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Photo of Arden Bement

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

U.S. National Committee on Theoretical and Applied Mechanics
Keck Center of the National Academies
Washington, DC

April 24, 2009

Chairman Hughes, Professor Herakovich, members of the United States National Committee on Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, and guests: thank you for this opportunity to talk with you today about issues that the Theoretical and Applied Mechanics community and National Science Foundation share.

In 1783 in France, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were among thousands of witnesses to the first successful flight of humans, in a Montgolfier balloon. When one of Benjamin Franklin's compatriots asked, "But what good is it?", Franklin famously responded "What good is a newborn baby?"

The Montgolfier balloon was made of paper and silk and lifted by hot air. Two weeks later, Jacques Charles and Nicolas Robert made the second flight -- but this time it was a balloon made of silk coated with rubber and filled with hydrogen.

In the 226 years since, the newborn baby has grown into aviation. Mechanicians today continue the quest for better materials, mathematics and models that can give flight to human ingenuity.

Across 15 orders of magnitude, from the nanometer to the kilometer, you build structures, analyze materials, simulate complex phenomena, derive algorithms and drive multi-scale modeling.

Across a spectrum of fields, you create and investigate shape-memory alloys as well as bendable concrete; you explore mechanical self-assembly and the mechanics of biological tissues; you probe the behavior of thin films and the workings of the Earth's crust. In the tradition of Galileo and Newton, you hitch together the empirical and the mathematical.

Through your work over the last four decades, experiment and theory are now joined by computation to give mechanicians, scientists and engineers of the future three pillars on which to base their explorations into how nature works and how nature can be put to work.

NSF can help speed this work in several ways. One is by funding research and education in the broad areas of mechanics. Another is by catalyzing the creation of new fields by bringing together pioneers from many disciplines.

I'd like to cite one example. In May 2006 an NSF Blue Ribbon Panel published a report entitled "Simulation-Based Engineering Science: Revolutionizing Engineering Science through Simulation." In April of 2008, NSF co-sponsored a workshop to review the world-wide trends and research using an even broader term for the field: "Simulation-Based Engineering & Science" or SBE&S.

And on Wednesday and yesterday (April 22-23, 2009), NSF co-sponsored a Research Directions Workshop to develop a community-driven agenda for research and education in SBE&S.

This agenda can in turn help guide our priorities at NSF to keep the work of mechanicians at the forefront of innovation in fields ranging from bioengineering and nanotechnology to more energy-efficient buildings and transportation.

Many of you made a long journey to be here today, and your presence underscores the value you place on moving this important work forward.

I know that the goal of this session with government and university representatives is to "divine the new administration's approach to science and engineering, and its implications with respect to funding." I am pleased to contribute to this happy work, but I would like to note that I went to engineering school, rather than divinity school.

Here in Washington, in this spring of 2009, science and engineering are enjoying a renewed mission in framing public policy and in fueling the national economy.

President Obama has called upon scientists and engineers to contribute our intellectual energy and our creativity to speed research and education in vital areas ranging from the environment and energy, to health and transportation.

On March 9 the President signed two documents that exemplify his views on science and engineering. Through an Executive Order he permitted broader federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research, removing restrictions that prevented federal funding of research using human embryonic stem cell lines derived after August 9, 2001.

Then through a Presidential Memorandum, he assigned "to the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy the responsibility for ensuring the highest level of integrity in all aspects of the executive branch's involvement with scientific and technologic processes."

In addition, the President said: "Promoting science isn't just about providing resources -- it is also about protecting free and open inquiry. It is about letting scientists do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it's inconvenient -- especially when it's inconvenient."

"It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda -- and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."

Moving from the place of science in forming policy to the roles of science and engineering in expanding the economy, let me mention two key appropriation bills made into law by the Congress and the President:

  1. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes $3 billion for NSF.
  2. The FY 2009 appropriation for NSF is $6.49 billion, up 7% from our $6.07 billion appropriation for FY 2008.

In addition, the President's FY 2010 budget plan proposes $7 billion for NSF.

Let me put it this way: Congress and the President are asking NSF -- are challenging NSF -- to do what we do well: use merit review to distribute money to fuel discovery in science and engineering, through research and education.

Clearly the contribution of fundamental research and education to the nation's economic vigor and intellectual vitality has new resonance in the public debate. Both industry and the business community have spoken out forcefully as well, providing an effective and distinct perspective on the value of the science and engineering enterprise.

Despite our serious economic challenges, there is broad agreement that investments in research and education at our universities and colleges are critical to solving national and global problems and planting the seeds of future prosperity.

For example, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, said in March to the Coalition for National Science Funding that "substantial new investments in science are critical to spurring innovation and new jobs."

The Speaker continued: "If you want to know the agenda for this Congress, think of four words: science, science, science, science. Investment in research and development is just that, an investment -- in the future strength of our nation."

Furthermore, a bipartisan "Dear Colleague" letter circulated among House members in late March states "Advances in science and technology underpin our ability to meet many of the challenges that America faces today. NSF investments are aimed at the frontiers of science and engineering, where advances in fundamental knowledge drive innovation, progress, and productivity."

Today it is once again time for the science and engineering community to be clear that its priorities align with the nation's priorities. We have much to offer. And this can be made more apparent through deeper engagement with policy makers at every level, and broader dialogue with the public.

As always, we look to you, to your colleagues, and to the ingenuity of the science and engineering community to bring us the fresh directions and bold ideas needed to make rapid progress.

These are tough times, with many competing demands. But we can't afford to diminish one iota of our efforts as a nation to stay at the forefront of discovery and innovation. Great commitments require all the requisite components, including sustained investment. We need a ramp -- not a roller coaster.

This spring is a remarkable time in the funding history of the National Science Foundation. As I mentioned earlier, we have had in play three major items: the Recovery Act, the NSF FY 2009 appropriation and the NSF FY 2010 budget.

Let me comment on all three, and then I hope we can have a lively discussion.

First, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

We are very grateful, and indeed honored to be included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The additional resources for NSF -- totaling $3 billion dollars -- will help ensure that America remains a leader in science and engineering research and education.

That investment of $3 billion dollars will have an immediate impact on investigators, post-docs, graduate and undergraduate students, and teachers throughout the nation. NSF funding now helps to support nearly 200,000 individuals every year.

To put that number into perspective, that's almost twice the number of people that Hewlett Packard employs in the U.S.

And this $3 billion dollars will also continue to produce returns to the American people for years to come. We know that pursuing new knowledge and innovation is the best path toward economic prosperity and solving persistent societal problems, from energy security to climate change and national security.

In each of the past five years, due to lack of funds NSF has had to decline about $2 billion dollars worth of proposals that were highly rated in NSF's merit review process. This amounted to over 3,000 proposals in FY 2008 alone, and represents a great long-term loss to the nation.

$2 billion is also approximately the amount in R&RA available in the Recovery Act for expanding research opportunities in fundamental science and engineering to meet national needs and to improve global economic competitiveness.

As you know, funding rates at NSF have decreased substantially over the past few years. The Recovery Act will provide a good start in bringing them back to historic levels.

So we are confident that we can maintain the highest standards of competitive peer-review, and also move these funds efficiently to universities and other institutions -- and into the hands of faculty and students -- where they can do the most good for the economy.

Therefore, we will use Recovery funds as an opportunity to reconsider highly-rated proposals submitted this fiscal year (after October 1, 2008) that were not funded due to lack of funds.

An additional $300 million dollars will be available for the Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program for the acquisition and development of shared research instruments. In this case, we will be releasing a new solicitation later this Spring.

A new solicitation is also being prepared for the Academic Research Infrastructure (ARI) program aimed at refurbishing and improving existing academic research facilities. This solicitation will also be on the street in the next few weeks.

Regarding Education and Human Resources, the Recovery Act includes $100 million dollars to improve instruction in science, math and engineering. NSF's Math and Science Partnerships would receive $25 million; and the Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program $60 million. We will begin issuing awards in those programs just as soon as the review cycles close.

Finally, $400 million dollars will be allocated for major research facilities of cutting-edge capability that are already approved and ready for construction.

Let me be clear from the outset, that there are two key responsibilities for NSF as we move forward in this process.

First, the President, Congress and the American people expect complete transparency and accountability, and they deserve nothing less. Therefore, we have launched a robust tracking and measurement system, and created an outreach program to inform the science and engineering community about our processes and requirements.

Second, we do not want to raise unwarranted expectations in the science and engineering community. We already have in hand sufficient numbers of highly-rated proposals to distribute the entire $2 billion dollars in research awards.

Recovery Act funding will not be used for supplemental awards. The good news is we expect to handle supplemental awards using our FY 09 appropriation.

With these responsibilities in mind, the Foundation's first priority is to fund highly-rated proposals that would otherwise be declined for lack of funds. These investments clearly reflect the Administration's commitment to advance science and innovation to build a sustainable economic future.

NSF also places a high priority on using Recovery Act funds to support proposals from first-time principal investigators and for high risk and transformative research. Both of these goals are also priorities for the Administration.

NSF will use Recovery Act funds to increase the number of CAREER and IGERT awards. CAREER grants support the research and education activities of junior faculty and IGERT grants support interdisciplinary research and training of graduate students.

Finally, all research grants issued with Recovery Act funds will be standard grants with durations of up to 5 years. This approach will allow NSF to structure a sustainable portfolio.

I take the Recovery Act appropriation as a mark of respect for NSF's work -- and your work as well -- and I'm very grateful! We're a small agency, but we are a giant in terms of the "heavy lifting" we do for America's future.

I have been focusing on the Recovery Act, which in mid-February the Congress passed and the President signed into law.

In early March, Congress passed and the President signed the FY 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act that includes $6.49 billion for NSF's operations for October 2008 through September 2009.

It includes $5.18 billion for Research and Related Activities, $845 million for Education and Human Resources, $152 million for Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction, and $310 million for operating the Foundation.

Looking ahead, the NSF FY 2010 budget as currently proposed provides $7 billion for the National Science Foundation, a 16-percent increase over the 2008 level, as part of the President's Plan for Science and Innovation.

The 2010 budget:

  • Increases support for graduate research fellowships and for early-career researchers.
  • Increases support for the education of technicians in the high-technology fields that drive the Nation's economy.
  • Encourages more novel high-risk, high-reward research proposals.
  • Increases support for critical research priorities in global climate change.
  • Expands responsibility for education in clean energy and related environmental benefits from K-12 to Post-docs and to the public at large.

Taken together, the funding decisions being made this spring and summer bode well over the longer term for supporting a vibrant research and education enterprise.

These new levels of funding will help us meet increasing demands for the new knowledge and innovative technologies that contribute to sustainable economic prosperity and quality of life.

I cannot foretell how historians in future generations will treat these past few months. But this much we know: we have a President who holds science in high esteem and who has high expectations for scientists and engineers; from Congress and from the American people we have new, higher levels of funding and with that comes new, higher levels of responsibility and accountability.

And as for ourselves, as scientists and engineers, we have no small role to play in retooling the US economy and in refueling global prosperity.

Thank you again for the opportunity to share these remarks with you, and now I would be delighted to respond to your questions and to listen to your comments.