cold War, we wanted our science and engineering preeminence to keep the free world safe from the Soviets. Other benefits, especially economic, sprang from our national security related research and development, but the process traveled mostly in a linear fashion through the defense tunnel.

In fact, those same national security goals drove the building of our national highway system and the ARPAnet, the predecessor of the Internet.

What we really want post-Cold War is for our science and engineering to make the nation economically preeminent and to benefit global society in general. We are in essence asking for different outcomes from our science, engineering, and technology. With this different goal, the metric of high-powered economic growth will now measure the results.

And so to repeat, it is easy, but not very instructive, to say that we want the United States to be preeminent in the world in science, engineering, and technology. The prestige of the best science and engineering will not automatically result in a beneficial "economic domino effect." Some of that can occur randomly, and has in the past. But, we all know that the global economic environment is too intense for randomness.

We need to think strategically and holistically. We need to learn to read patterns and trends from the larger context to envision the future. We need to educate our engineers and scientists beyond their technical expertise. The best technical training must be combined with an understanding of how that expertise fits into the larger societal environment, into our overriding national goals, and, indeed, into the goals of other nations.

This may all sound too elementary to discuss in a distinguished lecture so let me crystallize it by two vivid examples. Both have to do with computers and lack of foresight, two things that go together with surprising regularity. I know, I'm a Mac user.

Maybe it all began with a comment that is familiar to all of you. Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, said in 1943, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."

And recently, Danny Hillis, computer philosopher and designer, who pioneered the concept of parallel computing, and in 1996 became the vice president of research and development at The Walt Disney Company, related this incident from his past. "I went to my first computer conference at the New York Hilton about 20 years ago. When somebody there predicted the market for microprocessors would eventually be in the millions, someone else said, 'Where are they all going to go? It's not like you need a computer in every doorknob!'"

Years later, Hillis went back to the same hotel. He noticed the room keys had been replaced by electronic cards you slide into slots in the doors. There was, indeed, "a computer in every doorknob," as well as sensors and actuators - and other hardware to make the software sing.

Danny Hillis may have seen that future for microprocessors but right there in the midst of a computer conference two decades ago that insight was in short supply. That's probably why Danny Hillis is now head of R&D for Walt Disney.

There is an important lesson hidden in both of these comments, which are far more than just ironic or amusing. In fact, there is a responsibility here for our universities.

Part of the explanation for very smart people making, what in hindsight, are not very insightful comments, is that, even as prognosticators, we tend to think of what is in front of us but not what is also around us.

Each of these quotes tells us of a person who sees in present time, and likely the present in his own small corner of society. Neither seemed to speak from the larger, surrounding context. Neither imagined that the future could or would be much different from the present.

The future is never easy to "see." But the chances of having good vision are much better if you understand the larger context in which you work - the sector, the society, and even the time in history, the moment in civilization. Learning to read the larger context gives you a path for imagining the future.

At a university, we have the opportunity and responsibility to help students learn how to "see" the larger context of society and extrapolate good insight from those pictures to project the future.

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan put it this way, "Critical awareness and the abilities to hypothesize, to interpret, and to communicate are essential elements of successful innovation in a conceptual-based economy."

Let me draw a brief outline of the context I would want to portray. The Cold War ended just over nine years ago. Since then we have been in a state of flux, in a period of transition. It has been a time replete with possible trajectories. We are marching in a different direction, but in fact, we are not yet sure of the direction. We must be astute to this time as a window of opportunity. We must be alert to its signals.

Here are some indicators of shift and flux. The world map has been redrawn. The Soviet bloc nations became independent. The Soviet Union fractured and an independent Russia stands separate and struggling, but still a forceful opposition voice, for example, in the Balkans. East and West Germany are united again.

The Cold War was an organizing principle for foreign affairs, despite its inherent dangers. The current situation makes for a much messier world. The objectives of the NATO Alliance are being debated in a new post-Cold War Europe. And U.S. foreign policy is clearly adjusting to very different challenges.

On the economic front, Japan and the Asian Tigers have experienced severe recession but assuredly present strong economic competition, as well as partnership, for the future, as they have proven in the recent past. There are other "Tigers" emerging in India and in Ireland.

The contagion of economic woes has hit South America, too. China grows both economically and politically and may likely eclipse the rest of Asia in the coming decade.

In the United States, we are, for the moment, economically stronger than we have been in decades. Service workers predominate in our workforce, and partnerships among our various sectors - public, private, and academic - are fashionable and increasingly effective. A new inter-organizational way of business and academic life is forming.

The most talented and highly skilled workers in every country comprise the modern phenomenon of a global and mobile workforce. They can easily gravitate to where the best jobs are located. But information technologies have also made it possible for them to stay home and yet work abroad.

U.S. colleges and universities are facing information-age transformations with virtual centers and institutes, shared infrastructure, and long-distance learning. The future portends even more.

Despite the dogmatism of the disciplines, science and engineering are moving distinctly toward interdisciplinarity at the same time that they become steadily more complex. And, accountability for publicly funded research is a now familiar criterion.

Public understanding of science and technology has permeated the lexicon of the science and engineering community. However, there is still a great chasm between "talking the talk" and "walking the walk" in this realm. All of us must do better.

K through 12 education in science and math is improving, but not fast enough for an information society that will be increasingly dependent on those skills. All sectors - higher education, industry, and government must assume greater responsibility for achieving our K through 12 goals.

Young people today will have 7 to 10 inflections in their career path over a working lifetime. Life-long education has become a necessity.

Demographic projections indicate a changing America with Hispanics becoming the most populous minority. Immigration is projected to become more important to U.S. population growth than natural increases through birth and death rates.

In industry, environmental concerns will increasingly influence product development. And there is likely to be continuous movement toward sustainable manufacturing, not just ethically, but imposed by legislation and regulation. And, in fact, "sustainability" is likely to become a wealth-creation industry.

This is not necessarily a complete "context" but it serves as example and as a good beginning. I'm sure each of you has important additions to my start.

Without having an understanding of the "context" or "backdrop," we are asking people to act with vision and foresight while they are handicapped with, what amounts to, blinders. "Context" is not window dressing or peripheral knowledge; it is, instead, a set of clues and guideposts.

I used the term inflections in my quirky title to identify these guideposts as subtle signals that give direction and insight to our decisions. We must develop acumen for such thinking in our students.

We cannot graduate talented engineers and scientists with supremely specialized expertise that exists in a vacuum. Our students are passionately driven by the intricacies of their specialty. In fact, a conversation among engineers and scientists of varied disciplines has been likened to a "tower of Babel" where everyone speaks a different specialized language.

Although disciplinary fields are brimming their boundaries and oozing into each other, their practitioners do not speak a common tongue. We don't want to ever quell their passion but we do want to build bridges for a common language.

The "tower of Babel" syndrome, coupled with a lack of "context" that provides for direction and insight, hobbles our own talent and capability. The good news is that our continuing efforts to integrate research and education provide the best opportunities to promote in our students the skills to develop these larger insights.

We live in a global environment where new competitors and partners are emerging like weeds after a spring rain. The ability to read the subtle signals will often make the difference between being the industrial leader or laggard in a field. At the time Thomas Watson predicted a world market for maybe five computers there was a lot more lead-time in the global economy to recoup from such a calculation than there would be today. Reading the tea leaves is not just for mystics anymore. It's job one for mentors, managers, and moguls. Broader insight also brings me to the innovation piece in our science and technology policy. I cavalierly described innovation at the start of my remarks as the task of breaking the rules and being rewarded, over and over again.

This is true, but let me raise the discussion to a different plane with a comment by Einstein. He said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

Imagining is at the heart of innovation. It operates as a process at two levels here.

First, as we learn to read that larger context which I have been discussing, imagination allows us to envision projections of a future from a comprehensive perspective, and not from what we see just directly in front of us. Here, imagination has a great deal to do with integration. The disparate pieces of a context tell us nothing in isolation, but they tell us many things in relationship to each other.

Earlier, I described the trajectories of science, engineering, and technology as moving always to the more complex. And, this complexity would bring us to eventual integration.

In our expanding knowledge about the universe, the human mind and body, the cycles of ecosystems, the patterns of climate, the paths of infectious diseases, the dynamics of economies, and the perturbations of global politics, we see repeated evidence of integration and interrelationships. There seem to be few, if any, disconnections as we deepen our knowledge.

The second level at which imagination operates is the one we commonly associate with artists, writers, and musicians. The term imagination is, more often, exchanged for creativity here. What it comes down to is being able to picture a completely new way of seeing or doing something.

Our contemporary technique for producing sound, the compact disc, is a good example of this imagining. We rename it technological innovation when it occurs in industry but the CD was a completely new way of audioization, a totally new type of device. It was not an improved version of anything already in existence.

The February 20th issue of the Economist magazine included a major examination of innovation. One of the sidebars to the text reads, "Innovators break all the rules. Trust them."

The Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, a hero of mine, developed a rule-breaking theory of economics in which he described a "creative destruction" of industrial cycles.

The Economist article on Innovation described Schumpeter's work saying, "[according to Schumpeter] a normal healthy economy was not one in equilibrium, but one that was constantly being disrupted by technological innovation.

Disruption is an important characteristic of innovation. As would be expected, it causes losses in its path of making gains, creating the dynamism of healthy economies. In fact, the disruption caused by an innovation can often bring down a leading manufacturer or even a whole industry. Transistor technology disrupted the vacuum-tube industry, HMOs shook the foundation of the health insurance industry, and the CD killed the needle in the groove.

As teachers, mentors, and trainers, you will surely call upon examples close at hand like the ones just mentioned. But students can also learn the process of innovation, risk taking, and rule breaking from models taken from a far broader spectrum, and long before they are sent out into the world.

We should give them the opportunity to learn the path of creativity taken by artists, musicians, dancers, photographers, and architects. Art and artists, by their very definition, breach barriers, define new perspectives, and advance the frontiers of their field.

Impressionism, cubism, free verse poetry, jazz and rock music - every field of artistic endeavor can teach us something about unique perspective, creative envisioning, and risk taking.

And to understand and imagine the nature of the "future," we also need to study the past. History offers us a window on the consistency of human nature over centuries, a description of social change, examples of mistakes and miscalculations that altered the course of events. Lastly, it tells us how the environment or culture of a time or place can make it ripe for dramatic changes.

Scanning the world today for "hot spots" of innovation, we come up with several areas including the U.S., Finland, Sweden, Canada, and Israel. According to the Economist, the two leading centers for innovative activity in the world appear, at first, to be an unlikely match. They are California and Israel. At closer look, however, these two places share some interesting similarities.

For example, the practice of networking has been raised to a high art in both places. They both rely on a significant immigrant population and have competitive, almost aggressive, business practices. In each, there's a great respect for learning and for risk taking. These conditions and qualities seem to create the environment or culture for innovation. The West Coast of the U.S. and the Middle East are two very fertile territories for innovation that we should observe carefully.

It turns out that governments can help too. They can develop policies that create fertile environments and encourage positive behaviors. Policies should not be designed to control the process of getting to the goal but rather to allow the process to work at its best, to create the best atmosphere for progress and success.

The federal government, and I might add the National Science Foundation in particular, has developed a strong record in promoting partnerships -- making marriages among some unlikely partners - to move us toward our science and technology objectives for the coming decades.

Partnerships are yet another aspect of integration. They introduce a different dimension to the process of promoting science, engineering, and technology because they bring to the table participants with different expertise and resources, and a diversity of perspectives.

The federal government has provided strong leadership here. For much more than a decade, we have been advocating public-private partnerships in federal research and development. In the beginning we merely exchanged favorable rhetoric about the importance of partnerships. Slowly we took steps to form genuine working arrangements. Further down the path, we began to see results.

Reality suggests that the mix of partners will skew, in a positive way, the perspective and objective of the research and stabilize the important dísruption of disparate ideas. A partnership with government and industry will move differently than a partnership of government and a university. When you include all three you have different purposes and outcomes. Our greatest strength may be in the very diversity of combinations and partners.

We should always view these combinations as creative arrangements. They are not formulas to be automatically replicated but rather new patterns to be ingeniously enhanced each time we create the next combination. Arrangements as diverse as the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, with the big three automakers, and the very diverse set of Engineering Research Centers attest to this.

It is useful to remind ourselves that the context and environment in which we have to operate will always change and so will the competition. Part of building a continuum of success in science, engineering, technology, and in entrepreneurship is retaining the ability to "see" and act upon a changing context.

Twenty years ago, the global economy was far less "global." Our own domestic economy had a very different mix of industries, and our workforce was far less service-oriented than it is today. In addition, in every era, new enabling technologies quickly influence our methods of commerce, of manufacturing, of service, and even the very social order of our society.

History gives us many examples of this influence -- the steam engine, electricity, and air transportation. Today's composite of digital, electronic, and optical technologies is reframing society as concept-driven and knowledge-ridden.

We can already calculate the impact. The Economist probably said it better than I could. They recently wrote, "America gets more than half its economic growth from industries that barely existed a decade ago - such is the power of innovation, especially in the information and biotechnology industries."

There have been few that envisioned what the Economist article revealed about the significance of information systems and the revolution being created by the biotechnology industry.

The astute "readers of the context" and accurate "predictors of the future" for the last several decades have proven to us that envisioning is a worthwhile endeavor.

I began these remarks with trajectories, inflections, and innovation. This short journey that we have taken along all three paths brings us to a conclusion that speaks to connections, integration, interrelationships, and overlapping consequences. There is something quite beautiful in that intricacy, like a mathematical equation or a poem that leads us to its central place without ever naming the place.

There is also great challenge here for the nation and the world in the next few decades. As we contemplate those challenges for our science, engineering and technology, we must understand that supremacy in research and education, in innovation, and in competitive entrepreneurship is an enduring quest, an on-going process.

There is no peak that we can reach that will assure continuing success. It is not a matter of sticking to the task for the long haul. It is the "haul."

We will always need to keep improving the process with fresh ideas and a fundamental commitment. We will need to break the right rules and take the right risks. It will be demanding, exciting, and a bit precarious, as the unknown always is.

It seems to me that a great university can be a wonderful mentor to a whole generation of innovators in all fields, not just science, engineering, and technology. In the spirit of that potential and that opportunity, I can think of no finer institution to lead the way. It is an honor to call the University of Pennsylvania my home.

Thank you.



National Science Foundation
Office of Legislative and Public Affairs
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, Virginia 22230, USA
Tel: 703-292-8070
FIRS: 800-877-8339 | TDD: 703-292-5090

NSF Logo Graphic