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


New Priorities for Science and Technology:
And "New" Means New

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director
Keynote Address
Biennial Meeting
Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology

September 19, 1996

You know from Bob's introduction that I am an engineer, and I've spent the last five years as NSF's Assistant Director for Engineering. But don't let labels fool you. During my years at RCA's former Sarnoff research laboratories in Princeton, I worked at the boundary between engineering and science. And, I was frequently and frustratingly introduced by the president of Penn as a "great scientist" during my tenure there as engineering dean.

This schizophrenia between science and engineering over the past half century has somewhat resolved itself, especially in academe, through the intellectual construct entitled, "engineering science." We also have arrived at a somewhat shaky definitional contrast that goes something like this:

  • Scientists investigate what is--they discover new knowledge by peering into the unknown.
  • Engineers, by contrast, create what has not been--they make things that have never existed before.

In my new capacity as second in command for all of NSF's activities in science and engineering, I of course am charged with seeing and melding both perspectives. The upside of this challenge is that I may be able to contribute to an integration of science and engineering into a robust whole. The downside is that I could wastefully spend all my time peering into unknowns that never existed before. We have to have some idea of where we are going.

In this context, it is a pleasure this morning to have the chance to share my thoughts on a topic that many in our community view as a great unknown--New Priorities in Science and Technology. I think we all have some idea what the word "priorities" means. It's the "new" part that leaves us at a loss. I would therefore like to focus my comments today on what we mean by the modifier "new" in the term "new priorities."

This is especially important to all of us who care first and foremost about the human dimension of science and technology. We are here today because we seek to understand and advance the science and engineering professions, and enable them to contribute fully to our society. This notion of nurturing and advancing the science and technology workforce is central to NSF's mission, just as it is for CPST, and it is a subject of great personal interest to me.

That makes this an especially invigorating era. Scientists and engineers are taking on new roles, embarking on a wider array of careers, and finding unexpected ways to contribute and promote progress in our society. At NSF, we don't have any desire to direct people in their careers. We want to enable them to pursue many options.

Some of these changes are obviously occurring in response to negative forces. Anyone reading last week's "Doonesbury" got a sense of what the academic job market is like these days. Personally, I am uncomfortable dwelling on the negative. Things are as they are. I prefer to focus on the more positive, enabling forces driving these changes--forces that I believe have significant long-term implications for professionals in all of science and technology.

My aim is to launch a discussion with you on two subjects: first, the role of information technologies in shaping and sparking this time of change; and second, the opportunities these changes create for progress in science and engineering, in education and learning, and for economic growth and social benefit--all of which are intimately tied together.

Both of these topics require that we fully appreciate the presence of the adjective "new" in "new priorities." I am reminded of the classic commercial ploy that was captured in a memorable 1950's-era cartoon from the New Yorker or similar periodical. A salesman was pitching his product, a brand of laundry detergent, claiming it was better than ever. The box said, "new and improved" in big, colorful letters. A skeptical customer then asked, "what's so new and improved about it?" To which the salesman confidently replied: "The box, we put the words new and improved on it."

As we all know in our society, internal substance is many times masked by an attractive, but nonetheless meaningless, external facade.

Today, I hope to make clear that fashioning new priorities for science and technology will require more than just clever re-packaging.

Let's start by looking at how we traditionally package the term, "priorities," in the context of science and technology. Discussions on setting priorities generally focus on a specific set of typical but increasingly less meaningful tradeoffs: (Overhead #1)

  • Field specific tradeoffs: physics vs. chemistry, or at a higher level, science vs. engineering.
  • Mode of support tradeoffs: individual investigators vs. centers, or people vs. facilities.
  • onceptual tradeoffs: basic vs. applied (or strategic for all of you who follow the recent history of science policy).

All of us have probably at one time or another been involved in priority setting discussions that focused on these and other dimensions. Trying to strike the so-called "best" balance among these tradeoffs can be an exercise in frustration: it alienates the best of us; it consumes inordinate amounts of time; and it effectively transforms integrative decision-making into an exercise in reductionism. Put another way, priorities frequently emerge as unexceptional, incremental changes and perturbations within the confines of an established system.

Today, we need to ask ourselves if these incremental and reductionist approaches are the right approaches for the times in which we live. I would say they are not. These are times of extraordinary change, and we are only beginning to grasp the full extent of the changes at hand.

New priorities for science and technology should reflect the richness of our varied disciplines and the integrative nature of the changes taking place. The rapid-fire commentators in the media usually describe our situation in terms of one or two-word "sound bites." You've heard them many times:

  • economic competitiveness
  • information explosion
  • virtual organization
  • corporate restructuring
  • environmental imperatives
  • infrastructure renewal
  • shared wealth
  • and so on.

These sound bites, however, can drown out a crucial fact. A good deal of the change has been propelled socially by growing populations with heightened human aspirations and technologically by the advent of high-speed digital computing. Computing has not necessarily been the most important driver of these changes, but it has been central to them.

These technologies have enabled new telecommunications and information technologies, making possible the sharing of information--voice, video, and otherwise--around and across the world. That is what's facing us. What we do with it is the question.

Many times throughout history, even the most astute among us have failed to grasp the potential of emerging technologies.

Thomas J. Watson deserves to be remembered by history as the truly visionary driving force behind the rise of IBM and the computer age. Unfortunately, he will probably always be best remembered for his 1943 prediction that, "...there is a world market for maybe five computers."

Of course, that statement pales today in comparison to Bill Gates' 1981 assertion that, "640K ought to be enough for anybody."

In 1913, a U.S. Attorney led the prosecution of a very famous engineer named Lee DeForest for fraud. DeForest was trustworthy, honest, and had great integrity. The attorney argued: "DeForest has said in many newspapers that it would be possible to transmit the human voice across the Atlantic before many years. Based on these absurd and deliberately misleading statements, the misguided public ... has been persuaded to purchase stock in his company." Here we see a credible lawyer displaying technologically illiterate judgment. A good lawyer, yet a totally absurd statement.

Today, however, even the most scientifically and technologically literate among us have difficulty grasping the full potential of the advances at our fingertips. The computer and telecommunications explosion is already prompting a profound redefinition of such concepts as "community," "library," "corporation," "government," "university," "technology transfer"--and, as we are seeing, "professionals in science and technology." It's making us ask, what do we do, and how do we do our jobs?

We know from the work of Robert Solow, the Nobel Laureate and National Science Board member, and others that scientists and engineers were central to enabling the industrial revolution and the period of progress in the post-war era. Many studies indicate that during the past half century, technological innovation has been responsible for roughly 40 percent of the productivity gain here in the U.S. Our community is now being called upon to provide even greater leadership in the emerging information age. We should now look forward to enabling and shaping what is yet to come -- even though we don't quite know what it is.

In a trilogy of speeches delivered in February of this year, Vice President Gore suggested the metaphor, "distributed intelligence," to describe a new age of intelligent systems. It is a complicated metaphor, based on applying the principle of parallel processing to social challenges and economic progress. It's best to think of all these terms not as labels, but as monikers at the moment.

It rests upon the notion of giving people the ability to communicate virtually instantaneously with each other via different media, as well as giving them access to the information they need and to the tools they need to transform that information into useful, productive knowledge. One could say that this involves all of society getting wired, except that it won't always involve wires. This may yield an age in which the sharing of information is instantaneous and ubiquitous.

To pursue these kinds of emerging opportunities, NSF is exploring frameworks for the development and deployment of new ideas and technologies for research, education and for society as a whole, using academic science and engineering as a testbed.

Let me give you a sense of what we are considering. Again, these are monikers for describing the cutting edge and helping us think about what to do. (Overhead #2.)

Knowledge Networks

  • Multi-Media Environments
  • Resource Sharing Technologies
  • Digital Libraries
  • Collaboratories

New Challenges for Computation

  • Data-Mining
  • Visualization
  • Pattern Recognition
  • Partnerships for Advanced Computational Infrastructure

Learning and Intelligent Systems

  • Learning Technologies (based on insights into learning and cognitive functioning)
  • Collaborative Learning Across Physical and Virtual Communities
  • Knowledge-on-demand Pedagogies
  • Fresh Creativity-enabling infrastructure

Let's focus for a moment on the third area, Learning and Intelligent Systems. This spans topics as diverse as cognition and computing and algorithms and linguistics. It involves three clearly distinct sets of challenges. The first is perhaps the most immediately attainable. It is to improve our system of learning via advances in hardware and software. Schools, corporations, and others have already begun addressing this challenge, and there are encouraging signs of progress.

A second challenge is directly related to the first, but more fundamental. It begins with questions like: Can we create an entirely new system of learning? Can we change the way we approach education and training at all levels, develop new tools and techniques that actually augment both our and our machine's capacity to learn and create? That's a key statement. Some of my colleagues argue we should just say our ability as humans to learn and create. It's more than just that. Machines can be creative, and they can help us be creative.

The third relates to better enabling the creative capabilities of all citizens through a more facile, symbiotic relationship with the computer and communications systems rapidly enveloping all of us. For scientists and engineers, the result may be a whole new way of pursuing research and effecting discovery.

These are difficult challenges and questions--controversial in fact. That's ideal in my mind, because we can learn from each other's arguments and from the different approaches and perspectives we bring to the discussion. We have to have a way to argue vigorously and forcefully.

I like to tell people that one of NSF's jobs is to promote intellectual eclecticism. The reductionist approach, if uniquely prescribed as the system of acceptable academic progress, can yield homogenization of a sort--and mute the fruits of eclecticism. You may have heard Peter Medawar's famous quote, "the human mind treats a new idea the way the body treats a strange protein; it rejects it." The same thinking applies to other subjects as well.

Whatever our view, however, events show that systemic change seems inexorably underway. For example, consider the speech my former ivy league faculty colleague, Don Langenberg, gave two years ago at a UCLA conference on the future of research universities. Since Don had to pull out of today's program and won't be here to correct me or contradict me, I feel comfortable citing his work with total confidence.

In his talk, Don suggested an evocative metaphor for the university of the 21st Century-- the kudzu vine. At what he called, "Kudzu U," students do not flock to campuses for classes. Rather, the campus spreads via information technologies throughout the community, much like a kudzu vine. He summed up his metaphor by saying, "that kudzu vine may strangle a lot of ivy."

This past summer, the governors of 18 western states led by Colorado's Roy Romer announced plans to establish what they call the Virtual University. This news inspired our own Washington Post to publish an editorial under the heading, "A No-Campus Campus." The Post is skeptical about Virtual U's prospects. It wrote: "The virtues of the Virtual University may yet trump the familiar virtues of other [universities], but it will take more than plugging in a modem."

Regardless of whether these emergent virtual universities and kudzu universities meet with success or failure, they mark a dramatic step in the evolution of scholarship in our society.

  • Through the middle ages, learning and scholarship were confined to monks working in cells.

  • Then, around the 12th Century, the first universities appeared. This gave us the professors/students/classroom model of learning. It has survived remarkably intact until our own era.

  • Now, learning no longer requires that we gather on a campus or in school, just as visiting the Louvre no longer requires flying to Paris.

This concept also applies to challenges that are much closer to home. For example, I know that over the past year, many of you have worked closely with NSF's Division of Science Resources Studies at a series of workshops on data needs in science and engineering. The feedback on these workshops has been consistently positive, and we know they have been immensely valuable to NSF. We have all benefited from each other's capabilities and expertise. To use the Vice President's metaphor, they've enabled us to pool our distributed intelligence.

Now it becomes logical to examine the next steps for this process. Can we collect this great wealth of data sources and surveys, make them more compatible, and link them and calibrate them with national databases? The National Science Board's Task Force on Graduate Education asked such a question about data on graduate education, and we can all envision the potential benefits to policymakers of a more comprehensive data source.

There was a time, not very many years ago, when this kind of rhetoric would have been labeled wildly impractical. Different data formats, incompatible systems, and general bureaucratic barriers would have ended this kind of effort before it began.

Today, while we still need to work on lowering bureaucratic barriers, the technological hurdles are fast disappearing. Web-based technologies make them virtually transparent. They allow us to envision intranetworks, policy tools, and collaborations that were previously unrealistic or even unimaginable.

When I was an entry level engineer at RCA, a big part of my value to the company was my mastery of the slide rule and my dexterity with french curves for developing drawings and diagrams. Those aren't core personal or professional competencies in any company today, and my expertise with them won't get me a job anywhere, anytime, anyplace, at a decent salary.

When we developed new product ideas back then, we always had to wait--sometimes for several months--for models to be built. My mind would often move on to other ideas while we waited for the models. Compare that with being able to sit down with a 3-D CAD program to develop virtual models in the span of a few hours. That represents a quantum leap in learning power and creative potential, and we can make it widely accessible now. This is the stuff of rewarded careers in today's societal marketplace.

New priorities for science and technology should be viewed in this context. The reductionist approach we've relied upon so intently for several generations may no longer suffice. While remaining of great intellectual value, it, at a minimum, may require thoughtful reconsideration, as we learn more about the opportunities and the responsibilities facing scientists and engineers in the information age.

Add to this the growing capitalistic battle between Microsoft and Netscape for the global, photo-electronic kudzu vine, as depicted vividly in this week's Time magazine, and the future looks exciting indeed.

With all of this in mind, let me leave you with a quote that has special meaning to me. It is from the poet and philosopher, George Santayana (1863-1952), who once said: (Overhead #3)

Our knowledge is a torch of smoky pine
that lights the pathway but one step ahead.

This quote evokes some wonderful imagery. We cannot see very far into the future--especially if we are on the edge. It is indeed unknown to us, yet we suspect it is likely to be different from the present. With the advent of high-speed tools for learning, creativity, and innovation, change becomes increasingly more rapid, drawing the world's people closer in globally-based markets, and creating almost continual shifts in the way we interact with each other.

To prosper in this eclectic milieu, we must become increasingly astute about making connections, working together, and integrating across science and engineering for the common good. The priorities we set for science and technology should reflect this spirit of holism and integration, as should our views of the roles and careers of professionals in science and technology.

With the help of Santayana's torch of smoky pine, we can take that vital step onto the path--onto the bridge, into our future. But remember - we have to thrust the torch forward into the path so we can see. Just carrying it over a shoulder won't do.

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