Dr. Arden L. Bement, Jr.
National Science Foundation
"The Future of Engineering, Science & Mathematics: Who Will Lead?"
50th Anniversary Celebration
Harvey Mudd College
January 14, 2006
Good morning. Thank you for inviting me to participate in this special occasion.
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Harvey Mudd College reminds us of how much can be accomplished in half a century, and also how much can change.
As a nation, we've distinguished ourselves with revolutionary changes, particularly in the realm of science and engineering. More than two centuries of creative thinking and inventive design have resulted in achievements that transformed the way people live and work -- from the cotton gin to the MRI to the Internet.
When our nation's innovative spirit gains momentum, we move far ahead of the competition. Throughout our history, we have continually researched and developed the "next big thing," while the rest of the world gradually catches up.
It's been an exhilarating journey, and one that has propelled us to the forefront of economic and social prosperity. Along the way, our innovations have helped less advantaged regions achieve higher economic performance and technological capacity.
Our job, as leaders of the nation's agencies and institutions, is to continue leading the country -- and the world -- down this path of change and transformation.
As director of the NSF, I get asked a lot about the next "big things" coming down the pike. I'm not a big believer in crystal balls. As the great physicist Niels Bohr supposedly said, "Prediction is very difficult -- especially about the future."
But this much I can tell you: we are hurtling into the future at ever-increasing speed, and it is challenging us from many directions.
I'd like to pause on this roller coaster just long enough to describe some changes we're confronting in the science and engineering community. And I'd like to offer some thoughts about how we might harness this galloping horse, and lead it in a sensible direction, at a steady trot.
As we enter the 21st century, we are witnessing spectacular achievements: genomic medicine, custom materials created atom by atom, global observatories, computer-assisted teaching and learning, and remote access to science and engineering facilities from our desktops.
Innovation is occurring more rapidly now than ever before; and it more quickly transforms the way we live and work. The speed of this century's changes at the nanoscale are likely to mimic the speed of the last century's revolutions in computational power -- bringing radical changes every few years.
NSF's business is to support science and engineering at this rapidly changing frontier, and to push the frontier even further.
We are proud of our record of supporting thousands of endeavors that have honed our competitive advantage while providing immeasurable knowledge for all of us.
At the same time we acknowledge that innovation is no longer the purview of one scientist, one institution, or one nation. It is increasingly the result of connections that criss-cross the globe.
Thomas Friedman, in his book, "The World is Flat," has written that the landscape of opportunities among nations is evening out as our economies and societies become increasingly interconnected.
I agree that information technology has gone a long way toward plugging the opportunity gaps. But there are still spikes in the landscape.
The nations that are pulling ahead are those that quickly embrace new knowledge, regardless of its source, and propel their citizens along new economic and technological pathways.
In this "knowledge economy," intellectual and human capital, infrastructure, and R&D investment are more important than the availability of raw materials. Nations like China and India are building powerful economic momentum through a burgeoning science and engineering workforce and research capacity.
In the United States, the quality and quantity of our research remain strong, and other nations continue to emulate our formula for success.
Our science and engineering infrastructure is second to none. The ability to do cutting-edge work still attracts international researchers to our shores.
But the nature of the work is changing, with a greater emphasis on sophisticated information technology. And the global competition for science and engineering talent is a hungry lion roaring at our back door.
Many countries are developing strategies to convert from "brain drain" to "brain gain." The United States, because of our high percentage of international Ph.D. talent, is a prime target.
In this changing environment, we have legitimate concerns about our ability to sustain our highly skilled workforce -- the keystone of our position in the world economy.
It is time to confront the lion with some strategies of our own.
We can continue to rely on the innovative and entrepreneurial American spirit. But we can no longer rely on research in isolated laboratories, or prolonged lead times to get from discovery to analysis, from experimentation to innovation.
The rapid spread of computer and information tools compels us to join hands across borders and disciplines -- if we want to stay in the ring.
Communication and collaboration hasten the transformation of knowledge into products, processes, and services. In their wake, they produce jobs and wealth, and improve the quality of life worldwide.
They open up avenues for jointly addressing shared problems in the environment, health, energy and security. A cluster of illness in a small village in Cambodia has potential health ramifications for all of Earth's inhabitants. A plate shifting beneath an island in the Indian Ocean affects shorelines elsewhere.
Connecting the dots is imperative with the quickening of today's technology.
Scientists in California or New York can collaborate virtually with colleagues in at least 30 countries. Gigabytes of data can be moved across the planet with one keystroke.
On the international scale, our value will be measured by our global research networks and our partnerships with fast-growing research economies. On the West Coast, you are in an excellent position to collaborate with Asian nations in biology, chemistry, physics, and materials science.
Teaming across disciplines also allows us to connect multiple perspectives and data sets, to jointly tackle problems in biotechnology, broad-band communications, or national security.
Research at the interface of disciplines is propelling us toward a future of ultra-clean vehicles, nano-scale manufacturing, and responsible bioengineering.
At NSF, I am promoting the rapid development of our national science and engineering cyberinfrastructure, which will draw researchers into ever-tighter contact and sharing. It will certainly further shrink the world.
More people, more institutions, and more nations will work together. And more people everywhere will be able to reap the benefits of scientific thought and engineering design.
However, the connections extend beyond people, to the funding and operation of sophisticated tools.
Multi-institution and multi-national partnerships are allowing us to develop science and engineering capabilities that are no longer affordable by one university or one country alone.
What's more, the global networks of seismic sensors and the most powerful telescopes on Earth can also make science and engineering data available to the whole virtual world.
One more point about the changing environment: As the planet shrinks and the competition intensifies, it will be more important than ever to build stronger and wider bridges between academia and industry, both domestically and internationally.
The ultimate reason for the science and engineering enterprise is to put knowledge to work for the growth of the economy and the well-being of society.
Public-private partnerships continue to be an effective way to speed the transition from discovery to innovation to the marketplace.
Let me turn now to another realm -- developing the human capacity to operate in this new world.
As Ben Franklin reminded us long ago, failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
Globalization has delivered an imperative to the United States: to transform our educational system into one that readily, and steadily, produces workers that will maintain our national momentum.
You are familiar with the problems.
We are behind in ensuring that all citizens acquire basic science and engineering knowledge and the skills of effective team players. The workforce will rely heavily on people who can work together across disciplines and national borders, and who assimilate new knowledge and technology throughout their careers.
In science and engineering, we are beset with additional challenges.
The United States relies heavily on international graduates in the STEM fields -- namely, science, technology, engineering and math. As the competition for this talent increases, the pool of U.S. graduates must expand to take up the slack.
Traditional silos have become an obstacle to a broad-based, interdisciplinary education -- which will couple the curriculum with a variety of research and design experiences; emphasize the multitude of career options; and develop people's ability to think in terms of systems, work in teams, and adapt quickly to changes.
We can count on the solid foundations of our academic institutions. But we can no longer get by with narrow curricula, static teaching techniques, or teaching which does not inspire or motivate.
At NSF we believe that integrating research and education is one of the keys to producing the science and engineering workforce that will flourish in the 21st century.
Researchers must reach out to all levels of education, to inform, instill, and inspire: to inform our youth about the role scientists and engineers play in society; to instill in them a love of discovery and design; and to inspire the teachers who must carry the message forward, day after day.
NSF's investments include programs that integrate research and education throughout the academic system.
In one of our programs, for instance, graduate students who are pursuing frontier research at universities partner with K-12 teachers in their classrooms.
The learning flows in several directions. The graduate students gain valuable experience in teaching and communication. Teachers tap into a personal resource on real-time science. And students have the opportunity to be exposed to a "role model" researcher.
We want to expand these programs to include many more research and learning institutions, and especially to include more institutions that serve minorities, from schools to community colleges to universities.
We have made it a national priority to broaden the participation in STEM programs to include more women, minorities, and people with disabilities.
In this way we will expand our high-skilled cohort while taking advantage of the rich variety of perspectives within our population. This is especially important in regions like southern California, where there are large proportions of underrepresented groups.
Partnerships between universities and community colleges can help smooth the pathway to a science or engineering degree. This kind of teamwork is particularly helpful in increasing the retention of women and minorities in science and engineering.
Another important formula for attracting students to science and engineering is providing hands-on research experience.
NSF funds an exciting collection of tools for discovery, learning, modeling, and partnering. They range from telescopes and ocean research vessels to a gravitational-wave observatory and a network that allows students across the country to participate in earthquake engineering experiments.
These national resources are virtually available to every research and educational institution. They contribute to fundamental exploration, while giving us the hands-on ability to train future explorers.
Another avenue of opportunity that NSF has to offer is the research we are funding on learning and on the social dimensions of science and engineering.
This new information offers glimpses into how we can attract children, who are enamored of iPods, computer games and digital cameras, into the professional ranks of invention and innovation.
We all share the responsibility for confronting -- and designing -- the future I've described. As individuals, we can develop new directions for our institutions and communities. As a group, we can change the course of nations.
Ultimately, science and engineering success depends on the capability of the people involved, and on the vision and foresight of their leaders.
Fifty years of exemplary leadership at Harvey Mudd College have resulted in far-reaching programs that will hasten us toward a transformed science and engineering environment.
Harvey Mudd College was teaching broad-based skills and a multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving long before they became prominent as an exemplar in teaching and learning.
In addition, students as well as educators at Harvey Mudd are offered an exciting portfolio of hands-on research and experimentation.
And, the school's Blueprint for Diversity is a model for broadening participation among students and faculty.
With such innovative thinking, it's not surprising that U.S. News & World Report rated Harvey Mudd College as having the second best undergraduate engineering program in the country. 1
The Harvey Mudd example teaches us that national leadership begins at home, in each of our offices and institutions. I applaud Dr. Platt 2, the founding president, and Dr. Strauss 3 and his colleagues for making the college a keystone of inspiration and innovation -- and for having the foresight to develop today's program.
I also want to thank Dr. Strauss for his service on the National Science Board. In the last few years, the NSB has addressed many of the goals I've mentioned, and its reports are helpful in guiding the community down the path of change.
Thank you again for inviting me to share my thoughts about the invigorating pace of the future, and how we might grab the brass ring before it passes us by.
Now, I invite you to ask questions and share your own thoughts.
1 US News & World Report, America's Best Colleges 2006
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2 Joseph B. Platt, Founding President, Harvey Mudd College, and Honorary Chair, 50th Anniversary
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3 Jon C. Strauss, President, Harvey Mudd College
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