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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation
National Academy of Engineering
Annual Meeting

October 3, 1999

I am delighted to be here. The National Science Foundation extends its congratulations to the new members being inducted into the Academy of Engineering. We look to you for wisdom and vision.

Congratulations also to Stephen Bechtel, Guy Stever, and the Draper Awardees. Who among us does not know them as giants in our midst? As I listened to their remarks, I began writing notes on my notes, becoming increasingly concerned about warranting their approbation for what I was about to say.

Today, I want to talk about the nature of our challenges in science, engineering, and technology policy, the context in which we should address those challenges, and the robust innovation that can derive therefrom.

The trajectory of science, engineering, and technology over the last half century has consistently moved toward greater complexity. This escalating complexity is powering us to a greater focus on intellectual integration, that is, understanding the characteristics of the whole demands more than inference from knowledge only of the parts.

Inflection points in the trajectories of technological change are subtle signals in the larger context, which are to be read with more care than mere supposition from reading the remnants of tea leaves. An astute understanding of inflection points enables us to judge better where to steer policy for science, engineering, and technology.

Innovation is the task of breaking the rules and being rewarded, over and over again. In a more formal sense, Peter Drucker tells us that innovation is the process of applying new knowledge to tasks that are new and different, demanding that the nation's new knowledge bank be constantly re-newed. Or a Bill Wulf just said at the lectern, putting an idea to use.

And what can one say about policy? With some levity of definition, policy is a facile term, especially in Washington where anything becomes a policy if it gets even peripheral mention on the evening news.

These somewhat irreverent definitions help to make the point that the new trends in science, engineering, and technology policy are breaking some old traditions and some stubborn myths.

As I expand on these ideas, I hope to paint a picture of a science, engineering, and technology future that is vibrant, multifaceted, and purposeful.

Let us begin with policy itself. The objective of policy is to move us toward our desired goals.

Thus, the first task in framing science, engineering, and technology policy is to articulate what goals we expect it to move us toward.

It is easy, but not very instructive, to say for example, that, as a nation, we want the United States to be preeminent in the world in science, engineering, and technology in order to enable wealth creation, promote prosperity, and ensure the quality of life. The prestige of the best science and engineering will not automatically result in a beneficial "economic domino effect."

Some of that can occur randomly, and has in the past, even when our goal was to survive in the face of the Soviets.

But, we all know that the global economic environment is too intense for randomness.

We need to think strategically and holistically. We need to learn to read patterns and trends from the larger context to envision the future. We need to educate our engineers and scientists beyond their technical expertise. The best technical training must be combined with an understanding of how that expertise fits into the larger societal environment, into our overriding national goals, and, indeed, into the goals of other nations.

This may all sound too elementary to discuss with such a distinguished audience so let me crystallize it by an example:

Recently, Danny Hillis, computer philosopher and designer, who pioneered the concept of parallel computing, and in 1996 became the vice president of research and development at The Walt Disney Company, related this incident from his past. "I went to my first computer conference at the New York Hilton about 20 years ago. When somebody there predicted the market for microprocessors would eventually be in the millions, someone else said, 'Where are they all going to go? It's not like you need a computer in every doorknob!'"

Years later, Hillis went back to the same hotel. He noticed that the room keys had been replaced by electronic cards you slide into slots in the doors. There was, indeed, "a computer in every doorknob," as well as sensors and actuators -- and other hardware to make the software sing.

Danny Hillis may have seen that future for microprocessors but right there in the midst of a computer conference two decades ago that insight was in short supply. That's probably why Danny Hillis is now head of R&D for Walt Disney.

There is an important lesson hidden in this example which is far more than just ironic or amusing. In fact, there is a responsibility here for us.

Part of the explanation for very smart people making, what in hindsight, are not very insightful comments, is that, even as prognosticators, we tend to think of what is in front of us but not what is also around us.

This microprocessor-in-the-doorknob example tells us of a person who sees in present time, not within the larger, surrounding context and not imagining that the future could or would be much different from the present.

The future is never easy to "see." But the chances of having good vision are much better if you understand the larger context in which you work -- the sector, the society, and even the time in history, the moment in civilization. Learning to read the larger context gives you a path for imagining the future.

At our universities, we have the opportunity and responsibility to help students learn how to "see" the larger context of society and extrapolate good insight from those pictures to project the future.

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan put it this way last February, "Critical awareness and the abilities to hypothesize, to interpret, and to communicate are essential elements of successful innovation in a conceptual-based economy."

In the United States, we are, for the moment, economically stronger than we have been in decades. Service workers predominate in our workforce, and partnerships among our various sectors -- government, industry, and academe -- are fashionable and increasingly effective. A new inter-organizational way of business and academic life is forming.

Corporate entities are transnational and the most talented and highly skilled workers in every country comprise the modern phenomenon of a global and mobile workforce. They can easily gravitate to where the best jobs are located. But information technologies have also made it possible for them to stay home and yet work abroad.

Colleges and universities are facing information-age transformations with virtual centers and institutes, shared infrastructure, colaboratories and long-distance learning. The future portends even more.

Science and engineering are moving toward interdisciplinarity at the same time that they become steadily more complex and vibrant from within.

And, accountability for publicly funded research is a now familiar criterion.

Public understanding of science and technology has permeated the lexicon of the science and engineering community. However, there is still a great chasm between "talking the talk" and "walking the walk" in this realm. All of us must do better.

K through 12 education in science and math is not improving fast enough for an information society that will be increasingly dependent on those skills. All sectors -- higher education, industry, and government must assume greater responsibility for achieving our K through 12 goals.

Young people today will have a number of distinctive iterations in their career paths over a working lifetime. Life-long education has become a necessity.

Demographic projections indicate a continually changing America. Immigration is projected to become more important to U.S. population growth than natural increases through birth and death rates.

In industry, environmental concerns increasingly influence product development. And there is likely to be continuous movement toward sustainable manufacturing, not just ethically, but because astute vision here can create new wealth as well.

This is not necessarily a complete "context" but it serves as example and as a beginning. I'm sure each of you would have important additions. In any case, the point is that "context" is not window dressing or peripheral knowledge; it is, instead, a set of clues and guideposts.

These clues and guideposts serve as subtle signals that give direction and insight to our decisions.

We live in a global environment where new competitors and partners are emerging like weeds after a spring rain. The ability to read the subtle signals will often make the difference between being the industrial leader or laggard in a field. At the time when Hillis heard that ill-considered comment about microprocessors in hotel doorknobs, there was a lot more lead-time in the global economy to recoup from such a miscalculation than there would be today.

Grasping inflection points in seemingly solid trends, that is, astute reading of tea leaves, is not just for mystics anymore. It's job one for mentors, managers, and moguls.

Broader insight brings me to the innovation piece in our science and technology policy. I cavalierly described innovation at the start of my remarks as the task of breaking the rules and being rewarded, over and over again.

This is true, but let me raise the discussion to a different plane with a comment by Einstein. He said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

Imagining is at the heart of innovation. As we learn to read that larger context which I have been discussing, imagination allows us to envision projections of a future from a comprehensive perspective, and not from what we see just directly in front of us. Here, imagination has a great deal to do with integration. The disparate pieces of a context tell us nothing in isolation, but they tell us many things in relationship to each other.

In our expanding knowledge about the universe, the human mind and body, the cycles of ecosystems, the patterns of climate, the paths of infectious diseases, the dynamics of economies, and the perturbations of global politics, we see repeated evidence of integration and interrelationships. There seem to be few, if any, disconnections as we deepen our knowledge. What it comes down to is being able to picture a completely new way of seeing or doing something.

Our contemporary technique for producing sound, the compact disc, is a good example of this imagining. We rename it technological innovation when it occurs in industry but the CD was a completely new way of audioization, a totally new type of device. It was not an improved version of anything already in existence.

The February 20th issue of the Economist magazine included a major examination of innovation. One of the sidebars to the text reads, "Innovators break all the rules. Trust them."

The Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, developed a rule-breaking theory of economics in 1942 in which he described a "creative destruction" of industrial cycles.

The Economist article on Innovation described Schumpeter's work saying, "[according to Schumpeter] a normal healthy economy was not one in equilibrium, but one that was constantly being disrupted by technological innovation. Disruption is an important characteristic of innovation. As would be expected, it causes losses in its path of making gains, creating the dynamism of healthy economies. In fact, the disruption caused by an innovation can bring down a whole industry, while simultaneously creating new opportunities for growth.

Transistor technology disrupted the vacuum-tube industry, HMOs shook the foundation of the health insurance industry, and the CD killed the needle in the groove.

As experienced practicioners, you will surely call upon examples close at hand like the ones just mentioned. But students can also learn the process of innovation, risk taking, and rule breaking from models taken from our collective experience, and long before they are sent out into the world.

We should give them the opportunity to learn the path of creativity taken by artists, musicians, dancers, photographers, and architects. Art and artists, by their very definition, breach barriers, define new perspectives, and advance the frontiers of their field. Impressionism, cubism, free verse poetry, jazz and rock music - every field of artistic endeavor can teach us something about unique perspective, creative envisioning, and risk taking.

And to understand and imagine the nature of the "future," we also need to study the past. History offers us a window on the consistency of human nature over centuries, a description of social change, examples of mistakes and miscalculations that altered the course of events. Lastly, it tells us how the environment or culture of a time or place can make it ripe for dramatic changes.

Scanning the world today for "hot spots" of innovation, the Economist article on Innovation suggests that the two leading centers for innovative activity in the world are California and Israel. At first look these appear to be an unlikely match. At closer look, however, these two places share some interesting similarities. For example, the practice of networking has been raised to a high art in both places. They both rely on a significant immigrant population and have competitive, almost aggressive, business practices. In each, there's a great respect for learning and for risk taking. These conditions and qualities seem to create the environment or culture for innovation.

It turns out that governments can help too. They can develop policies that create fertile environments and encourage positive behaviors. Policies should not be designed to control the process of getting to the goal but rather to allow the process to work at its best, to create the best atmosphere for progress and success.

The federal government, and I might add the National Science Foundation in particular, has developed a strong record in promoting partnerships -- making marriages among some unlikely partners -- to move us toward our science and technology objectives for the coming decades.

Partnerships are yet another aspect of integration. They introduce a different dimension to the process of promoting science, engineering, and technology because they bring to the table participants with different expertise and resources, and a diversity of perspectives.

The federal government has provided strong leadership here. For much more than a decade, we have been advocating public-private partnerships in federal research and development. In the beginning we merely exchanged favorable rhetoric about the importance of partnerships. Slowly we took steps to form genuine working arrangements. Further down the path, we began to see results. Reality suggests that the mix of partners will skew, in a positive way, the perspective and objective of the research and stabilize the important disruption of disparate ideas.

A partnership of government and industry will move differently from a partnership of government and a university. When you include all three you have different purposes and outcomes. Our greatest strength may be in the very diversity of combinations and partners. We should always view these combinations as creative arrangements. They are not formulas to be automatically replicated but rather new patterns to be ingeniously enhanced each time we create the next combination. As one example, the very diverse set of Engineering Research Centers attest to this.

It is useful to remind ourselves that the context and environment in which we have to operate will always change and so will the competition. Part of building a continuum of success in science, engineering, technology, and in entrepreneurship is retaining the ability to "see" and act upon a changing context.

Twenty years ago, the global economy was far less "global." Our own domestic economy had a very different mix of industries, and our workforce was far less service-oriented than it is today. In addition, in every era, new enabling technologies quickly influence our methods of commerce, of manufacturing, of service, and even the very social order of our society.

History gives us many examples of this influence -- the steam engine, electricity, and air transportation. Today's composite of digital, electronic, and optical technologies is reframing society as concept-driven and knowledge-ridden.

We can already calculate the impact. The Economist probably said it better than I could. They recently wrote, "America gets more than half its economic growth from industries that barely existed a decade ago -- such is the power of innovation, especially in the information and biotechnology industries."

There have been few that envisioned what the Economist article revealed about the significance of information systems and the revolution being created by the biotechnology industry.

The astute "readers of the context" and accurate "predictors of the future" for the last several decades have proven to us that envisioning is a worthwhile endeavor.

I began these remarks with trajectories, inflections, and innovation. This short journey that we have taken along all three paths brings us to a conclusion that speaks to connections, integration, interrelationships, and overlapping consequences. There is something quite beautiful in that intricacy, like a mathematical equation or a poem that leads us to its central place without ever naming the place.

There is also great challenge here for the nation and the world in the next few decades. As we contemplate those challenges for our science, engineering and technology, we must understand that supremacy in research and education, in innovation, and in competitive entrepreneurship is an enduring quest, an on-going process.

There is no peak that we can reach that will assure continuing success. It is not a matter of sticking to the task for the long haul. It is the "haul."

We will always need to keep improving the process with fresh ideas and a fundamental commitment. We will need to break the right rules and take the right risks. It will be demanding, exciting, and a bit precarious, as the unknown always is.



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