Dr. Subra Suresh
National Science Foundation
Science Diplomats Club Breakfast
Embassy of France
January 13, 2011
8:30 AM – 9:00 AM
Photo by Sandy Schaeffer
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Thank you, very much Madame Suzor-Weiner. Good morning. I am delighted to be here and have the opportunity to speak with you.
Even though it's my very first time to meet many of you here, I feel that I have some connection with most of you, if not all of you, just because of my prior background. I spent a considerable amount of time in Europe in three places: in France, Germany, and Sweden. Sweden was for sabbatical visits. Also in the Far East, and we've had at MIT a constant flow of students, postdocs, colleagues, and collaborators on joint publications from every country in Europe. I still have about eight people in my lab at MIT, including some Humboldt fellows from Germany. So I am delighted to be here.
In the very limited time that we have, I don't want to take too much time talking. The idea is to give us an opportunity to discuss. I just wanted to touch on a couple of things since I started at NSF when I was kindly introduced as the new director about three months ago. I am constantly reminded that my honeymoon is about three days. So, I am no longer new but am very much part of the organization.
I want to touch on two topics that I covered at the PCAST [President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology] presentation last week with a slightly different focus for this particular audience. The topics I would like to touch on in just a little bit of detail are the international collaborations that interest this group, primarily in the context of STEM issues. And, the second is some of the things we are considering at the National Science Foundation with respect to collaborations across disciplinary boundaries. In a very fine way, balancing the different demands on an agency like NSF, where we foster in the national workforce individual scholarship, but at the same time addressing major issues of global STEM significance. How do you find the right balance?
Each of these has its own issues, and I want to focus on them, but before I go there, I want to take a few minutes; I know most of you know about NSF, but in the event somebody doesn't know about NSF, I want to say a few things about NSF.
NSF was founded in 1950 based on a report written by Dr. Vannevar Bush who, just so happens, was the first dean of engineering at MIT. And I currently hold the Vannevar Bush Professorship in Engineering at MIT, though I am on leave. So I sat in the very same chair that he occupied when he wrote the influential report, Science, The Endless Frontier, that led to the creation of the National Science Foundation.
NSF has about 2,100 employees. That includes contractors, permanent employees, and regular employees who work in our Arlington, Virginia, headquarters. We fund approximately 2,000 institutions in the United States. We reach about 200,000 scientists, researchers, students, educators and others. Our budget is approximately $7 billion per year. We are the one federal agency that funds fundamental research across all science and engineering disciplines. We fund basic research, we fund research that leads to a lot of applications, and this is one of the very fine lines we walk: the balance between fundamental knowledge creation and creation of knowledge that leads to useful products, processes and technologies that then benefit the global society. And how to balance that [is the question].
Ultimately, the role of NSF is knowledge creation--knowledge that benefits humanity, that serves the country, which leads to economic prosperity, creates jobs and solves major problems of global significance such as the grand challenges and grand goals.
We also have a very unique system compared to other federal agencies. Unlike other agencies such as the Department of Energy or the National Institutes of Health, we don't do in-house research. We don't have scientists working on NSF-paid research for NSF. We serve as an agency that sponsors research.
We also have a unique system of rotators: scientists and educators who are seconded from academic institutions to NSF. So approximately half of our scientific enterprise workers--from program officers to division directors, to assistant directors--are on leave from different institutions. So that's a unique aspect of NSF.
There are a few areas where NSF is the primary source of research and knowledge creation in the nation's research enterprise. Examples include mathematics at universities--we fund more than 80 percent--anthropology, computer science, and many areas of social sciences. NSF is the primary source of support, and there are not these other sources of funding to keep these programs going. That's a very important thing for us to keep in mind, especially as many different fields integrate. And we have an opportunity, even if we are looking at a scientific problem related to, say, energy, to ask, What are the social consequences? What is the political science behind it? What are the taxation policies? And how do we integrate all of that into a more coherent picture, full picture? I think NSF plays a huge role in all branches of science and engineering disciplines.
This year, we will award about 10,000 grants from approximately 45,000 proposals, so it's highly, highly competitive. This is one of the issues or challenges that we face. The success of getting funding from NSF is somewhere between 10 and 20 percent. This strains the system, and how do we manage this? This is a great challenge for us, not only for NSF, but for other agencies, as well. But this is a particular challenge for NSF.
We engage in education at all levels K-12. While the Department of Education is involved in administering and creating mechanisms for implementing policies, NSF engages in supporting research on best educational practices, and this is something that is an important part of NSF.
The other thing I want to highlight is . . . I was the beneficiary of an NSF grant in 1985 and that helped me get my tenure in academic institutions, helped my career, and if NSF had not funded me, it would have been much more difficult for me to do the kinds of things that I ended up doing, and that's true of many scientists. In fact, at the PCAST meeting, most all of the PCAST members raised their hand to indicate they had received funding from NSF [early in their careers].
The other unique aspect of NSF is that we not only fund individual researchers, and many of you may know, we also fund large facilities. Again, this is another fine line to walk for NSF. Some of the problems are so large that it requires multiple disciplines, multiple institutions, and many different countries to work together So, some of the examples of international programs are our Polar Program, from the Arctic Circle to the Antarctic area, where NSF coordinates the activities of more than a dozen countries. We do work a mile below the Antarctic ice, involving all branches of science and engineering, including climate change, energy, fish and penguin populations, social sciences, international collaborations, and so on.
So, NSF's motto, then, is "Where discoveries begin." NSF-funded researchers have won more than 180 Nobel prizes. The agency has also earned a designation as the "innovation engine" of the country. Needless to say, I am deeply honored to have this opportunity to be at this agency at this point in time.
So now, looking to the future from the current vantage point, you might ask, What is the new NSF? Looking as far ahead as we can see from this particular point in time, there are a few things we can see.
We create knowledge and facilitate fundamental science discoveries that enhance STEM education and science literacy, enhance our nation's well-being and economic progress, and contribute to national security. But given the tools and technologies that we have, the latest observational tools, computational hardware and software, the integration of hitherto discrepant disciplines that have now come together in unprecedented ways . . . if you take all of this, we are at a unique point in time, so that I can say that an agency like NSF has the opportunity, looking into the future, to explore nature, observe nature, learn from nature, and make things learning from nature, so that we can understand the Earth, we can understand the solar system, we can understand the outer reaches of the universe, we can understand the depths of the oceans, we can understand the inner workings of the human brain, at the level of the solar system, at the level of a single molecule, at the level of DNA, and atom. We have the precision to do that. The telescopes that we have are getting more and more powerful. The computational tools are getting very powerful. At the same time, we can measure forces to a resolution of a piconewton. "Pico" is 10 to the minus 12.
If you hold an average-sized apple in your hand, the weight that your hand feels through the gravitation pull of the Earth is one newton, so this is one newton times 10 to the minus 12, and we can measure that routinely with a desktop instrument. Many NSF grantees do that routinely in their labs.
So, this is something that gives us an opportunity to not only understand nature but to design, make and manipulate objects in unique ways. We are also at a point where the knowledge enterprise is seeing an exponential increase. So we can synthesize, organize, sift through and extract information so our cyberinfrastructure initiative is looking at this particular project not just for security but also for scientific discoveries.
This also gives us a unique opportunity to take the fundamental knowledge to address global challenges: clean energy, clean water, sustainable energy, sustainable urban transportation mobility, and environment.
We also have the mission of not only doing research and creating knowledge but training the next workforce--from K-12, all the way up to the scientific enterprise of the country. And, increasingly, that is becoming international. And one of the unique things about the scientific enterprise in the United States is that it has succeeded over the last 50 years, maybe longer, in attracting people from all over the world and who stay here.
I'm a good example of that. If not for the opportunities that agencies like NSF foster, I would not be here today. But one of the future challenges for NSF is how to keep that going in the face of mounting competition. This is not a trivial challenge. Let me give you one data point.
I was introduced with mention of my undergraduate alma mater, the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras. I am part of a graduating class of 1977. So, admittedly, it's a very small class, a very small group. In my graduating class, there were 250 students in my class, in all branches of science and engineering. Out of 250, something approximately on the order of 80 percent had a chance to come to the United States. Just about all of them came here [to pursue graduate studies]. Just about all them stayed here; just about all of them had the opportunity to succeed in academia, industry and business start-ups in the innovation economy.
Thirty years later, same campus. So, last year, there are still about 250 students. A large number of them could have had the opportunity to come here, if they applied, but just 16 percent chose to come here. And, a lot of the top-tier students, they stayed there because they had wonderful opportunities. So the global situation is changing. It's good for them, it's good for India. But it poses a very interesting question. It's probably good for the global engineering and scientific enterprise, but what are the consequences of this for the international science and engineering research enterprise? We don't have enough data to make observations and conclusions, but over the next 10 years it will be interesting to figure out.
I mentioned a number of things about international engagement with respect to NSF. I want to start with the first slide--about the organizational structure of NSF.
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NSF has seven directorates: Biological Sciences; Computer and Information Science and Engineering; Education and Human Resources; Engineering; Geosciences; Mathematics and Physical Sciences; and Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences.
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I want to show the next slide, which shows some data about several trends related to S&E doctorates. So, this is the data for a 21-year period until last year. This is [the number of] PhDs awarded in science and engineering in the U.S. The top blue curve shows U.S. citizens and permanent residents. And the bottom curve shows foreign students--people on temporary visas coming to the United States. You see a significant uptick in U.S. citizens and permanent residents getting S&E PhDs in the last ten years. This is primarily because of women PhDs in science and engineering. It's wonderful news with respect to entry but really bad news in terms of retention. Women leave the scientific workforce in large numbers. There are many factors to this. The primary factor is family-related issues in raising a family. This is a huge issue for the national workforce. There is good news and bad news in this.
But we also have another challenge with respect to engaging the diverse population of the U.S. in science and engineering enterprise. We have both a supply issue and a retention issue with respect to engaging the underrepresented minority population in S&E and this is going to be a huge challenge for us over the coming years.
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The next slide shows over the 10-year period, ending in 2009, where the foreign students come from to do PhDs in the United States. Not surprisingly, the number-one country is China. And, not surprisingly, the number-two country is India. But, surprisingly, [South] Korea, [even with its much smaller population], is the same as India. So you have two colors here: science and engineering fields [are blue] and non-science and engineering fields [are yellow]. You can see how the numbers drop off.
Again, I gave you just one tiny bit of anecdotal information about the Indian Institute of Technology. There is another piece of anecdotal information based on some surveys done over the last three years. That is, if you take the top five countries here (China, India, South Korea, Taiwan and Canada), based on informal surveys, students from all five countries indicated that they will return to their country [of origin] in greater numbers compared to 10 years ago.
We don't know if that trend will hold, but at least informal, unscientific polls seem to indicate in a very preliminary way that there may be a trend evolving. We don’t know that yet.
We also know that the population of American students getting PhDs in S&E, the fraction has significantly declined in the last 30 years in most fields, essentially in all branches of science and engineering.
So this is an interesting challenge, but it's also a very interesting opportunity, globally. So what are the issues we face at NSF? From a workforce point of view, this is one of the issues we face. From the viewpoint of grand challenges, and problems, and opportunities that I talked about--from the solar system to the single molecule--we have interesting possibilities for global collaborations, in ways that we could not do before, five years ago. In my own work, I would say that 80 percent of my current work is very close--until I joined NSF, when I had to give up a lot of them because of potential conflicts of interest--but most of them involved international collaborations--from France and Singapore, to Japan, to Korea. The scientific quality of that work would not have happened without that collaboration.
But with respect to NSF, there are also challenges. We cannot have bilateral agreements with a hundred countries. It strains our system. So how do we develop regional alliances, given the differences in political climate, funding climate, and different status of development? How do we engage internationally so that it doesn't strain our system, so that we have enough bandwidth to engage internationally?
The second major issue for us is--and this was something that was discussed at the EuroHORCs [European Heads of Research Councils] meeting that I attended in Brussels last October--how do we develop common principles whereby countries can collaborate with a certain minimum acceptable standards in the peer review system? NSF and many countries in Europe have had the benefit of defining and developing and fine-tuning merit review processes, but as countries with large populations develop very rapidly--the developing countries and others--how do we engage them in our joint effort so that the merit review process can be disseminated and developed for our collective benefit? This is going to be a challenge, and it is something I am personally interested in seeing.
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The next slide shows research support across the globe. Again, it is no surprise to any of you in this room: Approximately right now, we have North America contributing a little more than a third, Europe contributing a little less than a third, and Asia contributing a little less than a third. And, it will be interesting to see this dynamic change.
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The next slide shows the breakdown [of expenditures on research and development] in 2000 PPP dollars for select groups, including OECD, G7, United States, EU-27, and so forth, China.
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In this next-to-last slide, this is where the U.S. is. The President has announced a 3-percent-of-GDP goal [for expenditures on basic R&D], and I think it is essential for us, for agencies like NSF. But we do know that at least three countries, and also countries like Finland, [spend] significantly higher than 3 percent of GDP.
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My last slide shows that. I have not shown all the countries, but countries like Japan, South Korea, and Germany surpassed the U.S. around 2000. Finland is at 4 percent. So, if you look at that 3 percent goal for the U.S., it would seem necessary in a highly competitive global science and engineering enterprise.
Let me close with just a couple of observations on interdisciplinary engagement and what NSF has been doing. In 2010, we announced two major initiatives that involved every directorate and every office at NSF. The first one is called S.E.E.S., which stands for Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability, and SEES seeks to bring together the entire intellectual horsepower of NSF, with the goal of achieving a sustainable human future, in the face of both a gradual and abrupt environmental change. It is one of the most significant challenges facing humanity. So NSF will contribute to addressing this challenge by supporting the science and engineering research needed to understand and overcome the barriers to sustainable human well-being. So, in everything we do--from research in science and engineering to education--[we ask] "How do we introduce the concept of sustainability in education?" This is one of the major goals of all our activities at NSF. It is one of the initiatives of 2010.
The other initiative is what we call cyberinfrastructure. Cyberinfrastructure--with the explosion of knowledge, with the explosion of information, and all forms of communication (from written media to the internet, to mobile devices)--[we ask], "How do we separate out the signal from the noise." "How do we sort and organize information?" "How do we mine information?" And this is not only for scientific curiosity and knowledge creation, but also for societal implications: social networks, health care and national security. This is something that also involves pretty much every corner and branch of NSF. The U.S. scientific community has been very much engaged in this, there have been a number of reports, and this is something you will be hearing more about in the future.
With that, let me stop. And I thank you for the opportunity to talk to you. I welcome your questions.