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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


Science and Engineering at a Crossroads:
New Challenges, New Opportunities, New Priorities

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director
Address to Faculty
Florida State University

December 6, 1996

My good friend, Ray Bye, has asked me to speak to you about the new challenges, opportunities and priorities for both NSF and the science and engineering community so that we may engage in a dialogue about issues that are of concern to you.

Before I begin though, let me congratulate Florida State on the great football win over Florida last weekend! I am happy not only for the university and its fans but am also happy that I get to speak to a crowd filled with happy faces--excited over a possible national championship and, also I'm sure, envisioning an exciting future for science and engineering at FSU.

My aim today is to launch a discussion with you on three subjects: first, the role of information technologies in shaping and sparking this time of complex challenges to old ways of doing business; second, the opportunities these challenges 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--complex challenges and new opportunities--are naturally closely linked to a third: new priorities. 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." And I hope to make clear that fashioning new priorities for science and engineering will require more than clever re-packaging to suit contemporary interests.

To begin my discussion of these new priorities, I want to start at the very beginning--actually 1944 to be exact--to give you a flavor of how and why the organization I work for--the National Science Foundation--was conceived.

The National Science Foundation was created in a period of serious demographic, technological and social change: namely the aftermath of World War II. And as suggested by the title of my talk, many believe the science and engineering enterprise today is now at another crossroads: we are facing some complex challenges and new opportunities brought about by some fairly monumental societal changes brought about by the end of the Cold War.

In 1944, President Roosevelt sent a letter to Vannevar Bush--the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development and an engineer no less--directing Bush to prepare a report that would map out a direction for the support of science and technology during the anticipated peaceful post-war period. Bush responded to Roosevelt's letter by convening committees of experts to consider the proper role of the U.S. government in the continuing support of research and development. This effort produced the report, Science--The Endless Frontier, which argued that "Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team," and if so organized, this warranted the collective investment of taxpayers' monies.

Unfortunately, the vision of Bush, Roosevelt and many others of a peaceful post-war period did not materialize. The hot war eventually evolved into a cold one over a period of just a few years and this conflict put a different spin on the Roosevelt-Bush exchange, leading over time to even heavier investments in military research and development than was the case in World War II. Rather than building a holistic peace-time structure for the pursuit and sharing of knowledge for the betterment of society to enable new commercial enterprises, new jobs, and an improved quality of life as the Roosevelt letter suggested, the nation instead fostered a research enterprise that seeded many disciplines, sub-disciplines and finely structured specialties to deter an adversary of great power. Our nation became the envy of the world for focused discovery.

Let me now turn to the issue of new priorities that I mentioned in the opening of my remarks. Under the traditional structure of the American research enterprise, the package of "priorities" generally focus on one of a specific set of typical but--I would argue--increasingly less meaningful tradeoffs, unless considered concurrently:

  • Field specific tradeoffs: physics vs. chemistry, or at a higher level, science vs. engineering.

  • Mode of support tradeoffs: individual investigators vs. research centers, people vs. facilities, or hard vs. soft science.

  • Conceptual tradeoffs: basic vs. applied, fundamental vs. strategic, and analysis vs. synthesis...

  • Level of consensus tradeoffs: Embyronic ideas (little or no consensus), emerging opportunities (consensus developing); state-of-the-art (heavy consensus),

and so on.

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 appropriate 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.

Ironically some of the changes aren't so new. In fact, the vision of Bush and Roosevelt has in many ways finally materialized. Today although different societal challenges and problems exist in 1996 different from those in 1944, our nation is better able to think about a future that is concerned less with military security and more with the economic well-being and quality of life of its citizens.

  • As this shift takes place, society's needs and expectations for research and education will also change. New priorities for science and technology should reflect the richness of our varied disciplines and the integrative nature of the change taking place.

Much of the change has been propelled socially by growing populations with heightened human aspirations and technologically by the advent of high-speed digital computing. Advanced computing has not necessarily been the most important driver of these changes, but it has been central to them. Combined with high-tech communications, new computer-communications technologies have enabled new, information rich markets, making possible the sharing of information--voice, video, data, and otherwise--across the world. That is what's facing us. How we respond is the question.

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

Just as in fundamental research, the answers to these questions may not always come so easily, but at NSF, we are continually seeking new and improved ways to enable scientists and engineers to educate students, seek new knowledge, and continually extend the frontiers of discovery. One of the primary ways NSF has done this throughout its almost 50 year history--ever since the time of Vannevar Bush--has been to fund proposals based on scientific merit through a process of merit review.

From time to time, we have found that it was important to examine and update the criteria we use for reviewing grant proposals. The last time we examined the criteria was fifteen years ago.

Last month, the National Science Board received recommendations from a Task Force it charged with examining the review criteria. The NSB Task Force recommended that the criteria be simplified and harmonized with developments that have occurred since the last revision in 1981.

The Board has asked NSF to share the proposed revisions to the merit review criteria with the science and engineering community. We hope that you will take the time to visit our Web Site-- examine the recommendations of the Task Force and offer your comments.

Our objective is to ensure that NSF-funded investigators, and the more than 50,000 scientists and engineers who assist us in reviewing proposals each year, have clear and coherent guidelines for judging the merit of all proposals--guidelines that accurately reflect NSF's mission and purpose.

Key components of NSF's mission: to uphold U.S. world leadership and to promote science and engineering in service to society--are clearly stated in our strategic plan. These tenets are clearly linked with Vannevar Bush's original vision which foresaw an organization dedicated to advancing the national welfare through the integration of discovery with every element of research, development and education.

There is no question that this founding vision--even with the diversion of so much physical and intellectual capital into military R&D--has been a success. We know from the work of Robert Solow, the Nobel Laureate economist 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 credible 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.

The noted management consultant Peter Drucker, has observed that the source of wealth is knowledge, a human activity that yields wealth in two essential ways, productivity and innovation. He points out that knowledge applied to tasks we already know how to do is productivity, while knowledge applied to tasks that are new and different is innovation--the process of creating new enterprises and delivering new products and services.

Within this context of productivity and innovation, scientists and engineers are now being called upon to provide even greater leadership in this emerging age of fast-paced technological change and intellectual connectivity on a grand scale. 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.

Distributed intelligence 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 will 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.

The best way to get you a sense of what we are considering is to review a few of the monikers we are using to describe the cutting edge and to think about what to do. I use the term monikers because we are still exploring what terms best capture these exciting concepts.

  • We've dubbed one area, Knowledge Networking, and it includes such topics as multi-media environments, resource sharing technologies, digital libraries, and collaboratories. The essence here is our era's increasingly fast-paced capacity to enable more and more people to "make connections to learn".

  • A second set of topics is clustered under the heading, New Challenges for Computation. Data-mining, visualization, pattern recognition are some of the key challenges here. One of the central program elements in this is the new Partnerships for Advanced Computational Infrastructure program (PACI), the follow-on to NSF's existing supercomputer centers program.

  • The third area we are exploring is Learning and Intelligent Systems. This includes knowledge-on-demand pedagogies, collaborative learning across physical and virtual communities, and developing learning technologies that are based on insights into learning and cognitive functioning.

I won't go into great detail on any of these, but I do want to touch upon the challenges they present. Learning and Intelligent Systems, for example, presents us with a fundamental challenge: Can we create an entirely new system of learning? Can we develop new tools and techniques that robustly augment the capacity to learn and create--for both humans and machines?

I should add that the wording in that question is carefully crafted. Some of my colleagues argue we should just say our ability as humans to learn and create. It's more than just that. Machines themselves may be creative, as well as helping us to create.

A related challenge is to better enable the creative capabilities of all citizens through a more facile, symbiotic relationship with the computer-communications systems rapidly enveloping all of us. For engineers and scientists, the result may be a whole new way of pursuing research, effecting discovery, and sparking innovation.

These are difficult challenges and opportunities--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. Intellectual eclecticism is a notion greatly valued at NSF as it is in academe. Indeed, it may be the core issue in which academic freedom is rooted.

While remaining fundamental to the process of discovery, the reductionist approaches that I spoke of earlier, 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." Realizing value from support of serendipity in the academy demands thoughtful consideration of ideas outside prevailing consensus. New priorities of the endless frontier of science and technology should be viewed in this context. As the vision of Vannevar Bush and his generation continues to evolve, the reductionist approach we've relied upon so exclusively for several generations to realize that vision 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 an age increasingly rich in knowledge.

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:

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.



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