Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation
Opening Remarks Lemelson-MIT Invention Assembly
National Academy of Sciences
April 23, 2004
Thank you, Bill and good morning to all. I have the great honor of providing
some opening remarks to this distinguished group gathered for the Lemelson-MIT
Invention Assembly. The National Science Foundation is entitled to some
pride of ownership in the Invention report that we are here to celebrate
and to discuss. We supported several of the workshops that shaped its final
content, and have looked forward to this day with great anticipation.
The anticipation is over, and our expectations have been met.
The study takes a bold approach appropriate to understanding invention
and inventiveness. It culls history for clues, explores the links
between cognitive science and education and invention, considers
the role of the nation's patent regime, and asks significant questions
about how to make invention sustainable.
One of its most daring features is signaled by its title: Invention—Enhancing
inventiveness for quality of life, competitiveness, and sustainability.
These are global goals, worthy of our best efforts not only to
unravel the puzzle of creativity and inventiveness, but most importantly
to work hard—very hard—to ensure that invention serves
our future as it has enriched our past.
Following the intrepid example set by the report, I'm going to
begin my remarks in a seemingly unlikely place—a cave on
the southernmost tip of South Africa. The time is 75,000 years
ago, more or less. Humans physically very like us have established
an enterprise in the cave. They are at work producing ornamental
beads from mollusk shells gathered on nearby shores. We do not
know the technique they used for putting holes in the shells, or
whether they were the first to discover it. We can be sure, however,
that this was an invention of profound importance to them, at once
shaping human interactions and the evolution of culture, and also
I've drawn my story from research published just a week ago by
an international team of archaeologists, supported in part by NSF.
During excavations of Blombos Cave on the shores of the Indian
Ocean, the team found perforated shells—arranged in clusters
by size—that appear to have been strung as beads. The beads
are believed to be some 30,000 years older than any personal ornaments
There is widespread agreement that personal ornaments are evidence
of the use of symbols by early humans—what researchers call "symbolically
mediated behavior." Although we may not know the meaning attached
to the beads, their use seems to indicate that those who used them
had sufficient language to communicate it to others.
Now fast-forward to the 21st Century. We are in a nanofabrication
lab. Humans of all ages and from diverse origins, now easily recognizable
as our contemporaries, populate cave-like clean rooms. There, they
employ crude tools to manipulate atoms and molecules. I'll leave
it to the nanotechnologists among us to draw an appropriate analogy
to putting holes in beads! The tools are considered crude because
we can already envision what the next generation of tools will
be like and even imagine what we might invent with them.
Although we marvel today at the speed and complexity of technological
change and how it entwines in every aspect of our lives and reaches
around the globe, much remains the same! The French have an expression
for this phenomenon, "The more things change, the more they
remain the same."
The beads at Blombos illustrate an important point. From our earliest
origins, human and social dynamics have shaped our technologies,
just as technology has shaped our lives and our societies. The
meaning we embody in our culture and our institutions—our
contemporary beads, if you will—has a dynamic inseparable
from our technology.
The nanofabrication lab is equally illustrative. Even though some
things remain the same, much is also different in our contemporary
situation. We have made progress—thanks in large part to
the continuing, mutual interaction of technology and human creativity.
As we anticipate our next steps, we can design a future that we
want and that meets are new societal needs.
The Invention report takes us in the right direction by casting
a broad net. Understanding creativity and inventiveness will surely
require us to cross many boundaries—among cognitive science,
psychology, linguistics, history, and philosophy as well as in
engineering and the natural sciences.
This holistic view of the mutual interaction between human and
social dynamics and technology is vital if we intend to shape change.
On a large scale, what we mean when we speak of shaping change
is simply "policy"—the methods and principles we
design to help us achieve our larger goals. This includes educational
policy and science and technology policy. Now, thanks to the Invention report, we can include policies aimed at fostering a sustainable
capacity for creativity and inventiveness.
We are surely at the beginning of a great endeavor that can open
wide the doors of creativity and inventiveness. Although we are
certainly not the first generation to nurture this hope, we may
be the first to realize it!
Return to a list of Dr. Bordogna's speeches.