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Remarks

Photo of Dr. Subra Suresh

Dr. Subra Suresh
Director
National Science Foundation
Biography

"From the Stratosphere to the Street"
Science without Borders: Competition and Collaboration

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting

Washington, D.C.

February 18, 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.

The lecture video is available.

[Slide #1: Title Slide]

Greetings to you all. I'm delighted and honored to speak with you today about NSF, and more broadly, about how our partnership with the science and engineering community fits into the larger context of American innovation, competitiveness and leadership around the globe.

I offer a special thank you to our hosts. AAAS has always been a leading light in the community. Not only does it foster the communication so central to the conduct of science, engineering and education, it also promotes a vibrant dialogue on science policy.

This meeting in the nation's capital, only four days after the release of the President’s FY 2012 budget, is a fitting forum to carry forward that policy dialogue.

[Slide #2: from the Stratosphere to the Street]

Today, I want to present two descriptions of the science and engineering enterprise. The first is the "view from the stratosphere." This high-altitude vision is the one which inspires many of us to pursue our research and teaching. It illustrates the extraordinary ferment and potential that characterize 21st century research and education. And it explains why NSF--in its close partnership with all of you--is so critical to the future of the nation. Collaboration in the broadest sense--across disciplines and from teams to institutions to sectors to nations--is the overarching theme, while we continue to nurture disciplinary focus and excellence with a long-term emphasis on basic research.

The second is the "view from the street." By "street," I mean a perspective that is different from Main Street or Wall Street, but that draws on features from both. This is the vision of our enterprise that plays itself out in the daily lives of Americans and in the global marketplace. Competition is the ruling mantra here. In short, it is where the rubber hits the road.

Let's start with the "street" and work our way up to the "stratosphere."

The budget for fiscal year 2011 is still evolving and there is considerable uncertainty. We do not know where the discussion will lead. But we hope our important focus on discovery is not lost.

The President has placed great confidence in NSF by providing a 13 percent increase in the Administration's fiscal 2012 budget request to Congress.

With that increase, NSF will be able to make 2000 more research awards to fund fresh ideas and train many more students in colleges and universities, in every state across the nation.

The increase will allow us to launch new research initiatives that range from advanced manufacturing and clean, sustainable energy, to next generation computer, wireless, and robotic technologies. It will allow us to explore the interface between the living and physical worlds at the most minute levels.

[Slide #3: President's Strategy for American Innovation]

These ambitious undertakings are in line with the President's Strategy for American Innovation. NSF supports research and education activities across the entire spectrum.

President Obama spoke recently of our generation's new "Sputnik moment," a reference to the challenge of meeting the nation's economic and social needs in the current climate of global competition for new ideas and talent. Continuing, smart federal investment in research and education is what makes it possible to embrace our new "Sputnik moments" and move beyond them.

Of course, the President's confidence in NSF includes all of you. You are the wellspring of creativity, discovery, and innovation that propels us beyond current frontiers to unexplored territory. In some respects, NSF is like a midwife--we are there at the birth of an idea, we help in the delivery, but everything else, including the labor, is definitely yours.

At this particular time, NSF has an especially urgent responsibility. We must make a clear and compelling case for the value of science and engineering research and education at a time when America faces many pressing needs amid tight budget constraints.

Federal support for science, engineering and technology can only be sustained if policy makers and the American people remain convinced of its contribution to the welfare of the nation and its citizens. So, we have to balance intellectual curiosity with relevance.

We must be prepared to answer two questions: "Why NSF?" and "Why now?"

[Slide #4: Smart Grid]

In her memoirs, former British Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher relates a story about a meeting between the formidable prime minister and statesman William Gladstone and the scientist Michael Faraday. When asked by Gladstone whether his research in electricity had any value, Faraday promptly replied, "Sir, one day you will tax it."

How right he was! Our globe is now "wired" in ways Faraday could not have envisioned--giving us first heat and light, then power to fuel new industries, and now the ability to communicate at the speed of light around the globe. All of this has generated a higher standard of living, created new jobs and fueled economic growth.

The economic benefits flowing from Faraday's early experiments continue to provide returns. We now have an emerging industry based entirely on the smart grid. One estimate projects it will reach $34 billion dollars worldwide by 2020.

According to a new report, a projected increase of 900 percent in data generated by the smart grid over the next few years will drive this growth.1 Our new computer and communications capabilities, together with data collection, analysis and management tools, make it possible to address the deluge of data from many sources.

[Slide #5: NSF Mission/Mandate]

Basic research is the gift that keeps on giving. That continuity requires a balanced, sustained investment in fundamental research. It is the National Science Foundation's mission to make that happen.

[Slide #6: The Knowledge Enterprise Is Changing]

In fact, the knowledge enterprise is changing. The U.S. economy is now defined in part by its foundation in science, engineering and technology. New knowledge at the frontier is the nation's new capital, its engine of innovation.

Returns on our public investments have been enormous. Since the 1950s, the U.S. stake in science, engineering, and technology has risen steadily.

Knowledge embodied in products and processes drives economic growth, which in turn raises the standard of living, provides good jobs, creates new industries, and enables us to compete--and lead--in global markets.

[Slide #7: NSF by the Numbers]

This is precisely why NSF keeps a steady and long-term focus on basic research. We cannot sacrifice the future by responding only to the present. Knowledge from basic research always benefits society--whether tomorrow, or in a decade. That is why scientists keep their eye on the furthest frontier. At NSF, we must continue to fund the most promising ideas across every field of science and engineering. We cannot be short-sighted and go after the latest fashion. In fact, there are some critical research fields that no other agency invests in, other than NSF.

As you know, NSF supports 61 percent of research carried out in U.S. universities and colleges when medical research at NIH is not included. In the field of computer science alone, the share rises to 82 percent.

Universities and colleges are increasingly central in the 21st century economy. In addition to traditional roles in research and education, many now engage in local economic development activities through collaborations with business and industry.

A number of universities provide incubators and science parks where entrepreneurs work side-by-side with other researchers to develop and commercialize their ideas. And industry relies more heavily on university research than ever before in history.

[Slide #8: SBIR and STTR]

Another sign of this changing landscape is the shift in science and engineering employment. The number of scientists and engineers working for U.S. small businesses--those with fewer than 500 employees--nearly equals those working for large businesses--including the giants of American industry and technology. In fact, small businesses now employ more scientists and engineers than do universities or government.

And we know that small businesses are responsible for the lion's share of job creation in the U.S. The Small Business Administration estimates that small businesses generated between 60 and 80 percent of all net new jobs over the past four decades.2 Many of these scientists and engineers come to the small business sector trained in the latest cutting-edge research funded by NSF.

The Small Business Innovation Research program, called SBIR, was actually designed and initiated at NSF in 1977 in response to congressional concern about the "Rust Belt Recession." By one measure,3 SBIR is generating new patents at an average speed of 13 a day. Eleven departments and federal agencies now participate in the SBIR program, and five in the STTR program.

[Slide #9: The Changing Workplace]

The nation's changing workplace also signals the impact of science and technology on American society. In a recent report, the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that "85 percent of the new jobs created in the past decade required complex knowledge skills: analyzing information, problem solving, rendering judgment, and thinking creatively."

[Slide #10: The Computer and Communications Revolution]

You may have noticed my references to NSF programs. That's not intended to be self-congratulatory. Although many other forces shape innovation, NSF has been "present at the creation" of nearly every one of the milestones that mark major breakthrough technologies. The computing revolution--which is by no means at an end--has produced transformative economic effects in a very short period of time.

NSF supported the very first computer science departments in the U.S., bringing computer science into the mainstream of research, and providing a training ground for the first and subsequent generations of computer scientists.

The Foundation's early investment in nanotechnology is at the beginning of what may prove to have an even sharper trajectory.

NSF's mandate requires investments in science and engineering across all fields. You might question the scope of this mandate. But if we want to be first movers, if we want to be leaders, we must be prepared to plow all fields as the fences among them fall. First movers usually reap the highest share of economic returns. We are committed to retaining a competitive edge in an ever more competitive era.

So, why should we be doing even more, and why now?

[Slide #11: Why NSF & America must do more]

The battle will not be easy!

  • Other nations are investing heavily in science and engineering. The U.S. is not the world leader in terms of gross R&D expenditures relative to GDP. Germany, Japan, and South Korea all surpassed us in 2000.

[Slide #12: International Math & Science Test Results]

  1. U.S. students are not performing at the top of the charts in international math and science assessments.

  2. The demographics of the science and engineering workforce do not match the nation's changing demographics.

  3. Foreign students, who contribute significantly to the science and engineering enterprise at American universities and colleges, have many more options to study and work in their home countries.

These are all troubling signs that U.S. leadership in science and engineering may be faltering, and with it our competitive edge in the global marketplace. The view from the street tells us that investments in fundamental research and education will boost our prospects for economic growth, good jobs, and a rising standard of living.

That brings me to the view from the stratosphere. Those engaged directly in the discovery process, primarily scientists and engineers, understand the profound potential for progress that lies just beyond current frontiers.

[Slide #13: Einstein quote]

Einstein captured this optimism about future progress when he said, "One may say the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility."4

Like so much of his work, this observation is still pertinent today. We can understand the world--ourselves included--and with that knowledge help resolve the major dilemmas facing society today.

In fact, the potential for new knowledge has never been greater. We now ask questions that we could not formulate or seek solutions to even a mere five or ten years ago.

[Slide #14: Era of Observation: Exoplanet]

We have already crossed the threshold of a new scientific revolution. I think of this revolution as initiating a new "Era of Observation." Think of Galileo's telescope and Leeuwenhoek's microscope. They opened vistas that had never before been imagined, and profoundly changed how humans viewed their universe and their place within it.

Today, telescopes--from the hills of Hawaii, to the plains of Chile, to the ice fields of Antarctica--give us new visions of the solar system and far beyond to new planets in distant galaxies.

At the cosmic scale, we are moving closer and closer to observing the universe just after the Big Bang. This will inform our understanding of the tiniest particles of matter. Physicists talk about their field stretching "From Quarks to the Cosmos."

[Slide #15: Era of Observation: Antarctic ice and ocean observation]

At the scale of geologic time, we can now read millennia of climate data in the Antarctic ice. NSF-funded work just two weeks ago set a new American record. We can observe the complex dynamics of ocean processes in real time. These observations will help us answer difficult questions about weather and the environment.

[Slide #16: Era of Observation: Nanoscale image]

Observations at the nano scale advance our capability to design and build materials one atom or molecule at a time. Nano is the dimension where living and non-living worlds meet--where molecules that form the basis of life interact with the physical world and environment. We envision drug delivery systems and gene therapies that aim, with exquisite precision, at molecular--or even smaller--targets.

[Slide #17: Era of Observation: blue neuron and crowd]

The dynamics of complex systems shed light on how disparate systems interact over different spatial and temporal scales and at different levels of organization--think of humans, starting with atoms and molecules, and advancing to human behavior in societies.

[Slide #18: The Era of Data and Information]

Our broad and powerful spectrum of observational capabilities has brought us to another new era: The "Era of Data and Information."

Today, science generates new data at an ever-increasing rate. The storage, integration, and extraction of knowledge from all this information requires new approaches to computer science, mathematics, engineering, data management, education, and distributed networking. And it will also require an understanding of social behavior.

Making the appropriate investments in our cyberinfrastruture will be immeasurable in terms of achieving scientific productivity from this information explosion.

[Slide #19: Science and Engineering without Border]

We know that discoveries are often found at the interface among disciplines. I know this from my own "hands-on" work as an engineer and a scientist who crossed over into the realm of biology.

The theme of these meetings, "Science without Borders," captures the ferment and promise that now characterize the research and education enterprise. The old borders--among disciplines, among institutions, among nations, and among people of all cultures--are dissolving.

Disciplinary silos are made of mesh and our ideas and innovations slide through to influence multiple disciplines and move us closer to solving complex, cross-cutting problems.

The need to respond to this incredible intellectual diversity and wholesale change is evident in the breadth of NSF's research investments. In fact, no other agency addresses fundamental discovery across the entire spectrum of science and engineering as NSF does. Our mandate to do this gives us a particular advantage in collaborating with nations as we move ahead in these areas.

The NSF 2012 budget request includes new initiatives that aggressively engage the community and the NSF Directorates in interdisciplinary and overarching programs while we continue to emphasize, nurture, and support disciplinary excellence.

[Slide #20: INSPIRE: Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education]

One example is INSPIRE, or Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education. This is aimed squarely at changing the way NSF does business--quite literally--and encouraging cross-disciplinary science in the science and engineering community.

INSPIRE will support interdisciplinary research by encouraging researchers to submit proposals that involve investigations in multiple disciplines or that integrate disciplines or even create new disciplines.

In parallel, INSPIRE also introduces a coordinated process across all directorates and offices within NSF in order to help break down disciplinary barriers that may exist within NSF. It encourages program managers to use new tools and innovative collaborations in the merit-review process. This should help widen the pool of prospective discoveries that might otherwise be overlooked.

[Slide #21: Cyberinfrastructure for 21st Century Science and Engineering: CIF21]

Cyberinfrastructure for 21st Century Science and Engineering, or CIF21, another new initiative, builds on NSF's long history of providing leadership for cyberinfrastructure within the community.

CIF21 will strengthen data-enabled science, support new computational infrastructure, and expand access and connections to cyberinfrastructure facilities. It will facilitate distributed collaborative networks that allow researchers to easily adapt to changes in the research and education process. CIF21 will also help NSF pioneer new ways of collaborating with other agencies and with the international research and education communities.

[Slide #22: Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability (SEES)]

The Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability (SEES) program embraces a portfolio of programs and activities that spark innovations for tomorrow's clean energy with a cross-disciplinary approach to sustainability science. SEES will foster insights about the environment-energy-economy nexus. It will increase the effectiveness of our energy and management policies in mitigating and adapting to the impacts of environmental changes.

[Slide #23: Promoting Innovation and Meeting National Needs]

A number of programs in the 2012 budget request are designed to promote innovations that benefit the national economy and economic processes while continuing to emphasize very strongly basic and fundamental research with a long-term perspective. NSF will expand investments in clean energy and advanced manufacturing, as well as support for the National Nanotechnology Initiative.

EARS, or Enhanced Access to the Radio Spectrum, is a new activity that funds research to use the radio spectrum more efficiently. NSF will also participate in a cross-agency effort to ensure U.S. leadership in robotics research, innovation, and development.

Continued funding for Engineering Research Centers and Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers, as well as the Small Business Innovation Research Program will catalyze innovation in businesses large and small.

[Slide #24: OneNSF: Education]

I have not yet mentioned education. As you all know, research and education go hand-in-hand at NSF. NSF envisions activities integrated across directorates with a renewed emphasis on evaluation and assessment. This is the most effective way to advance our education goals.

NSF will continue to emphasize broadening participation. We will also focus on Community Colleges, Advanced Technical Education, and on the preparation of teachers, especially in the STEM fields.

I could describe many other exciting programs. But I'm reaching the limits of my time--and perhaps your patience.

[Slide #25: OneNSF]

Last, but not least, I want to share with you the concept of "OneNSF," which is very much part of my vision for NSF for the decade and beyond--and is founded upon the original vision of Dr. Vannevar Bush.

It is not enough for NSF to encourage you to cross borders. NSF should be a mirror that reflects the direction of discovery, but also a beacon for new organizational and institutional arrangements that can help all of us overcome common obstacles to change. We must ensure that NSF signals, at all levels of the organization, new approaches to a changing science, engineering, and education enterprise.

OneNSF is central to my vision for advancing NSF's mission. The National Science Foundation will be an agency that works seamlessly in a well-integrated way across organizational and disciplinary boundaries.

[Slide #26: Illustration conceptualizing OneNSF]

The OneNSF approach will allow us to:

  • Support fundamental research and education in all disciplines with a long-term focus on basic research;

  • Address complex multidisciplinary challenges of national and global significance;

  • Spark greater innovation and opportunity for scientific discoveries in the NSF grantee community;

  • Create new networks and infrastructure for the nation to address complex scientific issues and grand challenges;

  • Improve organizational efficiency; and

  • Catalyze human-capital development and talent for the science and engineering workforce of the 21st century.

Much of this may sound familiar. In fact, it should. It is fully in keeping with the traits that have made NSF such a model agency for the past 60 years.

So, what are we aiming to do? Here are a few starting points. NSF will:

  • Better align the operations of the Foundation with the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of modern science and engineering, while strongly supporting disciplinary excellence;

  • Employ multi-disciplinary and cross-directorate approaches to address complex societal problems;

  • Position the Foundation strategically so that it anticipates and successfully adapts to leadership roles in response to the rapid pace of technological development; and

  • Improve the education of our next generation of scientists and engineers in new and innovative ways that lead to broadening participation and inclusion of talent from all segments of our increasingly diverse population.

I call this initiative "OneNSF" to emphasize its deeply collaborative nature. You might say it also reflects the theme of these meetings by calling it "NSF without Borders." I am committed to making this vision a reality at NSF.

[Slide #27: Title slide image of bridge]

I began by discussing the "useful" side of science: How advances provide economic and societal benefits. I moved on to a high-altitude view that provides some hints about how we can expect to solve highly complex problems that challenge and contribute to global prosperity through long-term focus on fundamental research. These two viewpoints are simply two sides of the same coin. Our world is complex, we have highly urgent problems to address, and the pursuit of new knowledge is the best path to a better future.

An old Spanish proverb advises us that "calm seas do not make good sailors." There will be plenty of big waves to challenge us in the next few weeks, the next few months, in the next few years. And I'm sure that the challenges will keep us agile, nimble, competitive, and responsive to the opportunities ahead that will make us better sailors.

These are critical times for us to speak with one voice about the significance of our work so that our voice is heard and our contributions to American prosperity--indeed, to global prosperity--are fully understood. I count on you as partners to help us navigate the seas.

Thank you.

NOTES

  1. Lux Research report: "The Data Revolution: How intelligent Hardware Will Drive the $34 Billion Smart Grid," www.luxresearchinc.com.
    Return to speech.

  2. U.S. Small Business Administration, Small Business FAQ's, 2009.
    Return to speech.

  3. Innovation Development Institute, from Patent and Trademark data.
    Return to speech.

  4. Albert Einstein (1879–1955), quoted in Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe, ch. 5 (1979).
    Return to speech.

 

 

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