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Photo of Arden Bement

Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
Acting Director
National Science Foundation

"Science Connects: How Discovery Drives Our Global Future"
Remarks, Washington State University
Campus-Wide Address

September 17, 2004

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.

Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for inviting me for what has already been a very enjoyable visit to Washington State University. I'd like to express special thanks to Vice Provost Petersen for this invitation and to all the staff who are supporting my visit.

I am very aware that this is the land of "crimson and gray" and that I'm in "Cougar Country." That makes me especially pleased that you are hosting me--a graduate from the University of Idaho--on the eve of a game with the Vandals!

Many of you have more than a passing acquaintance with the National Science Foundation. Still, the sheer breadth and depth of our investments in science and engineering may come as a bit of a surprise.

NSF-supported discoveries benefit our nation in countless ways. At the same time, they draw increasingly upon the exchange of knowledge on a global scale. All of us, in every discipline, have a responsibility to make a collective and compelling case to the public for why fundamental research matters to society, and to explain its global benefits.

As an example of such public outreach, I would like to show a short excerpt from a video about the National Science Foundation, called "America's Investment in the Future."

[Video is available at http://www.nsf.gov/news/mmg/mmg_disp.cfm?med_id=51432]
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From hurricanes to Antarctica to infrastructure, from health to dinosaurs to IMAX films, it is NSF's role to bolster research on the horizon and science education on the cutting-edge.

We estimate that nearly 200,000 people participate directly in NSF programs and activities each year, from researchers to K-12 students and teachers. Add to that the audiences for museum exhibits and media programs on science, and the number swells to some 100 million people.

[Title Slide]
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I've entitled my talk "Science Connects: How Discovery Drives Our Global Future." Within science, we trace complex interconnections among disciplines, with cross-fertilization fast becoming the norm in all fields.

"Intellectual migrants are wandering back and forth across many academic frontiers, generally without stopping for any formalities at the customs house."1 That is an apt observation from Brian Hayes, columnist at American Scientist. Progress in any discipline has come to depend on the sustenance of the whole: all of science and engineering.

[Slide #2: Dust Cloud Over Atlantic Ocean]
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As our planet itself grows more interconnected in social and environmental terms, science assumes the global stage. As this view of a dust storm bulging out from North Africa into the Atlantic Ocean suggests, we are just beginning to have the tools to observe--and to tackle--scientific challenges that span countries and even continents. This dust cloud might have consequences for lung disease, crop yields, and coral reefs wherever it alights back on Earth, perhaps westward in the Caribbean.

[Slide #3: S&E Indicators: US Share of S&E Articles, 1988-2001]
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What are some of the evolving characteristics of international science, and what might be their implications here at home? International collaboration in research is changing, as this figure suggests. In the inset graph, we see that the US share of world output of peer-reviewed, scientific articles has gradually declined relative to the world total since 19882.

Meanwhile, other domestic and international trends noted by the National Science Board--which provides guidance to NSF--should be of interest to those of us concerned about our future science and engineering workforce. A number of industrial nations have aging populations, while many of the younger generation in those countries are not attracted to science and engineering fields.

[Slide #4: S&E Indicators: Ratio of S&E bachelor's degrees to 24-year-olds]
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Here is a snapshot of who is receiving science and engineering bachelor's degrees in natural science in the United States. Currently, Hispanics account for less than 3% of such degrees.

Looking down the road to 2025, the Census Bureau projects that 93% of additional school-age children--numbers added to our current school population in the U.S.--will be Hispanic.3

This is also reinforced in the smaller graph here, which shows the decline in the percentage of white 24-year-olds projected out to 2020. We can ponder the implications of this and other ethnic shifts in our population for science and engineering.

[Slide #5: S&E Indicators: Doctorates earned by US citizens and non-citizens]
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More non-U.S.-citizens have been earning U.S. science and engineering degrees in the past two decades, as we see here. As of 2001, temporary visa holders earned the largest share of PhDs. The foreign contribution extends to graduate students--half of engineering, computer science, and mathematics graduate students are also temporary-visa holders.4

To be sure, foreign talent enriches our system, and is part of the international picture of science. However, according to a new report released by the Council of Graduate Schools, the number of foreign students entering US graduate schools dropped 18% from 2003-04--part of a downward trend in graduate admissions since 9/11.5

How will such trends affect the workforce we need to sustain our security and economy and meet other national aspirations? These data underscore that each of us must reach out to explain how fundamental research matters, to inspire our youth and the public at large.

As a foundation for such outreach, I'd like now to explore three areas of fundamental inquiry that are deeply interlaced with societal needs. These are biocomplexity, nanotechnology and power-grid research--areas that will continue to need our best minds in the future.

These areas happen to be important research foci here at Washington State University, and they are also areas of significant NSF investment. On the surface, they may appear unconnected with one another, but in fact, they connect on multiple levels.

[Slide #6: Biocomplexity Spiral]
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"…Biology today has hit the wall of biocomplexity, reductionism's nemesis." These words of pioneering biologist Carl Woese give urgency to NSF's nurturing of the new synthesis science of biocomplexity, the first research focus I will address. Biocomplexity denotes the study of complex interactions in biological systems, including humans, and their environments.6

Here, the form of a spiral, so symbolic of life at every level, underscores the point that understanding life and its environment demands observing at multiple scales, from gene to ecosystem. This broad perspective integrates across disciplines and scales.

[Slide #7: Wheat Slide]
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Biocomplexity, with its emphasis on tracing interrelationships, has much import for a key industry in this part of the country: agriculture. On the minute scale of genomics, biocomplexity's perspective contributes to environmental sustenance. I know that WSU scientists are working to develop perennial wheat, which could bring benefits like carbon sequestration and soil conservation.7

Such work may profit from the international venture to unravel the genomics of plants. I understand that WSU has one of the largest teams in the country at work on the wheat genome, which is a large and complicated nut to crack, as genomes go. While Federal investment has helped to place the US at the forefront of plant research8, mapping genomes is most cost-effective when shared among nations, and that is now happening for many plants.

[Slide #8: Soap Lake]
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Going up a rung or two on biocomplexity's ladder, NSF has supported sequencing of a variety of microbes important to agriculture. We see one of NSF's microbial observatories here in Washington State, at Soap Lake (the lake is a familiar scene to me from living in the area some years back).

We used to think of this as a "dead lake," but microorganisms living in the extreme environment of the lake--some are shown here--might be harnessed to convert agricultural waste to useful substances. WSU researchers led by Brent Peyton report that the lake's microbes have already been shown to degrade the pesticide atrazine.9

[Slide #9: Bat Pictures]
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Let's shift the biocomplexity focus to bats--in this case, many millions of them, in south-central Texas.

Researchers are using advanced infrared and Doppler radar-imaging to model the population density and foraging behavior of Brazilian free-tailed bats. Bats from Texas caves provide pest-control services for crops such as cotton and corn. One local cave may host more than 20 million bats. In fact, bats from two caves protect the cotton crop to the tune of $258 million annually, a benefit previously without a price-tag.

This same species consumes enormous numbers of insects all summer long across the southern United States. Such linkages between ecology and economics show how biocomplexity's integrative approach comes full circle--revealing the web of relationships that sustains both natural and human activities.

[Slide #10: Nanoscale Iron Image]
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Other scientific and societal connections weave around and within a second research area, nanotechnology, binding it firmly to biocomplexity. Nanotechnology brings new promise to cleaning up contaminated soil and groundwater in the United States--a trillion-dollar problem.

Researchers from Lehigh University have put nanoscale powder, made from iron, to work on such contamination. The oxidizing iron can be injected to break down dioxins and PCBs, for instance, into less toxic compounds. It also oxidizes heavy metals--such as lead, nickel and mercury into less mobile forms. The nanoscale powders are much more reactive than conventional powders.

[Slide #11: Nanocollage]
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As many of you know, nanoscience and technology are a major NSF investment. That support includes the societal and educational implications of nanoscale advances. About 11% of the Federal funding for the US National Nanotechnology Initiative this fiscal year supports study of nanotechnology's medical, environmental and other broader implications.

When we fold in the study of societal implications at the very onset of research, we create a much greater range of choices about how to shape nanotechnology. To speed progress on such challenges, NSF plans to support a new Center for Nanotechnology in Society. Proposals for that center are now being solicited.

Education in nanotechnology is another essential dimension of shaping the applications and consequences of the field. Here at WSU, a researcher received presidential recognition in May for such outreach.

Susmita Bose was honored with the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. She is working on innovative, multidisciplinary studies of bioactive bone implants. Since about 800,000 bone procedures are performed in this country each year, this research has broad implications.

Not only that, but Dr. Bose's extensive hands-on activities for high school students, and her involvement of undergrads, industry, teachers and minority students showcase how science, indeed, connects.

[Slide #12: International Report Cover Image]
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International exchange is essential to ensuring that nanotechnology supports the common good. This June, NSF convened an international dialogue on nanotechnology's implications, which provided an opportunity for government representatives and others to discuss broad societal issues in this emerging field. This is the cover of their report, in which the group calls for on-going dialogue, including with the poorest nations.

[Slide #13: Breast Cancer Visual]
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We have many common interests around the globe, and our country benefits from other nations' complementary strengths in biocomplexity and nanotechnology research. These images from the work of the US-Africa Materials Institute, involving Princeton University, show how magnetic nanoparticles (labeled SIOP, or Superparamagnetic Iron Oxide Particles), can be used to detect cancer cells in the breast or prostate gland.

The hope is that this institute and its sister organizations will evolve into nodes for international research. Furthermore, such networks can facilitate the international research experiences that have become an essential element in the education of many US scientists and engineers.

[Slide #14: US in Lights]
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The North American power grid has been called the largest machine ever created by human beings. Grid research is my third example of a research focus of interest to both Washington State University and NSF--another one that exhibits societal, interdisciplinary and international connections.

We've just observed the anniversary of last year's massive blackout of that enormous machine, the grid, in the US and Canada. Nanotechnology did not grab headlines at the time; nonetheless, fundamental research in that area has promise to strengthen our power grid.

The grid has about 200,000 miles of transmission lines, 5000 power plants, and a complex distribution system. The growth in load is expected to increase by 50% over the next 10 to 15 years, while almost no new high voltage lines have been constructed in the past 20 years.

As Candace Stuart describes the grid in a recent issue of Small Times, "It's antiquated, inefficient and dumb, hampered by half-century-old technologies that can't communicate…It's too valuable to ignore, and too expensive to replace."10

[Slide #15: Two Images of Northeastern US: Before and After the Blackout]
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Here we see part of the northeastern US, before and after last year's blackout. Note, for example, the change in the lights on Long Island, highlighted by the yellow arrows. The purple arrows highlight before-and-after in Toronto, Canada. Blackouts of our piecemeal grid are growing in frequency and magnitude.

Today, power transmission cables sag into trees and short out—a problem with a clear materials-research connection. Nobelist Richard Smalley, a nanoscience pioneer, argues that wires made of nanotubes offer a lightweight and more efficient alternative to conventional cables. Sensors--another area dependent on new materials advances--are also being discussed to improve the grid's operations as a network.

[Slide #16: Visualization Map]
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Visualizing our unruly grid--as in this example from the Power Systems Engineering Research Center, a large collaboration including WSU--brings information technology to bear on this complex system. The red and blue colors show the voltages in the high-voltage power grid; red areas denote higher, the blue areas lower than normal. The black dots are called "buses"--junction points where a number of transmission lines join together.

We know that the grid is much more than the sum of its materials and components, and penetrating its human and physical dynamics requires insights from engineering, economics and even ecology. Today, some theories about the grid resound with vocabulary that would make an ecologist feel right at home--words like "cascade," "non-linear," "self-healing," "adaptive" and "chaotic."

Some researchers have suggested, intriguingly, that U.S. power failures exhibit the same pattern followed by disasters such as earthquakes, forest fires and dam failures.11 This pattern is the hallmark of complex, chaotic systems.

[Slide #17: 3-D Midwest Power Grid Visualization]
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Here is another example of how information technology helps us to see grid dynamics. Here in a view from Illinois toward the north, each bar represents a generator; the orange shading indicates that most are at peak load, or with very little spare capacity. The lines on the ground represent high voltage transmission lines.

Information technology, however, also brings a new vulnerability to the grid. Here at WSU, researchers are working on that vulnerability to the evolving grid: namely, cyberattacks that prey upon the grid's growing deregulation and dependence upon the Internet. "The information technology infrastructure needs to be made highly adaptive to ensure its survivability," the team writes.12

Returning back to this image, should a cyberattack or any attack on the power grid take place, such visualizations should help operators to quickly see what is happening—to perceive the rapidly changing state of the grid.

Again, international connections--with Brazil being a prime example—bring better technologies for upgrading wires and new research in adaptive control. A project team headed by WSU's Kevin Tomsovic and others at WSU collaborates with West Africa on the technical, social, economic and environmental components of large-scale electric-power systems.

Keeping the lights on for generations to come will depend on investing in multiple streams of fundamental research. These technical investments need to anticipate that future markets will be different than those of today.13

[Slide #18: Final Slide]
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Science is ever-more-interconnected, even as it is more connected to, and needed by, society. Ours is increasingly a global society—in the challenges we face and in the scale of dynamics that characterize the science we use to face them. No matter where we live, we live in a globally engaged world, driven at its best by discovery—and our great responsibility is to realize, and pass on, its promise to all.

1 "Undisciplined Science," by Brian Hayes, American Scientist, July-Aug. 2004.
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2 "The absolute number of articles published by US-based authors has flattened since the early 1990s for all sectors and most fields; the reasons for this development are unknown and are currently being examined by NSF." --Source: Rolf Lehming, NSF program director, Science and Engineering Indicators Program.
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3 "Academe's Hispanic Future," by Peter Schmidt, Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 28, 2003.
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4 " Graduate education in the United States has long been attractive to foreign students, and, over the years, their representation among all S&E graduate students has approached 30 percent. Foreign students with temporary visas represent half of all graduate enrollment in engineering, mathematics, and computer sciences, and one-third of enrollment in the physical, earth, ocean, and atmospheric sciences combined."--Source: Rolf Lehming, op cit.
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5 "Graduate Admissions for Foreign Students Continue a Post-2001 Decline, Report Says," by John Gravois, Chronicle of Higher Education, daily news, 9/9/04.
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6 "A New Biology for a New Century," by Carl Woese, Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews, June, 2004, p. 173-186.
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7 "Full Circle: Perennial Wheat Could Fulfill a Tradition and Transform a Landscape," by Tim Steury, Washington State Magazine Online, Summer, 2004.
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8 National Plant Genome Initiative Progress Report, Jan. 2004, NSTC, p. 1.
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9 "Extreme Diversity: From the Strange Waters of Soap Lake Come Unique Forms of Life," by Tina Holding, Washington State Magazine, Spring, 2004.
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10 "Focus on Energy: Nation's Electric Grid Needs Overhaul," by Candace Stuart, Small Times, Aug. 9, 2004.
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11 "The Unruly Power Grid: Advanced Mathematical Modeling Suggests that Big Blackouts are Inevitable," by Peter Fairley, IEEE Spectrum, Web feature, August, 2004.
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12 NSF award abstract #0326006, "Collaborative Research: ITR: Secure and Robust IT Architectures to Improve Survivability of the Grid."
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13 NSF program officer Paul Werbos, Engineering Directorate; Control, Networks and Computational Intelligence Program
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