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Photo of Joseph Bordogna

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

Bridging the Gap between Science and Society Conference
Education and Technical Workforce Panel
James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy of Rice University

Houston, Texas
November 2, 2003

Happy provocative Birthday, Neal (Lane). Rosina (Bierbaum) mandated that we be provocative in our remarks. Remembering our yeasty talks together in your office during your NSF days, when we spent considerable time discussing what a potential investment was not about, as well as what it was about (a.k.a. "policy"), I'm going to give "provocative" a go.

I join my colleagues in thanking Shirley Malcolm for her astute remarks, and for her dedication to meeting a challenge of supreme importance to the nation: broadening participation in the science and engineering workforce.

In thinking of what to say on this issue here in terms of gap bridging, I decided to make remarks that derive from questions and discussions that arose during a sequence of recent NSF speeches on broadening participation. These questions and discussions tend to drift toward adjacent issues, which, while important in themselves, take us off point and off focus, thus mitigating our efforts to broaden participation.

We all recognize that greater diversity in the science and engineering community is vital to our nation's prosperity and security. We understand how including the full gamut of intellectual perspectives and talent gives us an edge in discovery and innovation. And we know that embracing diversity is the right thing to do. In Guy Stever's words at this morning's session, it is indeed something we should do.

We can celebrate the clear progress we have made on many fronts. Yes, there is more diversity in the science and engineering workforce compared to thirty years ago, and there are some people who know how to make it so. Yet the fact remains that years of dialog and effort have not produced the surge in forward momentum that is necessary—and increasingly urgent—to reach our objectives.

This is surely one of the significant "gaps" between science and society that is the theme of this conference. If we are going to "bridge" this gap, we need to be absolutely clear about our common aims, and then move decisively beyond agreement to collaborative action.

How we get the job done is by no means straightforward. Our world—like the science and engineering of our times—is increasingly complex and dynamic. The challenge of diversity is no exception. Accelerating our efforts to meet this challenge will require, for starters, a refined and sophisticated posing of the questions we should be asking.

Keeping our antenna tuned to the need for action, I will offer you some contrasting viewpoints that may help us clarify our strategy and vision. These contrasts suggest a subtle shift in focus—a reframing of issues that may provide a more useful context for effective action.

In other words, I want to contrast what broadening participation in the science and engineering workforce is NOT about—as a way of suggesting what it IS about.

First, it is NOT about the total number of engineers and scientists the nation may or may not need. More and more frequently we seem to be stymied and distracted from our diversity goals by questions about trends and statistics. Do we really need more scientists and engineers? Is the demand for them really greater than the supply? Are PhDs going to go begging for career opportunities in academe, in government, and in industry?

It IS about the need to include a larger proportion of women, underrepresented minorities and persons with disabilities in the scientific workforce. Whatever the total numbers turn out to be, we need a robust and varied mix, and that means expanding diversity.

Second, it is NOT about the number of foreign-born students, scientists or engineers who study or work in the U.S. They have always been a source of strength for our own society and economy, and a way of lifting human potential globally.

It IS about fully developing our domestic talent. In our knowledge-intensive society, we need to capitalize on all available intellectual talent, not only to advance but also to keep our nation humming. Although we are doing better than we did thirty years ago, we have not yet seriously tapped our nation's competitive "ace-in-the-hole"—women, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities. Now we are playing catch up in a very competitive world. We need to understand that diversity is an asset and dissimilarity a valuable component of progress.

An open door policy that educates and enables our own citizens to be contributing participants in our great democratic system as well as continuing the successful policy of embracing those from abroad will make us a genuine welcoming nation to both talent from abroad and from the nation's women and underrepresented minorities.

Third, it is NOT about keeping businesses from going abroad. Science and engineering have always been international. In today's increasingly networked world we are unlikely to staunch the flow of mobile and global enterprises, into and out of our borders, even if we wanted to.

It IS about educating scientists and engineers with a competitive edge. To be on the frontier of discovery and in the vanguard of innovation requires new capabilities and skills that are qualitatively different from production-line education that turns students into commodities bought on the global marketplace at the cheapest price. We want to create an environment that attracts an eclectic and diverse array of students to pursue studies in science and engineering, and encourages them to stay the course. We need a variety of learning paths that support creative, world-class scientists and engineers.

Fourth, it is NOT about demanding that our students learn more and more basic knowledge, or delve deeper into a specialty. This is a good thing to do, but knowledge is changing so rapidly that sticking to this path alone could be a recipe for disaster.

It IS about providing students with additional capabilities that will enable them to work across boundaries, to handle ambiguity, to integrate, to innovate, to communicate and to cooperate. These are components of a holistic education that not only suits the science and engineering of our times, but also thrives on diversity. The differences in race, ethnicity, and gender that abound in our society are a positive force to engender this creativity and dynamism. The divisions will only hold us back and sap our energy until we erase them.

Fifth, achieving our common goals is NOT about working from the bottom up or from the top down. We are frequently asked, "What is the National Science Foundation doing to solve these problems?" NSF is certainly a willing and able player, as it should be. We are very seriously committed to broadening participation. Our statutory mandate explicitly includes this responsibility. That means taking action, not just talking—we identify and support innovative programs to broaden participation. But we are by no means capable of addressing all the issues single-handedly.

Broadening participation IS about working together. When we understand that diversity is the lifeblood of progress and prosperity, it becomes the nation's responsibility—and that includes all of us. Every sector and every citizen has something to offer. We will realize our goals sooner if we all work together in harmony.

It is the varied, richly textured and shaded fabric of diversity—not any single thread—that provides durability and strength to our science and engineering enterprise—and thus to our nation. Diversity—once given scope and opportunity—has the potential to shape, to transform, and to drive our future for the better.

We need to spend less of our intellectual capital worrying about supply and demand, and invest more in getting on with the task of transforming the nation's diversity into our strongest asset. The prize here, the treasure trove of diversity, is clearly worth the effort.

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


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