New Priorities for Science and Technology:
And "New" Means New
Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology
September 19, 1996
You know from Bob's introduction that I am an
engineer, and I've spent the last five years as
NSF's Assistant Director for Engineering. But
don't let labels fool you. During my years at
RCA's former Sarnoff research laboratories in
Princeton, I worked at the boundary between engineering
and science. And, I was frequently and frustratingly
introduced by the president of Penn as a "great
scientist" during my tenure there as engineering
This schizophrenia between science and engineering
over the past half century has somewhat resolved itself,
especially in academe, through the intellectual construct
entitled, "engineering science." We also have arrived
at a somewhat shaky definitional contrast that goes
something like this:
- Scientists investigate what is--they discover
new knowledge by peering into the unknown.
- Engineers, by contrast, create what has not been--they
make things that have never existed before.
In my new capacity as second in command for all of
NSF's activities in science and engineering, I of
course am charged with seeing and melding both perspectives.
The upside of this challenge is that I may be able
to contribute to an integration of science and engineering
into a robust whole. The downside is that I could
wastefully spend all my time peering into unknowns
that never existed before. We have to have some idea
of where we are going.
In this context, it is a pleasure this morning to
have the chance to share my thoughts on a topic that
many in our community view as a great unknown--New
Priorities in Science and Technology. I think we all
have some idea what the word "priorities" means. It's
the "new" part that leaves us at a loss. I would therefore
like to focus my comments today on what we mean by
the modifier "new" in the term "new priorities."
This is especially important to all of us who care
first and foremost about the human dimension of science
and technology. We are here today because we seek
to understand and advance the science and engineering
professions, and enable them to contribute fully to
our society. This notion of nurturing and advancing
the science and technology workforce is central to
NSF's mission, just as it is for CPST, and it is a
subject of great personal interest to me.
That makes this an especially invigorating era. Scientists
and engineers are taking on new roles, embarking on
a wider array of careers, and finding unexpected ways
to contribute and promote progress in our society.
At NSF, we don't have any desire to direct people
in their careers. We want to enable them to pursue
Some of these changes are obviously occurring in response
to negative forces. Anyone reading last week's "Doonesbury"
got a sense of what the academic job market is like
these days. Personally, I am uncomfortable dwelling
on the negative. Things are as they are. I prefer
to focus on the more positive, enabling forces driving
these changes--forces that I believe have significant
long-term implications for professionals in all of
science and technology.
My aim is to launch a discussion with you on two subjects:
first, the role of information technologies in shaping
and sparking this time of change; and second, the
opportunities these changes create for progress in
science and engineering, in education and learning,
and for economic growth and social benefit--all of
which are intimately tied together.
Both of these topics require that we fully appreciate
the presence of the adjective "new" in "new priorities."
I am reminded of the classic commercial ploy that
was captured in a memorable 1950's-era cartoon from
the New Yorker or similar periodical. A salesman
was pitching his product, a brand of laundry detergent,
claiming it was better than ever. The box said, "new
and improved" in big, colorful letters. A skeptical
customer then asked, "what's so new and improved about
it?" To which the salesman confidently replied: "The
box, we put the words new and improved on it."
As we all know in our society, internal substance
is many times masked by an attractive, but nonetheless
meaningless, external facade.
Today, I hope to make clear that fashioning new priorities
for science and technology will require more than
just clever re-packaging.
Let's start by looking at how we traditionally package
the term, "priorities," in the context of science
and technology. Discussions on setting priorities
generally focus on a specific set of typical but increasingly
less meaningful tradeoffs: (Overhead #1)
- Field specific tradeoffs: physics vs. chemistry,
or at a higher level, science vs. engineering.
- Mode of support tradeoffs: individual investigators
vs. centers, or people vs. facilities.
- onceptual tradeoffs: basic vs. applied (or strategic
for all of you who follow the recent history of
All of us have probably at one time or another been
involved in priority setting discussions that focused
on these and other dimensions. Trying to strike the
so-called "best" balance among these tradeoffs can
be an exercise in frustration: it alienates the best
of us; it consumes inordinate amounts of time; and
it effectively transforms integrative decision-making
into an exercise in reductionism. Put another way,
priorities frequently emerge as unexceptional, incremental
changes and perturbations within the confines of an
Today, we need to ask ourselves if these incremental
and reductionist approaches are the right approaches
for the times in which we live. I would say they are
not. These are times of extraordinary change, and
we are only beginning to grasp the full extent of
the changes at hand.
New priorities for science and technology should reflect
the richness of our varied disciplines and the integrative
nature of the changes taking place. The rapid-fire
commentators in the media usually describe our situation
in terms of one or two-word "sound bites." You've
heard them many times:
- economic competitiveness
- information explosion
- virtual organization
- corporate restructuring
- environmental imperatives
- infrastructure renewal
- shared wealth
- and so on.
These sound bites, however, can drown out a crucial
fact. A good deal of the change has been propelled
socially by growing populations with
heightened human aspirations and technologically
by the advent of high-speed digital computing. Computing
has not necessarily been the most important driver
of these changes, but it has been central to them.
These technologies have enabled new telecommunications
and information technologies, making possible the
sharing of information--voice, video, and otherwise--around
and across the world. That is what's facing us. What
we do with it is the question.
Many times throughout history, even the most astute
among us have failed to grasp the potential of emerging
Thomas J. Watson deserves to be remembered by history
as the truly visionary driving force behind the rise
of IBM and the computer age. Unfortunately, he will
probably always be best remembered for his 1943 prediction
that, "...there is a world market for maybe five computers."
Of course, that statement pales today in comparison
to Bill Gates' 1981 assertion that, "640K ought to
be enough for anybody."
In 1913, a U.S. Attorney led the prosecution of a
very famous engineer named Lee DeForest for fraud.
DeForest was trustworthy, honest, and had great integrity.
The attorney argued: "DeForest has said in many newspapers
that it would be possible to transmit the human voice
across the Atlantic before many years. Based on these
absurd and deliberately misleading statements, the
misguided public ... has been persuaded to purchase
stock in his company." Here we see a credible lawyer
displaying technologically illiterate judgment. A
good lawyer, yet a totally absurd statement.
Today, however, even the most scientifically and technologically
literate among us have difficulty grasping the full
potential of the advances at our fingertips. The computer
and telecommunications explosion is already prompting
a profound redefinition of such concepts as "community,"
"library," "corporation," "government," "university,"
"technology transfer"--and, as we are seeing, "professionals
in science and technology." It's making us ask, what
do we do, and how do we do our jobs?
We know from the work of Robert Solow, the Nobel Laureate
and National Science Board member, and others that
scientists and engineers were central to enabling
the industrial revolution and the period of progress
in the post-war era. Many studies indicate that during
the past half century, technological innovation has
been responsible for roughly 40 percent of the productivity
gain here in the U.S. Our community is now being called
upon to provide even greater leadership in the emerging
information age. We should now look forward to enabling
and shaping what is yet to come -- even though we
don't quite know what it is.
In a trilogy of speeches delivered in February of
this year, Vice President Gore suggested the metaphor,
"distributed intelligence," to describe a new age
of intelligent systems. It is a complicated metaphor,
based on applying the principle of parallel processing
to social challenges and economic progress. It's best
to think of all these terms not as labels, but as
monikers at the moment.
It rests upon the notion of giving people the ability
to communicate virtually instantaneously with each
other via different media, as well as giving them
access to the information they need and to the tools
they need to transform that information into useful,
productive knowledge. One could say that this involves
all of society getting wired, except that it won't
always involve wires. This may yield an age in which
the sharing of information is instantaneous and ubiquitous.
To pursue these kinds of emerging opportunities, NSF
is exploring frameworks for the development and deployment
of new ideas and technologies for research, education
and for society as a whole, using academic science
and engineering as a testbed.
Let me give you a sense of what we are considering.
Again, these are monikers for describing the cutting
edge and helping us think about what to do. (Overhead
- Multi-Media Environments
- Resource Sharing Technologies
- Digital Libraries
New Challenges for Computation
- Pattern Recognition
- Partnerships for Advanced Computational Infrastructure
Learning and Intelligent Systems
- Learning Technologies (based on insights into
learning and cognitive functioning)
- Collaborative Learning Across Physical and Virtual
- Knowledge-on-demand Pedagogies
- Fresh Creativity-enabling infrastructure
Let's focus for a moment on the third area, Learning
and Intelligent Systems. This spans topics as diverse
as cognition and computing and algorithms and linguistics.
It involves three clearly distinct sets of challenges.
The first is perhaps the most immediately attainable.
It is to improve our system of learning via advances
in hardware and software. Schools, corporations, and
others have already begun addressing this challenge,
and there are encouraging signs of progress.
A second challenge is directly related to the first,
but more fundamental. It begins with questions like:
Can we create an entirely new system of learning?
Can we change the way we approach education and training
at all levels, develop new tools and techniques that
actually augment both our and our machine's capacity
to learn and create? That's a key statement. Some
of my colleagues argue we should just say our ability
as humans to learn and create. It's more than just
that. Machines can be creative, and they can help
us be creative.
The third relates to better enabling the creative
capabilities of all citizens through a more facile,
symbiotic relationship with the computer and communications
systems rapidly enveloping all of us. For scientists
and engineers, the result may be a whole new way of
pursuing research and effecting discovery.
These are difficult challenges and questions--controversial
in fact. That's ideal in my mind, because we can learn
from each other's arguments and from the different
approaches and perspectives we bring to the discussion.
We have to have a way to argue vigorously and forcefully.
I like to tell people that one of NSF's jobs is to
promote intellectual eclecticism. The reductionist
approach, if uniquely prescribed as the
system of acceptable academic progress, can yield
homogenization of a sort--and mute the fruits of eclecticism.
You may have heard Peter Medawar's famous quote, "the
human mind treats a new idea the way the body treats
a strange protein; it rejects it." The same thinking
applies to other subjects as well.
Whatever our view, however, events show that systemic
change seems inexorably underway. For example, consider
the speech my former ivy league faculty colleague,
Don Langenberg, gave two years ago at a UCLA conference
on the future of research universities. Since Don
had to pull out of today's program and won't be here
to correct me or contradict me, I feel comfortable
citing his work with total confidence.
In his talk, Don suggested an evocative metaphor for
the university of the 21st Century-- the kudzu vine.
At what he called, "Kudzu U," students do not flock
to campuses for classes. Rather, the campus spreads
via information technologies throughout the community,
much like a kudzu vine. He summed up his metaphor
by saying, "that kudzu vine may strangle a lot of
This past summer, the governors of 18 western states
led by Colorado's Roy Romer announced plans to establish
what they call the Virtual University. This news inspired
our own Washington Post to publish an editorial
under the heading, "A No-Campus Campus." The Post
is skeptical about Virtual U's prospects. It wrote:
"The virtues of the Virtual University may yet trump
the familiar virtues of other [universities], but
it will take more than plugging in a modem."
Regardless of whether these emergent virtual universities
and kudzu universities meet with success or failure,
they mark a dramatic step in the evolution of scholarship
in our society.
- Through the middle ages, learning and scholarship
were confined to monks working in cells.
- Then, around the 12th Century, the first universities
appeared. This gave us the professors/students/classroom
model of learning. It has survived remarkably
intact until our own era.
- Now, learning no longer requires that we gather
on a campus or in school, just as visiting the
Louvre no longer requires flying to Paris.
This concept also applies to challenges that are much
closer to home. For example, I know that over the
past year, many of you have worked closely with NSF's
Division of Science Resources Studies at a series
of workshops on data needs in science and engineering.
The feedback on these workshops has been consistently
positive, and we know they have been immensely valuable
to NSF. We have all benefited from each other's capabilities
and expertise. To use the Vice President's metaphor,
they've enabled us to pool our distributed intelligence.
Now it becomes logical to examine the next steps for
this process. Can we collect this great wealth of
data sources and surveys, make them more compatible,
and link them and calibrate them with national databases?
The National Science Board's Task Force on Graduate
Education asked such a question about data on graduate
education, and we can all envision the potential benefits
to policymakers of a more comprehensive data source.
There was a time, not very many years ago, when this
kind of rhetoric would have been labeled wildly impractical.
Different data formats, incompatible systems, and
general bureaucratic barriers would have ended this
kind of effort before it began.
Today, while we still need to work on lowering bureaucratic
barriers, the technological hurdles are fast disappearing.
Web-based technologies make them virtually transparent.
They allow us to envision intranetworks, policy tools,
and collaborations that were previously unrealistic
or even unimaginable.
When I was an entry level engineer at RCA, a big part
of my value to the company was my mastery of the slide
rule and my dexterity with french curves for developing
drawings and diagrams. Those aren't core personal
or professional competencies in any company today,
and my expertise with them won't get me a job anywhere,
anytime, anyplace, at a decent salary.
When we developed new product ideas back then, we
always had to wait--sometimes for several months--for
models to be built. My mind would often move on to
other ideas while we waited for the models. Compare
that with being able to sit down with a 3-D CAD program
to develop virtual models in the span of a few hours.
That represents a quantum leap in learning power and
creative potential, and we can make it widely accessible
now. This is the stuff of rewarded careers in today's
New priorities for science and technology should be
viewed in this context. The reductionist approach
we've relied upon so intently for several generations
may no longer suffice. While remaining of great intellectual
value, it, at a minimum, may require thoughtful reconsideration,
as we learn more about the opportunities and the responsibilities
facing scientists and engineers in the information
Add to this the growing capitalistic battle between
Microsoft and Netscape for the global, photo-electronic
kudzu vine, as depicted vividly in this week's Time
magazine, and the future looks exciting indeed.
With all of this in mind, let me leave you with a
quote that has special meaning to me. It is from the
poet and philosopher, George Santayana (1863-1952),
who once said: (Overhead #3)
Our knowledge is a torch of smoky pine
that lights the pathway but one step ahead.
This quote evokes some wonderful imagery. We cannot
see very far into the future--especially if we are
on the edge. It is indeed unknown to us, yet we suspect
it is likely to be different from the present. With
the advent of high-speed tools for learning, creativity,
and innovation, change becomes increasingly more rapid,
drawing the world's people closer in globally-based
markets, and creating almost continual shifts in the
way we interact with each other.
To prosper in this eclectic milieu, we must become
increasingly astute about making connections, working
together, and integrating across science and engineering
for the common good. The priorities we set for science
and technology should reflect this spirit of holism
and integration, as should our views of the roles
and careers of professionals in science and technology.
With the help of Santayana's torch of smoky pine,
we can take that vital step onto the path--onto the
bridge, into our future. But remember - we
have to thrust the torch forward into the path so
we can see. Just carrying it over a shoulder won't