"The Dance of Science, Engineering, Technology and Public Policy"
Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation
Remarks, Carolyn and Edward Wenk Jr. Lecture in Technology and Public Policy
Johns Hopkins University
April 29, 2004
Good afternoon. Thank you, Dean Douglas, for your warm hospitality today
and to you Professor Etienne-Cummings for your kind introduction. It is
truly an honor to be hosted by the Whiting School of Engineering, an exemplary
institution that adds outstanding strength to our nation's intellectual
I spent several rich hours of interaction today prior to this
lecture. Visiting Jerry Prince and Russ Taylor at their Engineering
Research Center for Computer Integrated Surgical Systems and Technology
was an exciting validation of the reputation this ERC enjoys. Lunch
with engineering faculty gave me a solid view of what is on your
mid here. And my meeting just now with NSF Grad Fellows was a treat,
making me feel all is well for our future.
As he has told you, Ralph Etienne-Cummings was once my student.
I am proud of you, Ralph. It was a wonderful surprise to get your
e-mail, issuing the invitation inviting me to deliver the Wenk
lecture! I also want to recognize Barbara Sullivan who ensured
that I was well prepared to come and made sure I didn’t get
lost along the way.
Dr. Wenk's career presents a highly successful combination of
engineering, public service, and education—spanning the highest
levels of government, exhibiting a deep engagement with pressing
public issues, and exemplifying how engineering and science advance
within a policy context.
The title of my talk today, "The Dance of Science, Engineering,
Technology and Public Policy," expresses the dynamic engagement
of scientists, engineers, and policy makers in a choreography of
reciprocal relationships. From time to time this dance takes the
cadence of a stately waltz, with the partners dipping and sweeping
in a courtly manner; at other times it's the breakneck pace of
a break-dance, with performers flipping themselves into the air
in frenzied competition.
Sometimes this policy dance is like the foxtrot, in which the
dancers' steps seem to imply movement, but nobody actually goes
anywhere. At times, however, this dance most resembles a tango,
where partners find themselves in dramatic, and unexpected, confrontation.
At such times, we can almost hear the words of Al Pacino, when
he said, "The tango is the easiest dance. If you make a mistake
and get tangled up, you just tango on."
Science, engineering and public policy are in continual motion,
sometimes stepping on one another's toes, but always transforming
one another. I would like to explore the place of this unruly and
creative choreography in the education of engineers for today and
tomorrow. First, I will look at society's expectations for science
and engineering. Then, I will offer some thoughts on how we have
begun to educate engineers to engage in this changing dance.
Finally, I will highlight some specific efforts at the National
Science Foundation that exemplify the response of policy to societal
needs, and complement and support your own efforts—our fellow
dance partners at research and education institutions.
Society invests in the capability of science and engineering to
pursue truth, along the same lines as Ralph Waldo Emerson's dictum
that "The greatest homage to truth is to use it." Society
has long held great expectations for the uses of science and engineering.
One way we use truth is through design. By design I mean what
the architect and ecologist William McDonough calls "the manifestation
of human intent." When we design we are expressing or manifesting
our intent for our culture. A corollary is that we must periodically
evaluate whether our designs have given form to what we intended.
This concept has an ancient context, and to show that I want to
take us for a moment to an unexpected place and time—a cave
on the southernmost tip of South Africa, at a time about 75,000
years ago. 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 to pierce the shells, or
if they were first to discover it. We can be sure, however, that
this was of profound importance to them, at once shaping human
interactions and the evolution of culture, and also advancing technology.
I draw this story from research published just a little over a
week ago by an international team of archeologists, 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 previously found.
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 the meaning 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.
The beads at Blombos illustrate this: From our earliest origins,
human and social dynamics have shaped our technologies, just as
technology has shaped our lives and our societies.
Today, the expectations are heightened. The historic expectations
for the National Science Foundation were articulated by the renowned
engineer, Vannevar Bush, in a letter to President Truman dated
July 5, 1945. This was five years before NSF came into being.
"The pioneer spirit," Bush wrote, "is still vigorous
within this Nation. Science offers a largely unexplored hinterland
for the pioneer who has the tools for his task. The rewards for
such exploration both for the Nation and the individual are great.
Scientific progress is one essential key to our security as a nation,
to our better health, to more jobs, to a higher standard of living,
and to our cultural progress."
Bush's manifesto was a tall order, and almost six decades later,
these expectations still hold true. Today, however, the global
economic environment lends further urgency to what we must do to
meet those expectations.
Earlier this year, the President's Council of Advisors on Science
and Technology issued a report on sustaining the nation's manufacturing
competitiveness, and it referred to the critical need to protect
the nation's dynamic "innovation ecosystem." Elements
within this system include research universities; a highly skilled
workforce, including scientists and engineers; a legal context
that encourages homegrown innovation; government-funded research;
and private industry. All these in confluence nourish the overall
health of the system.
Leading off the innovation report is a statement by the National
Science Foundation entitled "Ensuring Manufacturing Strength
through Bold Vision." Global success in manufacturing, we
envision, 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." It is a policy choice
to identify particular research areas for special investment, laying
foundations for technological revolutions.
Society's appetite for high performance has expanded exponentially,
in every sector, and engineering is no exception. We expect today's
engineers to possess a daunting repertoire of skills.
We want them to be holistic designers, astute makers, trusted
innovators, harm avoiders, change agents, master integrators, enterprise
enablers, knowledge handlers, and technology stewards.
We expect them to be at ease in a globally connected world, in
which change and complexity are the rule, in a world transformed
routinely by new knowledge and the technology it makes possible.
No matter the discipline, this sort of education inculcates the
skills that the 21st century requires. To pose a question in the
words of Stuart Leslie, a technology historian right here at Johns
Hopkins University: "What is the half-life of an engineering
education?" When we educate for change, complexity and interconnection,
we are indeed fostering adaptability, imparting skills to students
who will experience a number of crisp iterations in career paths
over their lifetimes, educating students who will continuously
chart new territory—over an infinity of half-lives.
The scientists and engineers of the future will process unprecedented
amounts of information. They must adopt a mindset for continuous
learning to remain scientifically and technologically current long
after completing their formal degrees. They will especially need
to know how to work across boundaries, for the nature of how research
is done and how knowledge is created is becoming more complex,
requiring more intimate connections and more robust collaborations.
As we design and create, we need the broadest possible perspective,
for innovation is a societal activity. "We are the only beings
who create culture, even as culture is creating us," said
Dan Hamburg, a former member of Congress. Sometimes it seems that
technologies are foisted upon us, but nano, info, and bio don’t
happen by themselves.
We have long recognized that the societal ferment surrounding
new technologies is part and parcel of the dynamic dance of policy-making.
What is different now is that, as we create, we operate as the
master integrators, consciously keeping human beings at the forefront
More than ever, we need to anticipate and mitigate the unexpected
consequences of technology. It is a challenge to understand--in
the words of the technology scholar E. J. Woodhouse, of Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute--"how intelligent social decisions can
be made in the face of great complexity, high uncertainty, and
Working together as teammates, sharing perspectives from the outset,
we can reap the promise offered by the very rich common ground
shared by engineering and the social sciences. Together we can
learn new ways to frame questions, to integrate ideas, to ensure
we are perceiving the issues well.
Today's engineers need to integrate across seemingly disparate
boundaries, understanding the state of technology, the state of
the economy, and pressing social issues—then, forge all of
this into a workable design and a viable solution.
Social scientists, in turn, bring a heightened awareness of the
vital roles that science and technology play in our world today.
Their disciplines are expanding to deal with the new kinds of ethical
dilemmas engendered by the new dance. Their research tells us,
again in the words of Stuart Leslie, that the process of "scaling
up" a technology typically has enormous consequences that
are difficult to predict.
We frequently seek the optimal solution, but we learn that there
can be a number of good solutions. A recent NSF-supported workshop
on the social aspects of engineering design sought to "enlarge
the current envelope of engineering design, now viewed as a technical
activity of mapping from 'what' to 'how,' to incorporate a social
dimension that addresses issues of 'who' and 'why' in engineering
Every engineer can offer a favorite case of a "solution" that
somehow failed to put the "who" and "why"—the
human dimension--at the forefront.
The technological dance must be choreographed with a full embrace
of human diversity. Sociologists underscore that technology's uses
and effects play out very differently in those of different gender,
race and age.
Take the example of robots for health care--robotic companions
for the elderly that are being tested as aids for independent living.
What could be the downside to that? It turns out that people can
react in surprising ways to their "caring robots." NSF-supported
sociologists have found that an elderly person might ignore human
visitors in favor of the robot. Social scientists and engineers
working together, not alone, design the best to manifest human
Programs and initiatives to "put people first" in design—and
to enable engineers to engage with the social and behavioral sciences—have
a long history at the National Science Foundation. Two nascent,
cutting-edge, NSF investments exemplify putting people in the picture.
They portray the dynamic and reciprocal relationships among science,
engineering, technology, and public policy, and all have deep implications
for educating future scientists and engineers. These investments
are entitled Science of Learning Centers and Human and Social Dynamics.
We are about to announce the first several Science of Learning
Centers in our attempt to accelerate progress in the emerging science
of learning in its many dimensions. The components of how people
think and learn operate at every scale, from genetic to digital
to societal, and throughout the disciplines:
The social sciences investigate the nature of perception and memory,
and the role of motivation and emotion in learning.
- Biosciences cover the gamut from molecular to behavioral foundations
- Cognitive neuroscience brings us insight into the neural basis
of learning in humans and other species.
- Engineering and the physical and information sciences create
machines that learn.
- Educational sciences cover pedagogy from schools to colleges
to lifelong learning.
In essence, the science of learning probes the fundamental processes
that underlie learning. A catalyst project already underway focuses
on human vision, perceptual learning and brain plasticity. It is
headed by Daniel Kersten at the University of Minnesota and co-principal
Human vision is highly complex, with ten million retinal measurements
sent to the brain each second, where some billion cortical neurons
do the processing. Human vision was long regarded as frozen in
structure after a brief critical period, but--the team explains--we
are now beginning to perceive vision as modifiable throughout the
For example, the ability to process faces—such as identity
recognition and emotions displayed—only reaches maturity
in early adolescence. Visual areas in the brain have now been mapped
with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). The question
is how the functional organization of these areas changes with
diverse visual experience.
Another learning frontier is the territory of the Center for Neuromorphic
Systems Engineering, an NSF Engineering Research Center at the
California Institute of Technology.
The center's goal is to revolutionize the capability of machines,
enabling them to imitate the ways animals sense and make sense
of the world. Teams of biologists, neuroscientists, engineers and
business people are drawing inspiration from biology, applying,
for example, the principles of social behavior like bird-flocking
or ant-swarming to groups of robots that perform collectively.
On the industrial front, the goal is to create a neuromorphic
engineering industry—producing machines that are not passive
tools but active helpers in a variety of settings, from electronic
noses to novel tools for surgery to unmanned surveillance aircraft.
At quite another end of the learning science spectrum is the burgeoning
science of neuroeconomics. Brainscans of people who are making
economic decisions--whether bargaining, gambling or cooperating—show
how brain chemistry affects those decisions.
Brain processes were formerly a black box to economists, who traditionally
assumed rational motivations. Now we are beginning to see how economic
decisions draw upon the chemistry of emotion.1,
Studies of cognition and behavior lead into the second major NSF
investment, our new priority area on human and social dynamics
(HSD). Recent change has accelerated in pace, making uncertainty
and change into inescapable facts of life.
This newest priority area focuses on the nature of human change
in a rapidly changing world—the fundamental insights that
will develop our capability to anticipate the complex consequences
of change. These insights will be engendered by engineers and social
scientists, for both work in the human realm.
The HSD effort spans the scales of study from social institutions
to individual human behavior, and investigates such forces of change
with sweeping implications for public policy as globalization,
democratization, economic transformation, and international migration.
For example, University of Chicago political scientist Carles
Boix is refining models to predict how political institutions affect
emerging democracies, with findings that could help in designing
constitutions for new governments. He is surveying all sovereign
nations over the past 200 years to assess the probability that
a given democracy will collapse into a dictatorship.
Some states have had bouts of both democracy and dictatorship.
Early findings show that a mix of federalism and a parliamentary
form of government is least likely to revert from democracy to
Here at Johns Hopkins, Benjamin Hobbs leads another study—one
with potential to shed light on another pressing issue: the dynamics
of electric power markets. Our power grid has about 200,000 miles
of transmission lines, 5000 power plants, and a complex distribution
system. The growth in load is expected to increase by 50% over
the next 10 to 15 years, while almost no new high voltage lines
have been constructed in the past 20 years. Such investment faces
an uncertain return as well as social barriers like "NIMBY" (not
in my backyard).
The JHU researchers are developing dynamic, game-theory models
of pricing and generation in power markets with transmission constraints.
Here is a project with promise to help regulatory agencies and
market operators to handle the myriad dimensions of real power
To understand human dynamics in an era of greater uncertainty,
we need to incorporate and expand risk assessment and risk science.
Since 9/11 we have taken a sharper look at how to design for the
Engineer Elise Miller-Hooks at the University of Maryland collaborates
with social science graduate students to plan for the evacuation
of tall buildings—and suggest that codes prescribing the
number of stairwells should take into account the extremely varied
characteristics of those who inhabit the building. These traits
range from age, mobility, and gender to group dynamics and familiarity
with the building. Here is a refreshing approach to design that
embraces non-quantitative input to enhance the quantitative dimension.
On a related front, at New York University, the Institute for
Civil Infrastructure Systems, funded by NSF, promotes new thinking
and practice in civil infrastructure systems. Engineering proceeds
with a focus on the needs of users and communities. The institute
recently became the site of the first Homeland Security Center
of Excellence, funded by Homeland Security Department. It serves
as an example of how another federal agency is building on NSF
investment to address pressing societal need.
All of these elements—the societal expectations for science
and engineering, the skill and diversity needed by its practitioners,
the fundamental knowledge about learning and human and social dynamics—swirl
upon the stage of policy, till we may well ask, along with William
Butler Yeats, "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" In
the innovation ecosystem of our nation, the two are inseparable.
At a time when we can infuse a building or a bridge with sensors,
embedding the Internet in the physical world, we have the tools
and the skills to usher in "a new age of reobserving the world,"3
reinventing codes to embrace uncertainty, integrating insights
across disciplines, expressing our holistic intent through design—in
short, choreographing a new dance.
1 "Brain experts follow
the money," NY Times article by Sandra Blakeslee, June 17, 2003.
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2 "How do you keep the public shopping?
Just make people sad," Wall St. Journal article by Sharon Begley, Mar. 19, 2004.
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3 the words of Priscilla Nelson.
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Return to a list of Dr. Bordogna's speeches.