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Diminishing Dimensions and Vanishing Boundaries: Endless Possibilities

Photo of Arden Bement

Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
Director
National Science Foundation
Biography

Remarks, American Society for Engineering Education
2004 Engineering Deans Institute
Opening Session: "The Changing Dimensions of Engineering"
New Orleans, Louisiana

March 29, 2004

Good morning, everyone. It is great to be here among old friends and colleagues, wearing not only my NIST hat but also this new hat as Acting Director of the National Science Foundation. In fact, NSF has a strong presence at this meeting, with John Brighton, Mike Roco and Bruce Hamilton all giving headliner presentations.

I have to admit that with the cherry blossoms just beginning to peak back in Washington, it took a place as wonderful as New Orleans to tear us all away!

You chose this location wisely, but the themes selected for the Institute this year were another draw—they could not be more timely.

Such topics as strengthening engineering's links to the life sciences, design at the nanoscale, the globalization of industries, and the increasing complexity of societal challenges and solutions, are compelling and critical. All these themes resonate strongly not only on the fifth floor of NSF—where our engineering directorate resides—but throughout the building, from the physical to the biological to the information science offices, and beyond.

I know John Brighton will be underscoring the importance and pervasiveness of engineering throughout the U.S. economy as well as for our security and quality of life.

To set the scene for that and the discussions to follow, I would like to discuss engineering today, as I've set forth in the title of my talk, from the standpoint of diminishing dimensions and vanishing boundaries--phenomena that actually offer endless possibilities.

This may sound at first like a contradiction, but a deeper reality is that as boundaries vanish in science and engineering, entirely new possibilities open up on many horizons. Whether we recognize these possibilities as opportunities depends on how we see them.

I turn to the famous Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, for a different perspective:

"In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close, and to take a distanced view of close things..." One can look at this as the outside-in and inside-out of strategic planning.

Today, many "distant things" do not just appear closer to us, but actually are much closer when we view them along a variety of dimensions. Our world viewed from a global dimension really is much smaller than in the past. From a global standpoint, our country's preeminence in science and engineering is still clear, but a "distanced" view may help us to see beyond the present situation to anticipate the change always underway in our dynamic world.

The global scale of research today is unprecedented, and as engineers in this country, we well know how the international flow of ideas and people are fundamental to our profession. New ideas and new discoveries emerge regularly around the world. International partnerships may be the only way to fund cutting-edge facilities too costly for any single nation, and many disciplines require access to sites in other nations.

Data is another realm in which we need to make global exchange the rule rather than the exception. A report just published1 in Science magazine by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and written partly with NSF support, underscores that open access to data from publicly funded research is essential to advancing that research. Such access also leads to greater benefits over the long term. The authors offer a framework for open access to data, pointing out that policies on access differ not only among nations, but also among agencies within one country and among science and engineering disciplines.

Another dimension looms large to us, especially when viewed through the global lens, and that is the education dimension. We're all familiar with the TIMSS report—the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, conducted in 1996-97. The TIMSS results leave no room for complacency among educators at any level in the system.

Just one disturbing reminder from that study: out of high school seniors from 16 countries studying physics, those from the U.S. placed last. And we are lagging behind in bachelor's degrees in science and engineering; the U.S. produced 220,000 in 1999, versus 322,000 in China and 251,000 in India.2 Even acknowledging the much smaller U.S. population, it's the rapid growth in the production of degrees abroad that catches the eye.

We know, in science and engineering, how fundamentally the U.S. depends upon talent from abroad. People born outside this country fill 38 percent of U.S. jobs requiring a science or engineering PhD. However, this coming fall, we will see the first decline in foreign graduate students coming to the United States—a trend of great portent to this group.3

Another international dimension is the global scope of industry today. High-tech industry has always been global, and U.S. businesses pursue global research to support their global markets. We're all familiar with the concern over the ensuing fact that some jobs and some functions have "shifted offshore"--and the January 2004 report on "innovation ecosystems," by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, is worth reviewing on these points. One company told PCAST that the cost of engineers in India and Asia stands at one-third the prevailing U.S. wage; many of us have heard even lower figures.

So where is the U.S. edge, and how does engineering fit in? The viewpoint of Sun Microsystems CTO, Greg Papadopoulos, gives some perspective. He says, "I see no indication that China or India or anyone else is going to drive the next wave of conceptual thinking."

He goes on to point out that "...there's a huge difference between working on components and working on the vision of how these components fit together to take a technology to the next level..." That "vision thing" sounds a lot like the perspective brought by engineering.4

Speaking of vision, NSF wrote a statement to lead off the PCAST innovation report, a statement entitled "Ensuring Manufacturing Strength through Bold Vision." Global success, we predicted, will go to "those who develop talent, techniques and tools so advanced that there is no competition. That means securing unquestioned superiority in nanotechnology, biotechnology and information science and engineering."

All of these fields personify the "vanishing boundaries" I alluded to earlier. One of the most fascinating is the vanishing boundary between information technology and engineering. It is a given today that our economy has benefited immensely from the investment in fundamental research on information science and engineering. Innovation in IT, and its integration into the manufacturing process, has boosted U.S. productivity.

The vanishing boundaries that have signaled a burgeoning interdisciplinarity across science and engineering have also spawned a need for shared tools, notably cyberinfrastructure. I would challenge anyone to pinpoint an area of human endeavor today that is not touched by computing. As engineers, we no longer see computers as mere tools, but rightfully view them as extensions of our cognitive powers and design skills. To be sure, information technology has been infused, in an unplanned and uncoordinated way, throughout science and engineering, and beyond that into so many corners of our daily lives. At the same time, critical issues such as design, coordination, and the long-term security of our information systems, have been ignored.

How do we design distributive systems for large-scale societal applications, and systems that are not vulnerable? These applications range from law enforcement to the power grid to medicine (as an aside, it is estimated that fewer than 5 percent of doctors have medical records on-line5). Systems like the Internet and the power grid grow faster in scope and complexity than our ability to design cyber security for them. Current systems simply do not support the security and privacy of end users.

How do we teach design-on-the-fly, building engineering design principles into cyberinfrastructure that may be adopted shortly after their very conception? As our cyber-design specialists counsel, we need to move from spending time and efforts trying to patch a broken architecture to revolutionary design. NSF has launched a Science of Design program, located in our Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate, that aims to build a foundation for systematic creation of software-intensive systems. The program's solicitation announcement sets forth an expectation: "...The design of software-intensive systems is more often done using rough guidelines, intuition and experiential knowledge...Ten years from now ...the level of engineering certainty...should approach that of other engineering disciplines, such as civil or chemical."

Looming as large as IT security is another key question: how to encourage broad accessibility to information technology. Again, those vanishing boundaries bring the need to share data standards and tools widely among disciplines. Data standards are a major concern of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the other institute I have the honor to direct.

At NSF, we are exploring whether the use of distributed tools—namely, research and education tools that broaden their reach through information technology—can help to increase participation in science and engineering. NSF-supported examples include the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation6 and the Ocean Observatories.

These and other large facilities will amass huge databases—our capacity to do that is increasing exponentially across the disciplines—but it is quite another challenge to be able to "mine" that data in standardized formats and evaluate it for efficient and reliable use.

Another vanishing boundary, one getting special attention at this meeting, is that between bioscience and engineering. Bioengineering is a fast-growing specialty, one that is also attracting many women and minorities to its ranks.7 The establishment of the newest institute at the National Institutes of Health—the National Institute for Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering—is further testimony to the field's growing importance.

At NSF, in fact, biology and engineering have had linkages for decades. However, as NSF's Bruce Hamilton will outline in detail later in this meeting, a new trend is surfacing: engineering's involvement with biology is becoming much more pervasive than just certain specialties. Bruce will argue, and many of us concur, that it may be time to enlarge the scientific foundations upon which engineering is built—to extend those foundations beyond mathematics, physics, and chemistry, to include biology.

A third area in which diminishing dimensions—literally—are leading to endless possibilities is nanoscience and engineering. Engineering, in fact, has a special affinity with the nanoworld because it is integrative and deals with systems, just like nanotechnology. You will be looking at nanotechnology from various perspectives at this meeting, including commercialization. (I'll note that a conference beginning this Wednesday in Washington will highlight commercialization prospects for nanotechnology).

The reach of nanoscience and engineering is extending to research, education, and design, as Mike Roco will address later in this meeting. Fundamental understanding at the nanoscale is moving the foundation of learning from micro to nano, so the unifying concepts need to be taught earlier in a student's career.

NSF's programs on nanoscale science and engineering education have begun to focus on the high school and undergraduate levels.

Being able to see and manipulate matter at the nanoscale brings with it the responsibility to delineate the human and social implications of exploring at that scale. This is part and parcel of maintaining U.S. leadership, not just in fundamental science and engineering, but in economic and social terms as well.

We need understanding of how our lives are affected by our rapidly changing world that is every bit as sophisticated and cutting-edge as the new technological discoveries. NSF's Nanoscale Science and Engineering program has a special focus on societal and educational implications of nanotechnology.

A parallel effort is NSF's new Human and Social Dynamics priority area, whose aim is to spur a transformation in knowledge about human action and development that would parallel the explosion of knowledge we've seen about the physical and biological worlds. We can only imagine the synergy of strengthened connections between engineering and the social sciences, but we can work to make it a reality.

These intersecting areas of "info, bio and nano" illustrate how the boundaries among science and engineering disciplines are becoming ever more blurred, and may even vanish, in time, from what we know today. As societal needs for engineered systems and products change, the reform of engineering curriculum must change just as rapidly and dynamically. The engineering community must keep abreast of national goals and strategies.

If our nation intends to differentiate our economic strategy from those being followed in fast-developing economies--if we are to take a bold, innovative lead in such spheres as nano, bio and info tech, areas where no one else can compete--then U.S. engineers must be trained appropriately. They must be able to respond and adapt with dexterity to the new realities.

These are all changing dimensions that will benefit—to paraphrase the Japanese swordsman—from engineering's close and distant views.

I look forward now to hearing some of your views as this Institute's conference unfolds. Thank you very much.

1 In the March 19, 2004 issue of Science magazine; see NSF press release, "International Access to Research Data Critical to Advancing Science for the Pubic Good, Report Says," March 18, 2004.
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2 TIMMS and bachelor's degrees numbers from Business Week, March 16, 2004, "Special Report: America's Tech Might: Slipping?"
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3 All figures also from Business Week article of March 16, 2004 cited above.
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4 Papadopoulos quotes also from the Business Week article.
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5 Gene Spafford, professor of computer sciences, Purdue University, Executive Director of the Purdue Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security, and a pioneer in information security. Personal communication, December 2003.
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6 GOAL OF NEES. NEES is a national, networked, simulation resource that includes geographically-distributed, shared-use, next-generation experimental research Equipment Sites built and operated to advance earthquake engineering research and education through collaborative and integrated experimentation, theory, data archiving, and model-based simulation. The goal of NEES is to accelerate progress in earthquake engineering research and to improve the seismic design and performance of civil and mechanical infrastructure systems through the integration of people, ideas, and tools in a collaboratory environment.
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7 Deborah Crawford, Deputy Assistant Director, NSF/CISE, personal communication.
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