Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
National Science Foundation
Release of "Science for the 21st Century"
Report by the National Science and Technology Council
July 20, 2004
Good afternoon. Let me add my congratulations to the Committee on Science for such a thorough examination of how far we've come in science, and where we are headed.
As we advance along the road of discovery, we should periodically revisit how our nation rose to scientific preeminence.
As all of you know, the power of science to contribute to our national welfare changed dramatically during World War II. At that historic point, the grand tradition of publicly funded science began in the United States.
Initially, the goal was to marshal the science community to help win the war; and it worked. However, wise public officials, most prominently Vannevar Bush, recognized the larger benefits that publicly funded science could bring to every avenue of domestic need and progress. The rest is a glorious journey of scientific advance and human benefit.
We continue to seek, through science, a clear path to economic growth, health and well-being, and national security. But the path from discovery ... to innovation ... is often obscured by the mist of uncertainty, and the opportunity to go in many directions.
In science and engineering, that's part of the journey. We can provide a general road map, but it's often the twists and turns down narrow alleys and unknown passages that lead to the most surprising revelations.
Just as Robert Frost encountered two roads in a wood, so we, as scientists and engineers, sometimes pause at a crossroads and head in a previously untraveled direction. As in the famous poem, we "... took the other as just as fair ... Because it was grassy and wanted wear..."
The risks are high in pursuing groundbreaking research, and sometimes the results disrupt the status quo. But the ultimate rewards of research at the frontier are borne out in the record of science and engineering contributions to the human endeavor and to the nation.
The fundamental building blocks produced by federally funded scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technology gurus improve lives and address national challenges. They contribute to economic growth, measures to fight terrorism, energy-efficient manufacturing, environmental strategies, and medical therapies.
Rarely has a national priority arisen for which there wasn't a lot of research already in the works, and collaborations among institutions and agencies, ready to respond.
Sensors designed to monitor environmental impacts on ecosystems are now being used to monitor for chemical and biological threats. Signals generated by the Global Positioning System have become invaluable as a tool of meteorologists probing the atmosphere.
And looking farther into the past, as Dr. Zerhouni can attest, the study of the basic spin characteristics of matter led to one of the most important revolutions in medical imaging.
Each decade of science enlightens mankind with the previously unimaginable, from finding a surprising diversity of life deep in an Antarctic lake to creating an international computational grid for physics experiments.
This enlightenment, enabled by our investments in people with far-reaching insights, is the means of moving from idea to discovery to addressing national needs. NSF and the other agencies strive to identify researchers who will turn the corner of an established discipline, or create a new field at the juncture of two or more disciplines. The best of those people, and sometimes the most disruptive of the status quo, often turn out to be Nobel Laureates.
We have a good record in that regard. NSF-supported researchers have collected 150 Nobel prizes over the years. Two of NIST's own scientists have also earned the honor. NIH can claim an equally impressive record.
Such groundbreaking research requires state-of-the-art facilities and instrumentation.
We are used to thinking of scientific instruments and facilities as "big hardware on the floor." Now--thanks to the information revolution--infrastructure and tools are just as likely to mean distributed systems of hardware, software, databases, and expertise ... that contribute to the generation of knowledge beyond the walls of a laboratory.
Increasingly, the science and engineering portfolio includes the social, behavioral, and economic impacts of change. In a world that is moving fast and is so interconnected by technology, we have an intellectual--and ethical--responsibility to explore the human dimensions of change--including how humans adapt to and make use of technology. The drive to create change at the nanoscale makes this responsibility even more compelling.
One of the most important aspects of the changes wrought by the information revolution and emerging fields such as nanotechnology is the need for a workforce with new skills.
The future promises an environment of research across disciplines and across geographic borders, with shared use of sophisticated equipment and powerful information technology.
To remain competitive, however, we must pool our resources to produce a general workforce that is scientifically and technologically literate. And a science and engineering workforce that is world-class by all measures.
Thus, our combined investments in thought, invention, experimentation, and education will lead us to social and economic prosperity and security. We support new insights and challenging questions because they are the drivers for growth and change.
In 1945, when Vannevar Bush transmitted his report Science - The Endless Frontier to President Franklin Roosevelt, he said: "The rewards of ... exploration both for the Nation and the individual are great. Scientific progress is one essential key to our security as a nation, to our better health, to more jobs, to a higher standard of living, and to our cultural progress."
It is only through robust investments that scientists and engineers are able to reach the crossroads of current knowledge and uncharted directions. From there, they can choose the path to even greater human and national achievement.
In the words of Robert Frost:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence
Two roads diverged in a wood
And I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.
I would add:
"That has made all the difference ...to this nation and its citizens."