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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


Context and Challenges: A New Era for Undergraduate Research

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director
Plenary Session
April Dialogue
Council on Undergraduate Research
National Institutes of Health
Natcher Conference Center Auditorium

April 11, 1997

It's a pleasure to join Ruth and Alan and all of you here this morning. I want to thank Royce, Tom, and the CUR for giving us this chance to meet. They stressed that this was meant to be a true dialogue, so I intend to adhere to the advice on speeches that the comedian George Jessel would often give. He said, "If you haven't struck oil in your first three minutes, stop boring!" There is thus the chance that my remarks may be somewhat briefer than I had planned.

I know you have a demanding schedule of speakers, workshops, and discussions over the next two days. I intend to use my time to offer some overarching comments which I hope will provide a context for some of the program directions and priorities that will be discussed in greater detail in other sessions. For this reason, I have chosen to entitle my remarks, Context and Challenges: A New Era for Undergraduate Research. Although many of us use terms like "post-cold war economy" and the "information age" with frequency and ease, we have not necessarily paid enough attention to the far reaching implications of their meaning - particularly for research and education at the undergraduate level. Indeed, I would submit that we can't even be sure if these are the right terms to use.

The end of the Cold War, just seven years ago, was unpredicted. It did not even show up on the radar screens of foreign policy experts and political gurus. It caught the world by happy surprise. No one, however, had imagined or planned for a global landscape without the Free World versus Iron Curtain rivalry of the previous forty years. And, certainly no one had given serious thought to how this enormous change would influence the way we prepare our youth for the workforce.

Among other things, the end of this anomalous period in world history set an already complex world economy into a state of heightened transition. We are currently immersed in a somewhat volatile but also opportunistic period that will likely continue for quite some time. The new openness in the world political and economic arena has created a system "in flux" where different leaders, as well as different losers, can emerge.

America has grappled with the threat of Japanese economic competition for over a decade but still remains fairly unsophisticated in seeing those trends in other nations. I think we are currently underestimating the technological leadership coming from companies in South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and Taiwan. And perhaps our most dangerous myopia is in relation to the behemoth capabilities of an emerging China.

This transition period is also characterized by an explosion in the form and function of what we have termed "information technologies." The emerging economies of southeast Asia have quickly grasped the value of these technologies as a critical driver for technological and manufacturing capability. Needless to say, they are heavily focused on training so-called "information engineers" or "knowledge workers" for this new direction.

In order for America to compete in the wake of such competition, we must forge a "critical mass" of knowledge, skill, and infrastructure. It must include public and private schools, colleges and universities of all types, industry and small business, government at all levels, and the talented personnel from each sector. It must be guided by a collective vision of where we need to go and a collaborative spirit of how we can get there.

In essence, it means going back to the precepts of Vannevar Bush that we have either ignored or forgotten. At the beginning of Bush's 1945 report, Science: The Endless Frontier, he laid down a concise vision. He said, "Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team." I think that his words have become increasingly prescient. It does not matter that we now talk of partnerships instead of Bush's "teams." What does matter is that we recognize the need for collective effort, for collaborations where each partner has something to offer and each has something to learn.

We no longer live in an era where academe can provide an autonomous career sheltered from society's needs and problems. We no longer live in a time when U.S. industry believes it has nothing to learn from other nations or other sectors, an attitude that persisted for too long. We no longer live in the luxury of succeeding on first-rate higher education and mediocre K-12 education. We no longer live in the industrial age when a modestly-skilled assembly-line workforce could propel the nation.

And, we can no longer expect public support for science and engineering research in the form of a blank check and an undefined agenda. Well, maybe a modest blank check here or there, once in a while, based on partnered trust, but certainly not an undefined agenda - and certainly not an agenda that overlooks the natural linkages between research and education.

My generation of engineers and scientists was among the first to flourish under the new and generous government support of R&D at the start of the Cold War. One might even label that first-time historical period of serious federal funding as a time of public innocence. Most funds were appropriated, explicitly and implicitly, under the rubric of national security. That was often the sole dictate for the research - whether or not we as individuals felt otherwise. Many researchers were supported to pursue their scientific curiosity in increasingly narrow specialties. America had ample resources to parcel out for any and all science and engineering, and the belief was, the more the better to keep the country safer. Those days are gone.

Today, those providing the funds not only will require more accountability from researchers but there is increasing pressure to use scarce public funds solely for the support of public goals. With the disappearance of the Cold War geopolitical threat, federal research dollars are increasingly be viewed as a quantifiable investment.

Bush envisioned it this way from the start, but the Cold War postponed that level of accountability for four decades. Of course, Bush had the "long view" in mind vis-a-vis the public good. His view did anticipate - and expect - societally beneficial outcomes. On this issue, it is vital that we recognize that honest partnering in pursuit of those outcomes can also yield the flexibility to follow paths of discovery and learning opened by serendipity.

The vast shifts in global political alignment, economic expansion, and their accompanying social change are already creating "domino activity" in government, in industry, and slowly in our colleges and universities. This is, I believe, just the beginning, and information technologies will provide a hastening catalyst.

We are living in the infancy of what scholars and song writers all term the "Information Age," despite the fact that there are no adequate definitions of what an information age means. We may, in fact, face an era quite different from the word "information" that we are using with impunity. The period before us is much more than computing power, digital transmission, global communication, and multimedia integration.

If you follow the goings-on at NSF, you'll know that we are using the term, "knowledge and distributed intelligence" to describe this emerging era. This is our way of capturing the fact that knowledge is becoming available to anyone, anywhere, anytime, and that power, information, and responsibility are moving away from centralized control to the individual.

Information systems and learning tools are powerful but still somewhat enigmatic mechanisms. We know what they can do today but we cannot actually imagine what they will enable us to do tomorrow.

We do know from the history of medical imaging systems, the Internet, the World Wide Web, and countless other technological marvels that academic science and engineering has helped us develop the most visionary applications of the new tools and technologies. I'm sure everyone in this audience takes special note of the fact that Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of Netscape Communications, developed the concept of the Web browser while working on an undergraduate research project at the University of Illinois' National Center for Supercomputing Applications. This is just one of many examples that testifies to the importance of research at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, particularly in this era of knowledge and distributed intelligence - or whatever we wind up calling it.

The convergence of insights from studies in human cognition, linguistics, neurobiology, the science of computer- communication, and other fields will contribute to and shape what we do with these emerging capabilities. I think few would doubt that these integrated information forces will have a powerful impact on both the economics and the sociology of the nation.

It is no overstatement to say that the term "potential" has never been as meaningful as it is today. Potential conveys possibility, opportunity, and capability - all of which exist in abundance as we enter this era of knowledge and distributed intelligence. Browsers - be they Mosaic, Netscape, Explorer, or others - have transformed the Internet from an obscure research tool to something a five-year-old can "surf." Search engines such as Altavista and Yahoo now help people control the flood of information unleashed by the Web - though they are far from perfect.

It is clear that what we are seeing today is only the beginning. Supercomputers are now breaking the teraflop barrier. Today's experimental networks - such as the NSF-supported very high speed Backbone Network Service (vNBS) - transmit data in excess of 600 Megabits per second (Mbps), a twelve fold increase over current Internet operating speeds.

If history is any guide, it won't take long for these capabilities to reach the typical user. When combined with technologies such as palmtops, handhelds, intelligent agents, and omnipresent sensors, the potential before us takes on an entirely new dimension.

Information and knowledge would be available in forms that make it easier for everyone to use effectively - voice, video, text, holograms, to name but a few of a universe of possibilities. Will we develop new ways to express and unleash our creative talents - talents that are now limited by our ability to interface via a keyboard and mouse? What tools will enable us to control and master this ultra-rapid flow of information? Will having the proverbial Library of Congress in your pocket be a blessing or a burden?

The answers to these questions begin with us. Our efforts and our leadership can transform this immense, unprecedented, and somewhat intimidating potential into true progress, economic opportunity, social gain, and rising living standards for human civilization.

Step number one toward success in this endeavor rests with our efforts in science and engineering education. Engineering and science education has become much more than a four year bachelor's degree or seven year Ph.D. It now requires developing our ability to strengthen and continually refresh our talents for innovation and creativity. Professional societies will need to assume greater responsibility for enabling their members to thrive through radically changing professional landscapes. Colleges and universities will be presented with new mechanisms for interacting with students, as well as for linking the creation of knowledge with its dissemination and application.

This latter point is most relevant to our discussion this morning. Advanced information technologies have transformed how we approach science and engineering at the undergraduate level. At NSF, this theme has been prominent in the competitions we've held for activities like the institution-wide reform efforts in the Division of Undergraduate Education, and our one-time Recognition Awards for the Integration of Research and Education.

Between handhelds, networks, sensors, and other emerging technologies, we've gained new tools that ease the integration of research into introductory level courses. The Workshop Physics project developed at Dickinson College by Priscilla Laws and her colleagues is one of the best known and most successful examples of this new wave of activities. Another is the half-decade-old Engineering Education Coalitions program that aims to create a holistic undergraduate experience for engineering students. There are many experiments of this sort underway and more undoubtedly will come.

These are all part of our larger goal of providing students with a learning experience that is rooted in data and discovery. The integration of research and education has long been one of NSF's hallmarks. We made it one of the key themes in our strategic plan, and it continues to receive very high priority, as exemplified in our FY98 budget request. My colleague Norman Fortenberry, the head of our Division of Undergraduate Education, will say more about this later this morning in the workshop session on "Shaping the Future." I highly recommend his presentation if you are interested in NSF's overall approach to fostering innovation at the undergraduate level.

Let me now move on to my conclusion, because I know I have covered a lot of ground in just a few minutes. To summarize, with the end of the Cold War we have entered a period of accelerated transition where pitfalls and possibilities abound. We must be astute observers and students of the shifting global landscape. We must agree on a collective vision and plot a path together to reach our goals. We will be overtaken if we think each sector can operate independently, as in the old days. We must be bold and experimental in developing and leading this somewhat nebulous era of knowledge and distributed intelligence. Most of all, we must rekindle the optimism of the American pioneers and delight in the challenge of the journey.

Now let's talk about how to start.



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