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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director

March 10, 1997

I am very pleased to be here this evening. And I want quickly to allay your fears about being victims of a "droning after-dinner talk." I have been audience to many of them and my remarks will be in the category of "brief-after-a-big-meal-talk."

In fact, I hope that I 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!" So this may be even briefer than I intended.

I know you have had a demanding schedule of diverse speakers and discussions today. I will limit my remarks to some over-arching comments which may provide a context for what has already been said.

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. Or, indeed, if they 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/Soviet rivalry of the previous forty years.

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.

It is also significant to note that all of these emerging economies are placing their primary educational emphasis on training engineers.

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 educating so-called "information" engineers for this new direction.

In order for America to compete in the wake of such focused competition, we must forge a "critical mass" of knowledge, skill, and infrastructure. It must include public and private schools, colleges and universities, 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 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.

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 under the rubric of national security, continuing the World War II funding basis, and that was often the sole dictate for the research. Many researchers were supported to pursue their scientific curiosity in increasingly narrow specialities. 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 will increasingly be viewed as a quantifiable investment. Bush envisioned it this way from the start, but the Cold War postponed that accountability for four decades. Key to this issue is realization by an astute professoriate that honest partnering in pursuit of that accountability can also yield the flexibility to follow research paths 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 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, multimedia integration, and, yes, HPCC, and the Next Generation Internet which appear so boldly in the FY98 Federal budget.

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. They will have an increasing role as the "information age," or whatever we wind up calling it, unfolds.

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 new 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.

Well, 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 yet undefined, and likely misnamed, information age. 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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