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Photo of Arden Bement

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

"From My Crystal Ball: The Coming Revolution in Science and Humanity"
Research Recognition Dinner
Florida State University
Tallahassee, Florida

April 11, 2008

Good evening. I'm honored to be at such a distinguished gathering, and to congratulate you in person on your many accomplishments in research and scholarship.

Florida State University is enjoying tremendous success in expanding its research scope -- from unlocking the secrets of superconductivity to processing polymers to managing the multi-disciplinary Magnet Lab.

As director of the National Science Foundation, I am at the heart of the discovery and innovation business. NSF is tasked with supporting research in all areas of science, engineering, and math, and ensuring that the nation educates and trains the STEM workforce for the 21st century.

In my position, I am often asked, "What are the next breakthroughs we can expect from research?"

Well ... if I had the ability to predict the future, I would probably be lounging on my multi-million-dollar yacht in the Mediterranean, sipping Campari!

I would like to predict what investments will pay off in the long run. Since the future is never clear, however, we have to take risks in order to get the big payoffs. If you invest in the stock market, you probably know what that feels like.

What I can do -- to increase our chances of high-yield returns on investment -- is to pay close attention to what's happening out in the research and education community. At NSF, we are constantly on the lookout for the most exciting, far-reaching ideas that people are pursuing, and indications of how the scientific process is changing.

Armed with that information, I can begin to conjure an image in my crystal ball.

What I see is a revolution in how science is conducted, and how the chances are improving for success in all areas of discovery and innovation.

At least two forces are at work. First, traditional boundaries are dropping like rocks in quicksand, and disciplines are becoming more transformative, transdisciplinary, and even transcendental.

Second, I see a transformation in technology -- both the technology that allows us to connect to one other, and the data-producing tools that improve our capability for discovering knowledge and making use of it.

In the first development, I foresee the disciplines of science, engineering -- and even the arts and humanities -- converging into a rich mosaic of interconnected research and discovery. This is the way it worked during the Renaissance.

Entirely new fields of enquiry are emerging, such as bio-electrical-engineering, which aims to attach DNA to micro-electronic circuits.

Across the scientific universe, we are funding research in such topics as biogeochemistry, nanoecotoxicology, medical geology, and computational neurogenetic modeling -- to mention just a few.

It will take a complex-systems engineer just to negotiate the new organization charts.

As the convergence among disciplines increase, more research proposals will be from coalitions of researchers rather than from a single specialist.

At NSF in the past 15 years, we have seen the ratio between single-investigator and multiple-investigator research fall from 70-30 to 50-50. I expect this trend to continue.

This is appropriate, since it is only through teamwork and collaboration that we can engage in research on scientific "grand challenges" with high levels of complexity, such as climate change, water resources, clean energy, and the spread of disease.

In one of the more exciting developments, we are finding ways to reverse-engineer the brain, by developing electronic and electromechanical devices that mimic its functions.

The objective is to develop natural interfaces between the human brain and computation and control systems that allow us to put technology to use in helping humans perform, anticipate change, and adapt.

One potential use is in the creation of computer-based learning modules that can be adapted to the different learning styles and speeds of individual children.

You can imagine the diversity of talent needed to create such flexible capabilities.

The second development I see from my perch on the 12th floor of NSF is the accelerated movement of information around the planet.

The Internet and satellite-based communications dramatically shrunk the world during the latter part of the 20th century.

In the coming decades, we will see more video communications, distributed computational networks, distance learning, and virtual communities.

For example, today astronomers in Hawaii collaborate with colleagues in Chile to aim two giant telescopes at the simmering embers of a giant star as it nears its end of life.

Earthquake engineers in Illinois test new building materials remotely, on a massive shake table in San Diego. The data quickly make the rounds to researchers throughout the United States.

On the learning end of the spectrum, MIT offers video lectures of 1,800 courses, free, on the Internet. In 2007, the website got 2 million hits. Pakistan, for one, is tapping into such online educational materials by satellite to reduce its cost of education.

Some of the students participating in NSF's Research Experiences for Undergraduates have posted videos of their experiences on YouTube, another website with a global reach. According to Fortune magazine, in January alone, nearly 79 million people watched videos on YouTube.

These days, the frontiers of science, engineering, humanities, and the arts are as likely to emerge in Beijing or Bangalore as in Boston or Bloomington. As such, we will all rely on networks to keep up with fast-breaking developments everywhere in the world.

That brings me to another form of technology -- the sophisticated observation systems that are also transforming the research process.

We have expanded our scales for conducting observations from the sub-atomic to the cosmic; from a billionth of a degree to millions of degrees; and from sub- picoseconds to light years.

Now, we are developing large sensor arrays linked to data transmission networks that allow us to observe in real time on regional, continental, and global scales.

These systems are emerging just in time to make climate change models available on a variety of scales useful to international, national, and regional decisionmakers.

We will be better able to track the onset of disruptive weather and geological events, and ecological changes that can affect the spread of invasive species and disease. We can predict the availability of fresh water. And we can apply these observational tools quickly to emerging problems.

I predict that, when history is rewritten a hundred years from now, the pace of the entire history of observation, discovery, and invention prior to the present decade will seem glacial in comparison.

It's only a matter of time until the most prominent researchers begin organizing teams from universities anywhere in the world and become as peripatetic as orchestra conductors and opera singers.

Research in the human and social sciences appears just as prominently in my forecast as research in the physical and biological sciences. Without understanding human dimensions, we would be neglecting the scientific insights necessary for putting discoveries to work in our daily lives and enhancing the human-nature relationship.

How can we even begin to put innovations to use without anticipation of how society will react? Of what use is technology if we do not successfully master the human-technology interface?

To build a global research network, a virtual university, or an earthquake warning system, we must first understand social networks and how individuals respond and adapt to change. To advance cyber-learning, we must understand the role of child development, cognition, and language acquisition.

Finally, the introduction of any new technology, such as nanotechnology, requires careful consideration of environmental, health, and safety concerns.

I can assure you that the staff of the National Science Foundation is enmeshed in all of these developments, and is primed to respond to the changing frontiers on many levels.

Similar transformations are taking place outside the traditional sciences. According to Caroline Levander, Director of the Humanities Research Center at Rice University, collaboration across disciplines and new tools are growing features in humanities research as well.

There is a move afoot to systematically collect, digitize, and share the data from humanities research so that the information is more accessible to educators and decisionmakers.

It will be the melding of many sources of information that innovators and national leaders will turn to in meeting the challenges of the coming decades.

As Florida State's prescient leaders remind us with this distinguished, yet diverse, gathering, we benefit equally from the long-standing relationship between science and the arts. While our methods may differ, we share a driving ambition to topple the status quo and imagine new opportunities into existence.

Each year, the National Science Foundation invites artists and writers to join the scientists conducting research in Antarctica, because we know that we can learn from each other.

The visual and performing arts have always taken advantage of technological advancements, from the nanoparticles of gold placed in medieval stained glass windows to the synthesis of color in tubes of acrylic paint. The newest directions in art -- just as in science and the humanities -- will be served by computer synthesis, modeling, simulation and visualization.

Likewise, new mathematical insights on the properties of grids, patterns and multidimensional representations, are stimulated by the arts. In computational centers across the country, a new, interdisciplinary breed of worker is incorporating the concepts of 3-D visualization into models of the brain and the galaxies.

Yesterday, at NSF headquarters, award-winning photographer James Balog discussed his work in the Arctic, helping scientists document the changes in Arctic glaciers.

As we move forward as a society, we will need the combined potential of our senses, our machines, and our creativity to determine where we are going, how we will get there, and what impact we want to have along the way.

As the results of the investments we are making are realized in the coming decades, I predict dramatic transformation of the way we live, work, think, and perform.

My vision is punctuated, and amplified, by a hundred bright explosions, representing the results of your own distinguished research. Again, I congratulate you on your accomplishments, and wish you a leading role in the excitement of the 21st century.