Dr. Neal F. Lane
National Science Foundation
AAAS ANNUAL MEETING
FEBRUARY 9, 1996
THIN ICE OVER DEEP WATER:
SCIENCE AND THE AMERICAN DREAM: HEALTHY OR HISTORY
Good evening everyone! I am very pleased and honored to be here this evening. Although Baltimore is geographically just a stone's throw from Washington, politically it is far away and a welcome relief. Right now, Washington is frenetic and confusing on good days. I do not share the adjectives used to describe the other days.
We are surely witnessing a fight for the nation's psyche. Unfortunately, in that process we are living out the folly of an old adage which informs us that, "Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment."
The recent government shutdown was senseless, and some would say, irresponsible governance. We seem to be gaining a lot of experience. I hope it begins to lead to some good judgment.
NSF, like many other federal agencies, has just been through two back-to-back shutdowns, totaling four weeks in duration. The Gods of Winter brought us over two feet of snow, clogged our streets, marooned our cars, and reminded us again of the supremacy of Mother Nature.
The Winds of Politics that closed our doors for three of those four shutdown-weeks demoralized our workforce and destroyed any efficient timetable for our already pressured work.
You may have seen the newspaper photographs of our mailroom. It was an internal blizzard to match the one outside, with nearly 3000 proposals in the queue (on the average, we receive and log in about 240 proposals per day).
Our staff is making a heroic effort to address the backlog without allowing too many of the deadlines to slip. It's a two-track system--the normal work and the catch up--with no extra bodies. Many continuing grants ran out of funds, and there are likely to be funding gaps for some renewals and substantial delays in funding new awards. Some new programs will be delayed by six months to a year or canceled.
This year cannot be business as usual. The time period that we have lost is one that is critical to the smooth functioning of the proposal review and award process. There is simply no way to avoid some negative impact of a month's shutdown. We will do everything we can to limit the impact, but we will not lower the review standards. We will be asking for your patience and understanding as our program officers attempt to get us back into the grant business.
One thing is clear, losing a month does not merely put us a month behind. NIH estimates the shutdown put them 6 to 8 months behind. For some NSF activities, it may be more.
Now, some of you might say, that's life--just shake it off and get on with the job. Of course, that's what we are doing. My description is not to invoke your sympathy but to make sure you know what is happening. NSF has received thousands of e-mail messages, letters, and phone calls from the community--with individual, as well as, general inquiries since the shutdown. The Foundation is a genuine partnership of shared responsibility with the science and engineering research and education community. As partners, we also share a responsibility to keep each other informed. It is in that spirit that I offer this update.
For all the scientists here today, the AAAS Annual Meeting is a key opportunity for exchanging information, personally connecting with colleagues from distant campuses (perhaps even from your own campus), and gathering news on the larger political front about higher education and funding for science.
I particularly appreciate this chance to speak with you because I believe that we need to have a dialogue about the future of science in America and the critical role of the science community in determining that future. And today, when I speak of science, I mean all science and engineering, research and education
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 and the subject of my talk.
Interest and support for science in America dates back to the beginning of the Republic. Jefferson was passionate on the subject and Franklin was a scientist. Substantial funding and major mobilization of science toward national goals dates primarily from World War II.
Professor Dale Jamieson of the University of Colorado, Boulder, wrote the following in a paper he presented at an NRC conference in 1993 entitled, What Society Will Expect From the Future Research Community, "In the good old days, roughly from the end of World War II until the end of communism, the relationship between science and society was clear and secure. Now it seems confused and chaotic. In the good old days we [America] were rich and scared. Because we were scared we wanted science to protect us. Because we were rich, money was no object--...The research community lived up to its part of the bargain. It protected us from the Russians; gave us...international prestige, spun off new consumer products...; and made us proud,...[now] Not only are we no longer scared of the Russians, but we also no longer feel rich."
One primary focus of the American Dream during the Cold War was preserving our freedom while securing our safety from annihilation. With the generous funding of science, however, many other advances and benefits fed our national and personal dreams. Improved health, safer work environments, and a higher standard of living for a larger segment of the population became possible. Science and the American Dream were unquestionably healthy!
When America called upon the science community to help protect us during the days of external enemies, we were asking for their knowledge and for their leadership. In those early years, the leadership expected from the scientific community was narrowly defined by the public and for the most part was confined to national labs and campuses. As Dale Jamieson said, "The research community lived up to its part of the bargain." I might add that society [mostly in the name of the government] lived up to its part of the bargain also. Science was funded with the generosity of a philanthropist and the faith of a devout parishioner.
What a difference five decades can make. Today, not only is the bargain in question, but different times call for different kinds of leadership. Global communications and transportation have made the world a village. Global markets have made it an intensely competitive circle of highly productive participants. In our own country, neglected social problems have become festering national issues. The ballooning of the budget deficit in the 1980s along with the economic drain from interest on the federal debt have energized the electorate to demand greater accountability of all government investment, including science and technology.
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 your presence, as scientists, outside the walls of your laboratories and the gates of your universities to a much greater extent than in the past.
Today, as always, science gets done in the lab, the office, and increasingly on workstations, supercomputers and the Web. Now, however, science can only be funded if the electorate and their representatives remain convinced of its value and contribution. These understandings and necessary explanations are not well suited to crash efforts in times of a budget crisis. They need to be routine parts of a community discourse on the goals and values of various investments that the nation could or should make. Only then will science and technology's fundamental contribution be inherently valued in today's climate of accountability. Without this understanding among citizens and policy makers, science and the American dream may only be a memory from the past and not a part of our future.
In the early years, science helped protect us from our enemies. But today when it comes to science, the American people could be their own worst enemy--a little like the old Pogo philosophy of "we have met the enemy and it is us." There is 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 than about them.
I believe that the new leadership needed from the research community is to carry our understanding of science and its value into the life of our own communities through our teachings, to be sure, but in many other ways as well. We can help thereby to propel America toward those investments that are vital to a vibrant 21st century American dream.
I spent 35 wonderful years in academic science, and I hope to go back for another 35 when my hitch in public service is over. I am aware that we scientists are motivated to teach and do research because it suits our intellectual appetites, our temperaments, and personalities. We are long on curiosity, independence, desire for intellectual rigor, and an all consuming passion for discovery.
So, you say, what good would such a person be going out into his or her community talking about how the latest fat-free foods, CD players, laser surgery, and the concept of "community policing" are all the products of research. Contrary to that possible self-image, I would argue that scientists are the only genuinely credible people to deliver the message. I understand that some of you may have neither the desire nor will to do so, but I have little doubt that if you do, the experience will be fulfilling and the results successful. At the very least, providing encouragement and other kinds of support to your colleagues who do take on this noble challenge would be an important contribution in itself.
In Stephen Jay Gould's new book of essays, Dinosaur in a Haystack, he describes a compelling incident of the public's fascination with science, not their understanding necessarily but their fascination. He was in New York City on May 10, 1994, at the time of a partial eclipse. No surprise that Gould would stop to watch, but those New Yorkers, never. To his delight, "In midtown Manhattan, in the middle of a busy working day, New York stopped to watch the sun."
Gould was interviewed on National Public Radio about two weeks ago, and he spoke at length on popular excitement about all facets of science. In fact, NSF's surveys confirm that interest and fascination. Gould's story, however, posed a question for me. 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. As the Director of NSF, an institution that does a great deal of science out-reach, I do not have the explanation for this discrepancy, but I am committed to work together with all of you to find it.
I do know one thing; the science that, in large part, defined so much of the American Dream after World War II--that science was healthy, secure in its fruitful future. But the title of my remarks today is Science and the American Dream: Healthy or History. 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 even say a treasure--of intellect, creativity, and dogged determination--are an important key, maybe the key to answering that question.
I am sure that all of you are aware that federal funding for science comes out of the small portion of the budget known as "discretionary funds." This means exactly what it sounds like--up to the discretion of the President and Congress and very vulnerable. Entitlements make up half of the $1.6 trillion federal budget, interest on the national debt--15 percent, and defense--18 percent. And what's left? The civilian "discretionary budget" comprises only 17 percent of the total federal budget pie. In that limited discretionary slice of the pie, federal dollars for science and technology are not without stiff competition from other important national needs such as veterans hospitals and housing programs.
To be sure, science has some strong supporters on both sides of the aisle in Congress. This is reflected in the fact that research budgets (NIH, NSF and selected programs in other agencies) have fared relatively well, so far, in the FY 96 appropriations process. But that is not the case for non-defense R&D overall. And the situation gets tougher for FY 97 and the out-years, as downward pressure on the discretionary budget grows.
The AAAS has projected that in the seven year balanced budget scenario, non-defense R&D will decrease by approximately 33 percent in real terms by the year 2002. Also of great concern are the projected cuts for education.
Let me illuminate the federal role in research by only one example. According to David Goodstein, Vice Provost of the California Institute of Technology, federal funding accounts for over half of Caltech's total budget. In fact, the figure is actually 60 percent or $156 million while tuition accounts for less than 10 percent. Now, not all universities are in the research business to that extent, but a 33 percent reduction in civilian R&D cannot go unnoticed in its national impact.
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 outcome will be but it seems like a pretty risky experiment.
As Dale Jamieson tells us, "we...no longer feel rich." However, when Joe Stiglitz, Chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisors, released the Council's R&D report in October, he explained that deficit reduction and balancing the budget were the means to an end goal of Economic Prosperity. But he also said, "Cutting investments in R&D run counter to that end goal; without protecting key investments you may end up with a balanced budget but slower economic growth."
The exercise to balance the budget in seven years will be a test of national restraint and endurance under difficult circumstances--with or without cutting federal research and development. But cutting the very components that are growth creating and enhancing at such a time seems counterproductive.
When we dramatically reduce science, technology, and education, we are shaking the very underpinning of our societal structure. It is not hard to predict that there will be damage. Our current competitive progress has been the result of more than a decade's work to come from behind in many areas. This new strength that has enabled us to move ahead of Asian and European competitors is surely due in large part to our multifaceted science, technology, and educational system.
Damage or destruction to any part of this intricate system could eventually undermine the whole structure. It is the system in all of its complexity and uniqueness that generates knowledge and national wealth far greater than the sum of its parts.
I believe the American people and many of their elected representatives do not understand this. It is up to us to convey that concept, that understanding, and its value to America's progress and the American Dream.
In addition, the inability or unwillingness of parts of the enterprise to adapt to changing conditions will also damage the whole. Since it is our colleges and universities that educate and train the science and engineering workforce, they will be integral to all the adjustments and adaptations.
All institutions of higher education should examine their academic programs, including those in science and engineering, in the larger context of today's societal needs and problems. The challenge is to prepare all students for adaptability in a dynamic and swiftly changing marketplace in industry, in government, and in the academy. Universities and colleges will need to be consistently alert to their uniquely important role in the functioning of the larger system.
Perhaps you are somewhat impatient with my message this evening. You may believe that I am overreacting to a short-term situation. Perhaps! But, my concern is that by the time the damage is done, the moves to reverse it will be much more difficult, and in some cases impossible. 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, I think, 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.
Just to give you a flavor of what I mean, the other day I spoke to a group of science faculty and administrators. Afterwards, a physicist came up to tell me of a series of local radio commentaries he had done on science and society over the last two years. Some topics were "Science for Society: the 1995 Nobel Prizes," "Undersea Exploration of the Arctic," "Exploring the Promise of Biomass Energy," and "The Crisis in Federal Support for Science."
Now I admit, not all of us want to do radio commentaries, but there are many ways to create the understanding and convey the value of science. Someone else mentioned to me teaching an adult education class on "science in your daily life." And there are already many examples of scientists working with teachers in the public and private elementary and secondary schools.
You might ask, what science discussion currently catches the public's attention? Carl Sagan's science articles for the general public have appeared in the "Parade" section of hundreds of newspapers. Both Discover magazine and the Discovery TV channel tell the science story and its contributions and applications. Science Fairs at local intermediate and high schools are not just for proud parents,--and grandparents, I might add--often they are genuine community events. Science museums all across the country are often overwhelmed with visitors. They need support of all kinds.
Science and engineering organizations and professional societies such as AAAS, all have public outreach programs. In fact, there is a AAAS production called Kinetic City Super Crew that is on the radio and the Internet. (Pardon the commercial, it's made possible by a grant from NSF).
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 share your angst because I have a pending date with the Arlington Rotary Club).
I will argue that such meetings as these are increasingly important, even though I'm afraid they don't contribute significantly to tenure or other professional advancement, at least not yet.
Two weeks ago, I gave a speech in Texas in which I spoke of the perception in Congress of the science community's stony silence in the wake of major cuts, actual and projected, in R&D. This relative silence was taken as a negative sign for lawmakers who were fighting to hold the line against deeper cuts in science. It provided ammunition for those policymakers intent on offering up "science funding" for budget-balancing. Perhaps it was just happenstance that my public remarks, which were circulated on the Internet, coincided with an avalanche of communication to House and Senate members. However you choose to interpret the situation, your substantial expression of concern was unquestionably effective. I'm sure the entire science and technology community, and NSF in particular, is grateful.
I also know that early-on there were voices raised in concern. This includes the hard work of the many individuals who toil day in and day out to represent the interests of your institutions and professional societies. However, a small number of voices--no matter how sincere or compelling--can be difficult to hear in the noise of the recent turmoil and debate.
There were also selective voices from industry raised in alarm. They were heard, and their efforts also are appreciated. Perhaps there will come a time when selective becomes pervasive. This is not yet such a time!
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. However, nobody understands better than we who are scientists what it takes to build a strong science and technology presence. If we think about it, we might also realize how vulnerable that capacity can become in just a brief time.
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. Science and technology provide an open horizon into the remaining mysteries of the universe, the human mind, the planet's climate, all the potential of electronic computation and communication, and the list goes on. 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.
I am not unaware of your reluctance and perhaps even feelings of awkwardness to step forward in a new and uncharacteristic pose--the civic scientist. That certainly is not a role I would have felt particularly comfortable with as a young or even not-so-young faculty member. But as I said earlier, different times call for different kinds of leadership.
I am reminded of some sage advice by Alexis de Tocqueville, the astute chronicler of American democracy. He said, "We succeed in enterprises which demand the positive qualities we possess, but we excel in those which can also make use of our defects." I would like to challenge all of us, myself included, to find our own personal path to bring this message to our citizenry. I do not suggest that progress will be either swift or easy. I am your colleague, ally, and friend in this endeavor and most proud of that association. I know that we are equal to the task.