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An Audacious Faith in the Future 1

Photo of Joseph Bordogna

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

Remarks, Awards for the Integration of Research and Education in the 21st Century
February 27, 2004

Thank you, Provost Meyers, and good evening everyone. I am always delighted to visit North Carolina A&T. This university not only challenges its students and faculty to excel, it makes the entire academic community sit up and take notice.

I am particularly honored to speak to this distinguished--and passionate--gathering of scientists, engineers, and educators involved in the HBCU-Undergraduate Program. Please note that I make no distinction between students and faculty, junior or senior. All of us who pursue discovery at and across the frontier of knowledge belong to the same community of researchers and educators. We all have something to teach and something to learn from each other.

I applaud each of you--for the curiosity that drives you to investigate unresolved mysteries, for the imagination you use to unveil them, for your determination to see the job through, for your creativity in making things, for your wisdom in seeing the value of coupling disciplines across their interfaces and above all for your commitment to making the science and engineering enterprise an inclusive and integrative endeavor.

These qualities are not only commendable; they are increasingly indispensable in our rapidly changing, contemporary society. Our new knowledge-based society places a premium on creativity, innovation, and ensuring the whole is greater than the sum of the parts--a veritable fever of curiosity and realizing ideals that explodes old paradigms with astonishing insights.

The National Science Foundation, the federal agency where I work, understands that these characteristics are vital to the nation's science and engineering enterprise and, in fact, to the overall future of the nation. Our vision statement reflects that. It is crisp and direct: "Enabling the nation's future through discovery, learning, and innovation."

In thinking about my remarks for this evening, uppermost in my mind was how important you are to that vision. I want to emphasize both what you bring to science and engineering in particular and more broadly to society and the world you are helping to shape.

Now, I know I'm the only thing standing between dinner and the Gym Jam, so I'll try to be brief!

I've taken a phrase from Dr. Martin Luther Kings' Nobel acceptance speech, delivered forty years ago, as a theme for my remarks this evening. "I accept this award today," he said, "with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future..."

In today's complex world, I like to think he would understand well the challenges that continue to confront our society. With his "audacious faith in the future," I believe he would seize on each, not as a cause for dismay, but as a powerful force for progress.

Discovery, learning and innovation are all about the future. They, too, are powerful forces for progress. To continually cross boundaries, explore as yet unimagined territory, and find fresh paths to common aims require daring, boldness, linking and a taste for adventure. These are risky undertakings, so we must also find courage, grit, and determination to see us through. In other words, as scientists, engineers, mathematicians and educators, we also need to foster an audacious faith in the future.

Doing so will require us to strengthen our reliance on mutual aspirations and to renew our confidence in the capabilities of human beings to work together toward common goals.

That is because our engagement with science and engineering is a community enterprise, not a solitary sport. This is so for a number of reasons. Let me give you four. First, we need all the talent we can muster to advance the frontier and put it to use in a rapidly changing research and education environment.

Second, purported advances must pass the test of community verification and consensus. In our quest for reliable, robust, collective knowledge, new ideas continually jostle with the old and often replace them with fresh perspectives. We need the community to recognize the potential in these emerging trends and embrace and shape them with vigor.

Third, consensus requires sharing data, methods and information. Openness is the archenemy of ignorance. Banish ignorance, bit by bit, and our path to the future becomes smoother and brighter.

Fourth, the best of science and engineering serve society's needs and aspirations. All of us desire to do something with our lives that makes a difference. If we cease to believe that our intellectual pursuits can change the world, something vital and visceral will be lost to us. The audacity comes with believing that we can actually contribute through our research and education activities! And, of course, we can.

By now, you know that I am speaking not only about values in science, engineering, and mathematics, but also about those crucial to realizing broader social aims. There is not much joy in discovery and exploration without the aim of providing a better life for humankind and a safer, healthier planet.

I am confident that each of you here tonight will make many contributions to the commonweal, and will shape a future that is challenging and rewarding, a future that provides you every opportunity to create the life--and the world--you imagine. I am going to turn now to one feature of that world that my own faith in the future leads me to believe you will shape to serve society's needs.

The world is changing at a breathtaking pace. As we speed into the 21st Century, sophisticated and complex technologies, and their couplings with each other increasingly permeate our lives. They are changing our institutions, and making our world smaller. I don't have to remind this group that the level of knowledge and skills needed to flourish is growing at an accelerating rate, making lifelong learning an exciting fact of life. We can actually have a lot of fun in this heady atmosphere.

For starters, today's scientists and engineers, at any age and in every sector--need additional capabilities that enable them to work robustly across boundaries, to handle ambiguity, to integrate, to innovate, to communicate and to cooperate. We want to create an environment that attracts an eclectic and diverse array of students to pursue studies in science and engineering, and that encourages them to stay the course. We need a variety of learning paths that support creative, world-class scientists and engineers.

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 spur this creativity and dynamism. The divisions will only hold us back and sap our energy until we erase them.

To cope with these challenges and ensure our common prosperity, we will need the talents of everyone. We can't afford to leave a single person behind. In particular, we need to foster the strength that diversity brings to our national purpose. Diversity is our nation's competitive advantage, and we must capitalize on it.

It is our collective necessity to encourage and educate citizens so that they can participate in and lead the new knowledge economy, contribute to social well being, and safeguard the basic values of our society. That is no small task!

In our knowledge-intensive society, we need to capitalize on all available intellectual talent--not only to move forward but also to keep our nation humming. Although we are making inroads, we have not yet seriously tapped the nation's full talent pool. 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.

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 not only a strategic competitive advantage, but it is also the right thing to 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 dialogue and effort have not produced the surge in forward momentum that is necessary--and increasingly urgent--to reach our objectives. Recognizing, understanding and embracing are not enough. Our success depends on making it happen, big time.

There is still a significant chasm between science and society that we need to bridge. 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.

Within this context, NSF has a commitment to build a science and engineering workforce that is both inclusive, diverse, and prepared to meet challenges we cannot yet image. This is at the very core of our mission, which is as much about preparing a world-class workforce as it is about discovery.

The National Science Foundation is a partner with you in meeting these formidable challenges, but we cannot do it alone. We are frequently asked, "What is NSF doing to solve these problems?" NSF is certainly a willing and able player, as it should be. Our statutory mandate explicitly includes the responsibility to broaden participation in science and engineering research and education. That means taking action, not just talking—we identify and support innovative programs, like the HBCU-Undergraduate Program, to name only one. But we are by no means capable of addressing all the issues single-handedly.

Talent runs deep in America, in broad streams of intellect, perspective, and culture. We possess tantalizing potential, but we have not yet learned how to help all individuals realize their promise. 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.

That is where you come in. Without you, the future is dim. With you, the future sparkles.

Let me turn once again for inspiration to Dr. King's Nobel acceptance speech. "I refuse," he said, "to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history."

In that spirit of audacious faith in the capability of humans to shape change rather than accept its vagaries, I urge you all to explore and couple new frontiers--in science and engineering, certainly, but also in education and in every institution that may better the prospects for humankind, both in our nation and globally. I urge you to forge new partnerships so that your vision and perspectives can reach further to enrich and mold our common future. Our willingness and capability to transform our institutions and ourselves are the vital sparks that will fire a revolution not only in the research and education community, but also around the globe.

I'll leave you with that thought. You are the vanguard of the future, the architects of change. It won't happen without you.

1 Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Acceptance Speech, Dec. 10, 1964, Oslo, Norway.
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