Dr. Neal F. Lane


Public Lecture

Washington University

October 17, 1997

The Changing Face of Science

Good afternoon. I want to thank Chancellor Mark Wrighton and the entire Washington University community for inviting me to campus today - and all of you for joining me this afternoon.

I also can't begin without saying a word of thanks to Senator Bond. He's been a great friend to NSF and academic research generally - which is evidenced by his leadership through the appropriations process. A new fiscal year for the Federal government began on the first of this month, and Senator Bond helped to get the year off to a great start.

We are particularly excited about NSF's new plant genome initiative, which will provide additional funding to the nation's top scientists to unravel the most basic genetic makeup and function of economically important crops. NSF has been a leader in plant genetics for many years. And this new initiative will allow us to accelerate and extend our program considerably.

Our budget for this year marks the first time since the fiscal year 1984 budget where NSF has not only received its full request, but actually saw the Congress provide more than the President's request for our research and education programs. We take that as a strong vote of confidence in our programming and the faculty and students we support, and I want to thank the Senator for all of the support he provided throughout the legislative process.

Let me also say that being invited to speak on a Friday afternoon on a college campus can be an intimidating prospect. There are always a full array of competing activities - especially here in St. Louis where so much of the city's identity and industrial base is associated with a certain type of R&D. With all of this in mind, I intend to err on the side of brevity, so that we can all kick back and enjoy a few DC10's before the sun sets this evening.

It's no stretch to say that the diversity of St. Louis' industrial base provides an appropriate backdrop for my remarks this afternoon. The economic landscape here is marked by both tradition and change: a tradition of success, pioneer spirit, entrepreneurship, and community involvement. These traditions are now being combined with changes - changes brought on by mergers, strategic alliances, and the continuous push of technological innovations. I know from my conversations with many of you that this mixing of tradition and change can test a community's fortitude and resilience - but it can also bring unexpected rewards and benefits.

This brings me to the subject of my talk. My remarks are entitled, The Changing Face of Science. My goal today is to share a few snapshots of our nation's science and engineering enterprise. I've brought a virtual photo album, so to speak. In it are four pictures that capture four different sides of our enterprise.

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 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 many 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. We are clearly succeeding 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 our programs at the National Science Foundation.

There is no denying that the times we live in add a degree of difficulty to addressing issues related to diversity. We all have to walk a tightrope, and universities in particular 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.

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:

This list brought to mind a puzzler that was popular some years back. It asked: what do comets, pigs, lobsters, and my teenage son's choice of hairstyles have in common?

The answer is: they all have tails.

In this same way, 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 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:

But, believe it or not, that's the relatively easy part. Step number two is to turn this data into useful knowledge - knowledge of how the different pieces of the genome do business and affect resistance to drought and diseases, yields, growth cycles, and other plant processes. All of this will require developing networks and collaboratories of electronically connected scientists that help us pick out key patterns from the underlying volumes of data and information. That is why KDI will play a central role in this type of effort as well.

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 that 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 its 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 just under $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. (It's hard to imagine with all these papers being published in academic journals that many in our society still suffer from insomnia.)

Fortunately for all of us, the knowledge we get for our four cents on the dollar does much more than help us sleep soundly. It truly puts us on a sound footing as a nation. For example, NSF funds nearly 100 projects here at Washington University, with a total investment of just under $12 million. They cover all fields of science and engineering, from political science to computer science to quantum mechanics.

All of these projects testify to the wisdom of our nation's investment in university research. We get extra bang for the buck. We get the knowledge and the insights generated by the research itself. And, because the projects are based here in an environment of learning, the educational payoffs are immense.

Over the years, many top economists - including several Nobel laureates - 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. Advances in knowledge 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 based at universities, is proving to be a major contributor to industrial innovation. Dr. Francis Narin and his colleagues 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.

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 most 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.

The trend 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 one message I have worked to relay in my time at NSF has been for the research community, the universities, and scholarly organizations to spread the word about science and technology and its connection to this country's social and economic welfare.

The late Carl Sagan, the eminent astronomer and unmatched popularizer of science, underscored the importance of this 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.

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. Where these changes take us is nevertheless up to us as a community. If we continue working together to reach across disciplines and sectors and beyond our campuses, the next time we glance at these snapshots, they will likely capture even brighter and more vivid images of the future of science and engineering in America, indeed for American itself!

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

Thank you.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Top of Document