Minority Postdoctoral Fellows Meeting

September 13, 1996

Good morning. Let me extend my thanks to Mary Clutter, Cora Marrett, Carter Kimsey, and so many others for organizing this gathering and giving me the opportunity to meet with you.

I also want to extend my congratulations to the entire 1996 class of fellows. NSF has always stood for supporting and promoting the best people with the best ideas, and that is precisely what is represented here in this room today.

Let me also extend greetings to all of you--postdocs, mentors, and other invited guests--for coming to NSF this week and contributing your time, your energy, your enthusiasm, and your ideas to this important gathering.

It is a true pleasure to have this chance to join you this morning. What I am most looking forward to is the chance to hear from you. I know your group reports are the next item on the agenda, so I will keep my remarks to a minimum.

Today more than ever it is especially important that we hear from you. You know our programs from the perspective that matters most--the user perspective. You've gotten to know what works and has helped you in your careers. You can also tell us about things that might look good on paper or in a program announcement, but end up being irrelevant or even counterproductive in practice.

It's no secret that we have entered a confusing and somewhat contradictory time for science and engineering in America. Things are so confusing that I recently found myself sympathizing with the sentiments I saw on a bumper sticker. It read, "who put a stop payment on my reality check."

We know that this is an amazing era for discovery and progress in science and engineering--a veritable golden age. Recent breakthroughs include:

Of course, this atmosphere of discovery and progress is dampened by the funding outlook. It's important to recognize that the devil is not just in the details; it's in the totals. For next year, it looks like our budget will keep pace with inflation, but that is still no sure thing.

The outlook beyond that is even harder to predict. You may read of projections by AAAS and others that show NSF's, NASA's, and other R&D budgets declining by 20% or more. While those figures get our attention, they are not the most reliable of projections. We cannot place great stock in the levels for particular agencies, because the actual funding allocations are revisited each year by the President and the Congress in the budget process.

The aggregated totals projected for the major categories of Federal spending do deserve our attention, particularly the category known as domestic discretionary spending. This includes most of what we think of as the day-to-day running of the government--parks, highways, prisons, NSF, NIH, NASA, most of DOE, NEA, NEH, EPA, Education, and scores of other programs and agencies. You might be surprised to learn that this category makes up less than 1/6th of the total Federal budget.

Even more surprising and of real concern is that this small slice of the pie is slated to bear a lion's share of the spending reductions needed to balance the budget. In fact, this 1/6th slice of the pie is expected to drop to 1/7th of the pie by 2002 according to most projections. That reflects a decline in purchasing power of some 20 percent.

Again, we can't predict with any precision how this will affect NSF or any other agency. We can nevertheless say with certainty that there will be increased competition for funds from this shrinking slice of the pie.

It would be folly to ignore the real possibility that the Federal investment in research, including that in universities, could decrease in real terms by 20 percent or more over the next five to ten years if present trends continue. In a way, our nation is getting ready to run an experiment it has never run before: to see if we can reduce the purchasing power of research investments by one-fifth and remain a world leader in the 21st Century. That is a high risk experiment.

I realize that all of this risk and uncertainty leaves many of you feeling uncertain about your own futures. In addition to the uncertainty surrounding the budget outlook, there is additional uncertainty surrounding programs like the minority postdoctoral fellowships and others designed to promote diversity in the S&T workforce.

You should know that NSF will always remain committed to the goal of attracting a workforce for science and technology that reflects the full richness and diversity of our society. We may have to modify some of our efforts as part of the government-wide reforms being considered. But, I am fully certain that we will not waver in the slightest from our longstanding commitment to this goal.

We all know that if there is one thing America needs today, it is for our best and most creative young minds to gain expertise in scientific and technological fields. Leaders and thinkers as diverse as Peter Drucker and Carl Sagan and Speaker Newt Gingrich and Vice President Al Gore don't agree on many things. But they all agree that knowledge--particularly knowledge based on science and technology--has surpassed labor, capital, and natural resources as the key to quality of life and economic growth.

Here at NSF, we are beginning to focus on information, knowledge, and human capital to understand and assess our nation's potential in an increasingly competitive world.

That is why all of us in the science and engineering community need to begin seeing ourselves in a new leadership role. Most of all, engineers and scientists need to carry the message about the value, application, and contribution of research to the people whose lives are shaped by science and technology and who pay the bills for our work.

Nobody else truly understands:

Some people ask me, isn't this self serving? I respond: not if the "self" is America's future leadership in research and education.

This can all begin here today. My colleagues and I are looking forward to hearing your ideas and insights into what works and what doesn't. Most of all, we want to know how NSF can best enable you to embark on rewarding and successful careers in science and technology.

Thank you for inviting me to join you today. If there is still time, I'll be happy to take a few questions.