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Photo of Arden Bement

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

"Science and Technology in the 21st Century: How Can America Continue to Compete?"
National Medal of Science Symposium
Northwestern University
Evanston, IL

May 14, 2008

Good afternoon! It's quite an honor to follow such an impressive day of super-star presentations. It gives emphasis to the phrase "anti-climatic." Also, as the clean-up batter, my role is to get us back on schedule.

FDR had three rules for public speaking: Be brief. Be sincere. Be seated. I will do my best to follow his advice.

I am not going to go into any detail about NSF-funded research -- though I assure you, it's not for a lack of exciting material! You have already been treated to some.

Instead, I want to first say a few words about our distinguished Medal of Science awardees, since we are here chiefly to honor them. I then plan to tell you a bit about the state of science and engineering in America, as I see it.

As Mark mentioned this morning, but it's worth repeating, the National Medal of Science is the most prestigious honor that our Nation awards to scientists and engineers.

The National Medal of Science is presented by the President, in recognition of an individual's total impact on science or engineering.

As we now know, Professor Jan Achenbach was chosen for his seminal contributions to engineering research and education in wave propagation and nondestructive evaluation. As we heard earlier, Professor Achenbach's research has far-reaching implications, in areas such as medical diagnostics and the monitoring of aging aircraft.

Tobin Marks received the Medal of Science for his contributions to organometallic and inorganic chemistry, and materials science. As we heard in his presentation, Professor Marks' research touches on everything from anti-tumor pharmaceuticals, to the emerging field of organic electronics, to new catalytic methods for manufacturing polymers.

These distinguished researchers have not only made valuable contributions to research; they have also served as mentors to scores of graduate students and post docs.

They've touched countless others with their knowledge through lectures, textbooks, journal articles, research talks, and other means to educate and inform. Very few of us can claim such a pervasive impact on the world.

Congratulations to both of you on your accomplishments. I extend my sincere thanks to you for your contributions to science and engineering -- and to society.

As director of the National Science Foundation, I'm often asked, especially by members of Congress, "What are the upcoming breakthroughs in research, and where should we be placing our investments?"

With all apologies to any venture capitalists in the room, I think the most exciting and lucrative upcoming innovations are the ones that we can't predict. At least not precisely enough to know how to retire as a billionaire!

I do know that our nation's investment dollars are best spent on ensuring a steady supply of basic research discoveries, and students ready to become the workforce of the future. These two components form the backbone of a healthy high-tech economy.

While I can't say exactly what the future will bring for science and technology, I can say something about how the conduct of research is changing. In the next 20-40 years, the scope and productivity of research will change, and that change will be nothing short of revolutionary.

For several decades, we have witnessed the convergence of fields of science and engineering. The talks we heard today are a good reflection of the multi-disciplinary nature of cutting-edge research. At NSF, we are now funding proposals in such areas as bio-geo-chemistry, nano-eco-toxicology, and computational neuro-genetic modeling – just to name a few of the tongue-twisting new fields.

As disciplines converge and collide, intermingle and mesh, more research proposals will be from coalitions of researchers rather than from single principle investigators.

This trend is not surprising, because many of the technological challenges we face today, such as climate change, water shortages, energy sustainability and disease pandemics, are simply too large to tackle without teamwork and cooperation among many specialists.

We are beginning to see engineering and natural science converge with social and behavioral science, and even with the arts and entertainment.

These exchanges and convergences are a direct result of a "shrinking" world. In the 20th century, the world shrank dramatically: first through mechanized travel, radio waves and the telegraph, followed by the development of a global network of telecommunications and aviation. Satellite-based communications and the Internet shrank our world further still. In the 21st century, cyberinfrastructure will not only continue this trend, it will redefine what we mean by "our world."

Already, virtual communities allow people to work and play together in worlds that exist only online.

Today, astronomers in Hawaii collaborate with colleagues in Chile to aim two giant telescopes at the simmering embers of a dying giant star. They coordinate their efforts primarily in cyberspace.

In education, MIT now offers video lectures of 1,800 courses, free of charge, on their Web site. In 2007, the Web site got 2 million hits. The government of Pakistan is investing in satellite receivers to tap into Web educational materials like these.

Scientists and engineers are already at work on the seeds of technologies yet to come. As progress is made in the next decade or two in mapping the human brain, we'll be in the position to reverse engineer the most powerful computer nature has ever assembled.

We will discover more holistic interfaces between the human brain and high-end computers and cybernetic control systems. Our electronics will better anticipate, and adapt to, change, even highly dynamic change.

We will meld what the human brain does best, such as pattern recognition and analog reasoning, with what the computer chip does best, in terms of computation speed and data processing.

Soon, our cell phones, Blackberries and laptops will seem like museum relics, as new remarkable devices replace them.

If the progress in automobiles was the same as we've seen in computers from ENIAC to the modern thin laptop, a Rolls Royce would cost $1 and get 1 billion miles on a gallon of gasoline!

Now, this is all a vision of the future, based on the potential movements in science and engineering.

But I would be remiss if I didn't admit to you that I lose sleep over our nation's ability to maintain its course to a bright technological future.

Norm Augustine, former Lockheed Martin CEO, and a good friend of science and engineering in America, recently compiled a list of notable milestones. He found that:

    "A new research university is scheduled to launch soon with a day-one endowment of 10 billion dollars, equal to what it took MIT 142 years to accumulate.

    Next year, over 200,000 students will study abroad, mostly in the fields of science and engineering, often with government-provided scholarships.

    Government investment in non-defense R&D is set to increase by 25% over the next few years.

    A multi-year initiative is under way to make the country a global nanotechnology hub.

    And, the world's most powerful particle accelerator will begin operation this year."

These developments all sound like enlightened science policy, right?

Well, Norm points out that these actions are being taken by Saudi Arabia, China, the U.K., India, and Switzerland, respectively.

Now, just to be clear – we certainly want our friends around the world to enjoy the rewards of investment in science and technology. Our nation poured substantial resources into basic research and STEM education, beginning in earnest shortly after the launch of Sputnik.

Other countries, viewing our resulting economic prosperity, are naturally aiming to do the same. And we are happy to see technology improve the lives of people around the world.

As Congressman Rush Holt has said on the topic, "You don't win the Indy 500 by spreading nails on the track. You win it by building a faster car."

America needs to keep its vehicle of science and engineering research and education tuned up, fueled up, and ready to continue setting the pace. The problem is not that other nations have joined the race; the problem is that we’ve taken our foot off the accelerator.

Over the last two decades, U.S. federal support for research in the physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering has been stagnant when adjusted for inflation. As a percentage of GDP, the U.S. federal government has halved its investment in physical science and engineering research since 1970.1 And, the four-year period from 2004 to 2007 represents the first continuous decline in U.S. federal investment in basic R&D at colleges and universities in twenty-five years.

In recent years, both the Administration and Congress have vowed to support increased funding for basic research. The President's American Competitiveness Initiative and the America COMPETES Act both promised to double NSF's budget, and the budgets of two other federal agencies that support basic research in the physical sciences and engineering.

However, NSF's actual fiscal year 2008 funding level is far from being a first step on the road to a budget doubling – in fact, our small increase fails to keep up with inflation.

We're feeling the effects of the FY 2008 budget across the Foundation, in program areas both large and small.

A thousand promising research grants will go unfunded. Hundreds of deserving graduate students will not receive Graduate Research Fellowships. Three Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers will be deferred.

Emerging fields will lose momentum, and important new projects will be pushed to the back burner for a year.

We need your help in communicating our message to the American public.

We cannot maintain America's position on the frontier, and we cannot produce the talent and facilities to advance that frontier, without consistent, reliable resources. I call upon you, because you are among the wise and experienced, to encourage, support and foster an understanding within your own institutions, as well as in industry and government, of what is at stake for the nation.

I ask you to make the case that we need a renewed commitment to cutting-edge research and education, to raise U.S. innovation to the highest standard. Without a robust and growing economy, the nation will be seriously strained to meet pressing social needs.

America needs bold efforts, at the most demanding levels of creative enterprise, to sustain a leadership role in the global economy. I urge you to step forward and help to lead us in that endeavor.

Thank you. In my remaining time, I hope I can answer some of your questions.

1 Augustine, Norm. Is America Falling Off the Flat Earth?
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