Dr. Neal F. Lane

National Science Foundation

Plenary Session: Mandate for Change
Federal Demonstration Project
Phase III, Kickoff Meeting

National Academy of Sciences

June 10, 1996

The Message in the Mandate

Thank you Tom and good morning. On behalf of the NSF and Committee on Fundamental Science, it's a real pleasure to join Harold and Tom this morning to launch Phase III of the Federal Demonstration Project.

This morning's event is somewhat akin to christening a ship, but unfortunately it's probably too early in the day to break out the champagne, or maybe I arrived too late to participate in the official toast.

I intend to speak very briefly and leave sufficient time for your questions and comments. My remarks are entitled, "The Message in the Mandate." The FDP really embodies a mandate for change in Federal-university business practices. It has been a tremendous success, and every step we can take to elevate it is a positive step forward for research and education in America.

Even more important in my view are the larger forces and trends shaping this mandate for change. That is what I think of as the message in the mandate. This message is not always easy to decipher, especially in this age of confusion and uncertainty.

My goal today is to help start a deciphering of this message--filter out the static and improve the signal to noise ratio. Although, some say physicists see signals where others see noise. I want to examine several trends shaping the context for science and engineering in America today. You'll see that these trends are sometimes contradictory and often confusing and confounding.

But, I believe that these trends send a clear message about the importance of cooperation and collaboration between institutions engaged in research and education. That is why the FDP serves as an unwavering beacon of progress for science and engineering in America.

The trends I want to discuss today are presented in the 1996 edition of a book called Science and Engineering Indicators, which was released by the National Science Board just last month. Some of you may have seen the report or earlier editions of it. It is close to a phone book in size, and it is now available electronically via NSF's World Wide Web site. You can even download the charts and tables for your own use.

The report tracks hundreds of trends and vital statistics that take the pulse of the nation's science and engineering enterprise. As you might already know, the report contains some disturbing news. Many current trends related to U.S. science and engineering would cause our pulses to race and raise our collective blood pressure.

You may have seen the newspaper articles and features following the report's release. The survey of public science literacy received widespread coverage. The New York Times article ran under the headline, "Americans Flunk Science." The Los Angeles Times was inspired to draft an editorial entitled, "America's Failing Grade in Science."

If you've seen the survey results, you'll know that we cannot accuse our friends in the press of over-dramatizing the situation in any way. The results were truly startling.

Over 2,000 adults were surveyed, and on average they could correctly answer only 5 out of 10 questions about scientific knowledge. 50% is correct usually does not yield a passing grade, and therein lies the interpretation contained in the headlines.

Some of the specific results were even more disturbing.

There are countless other areas where even if we deserve a passing grade, there is still plenty of room for improvement.

By now you may be asking, is there any good news? It turns out that there is some good news. The best news of all, in fact, is that a key set of current trends point the way to even better news in the future I think. The FDP is directly linked to these positive trends.

Specifically, we are witnessing a unprecedented level of cooperation between universities, industry, and government, as well as on an international scale.

This commitment to cooperation, collaboration, and reaching out may hold the key to the continued success of U.S. science and engineering. Precollege education is a case in point. Some of the most successful efforts have been NSF's investments in systemic reform. These initiatives bring together universities, corporations, and state and local governments in a partnership to improve mathematics and science education at the precollege level.

Thanks in large part to these joint efforts, high school graduates today are completing substantially more mathematics and science courses than a decade ago. This is true for both genders and for all ethnic minorities. If this trend keeps up, who knows, we may even see some improvement in those survey results next time around.

In closing, let me just restate that our mandate for change echoes a very clear message about the future of science and engineering in America. I've often heard people remark that the FDP deals with just the nuts and bolts of the process. They voice the mistaken impression that it focuses solely on cost issues and accountability, and that our mandate for change relates only to administrative improvements.

As important as all of these issues are--and as hard as they are to achieve--the FDP in my mind embodies much more. When we look around this room, we see the heart and soul of research and education in America: 65 top research universities and medical research centers, 11 Federal agencies, and a core set of influential professional organizations and societies.

I don't know of any other gathering where as diverse a set of institutional representatives have committed to work together to preserve and uphold the quality and vitality of our research and education enterprise.

In this year when the Olympics are returning to the U.S., it is entirely appropriate that we throw our support behind the spirit of cooperation and teamwork that underlies the entire Federal Demonstration Project. Please think bold thoughts--assume nothing is impossible--challenge us with your new ideas. We are entering a very different time and we will have to do our business differently. Incremental progress is important--if we can make some of these increments large, let's do it. And as Tom said--"This is not a spectator process" so jump in.

That is the message in our mandate. It's a message the Committee on Fundamental Science fully supports. And I believe it is a message that we all hear loud and clear.

Thank you again for inviting me to join you today.