Neal Lane


NSF EPSCoR Conference

New Orleans, Louisiana

December 2, 1997

Science and Technology: The Key to Opening the New Century

(As delivered)

Good morning. I am delighted to be here at the 13th NSF EPSCoR Conference. I must say a special thank you to the state of Louisiana and Governor Foster for hosting the meeting. My only regret while thinking about it on the flight down here, is that my visit were not for a longer duration. This state and indeed, the city of New Orleans, is replete with grand hospitality wonderful sites, and dazzling culinary delights! Barring any opportunity to experience the latter two adventures in situ, I may have to sneak a crawfish-stuffed beignet or two, onto the plane back with me!

As I contemplated my remarks to you this morning, my thoughts turned to the essence of what we are celebrating today - and that is a vision born some 18 years ago that in the field of science and engineering, our nation could not afford to be a nation of haves and have nots. It was a vision that meant supporting and reinforcing the S&E capabilities that each and every one of our states could muster was critical not only to the enterprise itself, but to the overall economic and social well-being of this country.

In many ways, EPSCoR has much in common with a number of other challenges this country has embarked on throughout its history of the past two hundred and twenty years. Constitutional democracy, judicial review, and land grant colleges all have moved the nation in an innovative and beneficial direction throughout the entire economic, political, and social landscape. Having said that however, it was probably the case that innovation was not necessarily the original intent when these ideas were conceived. One could even venture that "necessity may very well have been the mother of invention" in these examples. The end results of course have been of benefit to us all.

Like a long history of good instincts and good intentions, Marian Wright Edelman reminds us in her book The Measure of Our Success, "It is a dangerously short-sighted nation that fantasizes absolute self-sufficiency as the only correct way of life. Throughout our history, we have given government help to our people and then have forgotten that fact when it came time to celebrate our peoples' achievements. Two hundred years ago, Congress granted federal lands to the states to help maintain public schools. In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Morrill Land Grant act, granting land for colleges."

As a nation, we have had a history of good instincts and good intentions as to directions in which to move the country. EPSCoR can be counted among those good instincts as well as wise actions taken on behalf of our future. In one sense, EPSCoR was initiated to ensure that this nation was the beneficiary of the vast amount of science and engineering talent and capability that exists all around the country. It was originally conceived with a recognition that there are smart people and outstanding researchers everywhere across our country, but due in part to a lack of past Federal funding, the infrastructure in their institutions or states had been inadequate.

But EPSCoR was also an experiment we undertook in the way we think about R&D. Like all sound experiments, this one kept in tact, and continues to keep in tact, two important constants: 1) the peer review system, which is a fundamental principle undergirding all EPSCoR work, and, 2) the competitive process which is a critical aspect for obtaining support. It is these factors that govern EPSCoR, and that have enabled the EPSCoR states to thrive as a part of a wonderful tide that has lifted all boats.

So, I congratulate you on your good work. The more successful the EPSCoR states are, the more successful the country is. And more than that, you are part of something revolutionary and different - a departure from the traditional way in which the United States, much less, the world, thinks about R&D. EPSCoR has truly been a win-win proposition for our nation's science and engineering enterprise, and indeed for our economy and democracy. I thank all of you for your efforts.

I would like to switch now to another aspect of the responsibility of being an integral part of this nation's S&E enterprise. This really goes to the heart of my remarks to you today, and to the essence of what EPSCoR means to the future quality of life and well-being of this country as we move into the new century.

Last month I gave a lecture at the University of Washington where I spoke about what I refer to as the changing face of science. My remarks cited what I call four different "snapshots" of the science and engineering enterprise. These snapshots comprise a virtual photo album, if you will, of who we are and where we need to be as a country to take on the challenges that are before us.

Four snapshots, four different vantage points, and four different views of the changing face of science and engineering in America. When we put them together, they reveal a set of issues that deserve our collective attention - issues related to reaching out, cultivating diversity, forging connections, and appreciating our contribution to our nation's future well being and quality of life. We will need to develop creative and thoughtful approaches to all of these issues and challenges, so that future snapshots of science and engineering in America capture even more of the true vibrancy and vitality of our community.

We should probably begin with the most visible face of science in our society, that of who we are and how closely a snapshot of science resembles a snapshot of our nation as a whole. The sound bite here is that we've made progress, but we still have a long, long way to go.

When we look over the statistics, we find a mixture of successes and shortcomings. On the one hand, there is no denying the scope of the challenge we face. NSF recently completed the 1996 version of the biannual report, Women and Minorities and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. It opens with a candid assessment: "Women and minorities take fewer high-level mathematics and science courses in high school; earn fewer bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in science and engineering; and are less likely to be employed in science and engineering than white males."

While this poses a daunting challenge, there are also some hopeful signs of progress. We've seen increases among under-represented groups at virtually all educational levels. Hispanic-American and Native American undergraduates have chosen to major in science and engineering fields at record levels, and the number of African Americans earning bachelor's degrees in science and engineering has been rising at a rate of better than 10 percent per year.

Some of the most interesting and encouraging news comes from a recent survey of how young people view the way science is taught in their schools.

This survey was conducted by the Bayer Corporation in connection with NSF's annual celebration of National Science and Technology Week. It asked elementary, middle, and high school students about their attitudes toward science and the kind of education they were receiving in science and related areas. Think you can predict the results? You may be surprised!

Ninety percent of the over 1,000 students surveyed said science let them be creative; it brought out their curiosity; and it was part of everyday life. In addition, they said scientific subjects were just as much for girls as for boys. One newspaper even ran the headline, "Students say science is cool."

While I'm the last person who could tell you what counts as cool among the youth of today, it is unequivocal good news that our students no longer see science and mathematics as reserved for an elite few or as a boys-only club. Some how we are clearly having some success in our efforts to tap the curiosity and potential that all our students bring to the classroom. This is what we have been striving for through programs like EPSCoR, as well as many others at the National Science Foundation.

There is no denying that the times we live in add an extra degree of difficulty to addressing issues related to diversity. We all have to walk a tightrope, and universities in particular are often left hanging in the balance of society's pushes and pulls. In the end, however, it is the future vitality of science and engineering that should stay front and center in our thinking. From our different perspectives, talents, and experiences, we produce better ideas and ultimately better goods and services. Again, EPSCoR is a living example of the benefits of ensuring that opportunity is provided to a wide variety of capable research institutions.

One recent study found that the top products in global markets today are so complex that no one individual can bring all the necessary skills to the table. In fact, success in this new arena most often occurs when different approaches and perspectives are brought together. The final value-added is always greater than the sum of the parts. This places a premium on qualities we sometimes undervalue as a society: qualities like diversity, trust, and community, and it requires that we develop an ability to bring together and reconcile differing perspectives and approaches.

In this way, our snapshot of who we are bears a striking similarity to my next snapshot - that of what we do. More and more, our efforts to extend the frontiers of science and engineering require that we bring together data, insights, and approaches from vastly different avenues of research.

Some weeks back, I had a chance to read a very interesting special edition of U.S. News and World Report. The cover story was entitled, "Great Science Mysteries". The centerpiece of the issue was a collection of essays by leading researchers and science writers. They examined some 19 unanswered questions that run the gamut of science and engineering fields. The questions included:

How old is the universe?
Why do we age?
How many species are there?
Is there life on other planets?
What causes Ice Ages?
What is memory?
Can computers be conscious?

All the questions on the US News list all have a surprising amount in common with each other.

Some of you may know that NSF has launched an ambitious multidisciplinary effort under the heading of Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence, or KDI for short. It reaches programs in all parts of the Foundation, as it seeks to foster innovative ways of developing, analyzing, representing, accessing, and transmitting complex information. The U.S. News list provides one more reminder that KDI might well hold the key to unraveling science's great mysteries. A few examples:

Today, we know that the mathematical models and simulation needed to probe the age and structure of the universe are so computationally intensive that they can grind the fastest computers and networks to a halt.

Understanding Ice Ages and the history of the global climate in general requires integrating information from inherently different types of data-sets: ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica, atmospheric radar networks, environmental satellites, and others. Analyzing the results from any one of these sources already pushes the limit of our current capabilities. The real challenge is to develop "intelligent" systems to bring all of these different distributed puzzle pieces together so we can view the fullest possible picture of our climate record.

Even more important is that the advances in information science and technology needed to address these larger scientific challenges will likely bring even greater gains to our society as a whole. We don't need to look very far back into history for a precedent that bodes well for our future success.

I know the early 1990s hardly count as ancient history, but one could say that's the stone age in terms of the World Wide Web. At the time, the Web was literally the exclusive domain of researchers working at the NSF supercomputer centers and of high energy physicists working at places like CERN and other major facilities around the globe. But right around that time a sharp undergraduate took a job as a programmer at the NSF-supported supercomputer center at the University of Illinois, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

This student knew that there had be something better than gophers and FTPs for linking data and exchanging files across different sites and applications. He came up with a program - named it Mosaic - and the web browser was born. The student's name is Marc Andreessen. He's since turned Mosaic into Netscape, and he's also provided us with a great story on the financial rewards students can reap from working on NSF-supported research projects.

The Netscape story is also a good example of how basic research can produce outcomes of enormous economic benefit to society' and that these benefits are usually completely unpredictable!

But the success of an individual entrepreneur, important as that is, is just one part of the story I want us to consider today, because the rewards that the Web has brought to our society surpass those it has brought to any particular individuals. Last December, I had the chance to take part in a very prestigious event in New York City. It was the ceremony to present the National Information Infrastructure Awards, which recognize innovative and extraordinary uses of the Internet and other advanced information and communications technologies.

NSF was being recognized for the electronic system we have established to administer our grants for research and education, known as FastLane. I should point out that I did not choose the name. NSF was one of 10 institutions recognized at the ceremony. If it's true that you are judged by the company you keep, then the awardees from last December's event provide powerful testimony to the potential KDI offers to our society.

From these examples we can draw a conclusion that underlies much of the vision and the promise behind NSF's work in Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence. What began as an obscure tool used by physicists to exchange data has become a powerful force for progress and enrichment across our society. And it has all happened in just a few years.

This takes us to the next snapshot in our small photo album - the picture that captures the fruits of our labors. This image is also changing rapidly and for the better, as we learn more and more about the links between advances in knowledge and our well-being as a nation.

We all know that science represents a major investment. For the fiscal year that began this past October 1st, NSF's total budget is about $3.4 billion. If the Foundation were a private company, it would be around number 400 on the Fortune 500 - just ahead of Southwest Airlines. For our purposes today, however it's important to note that NSF is just one small piece of a much larger investment portfolio. The Federal government as a whole devotes nearly $70 billion annually to research and development. If our tax bills came with an itemized receipt, we would see that this investment accounts for roughly 4 cents out of every dollar spent by the Federal government.

This naturally raises the question - what are we getting for our money? The easy answer to that question is that we are getting knowledge - lots of it. Every business day there are 5,000 new papers published in scientific journals, and thousands more are presented at conferences and other forums. And our gains continue to be realized through such avenues as the Nobel Prizes such as those given in 1996 for the discovery of the new carbon molecule C60 - called Buckminsterfullerenes of "Buckyballs, for short - or just this year, for the demonstration of the trapping and cooling of atoms. NSF has been very proud to support the recent nobelists in chemistry and physics either throughout the course of their research, or in some cases a portion of their careers.

Likewise the discovery of a new form of matter the Bose Einstein condensate made possible by the trapping and cooling of atoms was a major breakthrough in physics and the study of matter which came from an important investment of faith and resources - some from NSF as well as from other government resources.

Fortunately for all of us, the knowledge we get for our four cents on the dollar does much more than help us discover new matter or new methods. It truly puts us on a sound footing as a nation.

Over the years, many top economists - including several Nobel laureates also NSF supported - have put our economy under a magnifying glass to try and see what drives economic growth and opportunity. They have consistently come to one conclusion. Innovation, through advances in knowledge and technologies account for well over one-third, and possibly as much as half, of the real economic growth we've enjoyed as a nation over the past fifty years. Investments in university research have been found to be especially productive, with rates of return that have consistently beaten the stock market over the long haul.

Perhaps the most direct connection between new knowledge and economic growth has been documented in just the past few months. One recent study took a top to bottom look at the U.S. patent system. This study, published in the journal Research Policy and which NSF helped to fund, explored whether scientific research contributes to the development of new technologies in industry.

The results it found were quite striking. Scientific research, especially that paid for by public funds, is proving to be a major contributor to industrial innovation. Dr. Francis Narin and his colleagues have tentatively found that seventy-three percent of the scientific papers cited by U.S. industry patents were what it called "public science" - namely papers in the open literature that were authored at academic, governmental, and other public and non-profit institutions. The study also found that industry is relying on findings from the scientific literature at a rate that has tripled in just six years. These findings led the authors to conclude: "public science plays an essential role in supporting U.S. industry...and is a fundamental pillar of the advance of U.S. technology."

There's an old adage about how the hardest thing about success is that you've got to keep on being a success, which is why snapshot #4 in our photo album deserves our attention. This picture attempts to capture our public face. Some might call it our poker face, because it can be the most difficult to interpret.

Earlier I shared a few highlights from a survey of how young people view science and technology. The results were encouraging. The results were not so encouraging in a recent NSF-sponsored survey of the adult population. Here the results are decidedly mixed.

Over two-thirds of the adults surveyed believe that science is a very positive force in our society. Over 40 percent say they're strongly interested in science and technology. That's the good news.

The not-so-good-news is that only one in ten surveyed believes that he or she is well informed about science and technology. Somewhat unsettling is that the vast majority of adults surveyed - 98 percent to be exact - lack a basic understanding of what it means to study something scientifically.

In fact, we are one of very few industrialized nations where interest in science is high and understanding of science is low. That could help to explain why so many people think The X-Files is a documentary series.

This should be of great concern to all of us who appreciate the importance of science and technology to our nation's future vitality and quality of life. As I mentioned a moment ago, four cents out of every Federal government dollar supports investments in research and development. As recently as six years ago, we kicked in more than a nickel to Federally-supported R&D, and 25 years ago the bottom line was better than six cents on the government dollar.

Even more disturbing is that we are now on a budgetary down-slope that could take us well below four cents on the dollar over the next five years, according to some projections. That would actually take us back to the level of 40 years ago - to the rate before the launch of Sputnik, when barely more than 3 percent of the Federal budget was invested in research and development. I should say that I am encouraged by the efforts of Senators Phil Gramm (R-TX) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT), whose legislation argues for a doubling of the current level of federal investment in research and development over the next ten years. Congressmen James Sensenbrenner and George Brown have also been immensely supportive of increasing federal levels of investment in R&D. The nature of this bipartisan cooperation is a great testimony to the overall support for science in Congress.

The trend in actual funding is disturbing nevertheless. It's often said that history goes in cycles, but this is one historic cycle that the nation should consider reversing before it repeats itself.

This places a special responsibility on all of us who appreciate the importance of research and education to our nation's future. The late Carl Sagan, the eminent astronomer and unmatched popularizer of science, underscored the importance of this responsibility in his bestseller, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. In it he wrote: "We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces."

Sagan's words help to illuminate the challenges and the opportunities captured in each of the four snapshots we've examined this afternoon. We now have clear evidence that new knowledge fuels growth and progress across our economy and society, but this is occurring in ways that far too few of us comprehend and appreciate.

We also have learned that further progress in science and engineering will go hand-in-hand with the diversity of views, approaches, techniques, outlooks, and backgrounds we bring to our enterprise. The difficulties this poses are exceeded only by the rewards it will bring.

In these and other ways, the face of science and engineering is changing - sometimes with unsettling rapidity, other times with frustrating lethargy, but virtually always for the better. It is up to all of us as a community however, to decide where these changes take us and how we decide to use them.

It is clear that science and technology is the key to the next century. It is also demonstrated that the EPSCoR program has played, and will continue to play, an important role as we continue to sharpen U.S. science and engineering capability and prepare for future challenges. Effective collaboration between state, local and federal partners such as EPSCoR, is testimony that by working together to reach across disciplines and sectors and beyond campuses, we will likely capture even brighter and more vivid images of the future of science and engineering in America, indeed for America itself!

You have my commitment to work toward these ends. Today, I am asking for yours!

Thank you.


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