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Photo of Arden Bement

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

Setting the Agenda for 21st Century Science
Council of Scientific Society Presidents

December 5, 2005

Greetings to everyone. Thank you for the opportunity to meet with you once again, and thank you for your fine work in sustaining support for science and engineering research and education.

Today, we gather to talk about major issues facing U.S. science and engineering, and, in particular, the challenges facing the National Science Foundation. In undertaking this task, I am reminded of the wisdom of Sir Winston Churchill.

He said, "Political skill is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow. ...And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn’t happen."

So, I don't intend to read the tealeaves. Instead, I will describe what I see as the larger context in which NSF, your societies, and the science and engineering community at large must work for the foreseeable future. Above all, that context includes an increasing international competition, a deepening globalization, and an escalating demand to meet long-standing social needs. I will go on to address NSF priorities within this context, and then suggest how you and your constituencies might help shape the future and lead us beyond our current circumstances.

We clearly face a difficult budget challenge. The Administration puts very high priority on reducing the budget deficit, and that is going to affect most programs in the discretionary budget, including research and education.

Nevertheless, on November 22nd, the President signed the Science, State, Justice, Commerce and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2006. The bill provides $5.64 billion for NSF post-recision, an amount that is 3.0 percent above the agency's FY 2005 funding level. That gives us reason to be grateful in these difficult times.

For several decades science and engineering were assured recipients of a generous portion of public funds. In this new environment of budget tightening, there is "red hot" competition among many worthy programs for a diminished pot of public gold. It is not a time to take anything for granted.

That puts a heavier burden on all of us to clearly articulate the value of any program bidding for taxpayer support. Federal support for engineering, science and technology can only be sustained if policy makers remain convinced of its contribution to the nation’s benefit and to the lives of its citizens.

That being said, we can go even further by linking our activities to the economic prosperity and well being of the nation. Let me explain.

Public investment in leading-edge research and education has paid extraordinary dividends over the past fifty years. According to economists, up to half of U.S. economic growth during the latter part of the 20th century stemmed from new technologies and the advances in science and engineering that enabled them.

The R&D intensity of U.S. business has more than doubled, as has the U.S. share of leading-edge knowledge workers. The U.S. economy is now defined by its foundation in science, engineering and technology. New knowledge at the frontier is the nation's new capital, the engine of innovation. Returns on public investments in science and engineering have been enormous. 1

Our job is to convey to policy makers the fundamentals—that science and engineering research and education are essential to America's progress and the American Dream.

Fortunately, we are not the only ones voicing this message. Help is available from some impressive sources.

Long-time Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan put it this way. "Over the past half century, the increase in the value of raw materials has accounted for only a fraction of the overall growth of U.S. gross domestic product. The rest of that growth reflects the embodiment of ideas in products and services that consumers value." 2

The contribution of the U.S. science and engineering enterprise to sustained economic productivity has set a standard worldwide. As a result, industrialized and developing nations alike are doing their utmost to increase their R&D intensity and expand their talent pool through growing investments in research and education.

Recent reports have highlighted these realities as well as the consequences for the U.S. if we fall behind other nations in responding to them. The recent NRC report, Rising Above The Gathering Storm, 3 concludes: "This nation must prepare with great urgency to preserve its strategic and economic security...[T]he United States must compete by optimizing its knowledge-based resources, particularly in science and technology, and by sustaining the most fertile environment for new and revitalized industries and the well-paying jobs they bring."

In recent testimony before Congress, Norman Augustine, former Chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, put the challenge this way:

"In addressing the future quality of life in America, one cannot help but notice warnings of what appears to be an impending perfect storm." 4

Augustine's "perfect storm" is a confluence of changing circumstances that now threaten America's economic and global leadership. Among these, he sites "the pervading importance of education and research in science and technology to America’s standard of living."

Those of us who have been part of the science and engineering community for many years will remember similar stirrings—the anxiety over Sputnik and the resulting excitement about space exploration that led to a boom in funding for science and engineering research. In the eighties, concerns about increased Japanese competition led to an innovation explosion in industry and business. We know there was more than a decade of discussion and agitation about "the competitiveness issue."

As it happens, these were unsustainable booms. Attention waxed when the pressure was great, and waned when our highly resilient knowledge-based economy responded with increasing innovation and entrepreneurial zeal.

Unfortunately, the competitiveness challenges are still with us and are intensifying. Now we see the "competitiveness issue" in terms of globalization, a much more complex, permanent, and challenging environment involving the world's most populous countries as rapidly emerging economies. These circumstances call for a sustainable, long-term response, not just a short-term fix.

That is a message that can again catapult research and education into the mainstream, and keep it there in the future. This is where NSF comes in. NSF's greatest contribution to the nation's innovation systems is the direct transfer of new scientific and engineering concepts from research laboratories to the entrepreneurial sector through a world-class talent pool of scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians. Strengthening America’s S&E workforce is one of three NSF priorities for FY 2006.

I have already given you the encouraging news about NSF's FY 2006 Budget. We are already looking ahead to FY 2007 and new challenges. Although it is too early in the budget process to discuss details, our priorities are likely to remain substantially the same. After all, they address fundamental, long-term challenges that require sustained attention.

Focusing in on priorities is never an easy job, and it is particularly difficult when opportunities to make productive investments are as plentiful as they are today in research and education. Our current number one priority is to maintain an unwavering focus on the frontier by funding risky, but potentially rewarding research, or as I like to say, to continually dog the frontier.

The distinguished mathematician Alfred North Whitehead laid down a simple guiding principle when he said, "The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order."

At NSF, we are mindful of this depiction of progress. Our task is to enhance the nation's science and engineering capacities in order to strengthen the nation's economic and social future. In that process, we support the disciplines in their constant effort to reach the farthest frontier while maintaining their capability in fundamental research. As Whitehead suggested, we make progress through change in the context of order.

However, within this framework, we must also remain cognizant of the Administration's national priorities for research. These include homeland security R&D, nanotechnology, networking and information technology, water resources, climate change, and "extreme events" such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes. You will find activities throughout NSF's program that reflect these priorities. Linking our science and engineering research programs to the challenges facing the nation enhances our chances for budget success.

This fundamental focus on frontier research is reinforced by the NSF cyberinfrastructure initiative—another of our priorities. Our long-term goal is to build a cyberinfrastructure that joins the ranks of the electrical power grid and the interstate highway system; that is, a true utility that is ubiquitous, reliable, adaptable and powerful. Like those other "linking" systems, sophisticated cyberinfrastructure will dramatically change the fabric of society.

Cyberinfrastructure—CI for short—has a dual role that is best expressed by Dan Atkins5, the head of NSF's Blue-Ribbon Advisory Panel on Cyberinfrastructure. Dan wrote, "Cyberinfrastructure ...is both an object of research as well as an enabler of research."

NSF embraces both aspects of CI development. To address CI as an object of research, we are increasing support for fundamental research in the computer science and engineering fields. Discoveries in this realm will yield greater computing power, more efficient algorithms, sophisticated, secure, middleware, self-healing, high-speed networks and other critical components.

These enhanced components will be incorporated into the second role -- creating a cyberinfrastructure that enables the entire research and education community to conduct cutting-edge investigations.

We're not just daydreaming about the role of cyberinfrastructure at the frontier. It's happening today. On November 1st, NSF announced the first round of grants in "cyber-enabled chemistry." 6 This program is designed to foster new chemical research and education activities through grid computing, community databases, and remote access to sophisticated instrumentation. In time, cyberinfrastructure will transform every field of science and engineering.

Cyberinfrastructure will reinforce another NSF priority: namely providing broadly accessible, world-class research facilities. In September, we released our first facilities plan, outlining all the current and near-future research facilities that we hope to support.

In FY 2006, we continue the funding of several major facilities that will serve a broad spectrum of the science and engineering community. These are familiar to all of you: IceCube, ALMA, EarthScope, and SODV (the Scientific Ocean Drilling vessel). We expect them to yield fantastic discoveries at the frontier, along with petabytes—perhaps etabytes!—of data during their lifetimes. Herein lies a conundrum -- what many computer researchers call "big data."

As our facilities increase in sophistication and capability, so does the amount of data they produce. The glut of information is overwhelming our current computational capacity. One frustrated scientist exclaimed that we are "generating terabytes of data per day yielding only kilobytes of knowledge per month."

We are now making the transition from terascale to petascale computing. That signals an increase in capability that will surpass, in sheer transformational impact, anything we have yet experienced. Petascale processing—1,000 times faster than terascale—will open up areas of the frontier that were previously unreachable and unimaginable. Twenty-four hours of terascale CPU time would be reduced to less than 2 minutes at the petascale. Imagine how quickly scientists will be able to examine new variables or verify findings with that kind of computing power at their disposal.

That brings me to a third priority for NSF, perhaps the most important and most difficult to ensure—building an inclusive, world-class science and engineering workforce. All the cyberinfrastructure, computing power, and facilities in the world cannot advance the frontiers of knowledge without a stellar cadre of scientists, engineers, technologists and mathematicians.

Today, we face increased global demand for highly skilled scientists and engineers, at a time when American students seem to be walking away from careers in science and engineering. NSF's 2004 "Science and Engineering Indicators" report found that, since 1980, the number of non-academic science and engineering jobs has grown at more than four times the rate of the U.S. labor force. Yet, the European Union, China and India, for example, are driving demand for skilled science and engineering students, scholars and workers worldwide through accelerating investments in research and education. As demand grows, countries around the world will not hesitate to try to repatriate talent from the U.S. with attractive incentives.

Year by year, the economic imperative grows for broadening, empowering, and sharpening the skills of the entire U.S. workforce—just to remain competitive in the global community. This fresh talent is our most potent mechanism for technology transfer to our systems of innovation.

Fortunately, we have a fount of untapped talent in our women, underrepresented minorities and persons with disabilities. Our need to broaden participation and increase opportunity is critical, for both the science and education communities and the nation.

The National Science Foundation's commitment is evident in our broad portfolio of programs that foster the greater inclusion of this critical cadre of heretofore-underutilized talent. They do so by a variety of means, from shaping curricula, to providing hands-on research experience and mentors, to funding stipends. 7

But to reach the goals of full participation in the science and engineering workforce, and greater science and engineering literacy across the whole population, we must spark an interest in students at the earliest ages, in grades K-8. We must also remain committed to supporting these students through their undergraduate and graduate studies and beyond. This commitment must include providing a nurturing atmosphere, complete with role models, mentors and other sources of support.

I've come to my final subject: what you can do to further these objectives. I will be brief, because the answer is very simple. You can continue doing what you have done so well, for so long: carry the banner for science and engineering research and education. Your continued community unity and articulation of the benefits of science and engineering research and education send an important message to policy makers.

But there is more. You can reach out to your constituencies and encourage them to help us make fundamental research relevant to the public. You can demonstrate that fundamental science and engineering research can yield solutions to social and economic issues, and you can find innovative ways to promote the opportunities and value of careers in science and engineering.

Thank you for listening to me. Now, I want to listen to you. Let the conversation begin.

1 Shaping the Economy, 2003 Annual Report. Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
http://www.frbsf.org/csip/analysisEssay1.pdf. Last accessed 1 December 2005.
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2 Alan Greenspan, April 2003
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3 Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, National Academies Press; prepublication copy at http://www.nap.edu/books/0309100399/html last accessed 1 December 2005.
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4 Norman Augustine, "Challenges to America's Competitiveness in Math and Science," US House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, May 19, 2005.
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5 Atkins, Dan. "Cyberinfrastructure and the Next Wave of Collaboration." Keynote for EDUCAUSE Australasia, April 5-8, 2005.
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6 Awardees are: Univ. of California, Berkeley (2 awards); Univ. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and Penn. State. Univ.
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7 Examples: LSAMP, HBCU-UP, AGEP, CREST-Thrust, Tribal Colleges, MIE, ADVANCE
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