text-only page produced automatically by LIFT Text
Transcoder Skip all navigation and go to page contentSkip top navigation and go to directorate navigationSkip top navigation and go to page navigation
National Science Foundation
design element
News From the Field
For the News Media
Special Reports
Research Overviews
NSF-Wide Investments
Speeches & Lectures
Speeches & Presentations by the NSF Director
Speeches & Presentations by the NSF Deputy Director
Speech Archives
Speech Contacts
NSF Current Newsletter
Multimedia Gallery
News Archive

Over the Horizon: The Powerful Context for Future R&D Initiatives

Photo of Joseph Bordogna

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

Remarks, Engineering R&D Symposium
Washington, DC
March 8, 2004

Thank you, Arden, 1 for your warm welcome, and good afternoon to all of you. (One engineer always appreciates being introduced by another!)

I also want to thank ASME and the numerous societies that have joined in collective leadership to co-sponsor this 2 nd Annual Engineering R&D Symposium. 2 And I want to congratulate Harry Armen on becoming President-elect of ASME. I have great respect for Harry and wish him well.

Today's event under the rubric of "engineering" provides a terrific opportunity for us to focus on expanding the strength, vitality and capacity of our Nation's discovery and innovation enterprise. This is the kind of project that engineers live for!

Or as Vannevar Bush, an engineer and visionary of our enterprise, described it: "...the free play of initiative of a vigorous people under democracy... [supported by] the advance of science and its application." 3 Today's symposium would have been one Vannevar Bush insisted on attending!

Here, designers, makers, researchers, innovators, and policymakers converge from a rich spectrum of perspectives. I am delighted for the invitation to speak, and eagerly anticipate the spirited controversy I hope to "engineer."

To begin, I want to share with you a poem by British poet, Wendy Cope, both for a bit of levity to set our compass, and also to focus on the importance of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

I was given this poem by a colleague of mine, Dan Hoffman, who studied engineering as an undergraduate, became an English professor, and crowned his career as Poet Laureate at the University of Pennsylvania.

Wendy Cope's poem plays on themes of function, beauty, and reward, and their integration in our culture. Titled "Engineer's Corner," it was composed as a response to a lament by a U.K. engineers' council letter posted in the London Times, to wit:

"Why isn't there an Engineers' Corner in Westminster Abbey? In Britain we've always made more fuss of a ballad than a blueprint...."

The posting went on to suggest that sans recognition in the Abbey, engineers do not enjoy the presence in society enjoyed by other careers and are thus minimized. In response to the posting, Wendy, with lighthearted humor, wrote:

We make more fuss of ballads than of blueprints –
That's why so many poets end up rich,
While engineers scrape by in cheerless garrets.
Who needs a bridge or dam? Who needs a ditch?

Whereas the person who can write a sonnet
Has got it made. It's always been the way,
For everybody knows that we need poems
And everybody reads them every day.

Yes, life is hard if you choose engineering –
You're sure to need another job as well;
You'll have to plan your projects in the evenings
Instead of going out. (It isn't swell).

While well-heeled poets ride around in Daimler's,
You'll burn the midnight oil to earn a crust,
With no hope of a statue in the Abbey,
With no hope, even, of a modest bust.

No wonder small (tots) dream of writing couplets
And spurn the bike, the lorry and the train,
There's far too much encouragement for poets –
That's why this country's going down the drain.

Wendy's observations are astute. Notwithstanding the lack of recognition for engineers in the Abbey, both poets and engineers are creative and share common traits: they create lovely things that thrill our senses, enliven our souls, and add quality to our lives ... all for a "modest" fee of course. Both seek to improve the quality of life, make us see the world whole, and propel us to actions we otherwise would not take.

The poem also reveals that poets and engineers suffer misconceptions about each other, as do most specialized groups in our society. These misconceptions disrupt the lines of understanding and yield narrow vision, especially about societal trends. Examples of misinformed vision abound and illustrate how easy it is for a specialized person to miss something that might be obvious to someone with a more holistic understanding of the world and its parts.

Today's occasion, prompted by mechanical engineers, allows us to re-envision the classic definition of what constitutes an engine. Our earliest dictionaries taught us: an engine is a device that converts energy to mechanical force and motion. The essence of that definition is creative transformation – energy to momentum.

That process – energy to momentum – speaks directly to the excitement and inspiration of 21 st century science and engineering innovation at the frontier. Propelled by advances in genomics, materials, computer-communications, and advances in cognition, mathematics and social science, our profession is on the verge of new, exhilarating frontiers.

At those frontiers we look for the integration of vast computing power, massive data sets, and simulation science that will enable us to model, understand, and manage the most complex of systems – physical, biological, environmental and virtual. Moreover, with emerging nanomanufacturing techniques, new materials and systems can be designed and constructed atom by atom. And so on ... These new capabilities promise to shape and benefit the way we live, work, and progress.

Clearly, regardless of our individual fields, we are stewards, advocates, and builders of the future prosperity, security, and welfare of our Nation, and the complex societal engine that it is. Which brings me to the theme of my remarks: "Over the Horizon: The Powerful Context for Future R&D Initiatives."

Our nation's need for highest performance in every sector is expanding – "over the horizon." In creating his tome, The Endless Frontier, Vannevar Bush in a May 31, 1945 letter to the Chairs of the four Committees he had chartered to help him in his task, wrote about the covenant of "[s]tability of [research] support" from the commonweal, justified by the consequent "healthy flow of new scientific knowledge," resulting in an increase of "new products and industries and jobs, and in the flowering of scientific talent." Indeed, he was setting our compass "over the horizon" big time.

We have watched with great satisfaction, the subsequent growth and development of our nation's Science, Engineering and Technology ("S, E & T") enterprise. The investment in R&D of the past half-century gives ample testimony to the progress made in bringing benefits to the nation and its citizens.

Warmed by a genuine sense of satisfaction, we are in a position to look toward the future and ask, "What next?" In answering this question, we should be aware of two characteristics that will determine how well we are able to meet the challenge of innovation in our 21 st century world: how adept we are in anticipating the future , and how wise we are in shaping it to our ends.

First, some stocktaking.

The early 1980's were difficult days. The nation was facing a stunning wave of global competition and the resultant restructuring of industry. Today, we see technological innovation blossoming at a breathtaking pace. Competition will remain fierce, but we face it today with a new confidence in our capacity to rise to its most difficult demands. Yet life is made more complex by geopolitical demands to contain new aspects of tyranny.

Here, Benjamin Franklin gave us advice tuned to strategic elements of our nation's S, E &T intent. He wrote in his Autobiography : "It is in the regions of ignorance that tyranny reigns. It flies before the light of science. Let the citizens of America, then, encourage institutions calculated to diffuse knowledge amongst the people...." Here again, we hear that democratically-diffused knowledge is indeed power.

Looking back, we are struck above all by how startling and visionary the ideas were that shaped our nation's R&D enterprise – and equally by how much we take it for granted today!

We are so steeped now in the rhetoric of "innovation" that it's something of a struggle just to imagine how little salience it had in the early 1980's.

That's an indication of the extraordinary transformations that have swept through our society and our lives during the past two decades. Changes that we scarcely could have imagined 20 years ago are now our common currency. Today, new technologies – and whole industries – emerge in what seems like the blink of an eye.

Many threads intertwined to produce the innovative tapestry that is our nation's S, E & T investment. I'll mention just three that will be familiar to you all.

The first is the realization that universities and their science and engineering faculty and students are critical resources that can make a valuable contribution to economic development – much the same way that agricultural, industrial and natural resources did in the 19 th and 20 th centuries. New knowledge at the frontier is our new capital, our engine of innovation.

The second is the notion that partnerships – among academe, business and government – can speed the transformation of new knowledge into new products, processes and services, and in their wake produce new jobs, create wealth, and improve our social well being. The wise advice of Woodrow Wilson applies here. "I not only use all the brains that I have," he said, "but all the brains I can borrow."

Third, and perhaps the most radical of the three, is the idea that we can design partnerships and institutions to achieve common, long-term goals – in this instance, to bolster economic development and raise the standard of living and security of the nation.

"Design," says the architect and ecologist William McDonough, "is the manifestation of human intent." As engineers, we are accustomed to thinking in terms of systems designed to meet specific ends. Applying this directly to the larger context of economic and social prosperity is the radical step.

These three conceptual innovations – knowledge as capital, partnerships as transformational, and design as intent – are the heart and soul of what drives today's S, E & T investment.

In anticipating the future, we must recognize that civilization is on the brink of a new industrial world order. The big winners in the increasingly fierce global scramble for supremacy will not be those who simply make commodities faster and cheaper than the competition. They will be those who develop talent, techniques and tools so advanced that there is no competition.

That means securing unquestioned superiority in nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information science and engineering. And it means upgrading and protecting the investments that have given us our present national stature and unsurpassed standard of living.

How will we get from here to there? Standing at the nexus of accelerating scientific and technological change, engineers are expected to foster progress toward a daunting array of ends – creating new knowledge, products, and systems; stimulating economic development; creating wealth and jobs; sharpening the nation's competitive and leading edges; raising our prospects for more creative and satisfying lives; caring for the environment; and strengthening the security of our nation and its myriad infrastructures – from education to transportation. I hope I haven't left anything out.

At the center of our efforts are the practices that continue to focus our activities. These practices are at the core of all forward-looking decisions about R&D investments: priority setting, inclusion, peer review, and competition for funds.

What underlies and pulls those practices forward in the 21 st century is the support of four critical imperatives.

First, increasing the outreach and collaboration between research, education, industry, and governmental partners.

As Vannevar Bush advised: "Science...can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team." Bush foresaw that the complexity and vitality of American R&D could not be restricted to any single part, discipline, or institution of our inter-related system and infrastructure. All partners are integral and inter-related.

Second, expanding the interactions and contributions of multi- faceted teams within the S, E &T universe.

Third, increasing the use of advanced computing systems and computational science to establish broader, more-responsive networks, and generate new discovery.

I want to pause here and give a specific challenge to the nation's engineers on an issue that seems ubiquitous to universal prosperity issues, ranging over the entire spectrum of societal parameters, from next generation manufacturing to developing human capital.

The practice of science and engineering at the research frontier has changed markedly in recent years, owing in large measure to the impact of increasingly powerful and pervasive computer-communications tools. Today, simulation and modeling are as important to discovery as are theory and experimentation.

Advances in sensor technologies and the availability of affordable mass data storage devices are making possible the collection, creation and federation of large complex datasets. Pervasive networking technology is enriching collaborations and providing broad access to a multitude of scientific resources, and providing new opportunities to promote and advance learning, expand human cognition and enable distributed learning.

We need to create and support an integrated cyberinfrastructure that will enrich and continue to revolutionize discovery, learning and innovation in all science and engineering domains.

This distributed infrastructure would integrate a range of heterogeneous tools into a common, persistent and widely accessible national infrastructure, which would include advanced computing engines, federated data archives and digital libraries, observing and sensor systems, and other instrumentation.

And now returning to the critical imperatives, the fourth: deepening the integration of research and education activities at all levels for the benefit of the entire learning continuum.

Today's workers will spend their lifetimes in a world that presents complex and open-ended challenges. To thrive in this environment, they must be taught the powerful concept of continuous learning in a discovery-rich environment.

All stakeholders must do everything we can to re-invigorate, design and build that flexible, multi-doored environment for them. In all educational programs, we must continue to aim at and be committed to engaging and exciting students within the context of up-to-the-minute discovery.

Research is an invaluable paradigm for lifelong learning. All of us have the privilege and the responsibility to convey the excitement of the opportunities and challenges that are presented in this new century. We must effectively communicate why the research – its questions, approaches and the resulting knowledge – is so important.

One of the hallmarks of our nation's excellence has always been its capacity for reinvention and reinvigoration. This is how we trace the arcs and leaps of American ingenuity. As the poet Robert Frost observed, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," and nature doesn't appear to, either.

Each of us needs to remove the artificial barriers between the science and engineering disciplines, between the specialties within disciplines, and between the different segments of our educational networks.

Historians have frequently referred to enormous strides in knowledge-creation and innovation in terms of "revolutions." We've traced the leaps: from the Industrial Revolution to the Information Revolution to today's Knowledge Revolution. Each of those leaps has enabled human beings to travel and learn at greater distances and speeds. From local to global, our nation's infrastructure reflects the evidence of these successive revolutions – in the multiplicity of point-to-point transmission -- railroads, highways, power-lines, satellites, glass cables, and the Internet.

Today, when we look over the horizon – it's through a world-wide window. Some have asked: what comes after knowledge? Others have replied: There's nothing after knowledge. Deepening our knowledge is everything.

But is it knowledge or data? Our view beyond the horizon intimates that the acceleration of our knowledge and its complexity, and the ever-growing appreciation for the interrelated nature of knowledge, already proscribes the parameters of the next revolution: that of the Integration of Knowledge. This is the universal window we are knocking upon now.

All partners must act as the true colleagues we are. We must approach our needs from a collective and integrated perspective. Argument that capitalizes on understanding and integrating our differences is of value; argument that enhances our division is not and works against the inherent unity of our enterprise.

When we describe the nature of our achievements and the scope of our present and future efforts, we do well to remember former Science Advisor Neal Lane's advice: "Let us not take this as cause to be arrogant about our contribution but rather as reason to be articulate about that contribution."

In closing, I suggest our thoughts follow something that Bill Wulf asserted eloquently in a 1998 speech he gave during the National Academy of Engineering Annual Meeting: "...in any creative profession, what comes out is a function of the life experiences of the people who do it."

Wulf continues: "...sans diversity, we limit the set of life experiences that are applied, and as a result we pay an opportunity cost v a cost in products not built, in designs not considered, in constraints not understood, in processes not invented."

We must proceed with full and determined energy to nurture the rich diversity of our Nation's talent. We must encourage that talent to integrate and unify its vision for the benefit of our Nation as a whole, our highest concern. That concern should guide all our future R&D initiatives.

I want to end on this note and urge the professional engineering societies to sign on to the human capital diversity statement drafted with a lot of fervor this past year at the Engineering Societies Diversity Summits.

Thank you.

1 Arden Bement, Acting Director, National Science Foundation.
Return to speech

2 AIAA, American Institute of Chemical Engineers, American Society of Civil Engineers, ASME, ASHRAE, IEEE*USA, SSTI and SWE.
Return to speech

3 Vannevar Bush, Science--The Endless Frontier: A Report to the President on a Program for Postwar Scientific Research, July 1945.
Return to speech

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


Email this pagePrint this pageBookmark and Share
Back to Top of page