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Frontiers
Science and the American Dream: Healthy or History

May 1996

REMARKS BY NEAL LANE, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION

As keynote speaker at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting last February, Dr. Lane addressed one of the largest gatherings of the scientific community. Excerpts follow:

I have titled my remarks today Science and the American Dream: Healthy or History. The American dream is about opportunities, aspirations, and a better quality of life. In the past, science has provided an important pathway to that dream. Whether or not this will continue to be true is a question of great concern to me.

In this new environment, leadership from you, the science community, requires a much more public and civic persona. You are needed more than ever to be visible and vocal in your communities. This requires a presence, as scientists, outside the walls of your laboratories and the gates of your universities to a much greater extent than in the past.

Now, however, science can only be funded if the electorate and their representatives remain convinced of its value and contribution. Without this understanding among citizens and policy makers "Science and the American Dream" may only be a memory from our past and not a part of our future.

There is a very limited public understanding of science and, more important, how science and technology contribute to our lives, our aspirations, and our national goals. Perhaps the public's lack of understanding says more about us (scientists) than about them.

The public likes science, but do scientists like the public? I think we need to ask this question of ourselves as a community. We may then better comprehend the discrepancy between public interest and public understanding.

Will "Science and the American Dream" be a legacy of our past, but not the promise of the future? You, the research and education community--a national stronghold--I would say even a treasure--of intellect, creativity, and dogged determination--are an important key to answering that question.

In essence, this nation is getting ready to run an experiment it has never done before -- to see if we can reduce the federal investment in non-defense R&D by one-third and still be a world leader in the 21st century. Nobody knows with certainty what the outcomes will be but it seems like a pretty risky experiment.

The solution to the adage "Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment" frequently narrows down to one ingredient--leadership. What we need is the science community's leadership to educate the nation about the value of science and technology to our national well-being. This may seem an impossible task! I grant you that these things happen slowly and imperceptibly at the grassroots. They are not about staged visits to Washington representatives but rather about the collective influence of singular forays into local community life.

An important part of our work as scientists is to present our findings in scientific papers for journals and conferences. At the other extreme, however, there are opportunities for talks at community meetings like the Kiwanis Club and the League of Women Voters. I will argue that such meetings are increasingly important, even though I'm afraid they don't contribute significantly to tenure or other professional advancement, at least not yet.

But today I am speaking not of short-term visibility but of long-term leadership. I am speaking of the kind of leadership that only this community -- which I am privileged to know so well -- can deliver. We have a civic role to play for the nation. Science and technology are integral to all our lives as citizens, perhaps so integral that we often take them for granted like sunlight or rain.

In closing, I want to remind you that as scientists, you know from experience that being accountable and being creative and visionary are not mutually exclusive. ...When I speak of the danger of the projected one-third cuts in R&D, I do not exclude the potential of healthy increases in R&D at some future time. Whether that happens, or more optimistically when that happens -- will be determined by our engagement in a new dialogue with the American electorate.

The full text can be obtained from the NSF's WWW page: http://www.nsf.gov/news/speeches/lane/slaaa.htm.


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