Email Print Share


Photo of Arden Bement

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

"Transformative Research: The Artistry and Alchemy of the 21st Century"

Texas Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science Fourth Annual Conference
Austin, Texas

January 4, 2007

Greetings to everyone. I want to thank Senator Hutchison and TAMEST1 for inviting me to make some remarks this evening. It is a great honor to participate in this extraordinary conference. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Norm Augustine for setting the stage for my remarks in his keynote address. I have heard Norm speak on the context behind the NRC report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm2, on several occasions, and I always learn something new and interesting each time.

I also wish to extend my warm congratulations to this year's Edith and Peter O'Donnell award winners. I hope you will continue hitting the ball out of the park!

Also, congratulations to UT-Austen, Texas Tech, and TCU for their bowl victories this year. It is interesting to note that longhorns, matadors (aka Red Raiders), and horned frogs live and thrive in the same ecosystem; namely, the State of Texas. One might find this to be an interesting research dissertation in ecological diversity.

Next, I would like to pay tribute to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. We are all grateful to Senator Hutchison for her steadfast and effective support for science and engineering research and education. She understands that new knowledge fuels the engine of innovation and sharpens America's competitive edge. She is also an eloquent advocate for quality math and science education. In short, she understands that the benefits that flow from a healthy research and education enterprise lead to a prosperous economy and a better quality of life for Americans. Senator Hutchison's leadership in the establishment of TAMEST is clear testimony of her commitment to medical, scientific, engineering, and technological research and development. She gets it! We all owe her a debt of gratitude for that.

You will not be surprised to learn that I frequently get asked about the impacts of research supported by the National Science Foundation, and I never come up short for answers. NSF has a long history of success in supporting research with far-reaching impacts on the U.S economy and the well being of Americans. Looking backward in time to identify winning investments in science and engineering research is the easy job. Looking forward is much more difficult, but that is the heart of what we do at NSF.

The practice of "looking forward" has recently been the focus of a great deal of discussion by the National Science Board, NSF's policy and oversight arm, and the staff at NSF. The topic I want to explore with you tonight is "transformative research."

We use this term to describe a range of endeavors, which promise extraordinary outcomes; such as, revolutionizing entire disciplines, creating entirely new fields, or disrupting accepted theories and perspectives. In other words, these endeavors have the potential to change the way we address challenges in science and engineering and also provide grist for the innovation mill. Supporting transformative research is of critical importance in the fast-paced, science and technology-intensive world of the 21st Century.

Let me begin by putting transformational research within the larger context of NSF's mission. As part of the larger Federal research and development effort, NSF has a comprehensive, over-arching mandate and horizon. Part of our job is to keep all the fields and disciplines of science and engineering research healthy and strong. But strong is not enough because the flip side of what we know in medicine, science and engineering is everything we don't know.

So NSF must continually focus on the frontier. It is important to distinguish what the frontier is and what it is not. The frontier is risky, so if it's "safe science," NSF should not fund it. The frontier is murky and without definition, so if there are no big unanswered questions in a proposal, NSF should pass it up.

I believe that above all, NSF must generate ideas, mark out the creative path, or solve a fundamental research question. It is, after all, the important questions we pose that help us get closer to the truth. If we wind up enmeshed in the nuts and bolts of these activities, then we've strayed from our purpose. We have to stick to the very heart of the matter. The Foundation's freshly minted strategic plan is a renewed commitment to support discovery at the frontier.

Let me describe this in another way. Industry has shorter-term research goals that aim at the market place. Increasingly, other Federal agencies are adopting shorter-term perspectives to meet new national needs. That is appropriate. But if we, at NSF, stop short in our pursuit of high-risk endeavors, we would leave a vacuum. In a science and technology- based world, to divert our focus from the frontier is to put the nation at peril.

Now, you will ask, what defines the frontier besides risky and murky? We have, in my opinion, a highly successful process that defines the frontier. In fact, NSF is rarely the first to identify a new piece of the frontier. To my mind, that would be top-down and inappropriate, even wrong. I trust our built-in, bottoms-up, institutional mechanisms, such as our acute listening devices.

This is not telepathy but rather a constant, close relationship with the community we serve, the academic science and engineering research community. We have an ear to the ground and can pick up the faintest signal -- a new word, a different kind of question. When we do pick up a new signal, we are likely to hold a workshop to gather ideas and opinions from the community. We also cull far-reaching ideas from the many unsolicited proposals we receive. In FY 2005, about 80 percent of all proposals received were unsolicited. All of these mechanisms keep us from becoming institutionalized, rigid in our thinking and process. This is the "unusual" side of business-as-usual at NSF.

I turn now to the topic of "transformative research." You may well ask how we can identify transformative potential. Saying that NSF works at the frontier is not quite enough, although we would be orders of magnitude less likely to recognize transformative research if we did not dog the frontier. And yet, not all frontier research is transformative.

The National Science Board has a clear understanding of just how central transformative research is to the nation in these challenging times. For that reason, they are developing a report that will go a long way toward raising awareness within the community of NSF's continued commitment to support transformative research. The report will also encourage the Foundation to reexamine, refine, and redouble our efforts to advance transformational research.

The Report, still in draft form, includes a definition of transformative research as follows:

"Transformative research is ... research driven by ideas that stand a reasonable chance of radically changing our understanding of an important existing scientific concept or leading to the creation of a new paradigm or field of science. Such research also is characterized by its challenge to current understanding or its pathway to new frontiers."

We could all agree that the work of the late Richard Smalley of Rice University, an NSF grantee of long standing and winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, fits within this rubric. The carbon buckyball and nanotube are synonymous with nanoscale science and engineering on a transformational scale.

But we also can -- and no doubt will -- continue to quibble among ourselves about the meaning of "transformative research," which as yet has no universally accepted definition. That is just as it should be. When concepts as complex as "transformative research" are still emerging, we need to practice a kind of "constructive ambiguity." Doing so will give us the flexibility to incorporate new knowledge and fresh perspectives as they arise; in other words, leave room for discovery. In that way, we can make course corrections along the way, adapt to changing circumstances, and remain open to diverse suggestions about the issues.

This is a subtle skill that we must learn to develop in a world now besieged by fast-paced change. In the end, we may each have a slightly different take on what it is, but still be able to agree on some approaches to encourage it. What fishermen call squid, we call calamari at the dinner table. But both fisherman and diner have a stake in the quality of the process that puts it on our plates. The great American photographer Ansel Adams reputedly said, "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept." To be sure, "transformative research" is not exactly a fuzzy concept. We very often recognize it when we see it. At NSF, our Program Officers are on the lookout for the extraordinary in every proposal they review. We understand how significant revolutionary ideas are to the progress of science and engineering, especially in times of rapid change and red-hot competition. Such ideas are the proverbial gold at the end of the rainbow. But truth be told, we have no magic prescription for success.

In the mid to late 80's3 Erich Bloch, then Director of NSF, originated a program of Small Grants for Exploratory Research, known as SGER. These grants are just one mechanism NSF uses to support novel, high-risk research and ventures of great promise. In establishing SGER grants, Erich Bloch made the important point that the probability of success in high-risk research is low. Embracing risk means understanding from the outset that we cannot predict the outcome of innovative research. Most transformations resulting from research are recognized post hoc, not a priori.

Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, put it most succinctly when he said, "Most strategic inflection points, instead of coming in with a big bang, approach on little cat feet."4 Joe Goldstein5 gave an excellent example of this point earlier today by recounting the history of Watson's and Crick's original one-page Nature6 article on the double helix model for DNA. This paper was largely ignored until three years later when x-ray diffraction patterns confirmed their model. It was then that the transformational potential of their Nobel-prize winning research was more fully appreciated. One might also say that many of the papers published by Albert Einstein during his annus mirabilis had a similar subdued initial impact.

What we can do to enhance success is scan every stretch of the horizon to make certain that the conditions for success are promising and that the important questions are asked. Often these conditions include not only the potential of researchers and the availability of outstanding graduate students, but also the style and mode of research organizations7. We try to make sure that we are not complacent in searching out new paradigms, that we encourage different points of view and different perspectives, and that we make risk-taking acceptable and welcome.

This is the "down-and-dirty" work of the NSF Division Directors and Program Officers as they discuss ideas with prospective grantees, conduct community workshops, and evaluate merit reviews by leading scientists and engineers. At NSF, we also practice what I call "strategic experimentation." In emerging areas of research, there are often a variety of platforms, methods, and approaches -- often of equal merit -- that might prove fruitful in discovery. A narrow focus at this early stage is risky, because betting on a single thread could delay progress in the field, or even lead us down the wrong path.

Simply stated, we cannot predict which approach will eventually yield transformative results, or make it to the finish line ahead of the others. But we can assemble a portfolio of high quality projects that approach the same frontier from oblique directions. As research progresses on a number of fronts, results produce feedback, which then informs the next round of experimentation.

A coherent body of knowledge begins to coalesce and emerge from these efforts. This iterative process is familiar to everyone in the science and engineering community. It avoids taking a random walk on a multi-dimensional space lattice while knowing only the starting point. NSF attempts to jumpstart research that has the potential to transform disciplines and create entirely new fields of science and engineering. Let me give you an example.

A recent issue of Discover magazine 8 features Jay Keasling, of the University of California at Berkeley, as the first Discover "Scientist of the Year." Dr. Keasling, a chemical engineer by training, is a tiller in the new field of synthetic biology.

He is also Director of the recently established NSF Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, known as SynBERC. He and his colleague are laying the foundation for synthetic biology, which aims to build biological components and assemble them into integrated systems to accomplish specific tasks.

Researchers at Harvard University, MIT, Prairie View A&M University, and U.C.-San Francisco are partners in the venture. Not so long ago, these investigators were pursuing similar goals by disparate paths. As a result of their different approaches and what they learned from them, they are now converging on the foundations of a new field. Organizers are now planning the Third International Meeting on Synthetic Biology for 2007 -- just one measure of how new the field is!

Dr. Keasling has gained fame in using cells as chemical factories to produce anti-malarial drugs. His work is an example of the "halo" effect that often comes in the wake of NSF funding: He now receives substantial support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Like SnyBERC, all NSF Centers are designed from the outset with built in flexibility so that investigators can pursue innovative ideas within the context of a defined program of research. Even when research leans more toward the "evolutionary" end of the spectrum, it can and often does create transformative results. Examples are legion, and include the Internet, originating as DARPA Net, and enabled by the NSF Net program to achieve wider accessibility; the Mosaic web browser developed at NSF's National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois; and Google search and ranking heuristics, which came from the NSF Digital Libraries program.

Education is also a potent source of transformation. NSF launched the Integrative Graduate Education and Traineeship Program (IGERT) some years ago in order to catalyze a cultural change in graduate education. The idea was to encourage innovative models for graduate education in an environment of collaborative, interdisciplinary research. The result has been to create a cadre of young researchers who can approach uncommon problems with imagination. By challenging narrow disciplinary structures, IGERT and similar efforts are important mechanisms by which NSF provides leadership for the research community.

Finally, many tools and facilities -- including behemoths like the Large Hadron Collider -- may fit under the transformative research umbrella. Just recently NSF made a five-year, $59 million dollar award to the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) here at UT-Austin and its partners at Arizona State University and Cornell University. The award supports a high-performance computing system that will provide unprecedented computational power for scientists and engineers, not only here in Texas, but across the nation.

There is no doubt in my mind that this major addition to the nation's cyberinfrastructure is ripe with revolutionary potential. Indeed, I think of cyberinfrastructure as the "second revolution" in information technology because of the vast possibilities it holds to engender new modes of research, education and collaboration.

In the final analysis, NSF exercises leadership through a continuous process of refinement in practice and communication with the community. Over the years, many nations -- including China -- have created agencies built on the NSF model. In December, for example, the European Union launched its new research agency -- the European Research Council -- quite consciously patterned on NSF.

Without a doubt, the feature emulated most often by these agencies is the Foundation's competitive, merit review process. Indeed, merit review remains the bedrock on which NSF rests its ability to identify the very best frontier research from the widest spectrum of possibilities. It is also the best guarantee of accountability. As Vannevar Bush once pointed out, scientists are the best judges of good science.

There are many subtle, less visible strategies that contribute to the success of the Foundation's merit review system and to NSF leadership in general. I've mentioned only a few of these this evening. The success of these strategies depends most critically on America's current edge in science and engineering talent and on bright ideas and creativity, both within and outside of the Foundation. These strategies are the most difficult for others to emulate and give us the greatest competitive advantage.

My focus has been on NSF not only because that is my bailiwick, but most importantly, because the NSF mission is uniquely set by the frontier where transformative potential resides. In every research endeavor, at all levels of education, and across all sectors, there is a growing need to keep an eagle eye out for opportunities to support transformative research.

Setting a new direction is never easy or simple. To make progress in supporting transformational research, NSF will need a positive, open attitude toward experimentation that allows us space to discover what works best. We will need perseverance to confront the "stickiness" of traditional culture both within NSF and with our partners in research and education institutions.

Just as importantly, we must always be mindful of priorities set by those who approve our budget and stay focused as we experiment and adapt. On the other hand, we must preserve the flexibility required to discover transformational ideas that will untie the "Gordian knots" of grand scientific challenges.

At the Foundation, we take this effort very seriously. At lunch today, many of you heard Norm Augustine speak eloquently about the urgency and necessity of gearing up America's research and education engine. NSF is at the headwaters of this effort, consistently increasing the flow of new knowledge -- from astronomy to zoology to what works in math and science education. We will need to draw on this new knowledge to compete successfully in an increasingly fierce global economy.

The Foundation has many challenges ahead, not least of which is the current budget situation. We face the prospect of a Continuing Resolution from Congress for the remainder of FY 2007 that could freeze NSF funding at the FY 2006 level. If that happens, we would not have the ability to fund many new projects -- including ones with the potential to transform science and engineering research and education. I am hopeful that the new Congress will give federally-funded basic research a high priority in FY 2007, and continue their bipartisan and bicameral support of academic basic research funded by NSF.

Finally, I call upon you tonight, because you are among the wise and experienced, to encourage, support and foster transformative research by exercising leadership in your own institutions, businesses and agencies. The nation needs bold efforts, at the most demanding levels of creative enterprise, to sustain a leadership role in the global economy. We have always been remarkably adept at this in America. Working together, I am confident we can do an even better job in the future.

1 Texas Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science.
Return to speech.

2 Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Future, National Academies Press, Prepublication Copy, February 2006.
Return to speech.

3 Erich Bloch, Director of NSF 1984-1990.
Return to speech.

4 Richard S. Tedlow, Andy Grove, The Penguin Group: 2006, pp 270-271.
Return to speech.

5 Dr. Joseph L. Goldstein, M.D.; Regental Professor, The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.
Return to speech.

6 Watson, J. D., Crick, F. H. C. (1953), A structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid. Nature, 171 (4356): 737738.
Return to speech.

7 J. Rogers Hollingsworth; "The Style and Mode of Research Organizations: Innovation in Science;" Keynote address to the Board of Trustees and Members of the Corporation, Neurosciences Research Foundation, Inc., La Jolla, California, June 3, 2000.
Return to speech.

8 Carl Zimmer; "Scientist of the Year;" Discover Magazine, Vol. 27 #12, December 12, 2006
Return to speech.