Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
National Science Foundation
Remarks, NSF Regional Grants Conference
October 4, 2004
Good afternoon. It's great to be here to talk to you about the National Science Foundation. I want to thank the NSF staff and the organizers who have made this conference possible. I'm sure before this day is out, you will be deluged with information about how the Foundation operates -- from funding to proposal processing. So to avoid redundancy and to have the chance to brag a little, I want to talk about some of the Foundation's success stories.
You may be familiar with some of the major developments that came to fruition as a result of the work conducted by NSF-funded researchers. It's a familiar list: the Internet, Doppler Radar, MRI...
But there are more subtle, behind-the-scenes factors that significantly contribute to support the more visible research that benefits the nation and society. The work that takes place to vet ideas, determine the direction and pace of emerging fields and provides the backdrop of wisdom for a continuing stream of success stories.
NSF's mission is to identify new research frontiers, nurture emerging fields, and advance established disciplines to keep the U.S. science and engineering enterprise at the cutting edge of discovery.
Working researchers in academic institutions and government agencies are important barometers to help us identify key areas as they first begin to bubble up and show promise.
Two decades before nanotechnology was cited in every newspaper as the next big driver of the global economy, dozens of U.S. scientists working at the nanoscale collaborated among themselves, formed partnerships across agencies and institutions, and helped raise the issue from a murmur to a trumpet blare. NSF's job was and is to pick up the early murmurs and focus laser-like attention on them.
NSF has been involved in nanotechnology since the 1980s. Realizing its promise early on, we identified nanotechnology as one of our priority areas for investment.
Other nations were as alert and agile in funding the early research, and now the race is on.
NSF estimates that 2 million workers will be needed to support nanotechnology industries worldwide within 15 years. That is why we have become one of the leaders in exploring the implications of the new nanotechnology so that its application is both prosperous and safe.
In another realm, NSF's leadership and foresight has also been instrumental in helping to create the currently successful relationship among industry, academe, and government.
Over the past three decades, the Foundation's Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers (I/UCRC) have led the way to a new era of partnership among our three sectors.
In 1974, when NSF started the I/UCRC program, the relationship between industry and government in America could be characterized as one of mutual reticence. During the 1970s, we also saw the rise of Japan as an economic competitor in both our domestic market, as well as in the global arena.
At this juncture, NSF harkened back to the wisdom of Vannevar Bush in his seminal piece, Science: The Endless Frontier. In it Bush directed us to understand that for science to be effective in the national welfare, it must operate as a member of a team.
NSF set out to develop a program that would build a team model, among science, government, and industry. By its very design, the Centers program would not only begin to diffuse the historic reticence between government and industry, but would also integrate the academic sector into the new formula.
This model became a place where university science and engineering and industry could be long-term and powerful partners under the aegis of a government program that provided the initial seed money.
This program became the platform from which U.S. industry could once again become aggressively competitive in homeland as well as foreign markets.
Now 30 years later, NSF has initiated well over 100 major Centers, everything from Engineering Research Centers to the newest iteration, Science of Learning Centers.
In addition, NSF's Centers' approach has changed the culture of much of science research to an integrated, collaborative enterprise. We are proud to report that this model has been imitated by other agencies and other governments.
In this new era, where advances in science and engineering are occurring at a pace and complexity previously unimagined only a few years ago, the culture of the Centers has proven even more valuable.
Today the trend of science and engineering research has become much more interdisciplinary. Many disciplines are converging in surprising ways to generate new knowledge needed for the increasingly complex challenges we face as a society.
As we advance along the road of discovery, we continue to seek the furthest frontier. 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 Frost's memorable poem, "The Road Less Traveled," 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 NSF-funded scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technologists improve lives and address national challenges. They contribute to economic growth, energy-efficient manufacturing, environmental strategies, measures to fight terrorism, and medical therapies.
A good example of this is the Plant Genome Research Project. Researchers from Washington University have joined with researchers from the University of Missouri to examine the fundamental processes to increase the production and improve the quality of corn, soybeans, and wheat.
Plant genomics holds powerful potential for addressing the agriculture and food needs of developing countries, not to mention its possibilities to help us confront the challenges in environmental management, energy, and health.
I want to commend Senator Kit Bond for the constructive role he played in securing the money for this program. His leadership has been paramount to the program's success.
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 strives 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.
It is probably time to stop bragging. Working at NSF is an opportunity to contribute to this larger vision. I am honored by the opportunity to lead NSF, and I hope that many of you will join us as grantees. Thank you.