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Photo of Arden Bement

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

"Leadership in Science and Engineering: Seeing the World From Three Viewpoints"

Symposium on "Leadership and the Eye for Innovation"
Tulane University
New Orleans, Louisiana

March 6, 2009

Good morning. Thank you, Laura,1 for including me in this distinguished panel. I'm pleased to add my comments to the other's.

The way I see it, today's leaders -- in any sector -- must have panoramic vision.

We have to negotiate the pitfalls and opportunities of a globally competitive world. In a time of economic uncertainty, we have to see over the horizon, while analyzing the writing on the nearest wall.

This is an exhilarating time for the research community, though the challenges we face are significant. It helps to maintain a balance of perspectives.

As I gaze through the lens of the National Science Foundation, I would say that leaders in science and engineering benefit from three complementary viewpoints.

The first is a "short" view—an awareness of what lies directly in front of us. The second is a "long" view, which anticipates what's needed for the future. The third is the ability to see through the eyes of people around us.

A "short" view is one that recognizes, and helps the community adapt to, the current trends in science, engineering, and technology.

Our greatest challenge, in the short term, is the global competition for bright ideas reaching the marketplace.

As Director of the National Science Foundation, I am often asked: "What keeps you awake at night?" My answer is: "The nation's continuing ability to compete in the global market."

You have heard from the author Thomas Friedman that "The World is Flat." In the science and technology sectors, that means that discoveries and innovations can emerge from anywhere in the world.

Developed and developing countries alike recognize that economic growth in a knowledge economy is driven by investments in research, education, and information and communication infrastructures. As these investments grow, the percentage of innovations generated in the United States will decline to a smaller fraction of the world's total.

Therefore, it is essential that U.S. leaders in science and engineering foster collaborations with researchers and educators in other countries. The price of not doing so is the risk of being blind-sided -- and losing opportunities for the U.S. to take the lead on emerging technologies.

The speed with which products reach the market is another development that concerns leaders in science and technology. We are entering an era in which market innovations play as large a role as technological innovations. The Walkman CD player, the Blackberry, smart boards, and the Kindle reader are examples.

I have watched some technologies blanket the global market in the space of a few short years, such as the hypertext web search engine invented by the founders of Google.

While the evolution from large mainframe computers to PCs was a relatively slow, incremental process, the rise of hand-held computers took us by storm. Today's cell phone has more computing power and memory storage than early room-size computers. And now, the cell phone, web browser, camera, and music player have converged – into the iPhone.

With the rapid development of even smaller, nano-sized devices -- on the scale of individual molecules and atoms -- you could literally drop the computer of the future on a shag rug, and lose it.

This rapid evolution of information technology is having an equally astonishing effect on the way research is conducted.

In another era, an astronomer examined a planet through a single telescope. A chemist combined compounds in a beaker, carefully recording the results. Research was conducted in a linear fashion, one experiment at a time.

Today, networks of sensors and observatories around the world produce terabytes of data in a single day. The results are disseminated with lightning speed, and with no respect for institutional or national borders.

This immediate, and voluminous, output demands new methods for probing, retrieving, processing, and publishing.

NSF has been active in building the cyberinfrastructure that allows scientists and engineers to form virtual research and education networks. These virtual networks are not limited by discipline or geography. In fact, their ability to integrate a diversity of skills and talent is a logical response to the variety and quantity of data emerging from a greatly expanded cyber-world.

From my perch on the top floor of NSF, I have watched these trends converge into new directions for the science and engineering enterprise. I have been honored to be in a position to support the changes needed for the short term. At the same time, I am charged with preparing the science and engineering community for success in the long term.

That brings me to my "long" view; the one that anticipates what actions are needed today to ensure that the U.S. position is sustainable in the future.

The nation is always eager for another "giant step" like putting a man on the moon. Or an iPhone. I would love to be able to announce that another such development is imminent.

However, leading science and technology to a new level requires recognition of this reliable and weathered principle: that even in a rapidly moving, interconnected world, discovery and innovation can build only on what came before.

An old Chinese proverb says that one generation plants the trees; another gets the shade.

The future of innovation depends on a foundation of earlier investments—and that's where NSF's responsibility lies. We support fundamental research and education in all fields of science and engineering. The projects we fund are, most importantly, at the very frontiers of exploration and experimentation.

Years may go by before we know whether, and how, a fundamental discovery supported by NSF will make its way into innovative products and processes. The history books are full of such stories.

The physicist Richard Feynman gave a famous lecture at Caltech, called "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." He invited scientists to enter a new world, of electric motors the size of a fingernail. A world in which a miniature device could allow a scientist to write the Encyclopedia Brittanica on the head of a pin, with plenty of space left over.

Dr. Feynman gave his lecture in 1959. Yet the coining of the term "nanotechnology" didn't occur until the 1970s, amplifying his vision and attracting scientists and engineers to this emerging field, which involves the manipulation of materials and devices at the scale of single atoms and molecules.

Scientists working at the frontiers of this field continued to toil "behind the scenes" for several more decades. I am proud to say that many of those early researchers were supported by NSF.

Finally, just a few years ago, a number of nano-engineered products began reaching the consumer market. One of them was a sunscreen you can buy at the drug store.

Today, nanotechnology promises new markets that could potentially reach tens of billions of dollars.

The development of marketable products is the direct result of continuous investments, over many years, in transformative, risk-taking research. In turn, these innovations strengthen the economy.

Last year, I appeared on Charlie Rose, the late-night talk show on public TV. Now, you can clearly see that I'm not an actor or politician! And I don't have any inside information about financial schemes. No ... this invitation came out of the growing realization that science and technology are a vital component of economic growth.

The White House and the Congress agree that job creation, infrastructure improvements, energy efficiency, and other means of stimulating the economy ... depend on a foundation of basic research and education. If we fail to continue investing in that base, the bloom on the rose will fade quickly, leaving behind few prospects for sustainable, long-term economic growth.

The result is that NSF was included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the "stimulus package." I am honored that NSF will play a role in this effort.

At a time when university endowments have lost value, and state budgets are tight, the funding that NSF will be able to provide for research and education will have an immediate impact on campuses across the nation. These funds will help preserve jobs for faculty, students, and post-docs, as well as for service providers in housing, food service, health care, and transportation.

Just as importantly, these investments will strengthen the science and engineering base that, in the long term, is essential to sustained economic growth.

In shaping the stimulus package, President Obama recognized that only a national commitment would allow NSF to continue doing what it does best—support fundamental research and education at the frontiers.

No leader of an agency, a department, or a nation is capable of moving forward without a close examination of the present and an eye to the future—the short view, and the long view. But those two perspectives are not enough.

A leader needs to constantly examine the perspectives of others, be they policymakers, workers, or stakeholders. There is always something that can be learned from different viewpoints.

I try to keep my eyes wide open and my ears attuned for top-down developments in national policies, priorities, and budgets. I listen carefully to the deliberations of the nation's decisionmakers, such as the recent debates about how to stimulate the economy and recapture America's leadership in innovation.

In recent months, the message I've been hearing—and one that I've worked hard to reinforce—is that investments in research and education are near the top of the list.

President-elect Barack Obama, even before he was sworn in, said this: "Whether it's the science to slow global warming; the technology to protect our troops and confront bioterror and weapons of mass destruction; the research to find life-saving cures; or the innovations to remake our industries and create twenty-first century holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation....

"...In labs, classrooms and companies across America, our leading minds are hard at work chasing the next big idea, on the cusp of breakthroughs that could revolutionize our lives."

I took those words as my cue that there was a chance to redress the years of stagnant budgets and lack of growth in funding basic science and engineering.

That is indeed what happened. President Obama has led the charge to restore the national effort to rebuild a strong foundation of innovation, involving institutions across the country.

Listening for top-down information, while essential, is not enough. An equally important role for a leader is to listen to the hopes, desires, plans and experiences of individuals.

At NSF, we are committed to engaging researchers at all levels in identifying challenges and shaping new directions that may lead to potentially transformative results.

We have many avenues for listening to the buzz out in the community. Aspirations and successes are reported at meetings, workshops, conferences, and visits to Washington, DC, as well as in the 45,000 research proposals we receive each year.

My job, at the helm of NSF, is to consider new ideas and funding requests in the context of national priorities, and to strike an appropriate balance.

I strongly believe that to negotiate the twists and turns of a dynamic global environment -- and to stimulate creativity and innovation -- requires multiple viewpoints.

Seeing clearly what makes innovation work, and what keeps it at the forefront of America's agenda, is a challenge to which each of us can contribute our ideas and perspectives.

I look forward to the day when I can sit back and listen to your viewpoints, because some of you may be the ones who lead science and engineering into the future.

If the nation invites you to become a leader, I encourage you to accept. It can be an exhilarating experience, and this nation needs the very best.


1. Laura Cardinal, director, Burkenroad Institute, A. B. Freeman School of Business, Tulane University.  (Return to speech)