Science and Engineering at a Crossroads:
New Challenges, New Opportunities, New Priorities
Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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--http://www.nsf.gov--to
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
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
- 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
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
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.