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Photo of Arden Bement

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

"The Conduct of Science Is Not What It Used to Be"
Address to Instituto Politecnico Nacional
Mexico City
October 28, 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 morning. I’m pleased to be able to visit Mexico, our neighbor and partner in discovery and innovation. I've had some productive discussions the last few days on how, together, we can take advantage of the fact that science and engineering research and education is reaching across borders. In our work at the National Science Foundation, we have embraced the concept that globalization extends to all aspects of science and technology innovation, society, and the economy.

Globalization in science and engineering is leading to increased opportunities for leveraging resources and sharing the infrastructure needed to address global challenges. And, of course, increased teamwork and collaboration means that innovations worldwide are more readily available.

I'd like to offer some observations on the changes taking place in the conduct of research in our time, and the impact of those changes on traditional disciplines.

The results of research, and the meaning of observations, can be a challenge to perceive and to understand. It’s been said that “The eye cannot see what the mind can’t perceive.” Today, however, new research tools and techniques are proving that old saying is obsolete. The process of observing and understanding in science is evolving at rates that are exponentially faster than in the past.

[Title slide: The Conduct of Science Is Not What it Used to Be]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Indeed, the conduct of science is not what it used to be—and that’s what I’ve titled my talk. The transformation of scientific tools has brought us observations unprecedented in quality, detail and scope—observations that sometimes hover on the edge of comprehensibility. Evolving in concert with the new tools are different ways of working within science, such as collaborations across multiple disciplines and across national borders. And we are recognizing that the newest challenges can only be met by embracing the social sciences in a truly organic way.

These new modes of working are essential to meeting the grand scientific challenges of our era—those overarching goals that require a cooperative, large-scale effort. I’d like to explore with you how the modern interplay of teams, tools, and human dynamics is transforming how science takes place.

One of the promising trends is the broadening participation in research and discovery, among the diverse cultures of many countries. We need multiple, innovative perspectives to meet worldwide challenges such as atmospheric change, seismic hazards, and the need for sustainable energy and water supplies.

The trend toward broader participation is illustrated in a recent National Science Foundation report. The report shows that the number of scientific articles attributed to authors in countries south of the United States has expanded greatly in the 13 years from 1988 to 2001.

In Mexico alone, the output of professional science and engineering articles tripled during this period. Large increases in authorship also took place in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and other neighboring nations.

Besides indicating the rising influence of North and Latin American science and engineering, this trend reflects the increasing need for multi-institutional and multi-national collaboration. Indeed, a scan of scientific journals today reveals a preponderance of large teams conducting large, complex studies.

An even more prominent change is in expanded capabilities and greater access to science and engineering infrastructure. The new modes of conducting science employ sensors embedded in large grids, often extending across continents. They require the synthesis of massive databases, and computational models of complex behavior. We see these patterns whether the topic of investigation is earthquakes, ecological systems, oceans, or astronomical phenomena.

Computing power is critical in refining the capabilities that bring unparalleled acuity to modern scientific vision. Data are readily available and equipment is remotely accessible, via the Internet.

I’d like to turn to some illustrations from the NSF portfolio of how these new tools and techniques are transforming disciplines and broadening the opportunities for teamwork. The results will have applications on scales ranging from the global to the local.

[Slide #2: Earthscope Observatory Beneath San Andreas Fault]

My first example is from the geosciences. It is one of the observational platforms within the program called Earthscope.

Both of our nations are anxious to improve our understanding of the processes taking place beneath our feet. EarthScope is one of the first big projects to plan progressive study at dispersed locations over an entire continent.

This EarthScope observatory, recently installed three kilometers beneath the surface of California, is probing one of the world’s most active seismic zones, the San Andreas Fault. A drill has burrowed down through the granite, puncturing the fault like a soda straw. Sensors lining the tunnel will search--for the first time--for signals that could alert us to a major earthquake.

Earthscope, in its overall configuration, will ultimately give a three-dimensional view of the North American continent, from surface to core. The project exemplifies a new way of learning about the earth’s structure. Until now, we’ve had to wait until an earthquake happens, and then study the resulting seismic records—or turn to rock outcrops to piece together the earth's history. Now we’re moving beyond static, limited views, to sweeping spatial scales and continuous observations over time.

As NSF’s chief geoscientist, Margaret Leinen, puts it, “It’s not postage stamps and snapshots in geoscience anymore.”

[Slide #3: NEES Mapped Network]

While Earthscope is getting us closer to the "core" of understanding Earth's processes, NEES--the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation--has a more specific mission. This network is dedicated to the grand challenge of preventing earthquake disasters. NEES facilities will simulate earthquakes and study how infrastructure and materials perform during seismic events.

[Slide #4: MAST Equipment]

Here is one component of NEES: the Multi-Axial Subassemblage Testing Laboratory at the University of Minnesota. This lab does three-dimensional testing of large-scale structural specimens. It is part of a virtual laboratory that encompasses laboratories and test facilities at 15 universities across the United States. The network will be inaugurated on November 15.

[Slide #5: Researchers and Students Observing NEES Experiments]

Until now, earthquake engineers were tied to a lab that contained physical equipment like a shake table or centrifuge. Now, a network of researchers and students across the country can access not only the data, but the equipment located at remote sites. They will be able to observe and participate in experiments via remote control, and to access data stored in a central repository. NEES will extend the ability to do earthquake research to many institutions unable to purchase and maintain expensive equipment.

The earthquake community has a long history of international cooperation, and NEES is no exception. Already, the NEES institutions have performed a real-time experiment with an institution in Japan. We are exploring ways to expand the network through international connections. And in 2005, the NEES participants will meet to establish an international steering committee intended to standardize the earthquake engineering cyberinfrastructure, including cybertools and data formats. At NSF, we see these as necessary steps in addressing a multi-national challenge.

[Slide #6: NEON Network]

Ecology is another discipline developing a blueprint for a network that will span the continent, and beyond. The National Ecological Observatory Network—NEON—is being designed on a continental scale to answer questions that cross space and time. It will enable ecological forecasting—helping to chart how climate change will alter forests and crops, how an infectious disease like West Nile Virus emerges and spreads, and how an introduced species can disrupt a native ecosystem, like the snakehead fish is demonstrating in the rivers of the United States.

The plans for NEON illustrate a huge growth in real-time observational capability, and improvements in sensor size, connectivity, and ease of maintenance.

[Slide #7: Networked NEON Site]

On a local scale, we can envision a forest site like this, embedded with multiple sensors. If one of the sensors is knocked out, by weather or by an animal, the sensing and transmission network can heal itself and continue working. Ideally, NEON will make measurements simultaneously at sites across the continent, from forest ecosystems to prairie to coast, spanning biological scales from molecular to ecosystem.

Just as NSF's Long-Term Ecological Research program evolved from a national into an international program, we see the same potential for NEON. We all recognize that ecological problems have no national borders.

[Slide #8: Ocean Diversity Collage]

I turn now from land to sea. Two centuries ago, an American poet observed, "There is nothing so...monotonous as the sea."1 How differently the world's oceans appear now. Striking oceanographic discoveries are taking place even as scientific and environmental challenges mount. The poet could have known nothing of the thriving communities at deep-sea vents, the huge uncharted diversity of microbial life living under the sea floor, the dynamic geophysics of plate boundaries, and the growing recognition of the ocean’s role in global-scale processes.

To explore these grand challenges and even those that lie beyond, we are employing new research tools that will enhance our observations from the air, from the shore, from the surface, and from the depths.

[Slide #9: Next-Generation Alvin Collage]

This is the deep-diving, human-occupied submersible that will replace Alvin, the vessel the United States has used for almost 40 years. Alvin played a role in discovering deep-sea thermal vents, discerning the movement of continental plates, and exploring the wreck of the Titanic. The new vessel, which will be completed in 2008, will enable scientists to travel to more than 99% of the sea floor. It will have better visibility, sensors, and collection capabilities than previous instruments.

Even the little known Arctic Ocean is being explored at the North Pole. This animation shows a research camp on the sea ice with an oceanographic mooring beneath. The mooring stretches more than two and a half miles down, and is anchored to the seafloor beneath the ice.

It is hung with instruments that record temperature, salinity, current speed and direction, and ice thickness and movement. This site at the top of the world is creating a benchmark to track fast-moving Arctic change.

[Slide #10: Ocean Observing Network]

Oceanographers are developing a broad and integrated vision for observatories, like the hypothetical one we see here in the Pacific, off the state of Washington. The new systems will take targeted samples and observe over a large area and over an extended time period.

For example, it will be possible for a sensor to be triggered to take samples of an actual event, such as the discharge of a hydrothermal vent. We’ll be able to ask new kinds of questions, such as: How much do vent emissions contribute to the earth’s carbon budget?

Information technology is playing a key role in ocean research. A number of institutions are banding together to create a prototype grid to link oceanographers with wireless and optical networks to ocean observatories off Mexico, the United States and Canada.

[Slide #11: National Virtual Observatory]

Astronomical research is already moving to access on a global scale. As you know from the U.S.-Mexican radio telescope project, and from Mexico's contribution to the upgrade of the U.S. Very Large Array, the discipline has moved beyond the days of one telescope, one institution, even one nation.

Another project, the National Virtual Observatory, exemplifies the meaning of shared data and facilities. Although it is titled "national," this project will offer access to all astronomy data and literature to anyone, wherever they may be. That all-important astronomical commodity, “instrument time,” is no longer exclusive. An astronomer will be able to integrate data from the entire observational spectrum. The Internet will become, as astronomers put it, "the world´s best telescope"2--a supercomputer at your desktop.

By enabling comparison of massive amounts of data from diverse sources--space and ground, and radio, optical, infrared, and other wavelengths--the NVO will extend the power to look at fundamental questions, such as the evolution of the universe, to researchers, educators, and students worldwide. This is a step toward what observers have termed the "democratization" of the conduct of science. Social scientists need to be part and parcel of studying this change.

Massive amounts of data are another challenge to astronomy—doubling in quantity every year in this exponential world. As Alex Szalay, a scientist involved with the NVO, puts it, "The quantity of scientific data is so enormous that dealing with data is a whole new discipline in itself—that is happening in every branch of science."3

[Slide #12: A New Window on the Universe]

Beyond the realm of astronomy, we turn to physics for another example of a new, ambitious instrument. We expect this instrument to let us see a phenomenon never before detected—and that is gravitational waves, resulting from violent events in space. As this slide suggests, we have probed space using visible and infrared light, x-rays, and the cosmic microwave background, and each has opened up a new dimension of the universe. Gravitational waves may be the next window.

[Slide #13: How Are Gravity Waves Formed?]

According to Einstein, every object causes a bending in the fabric of space. Einstein also realized that this bending of space could produce waves.

He saw that if two objects moved around each other in orbit, they will create ripples in the curvature of space, ripples that expand throughout the universe, carrying clues about their origin.

We see here a model of a collision between two black holes, which is one of the violent phenomena that the new equipment might be able to detect.

[Slide #14: LIGO - Livingston, Louisiana]

The instrument, called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, or LIGO, consists of two interferometer detectors--one at Hanford, Washington, and one at Livingston, Louisiana--which are separated by nearly the length of the United States. Ultimately, the LIGO detectors might reveal astrophysical phenomena not detectable any other way.

[Slide Not Available]

Today, I have surveyed some large, networked observation systems now employed to study phenomena from gravitational waves to invasive species to earthquakes. These systems have helped to draw scientists into interdisciplinary teams that span the globe.

The latest of these efforts is the Teragrid, a networking capability that seeks to transcend the boundaries of disciplines and geography and to accelerate collaborative research on complex challenges. As NSF’s chief computer scientist, Peter Freeman, puts it, “We are planning for facilities that a chemist can use this morning, a physicist can use this afternoon, and an earthquake engineer can use tonight.”

The spectacular new tools of science and engineering are only part of the picture. I’d like to turn now to the final part of my talk, on some implications of these trends for science and for scientists. Sociologists today are studying how the norms of science are changing, and why—a discussion inseparable, I believe, from the transformation in the tools we invent to do science.

Social scientists point to changes in the conduct of science driven by information technology. I have already touched upon the democratization of scientific access made possible by networks like the National Virtual Observatory or the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation. Another change is the immediate communication of science through electronic publishing, as opposed to paper journals.

I’ve also alluded to the massive avalanche of data now pouring down on many disciplines. The capability to collect such quantities of data indeed changes the questions we can ask, making it possible to deal with higher orders of complexity. It also creates new needs for techniques like data mining and data integration.

A fascinating example of utilizing information technology for "knowledge discovery" and for broader access to databases comes from geoscience. A number of researchers believe that we might be in the throes of another mass extinction event on earth. So understanding the geologic records of past events becomes more than academic.

The extinction event at the end of the Permian period continues to generate considerable study, and is the basis for an ocean-drilling project in the Yucatan.

An earlier extinction event--and perhaps the most extensive--occurred at the boundary of the Permian and Triassic periods about 250 million years ago. Some 90 percent of marine species and 70 percent of terrestrial vertebrate species became extinct.

Various explanations for this event have been proposed, from meteorite impact to supernova explosion to volcanism. Each model encompasses the knowledge of a particular discipline, and each is able to provide only a partial resolution of the cause.

Integration of existing knowledge from sub-disciplines is essential to assessing the cause of the event as well as its duration. Information technology pulls together existing data in new ways to advance discovery and transform science. Such studies also raise questions of how to train and reward workers in untraditional areas, such as the “reuse” of data by multiple researchers for multiple purposes.

I will cite one more aspect of the changing conduct of science, and that is the increased public engagement and participation in science, fueled in no small part by information technology. The old model advocated the public understanding of science, which implies a one-way flow of knowledge to a seemingly passive public. Now we think, instead, of engagement and exchange. Volunteers are helping to conduct biodiversity surveys. And at science institute websites, visitors can view real-time data on atmosphere, astronomy, and a variety of other phenomena.

Scientific engagement with the public may be the grandest challenge of all—and is sure to change the conduct of science in ways we can hardly imagine.

The new tools that enable us to join together in interdisciplinary teams, to tackle huge questions that span many fields of knowledge, are broadening our ideas about nature, even as we are challenged to integrate social science perspectives into our work.

What hasn't changed--and what will always propel us to new heights of discovery and innovation--is the need for science and engineering research, which in turn fuels the growth of technology, society, and the economy.

In the changing context of today's science and engineering environment, we are finding that partnerships enrich and accelerate the pace of discovery and innovation. In that regard, we will continue to enjoy productive and resourceful liaisons--as neighbors, research partners, and friends.

I appreciate the opportunity to speak today. I look forward to answering your questions and meeting with some of you personally.

1 James Russell Lowell, Fireside Travels, "At Sea" (1864).
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2 "The Worldwide Telescope," by Alexander Szalay and Jim Gray, Science, vol. 293, issue 5537, 14 Sept. 2001.
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3 Quoted in "Downloading the Sky," by Jonathan C. McDowell, IEEE Spectrum Online, Aug. 4, 2004.
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