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Remarks

Photo of Dr. Subra Suresh

Dr. Subra Suresh
Director
National Science Foundation
Biography

President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology
Metro Center Marriott Hotel
Washington, D.C.

January 7, 2011

Photo by Sandy Schaeffer

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

[Slide 1: Title Slide]
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Thank you, Eric [Lander, PCAST Co-chairman]. Good morning. I want to thank Co-chairmen [John] Holdren and Lander, and members of the Council, for giving me the opportunity to be here this morning. I would like to use this opportunity to talk to you about a few things we are discussing now at NSF and to seek your input and also to have the opportunity to answer any questions you have.

As Eric just mentioned, it has been nearly three months since Dr. Holdren proclaimed my appointment as official on the day the White House held its very first science fair. I am really honored and delighted to have the opportunity to lead NSF at such a decisive time, both in terms of the economic climate and the particular point in time that we are in. Since my nomination and through the Senate confirmation process, I had quite a bit of time to think about NSF and also benefited enormously from input from a large number of people--mostly solicited--around the country, and in some cases from around the world. Many of you are included in that list, as well.

Eric mentioned it's been about three months; I don't know how long three months is, but three months is definitely long enough to have the honeymoon period behind you. I am reminded of that every day by my colleagues at NSF and outside.

In the limited time I have, I would like to float just four very general and broad themes, from among many possibilities we could address here. You all are familiar with these issues, but that simply confirms their broad importance. In fact, among my remarks I hope to pose a few issues for your contemplation and input. But first, a word about how these four key issues surfaced.

In addition to ideas I have received from the community external to NSF--quite a bit of it from the external community, in written messages, in face-to-face meetings, in requested meetings--in the nearly three months since I have been at the agency, I also have solicited input internally. For example, we held a series of senior leadership retreats; I have met with several NSF Advisory Committees; and I have met with the staff of each and every Directorate and Office at NSF, including Division heads and their staff in my first few months.

Based on the input from these discussions and activities, we have identified a number of areas where NSF could potentially enhance its impact in four key interconnected topics.

These topics are: (1) basic research as fuel for market-viable innovation; (2) the STEM pipeline; (3) the nation's international STEM leadership; and (4) interdisciplinary opportunities for discovery. This is in no particular order. To the extent that some of my comments don't follow this order simply reflects their fundamental interdependence.

These are four theme areas, among many, where we have initiated internal discussion and external consultation and dialogue, on proactive and leadership roles that NSF could and should assume. I will be able to provide more details on each of these as we conclude our process. Today, I would just like to talk broadly about them and to seek your input.

Let me begin with a few words about NSF. Again, this will be nothing new to most of you in the audience. NSF is the U.S. "innovation engine." The motto "Where Discoveries Begin" is both a concise description of NSF's mission and a literal summation of its six decades of achievement.

NSF has been a "Jewel in the Crown" of our nation's scientific research. By advancing the frontiers of all S&E disciplines and by developing the human capital to forge the next generation of breakthroughs, NSF has enabled America's innovation machine. Here, innovation is strategically leveraged by direct support of some 200,000 engineers, scientists, educators and affiliated institutions and facilities.

NSF's dual mission--of funding the best ideas and the best people--drives NSF's reach to the furthest frontier in every research discipline, and, increasingly, between disciplines. NSF has shown that a kernel of research has the potential to blossom into multiple innovations. These innovations (they could come from a single investigator sitting in isolation) could burgeon into new industries and create waves of new jobs. Think Google; Doppler Radar; fiber optics; web browsers; the internet; Magnetic Resonance Imaging; behavioral economics; DNA fingerprinting; and the identification of acid rain, ocean acidification, and global climate disruption, to name only a few transformative outcomes.

NSF's support of fundamental research, which propels intellectual curiosity in every branch of science and engineering, and ignites the passion to uncover the inner workings of nature, is more precious now than ever before. At the same time, scientific discoveries from fundamental research have their widest impact when they engender innovations, products and processes that transform society and help solve global challenges. So, among other steps we are looking into, we feel we must proactively nudge innovation, through collaborations among agencies, institutions and industry, by cultivating an "innovation eco-system" for the vast majority of institutions that may not have such eco-systems. I seek your advice on how NSF can be a strategic facilitator of STEM-based intellectual property, technology transfer, and licensing functions that are fueled by institution-wide support of a creative culture.

There is also the strategic balance between "big science" versus the gold-standard individual investigator-initiated research to think about.

There are many more significant international competitors than the United States has ever had to contend with in the past. Human history is replete with examples of national fortunes changing over a very short period of time. Thus, I support aiming for basic research expenditures in the range of 3 percent of GDP. It is a positive and strategic objective.

[Slide 2: National R&D Expenditures and Share of World Total, by Region: 2007]
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These next few slides give a picture of where we stand globally. Again, none of this will be news to this Council, but this puts things in context. So if you look globally roughly at where we stand, of the total research expenditure of $1.1 trillion, a third of that is in North America, slightly less than a third is in Europe, and about a third is in Asia, with a little bit elsewhere.

[Slide 3: Gross Domestic Expenditures on R&D by United States, EU-27, OECD, and Selected Other Countries: 1981-2007]
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The second slide shows the R&D for selected countries and international economies. So, OECD is at the top. (This is in 2000 constant PPP dollars.) Next is G7. The next curve below that is the U.S. Below that, you can see how China has ramped up between 2000 and 2007, or so.

[Slide 4: U.S. R&D Share of Gross Domestic Product: 1953-2008]
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The third slide shows the U.S. R&D spending as a share of GDP for the last 56 years. So you have the total share at the top, the nonfederal share below that, and then the federal share. You can see some distinct trends there.

[Slide 5: Gross Expenditures on R&D as Share of Gross Domestic Product for Selected Countries: 1981-2007]
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The next slide shows gross R&D expenditures over a recent 26-year period for selected countries. There is only one take-home message from this slide: It is simply that the U.S. is not at the top in terms of nondefense R&D, relative to its GDP: Germany, Japan, and South Korea all passed us in 2000. There are other countries--Scandinavian countries--that are in that league as well.

These and other data support the President's assertion early last month that we cannot afford to "stop making investments" in research, education and innovation. Such investments of the half-century following the "Sputnik awakening" secured our leadership position. But I want to ask this august Council to think about how NSF can help keep the United States in play internationally.

For example, how might we create strategic international regional alliances (versus individual country-specific alliances that would, and already, strain our "bandwidth") to further scientific discovery? A second related question that we are looking at is: What mechanisms do we put in place to better disseminate NSF's world-renowned merit review system? Others seek to adapt and implement the NSF model internationally, and it clearly is in our interest, if not our obligation, to help foster a high-quality international standard. Ensuring that an acceptable level of scientific rigor in our merit-review processes is adopted uniformly by our international collaborators is vital to the success of our collaborations and to the advance of science globally. This is an area that we are focusing on for the near term. Again, I would like to seek your input on how NSF could do this very successfully.

Policymakers have received several wake-up calls regarding some of the topics I am raising, including those in the 2005 Academies' Rising Above the Gathering Storm. Because we hit the snooze button, we deserved the "Rapidly Approaching Category 5" sequel.

One of the most critical steps is to revitalize our nation's STEM pipeline. Again, we are looking into what NSF specifically can do in the short term. The misalignments of gender and ethnic/racial demographics in the pipeline relative to the population at large define our future prospects for scientific and economic vitality and leadership as well as national security.

Our future STEM workforce will affect the quality of work that NSF will be able to fund. This will determine NSF's ability to restore and sustain American leadership in science.

The up-and-coming global contenders in STEM-based innovation will be talented, well-trained and tenacious. So let me walk you through some data that point to what the situation is and what NSF can potentially do.

U.S. universities produced nearly 50,000 (or, exactly 49,562, to be precise) research doctorates in 2009, the highest number ever reported by NSF's Survey of Earned Doctorates.

S&E doctorates were up 1.9 percent over 2008, owing entirely to growth in numbers of female recipients. Doctorates were up from 2008 in seven of eight major fields of science. And S&E graduate enrollment continued to rise, from 1999, reaching a new peak of almost 600,000 in the fall of 2006. But, at every juncture in this pipeline, many are deflected and take other paths.

Let me give you some information related to this. There are at least three major areas of opportunity and concerns that need to be addressed in this pipeline.

First, the good news. There are signs that in some areas we are improving the initial supply. Here's the data. Last year, 72 percent of U.S. high-school valedictorians were girls. And that number appears to be increasing. Women outnumber men in attaining college degrees by 20 percent; and many more women than men receive graduate and law degrees.1

But the loss of talented young people remains. So, while an increasing percentage of girls and young women enter S&E disciplines, there is a large drop-off in their participation in graduate and post-graduate studies, and this is nothing new. More loss occurs as fewer women choose S&E careers. This is a very complex issue with many factors, but there is one key factor and that's raising a family. And the recent Berkeley report provides specific data in this regard.2 If this weren't bad enough, we have an increasing supply-slope difference between men and women.

Further, women take 7 to 10 percent longer than men to complete STEM doctorates.3 But NSF's Science & Engineering Indicators gives us reason for some optimism, which I show in the next slide.

[Slide 6: Women in STEM]
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In 2008, women earned 50 percent of STEM bachelor's degrees and 46 percent of STEM master's degrees. You see this in the left bar and second-to-left bar. But, at the doctoral level it drops off to 41 percent. Now, if you look at the 2006 workforce, women comprised only 26 percent of employed scientists and engineers, so you can see the significant drop taking place. Of course, the numbers [between degrees (2008) and workforce (2006)] are off by two years because of the way the data was collected. While not shown on the slide, in 2006, minorities were 24 percent of the employed STEM workforce. However, if we exclude Asians, who are overrepresented in STEM relative to their minority status, the percentage of the employed STEM workers is quite a bit lower.

So, the percentage of STEM degrees earned by minorities trends downward for all S&E fields as we climb the academic ladder: So in the case of gender, we have a very good news with supply but bad news with retention. In the case of underrepresented minorities in the STEM workforce, both the supply and the retention are not very good at the present time. Beginning with minorities comprising 28 percent of S&E bachelor's degree recipients, they fall to 24 percent of master's degrees, and they fall further by comprising only 21 percent of doctoral degrees. The results are severely uneven across disciplines. So, one problem with aggregation in the 2006 STEM employment data is that it isn't so apparent that disciplines have been differentially successful in adapting structurally to the pipeline's changing composition. Digging deeper into the data, we realize that concerted research-based efforts to enhance inclusive recruitment, mentoring and retention of minorities and women can work. So, we are looking at a number of things that NSF already does where we can provide input to address this particular issue.

While trends point to increasing supply at least in some of these areas, there are areas where we have concerns with supply and retention, and we feel that this requires significant attention. We cannot wait too long.

Looking to the future, by 2040 to 2050, we will be a country of a majority of minorities. We have a significant issue in engaging them, at the present time, in the S&E enterprise and education. We have to be careful about interpreting some of these data and take corrective action; we and NSF cannot wait another 20 or 30 years to act.

So, there are three sources of the supply pipeline that we can talk about. One is the gender issue. The other is the participation of underrepresented minorities. The third issue relates to some key global trends. So let me address them now.

Given the increased global democratization and interconnectedness, and economic prosperity in developing nations, STEM graduates will have many more career options and residency choices.

Not long ago, one fought hard to come to the United States to pursue graduate education and then to stay. I know; I did. And there are a few others here who did the same thing. We may be witnessing the beginning of a potentially rapid shift. We don't have enough data to make any conclusions, but there are some indicators. Many more students can choose to stay in their country of birth to study and permanently reside. That will have a huge impact on the scientific enterprise of this country. It will have a huge impact on NSF: on the quality of research that NSF sponsors and on the quality of research that comes up for NSF sponsorship.

Let me give one of my favorite personal examples. As Eric Lander mentioned earlier, I received my first degree at Indian Institute of Technology Madras in 1977. I was just in India just four days ago, so I was able to update my data. This admittedly is only one data point, so there is no trend here, but this is very recent data.

In 1977, I came to this country after earning my first degree. In my graduating class, across all areas of engineering, there were some 250 students. More than 80 percent of the 250 students had an opportunity to come to the United States to pursue graduate studies. Pretty much all of them took it, and all of those remained in the U.S. And all of them became either U.S. citizens or permanent residents, playing a significant role in research, academia, industry, business and start-ups. Now, look at the change 30 years later. Each of the Indian Institute of Technology campuses still graduates approximately 250 students. Last year, more than 80 percent of the same school and cohort had the same opportunity to come to the U.S., but only 16 percent took it. And it's not the top 16 percent. And this is just one campus, one data point in one small institution, but it points to a potential trend in emerging countries.

For the past 50 to 60 years, at least, the U.S. "opportunity beacon" made us the unquestioned destination. Personally, that's why I called it "home."

NSF data released this year show that foreign S&E graduate students in U.S. institutions increased in 2006, after a two-year post-9/11 decline. The good news is that foreign students on temporary visas increased from 22 percent to 25 percent of all S&E graduate students from 1993 to 2006.

[Slide 7: Doctorates Awarded in Science and Engineering Fields, by Citizenship: 1989-2009]
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You can see in this graph [next slide], showing for a 21-year period, the number of S&E doctorates awarded by U.S. universities to U.S. citizens and permanent residents and temporary visa holders--essentially foreign students.

[Slide 8: Top 10 Countries/Economies of Foreign Citizenship for U.S. Doctorate Recipients: Total, 1999-2009]
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In 2007, the number of S&E doctorates earned by temporary residents rose to a new peak: 13,700. This next slide shows the citizenship of these S&E graduate students, where they come from. The five countries are expectedly: China, then India, then South Korea. South Korea's population is tiny compared to India (but the numbers are almost the same), then Taiwan, and Canada followed by Turkey, Thailand, Japan, Mexico and Germany.

Now, three-quarters of the foreign recipients of U.S. S&E doctorates in 2004 to 2007 reported that they intended to stay in the U.S. after graduation. However, between 2000 and 2007, the percentage reporting definite plans to stay decreased for all of the top five countries shown on this slide. Again, there is no trend yet, but this points to a potential trend.

So, the bottom line? There are many opportunities outside the U.S., and this could have a huge impact on our scientific enterprise.

The U.S. graduate institutions are still well situated. Of the top 20 universities in the world, as of a 2008 evaluation, only 3 are outside the United States. And, of the top 50, just 14 are outside the United States.4 But, if you look at some specific data, there is a lot of cause for concern. Let me point to the Commission on the Future of Graduate Education. Their documents show how fragile the ascendency can be. In 1977, 82 percent of doctoral degrees awarded in the U.S. were granted to U.S. citizens. In 2007, this figure had gone down from 82 percent to 57 percent. That's a significant decline. And for PhDs awarded in engineering in 2007, among the total number of PhDs, only 29 percent went to U.S. citizens. This was down from 56 percent in 1977. Today, in the physical sciences, only 43 percent of the degrees went to U.S. students; that's down from 76 percent in 1977.

So, in the remaining few minutes, let me float one last idea--and which I have been addressing at NSF. It relates to the fact that there are growing opportunities for discovery at the intersections of traditional silo-based disciplines. And NSF has traditional disciplines around which it's been organized for a long period of time. Most of the problems we face today in both science and in society are highly complex and I don't need to tell this audience that interdisciplinarity is important. So, for example, human diseases are no longer simply a biology problem. They actually never were exclusive to biology, to look at these interdisciplinary issues. But the latest integration of science, engineering, biology, and other fields--social sciences and economics--leads to interesting opportunities for us to go away from the traditional "silos" for major discoveries.

Within NSF, we have recently launched a number of activities that includes Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability [SEES], cyberinfrastructure, robotics, to name just a few.

Other examples: NSF spends significant resources on basic research into clean energy, clean water, efficient transportation, and meeting other grand challenges. The behavior of organisms (human or otherwise)--despite its complex origins, modulators, and controllers--is a legitimate subject of study.

Many of the 20th century's 20 most significant engineering achievements, as articulated by the National Academy of Engineering and highlighted at the 50th National Engineers' Week in 2000, came with a down side. For example, the electric grid and internal combustion engines brought remarkable modernity that few of us would trade. But they also brought changes to our biosphere, petrochemical dependence, and other 21st century grand challenges, which the National Academy of Engineering has also articulated since 2000.

The research problems presented by these challenges are complex, and NSF has a particular role to play. So, one of my goals is to find ways to foster greater interdisciplinary work both within NSF and in the NSF-grantee community, in order to exploit the untapped opportunities to which silo-based research can be blind.

NSF's mission mandates attention to the entire spectrum of science. Emphasizing some sciences at the expense of others can handicap discovery and compromise innovation.

Our students deserve a coherent STEM education that treats all phenomena in the universe, no matter what their complexity is, as empirically legitimate domains of inquiry. Otherwise, students mature into citizens who view science as a constrained patchwork. They will instinctively question the validity of scientific findings or entire areas of knowledge.

I have given you, this morning, an overview of four key topics that we are actively addressing. I look forward to receiving your input as we further address these issues. I very much look forward to updating you on progress at a future meeting.

Thank you, again, for this opportunity.

NOTES

  1. Bennett, Jessica, and Jesse Ellison. 2010. "Women Will Rule the World." Newsweek. July 6. Retrieved online on 12/2/2010 at http://www.newsweek.com/2010/07/06/wormen-will-rule-the-world.html.
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  2. Berkeley Center on Health, Economic & Family Security and Georgetown Law's Workplace Flexibility 2010. (2010, December.) Family Security Insurance: A New Foundation for Economic Security. Retrieved online on 12/2/2010 at http://www.law.berkeley.edu/files/chefs/family_security_insurance_2010_Final_web.pdf
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  3. Council of Graduate Schools. 2008. Ph.D. Completion and Attrition: Analysis of Baseline Program Data from the Ph.D. Completion Project. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools.
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  4. Cole, Jonathan R. 2010. The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected. New York: Public.
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