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Welcoming Remarks

Photo of Joseph Bordogna

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation

NSF Workshop on Integrative Cognitive Science
October 2, 2003

Good Morning. On behalf of the National Science Foundation, I'm delighted to welcome you this morning to the NSF Workshop on Integrative Cognitive Science.

Thank you for being here this morning, and for bringing your energy, ideas, and expertise. I want to give special thanks to our organizers this morning – Dr. Turvey, Dr. Poggio, and Dr. Desimone – and especially to express NSF's respect for Dr. Pat Goldman-Rakic, who initiated this project, and in whose memory this workshop is dedicated.

I'm struck by the range of integrative approaches represented in this room: neurobiologists doing computational modeling, computer scientists doing behavioral experiments, psychologists analyzing the dynamics of computational processes. I even overheard someone jokingly claiming to be the token philosopher.

It reminds me of earlier in my career, when I was first introduced to some of these issues. I shared an office many years ago, when I was an Assistant Professor, with Aravind Joshi who held degrees in electrical engineering, linquistics, and computer and information science and who introduced me to many of his friends with whom he was working, who were philosophers, linguists, psychologists, computer scientists, engineers and so on. He challenged me at one point to go to a few of the colloquia they were conducting. Afther about three colloquia, I noticed something startling and invigorating: I couldn't tell which professors and which students belonged to each other. There was a lot of energy there, coming from a diverse community of multidisciplinary researchers, all coming together around some hard, very challenging big problems in computer and cognitive sciences.

This is one of the exciting qualities of cognitive science, and also what makes understanding cognition so difficult. Take the basic questions from any of a number of different domains:

  • What's a representation? How does human memory work?
  • How do we analyze our environment and generate appropriate actions?
  • How do we recognize objects, or recognize each other?
  • Where does language come from and how does it work?

None of these is strictly a psychological question or a biological question or a computational question. They are all of the above and more - inherently interdisciplinary questions, cutting across multiple levels of abstraction, and spanning orders of magnitude of spatial and temporal scales. These experiences validate the fact that nature knows no disciplinary boundaries.

The questions of cognitive science require an incredible range of expertise and deep thinking. If physics and chemistry are the so-called "hard" sciences, this is a "very hard" science that requires intensive work, creativity, and innovation from all of you, jointly as well as individually.

Cognition is one of the great challenges facing science today, and one of our most significant scientific opportunities. As you'll see in the course of this workshop, NSF takes this challenge and this opportunity very seriously.

As you know, this workshop is being sponsored jointly by four Directorates within NSF: Biological Sciences; Computer and Information Science and Engineering; Education and Human Resources; and Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences. Each of these Directorates sponsors research in cognitive science within their own programs. It is imperative that we integrate these separate endeavors.

In addition, we'll be telling you more about some new NSF-wide activities – the Science of Learning Centers and Human and Social Dynamics – both of which have strong connections to cognitive science.

You're here today so that all of us – involved in program management, development, and strategic planning in many parts of NSF – can benefit from your expertise and get guidance from you on the near- and long-term development of integrative cognitive science at NSF.

We are committed to enabling new advances in cognitive science at its very frontiers. We want your guidance on where these frontiers are, what new opportunities are foreseeable on the horizon, and what kinds of impediments have to be breached to get to the next frontier.

Now I contend that it's extremely hard work to keep pushing at the frontier. You start something; you get it moving. After awhile, you get a small community in place and then find that the frontier has moved. It's simultaneously exhilarating and uncomfortable working at the frontier. You need to dig into bodies of research that aren't familiar and work with people with very different training and different starting assumptions about a problem. You've got contentious theoretical debates to work out. You often have to make your own tools because nothing off the shelf exists yet. It is risky, difficult, and very hard work.

And there's no question that the frontiers of cognitive science are moving extremely rapidly:

  • Take Dr. Goldman-Rakic's work as an example, uncovering the structure and function of an area like prefrontal cortex, which not long ago would have been unthinkable. Some of her work on the mechanisms of working memory is finding its way today into the design of robotic control systems.
  • At a molecular level, staggering advances have been made in our understanding of the specific protein synthesis pathways involved in synaptic change and how they are regulated. How will these discoveries connect to what we know behaviorally about encoding and retrieval, and how we model the system as a whole?
  • We are bringing powerful new tools to bear on cognition: quantitative tools like nonlinear dynamical systems modeling, and new physical tools for neuroimaging and recording. What classes of complex problems will become tractable through these tools that haven't been tractable in the past?
  • We have parallel advances in informatics and statistics;
  • New approaches to our thinking about the context in which cognition occurs.

These are just a few examples of advances at the frontiers that point to new integrative opportunities for cognitive science in the near- to mid-future.

To set the stage for your deliberattion over these next two days, let me remind you of some aspects of NSF and the process that a workshop like this feeds into.

NSF program areas are shaped in response to the external community. We depend on your expertise to identify and characterize both the forest and the most significant trees. The process of developing new programs, or influencing existing ones, can take place over longer or shorter time frames. Deliberate approaches and rational patience combine eventually to yield rather significant investments – examples include:

    LIS workshops evolved eventually into KDI, ITR, and most recently SLC. A 1999 workshop led to NSF's Cognitive Neuroscience program. A variety of workshops led to nanoscale science and engineering at NSF and, more recently, the National Nanotechnology Initiative, an interagency effort led by NSF.

We have four Directorates here listening to you for the next two days, plus program officers responsible for our most closely related NSF-wide activities.

We are delighted to have you here, and I hope you will have a stimulating and productive workshop.

Return to a list of Dr. Bordogna's speeches.


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