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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


What are the New Priorities for the "Endless Frontier"?

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director
Panel Address
Engineering Forum of Mercer University
Technology and the New Millennium: Dynamic Transitions in Industry

November 1, 1996

Good Morning. Thank you for that kind introduction.

I consider it a great honor to have been invited to address this important gathering in one of the nation's great cities. I know that everyone in Georgia has probably not gotten over the Braves' tough loss to the Yankees yet, but I'm sure that this hasn't dampened your enthusiasm for the topics we are discussing today. As a former baseball player and Phillies fan, I have my own angst about the Phill's miserable performance the past few years but I think it hasn't affected my work at NSF too much. Not yet anyway.

I stand before you this morning with some welcome news: I want to assure you that--as there is here in greater Atlanta, and throughout Georgia, there is great excitement in Washington about the future of science and engineering and the capacity of scientists and engineers to be partners in the great new era of super high technology looming before us.

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 for the Endless Frontier. 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."

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 and similar periodicals of that day. 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.

Before I speak of these new priorities, I want to give you a flavor of how and why the organization I work for--the National Science Foundation--was conceived. As Norm Augustine mentioned in his opening keynote, our society is going through some monumental social and economic transformations. The National Science Foundation was created in a period of serious demographic, technological and social change: namely the aftermath of World War II. Vannevar Bush--President Franklin Roosevelt's Director of the OSRD--Office of Scientific Research and Development and an engineer no less--wrote the seminal work--Science, the Endless Frontier--that laid out the blueprint for a federal organization that eventually became the National Science Foundation.

In asking Bush for the study that led to the Endless Frontier Report, Roosevelt recognized the immense contributions that science and engineering made to the winning of the war and would continue to have in succeeding years for society generally. Consequently, the ultimate objective was to create a mechanism by which the federal government would nurture and maintain a viable integrated science and engineering research and education enterprise that would work effectively for the national welfare.

At NSF, we are continuing this tradition of science and engineering in service to society. Our mission--as set forth in our strategic plan--is to promote the progress of science and engineering through the creation of new knowledge, its integration, and transfer to society...primarily through graduates from academe and trusted partnerships among industry, academic institutions and governments.

However, even though this responsibility is quite broad, NSF's resources--by Washington standards--are fairly small: a budget of roughly $3.3 billion in a $1.6 trillion overall federal budget. We use these resources to fund research and education projects in all fields of science and engineering as well as science, engineering, and math education from kindergarten through the PhD. We fund discovery ranging from microbes that live in hot ocean floor volcanic vents, fundamental nuclear particles, and new carbon forms, named buckminster fullerenes whose discoverers won the Nobel Prize in chemistry this year...on through new computing algorithms, advanced re-configurable manufacturing processes, and microelectromechanical possible former life forms on Mars, to new planets orbiting galactic suns other than our own...out to all kinds of strange energy and matter to farther and farther reaches of the cosmos.

In any given year, we support on the order of 20,000 projects that involve about 200,000 students and researchers, chosen through merit review by 60,000 volunteer proposal reviewers.

Neal Lane--my close colleague and Director of NSF--often likes to say that NSF is involved in everything from elementary schools to elementary particles--and it's not clear which are more complicated or more challenging.

Nevertheless, while the original vision of Vannevar Bush remains vital, the traditional package of "priorities," in the context of science and technology generally focus on a specific set of typical but increasingly less meaningful tradeoffs:

  • 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...

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 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. 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, and otherwise--around and across the world. That is what's facing us. What we do with it is the question.

Inexorable technological change challenges our current ethical, social, environmental, and economic systems. Let's consider for a moment, in terms of the United States, what the nation has to work with.

  • We have a national physical infrastructure that is valued at more than $20 trillion. Included are the lifelines that transport and distribute people, energy, and communications services, and enable the flow of commerce. But much of this infrastructure is breaking down or wearing out--and its toll on commerce flow and national productivity is already substantial.

  • The federal budget is about $1.6 trillion. Of this $1.6 trillion, spending on defense accounts for 10-15%. Another 10-15% goes to the growing interest that must service the national debt, a debt which--not so incidentally mind you--is $5 trillion, over three times the annual budget and 20% of the value of the infrastructure comprising our national home.

  • Payments to individuals--such as Social Security and Medicare checks--derived from our nation's constitutional agreement to "promote the general welfare", consume 60% of the federal budget. That leaves only 8-10% in discretionary funds which must take care of all the rest of our needs, including the support of civilian R&D. That's not much flexibility to work with.

  • As a nation, we spend about $172 billion on R&D, that includes industry, the government and academe. While that may sound great at first glance, let's look at some key facts about how we invest this money:

    • The federal government spends about $70 billion--with almost half dedicated to weapons development.

    • The private sector spends about $102 billion--with about 90% focused on short-term product and process development.

In comparison, we spend fewer absolute dollars on civilian R&D than Japan, a nation less than half our size. In the current environment, corporate research laboratories are changing to respond to shorter-term market pressures, while at the same time, financially-constrained universities are increasingly seeking support from industry.

Given these challenges, how do we emerge from our growing environmental, infrastructure and fiscal problems? Certainly by not trying split up a relatively constant pot of national wealth through ill-advised cuts in investment and then suffering the inevitable and intractable political and economic consequences. There is only one way out of our dilemma, which should be apparent to everyone: we need to create more national wealth--wealth that we can share for a better life as well as to get our fiscal house in order...and we must do it without doing harm to our environment or our democracy.

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, "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 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, engineers and scientists 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 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.

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.

  • 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 actually 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 can 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 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, while not letting our personal human sensitivities get in the way.

I like to tell people that one of NSF's jobs is to promote intellectual eclecticism. 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." The same thinking applies to other subjects as well.

This brings me to my final point--and it has to do with those new priorities I spoke of earlier. 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 in the endless frontier of science and technology should be viewed in this context. While the vision of Vannevar Bush and his generation may continue, 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.

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.

Thank you again for inviting me to join you this morning.



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