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"Leading the Way as Full Diversity Partners"

Photo of Joseph Bordogna

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

Remarks, American Society of Civil Engineers Workshop
May 11, 2004


I want to thank the American Society of Civil Engineers for its leadership in embracing diversity as an element of advantage for meeting our responsibilities as engineers. Including a broad range of perspectives in decision-making for the increasingly complex, open-ended project formulations facing today's engineers, is fundamental to our professional tasks. This intellectual integration derives from a good sense of the value of broadening participation.

Broadening participation in the workforce and in education is a focused activity for the science and engineering community and thus for the National Science Foundation, the federal agency where I work. I recall my formal introduction to this capacity building agenda back in the 1970s when the engineering community banded together and created the "Blueprint for Action" guidance and NACME to point the way.

Three decades later, while there has been real progress, broadening participation still stands painfully tall in the "unfinished" column of our national agenda. We have yet to marshal the strengths that a fully utilized population could contribute to our human and economic purpose. Capitalizing on our diversity could be our nation’s greatest competitive advantage.

Understanding that diversity is vital to the science and engineering enterprise as well as to the overall future of the nation is why we are here today. At NSF our strategic plan attempts to reflect this intent. Our vision is to "enable the nation's future through discovery, learning and innovation" and we pursue four goals and three strategies to contribute toward this end. The goals are people, ideas, tools, and organizational excellence. The strategies include investing in intellectual capital, integrating research and education, and promoting partnerships.

Diversity is right up front in our people goal: "a diverse, competitive, and globally engaged U.S. workforce of scientists, engineers, technologists, and well-prepared citizens."

We are taking a number of steps to help shape an effective future workforce, as are all of you in this room. These steps include: crossing boundaries between disciplines and professions; accelerating the capabilities of leaders who enjoy success in broadening participation; including diversity throughout all our investments; increasing access to the tools needed to realize ideas; and looking hard at the way we are organized to allow agility and multifaceted approaches to reach our goals. NSF invests in joint initiatives with universities and with industry to advance each of these areas.

I'd like to discuss three concepts that underlie these activities and could facilitate our efforts to become leaders in developing the nation's human capital. They are:

  1. embracing the changing nature of society;
  2. emphasizing teamwork and partnerships; and
  3. being open to changing the rules.


Increasingly, complex technologies pervade our lives at a breathtaking pace. In combination with our changing demographics these technologies are profoundly changing the way we live and work.

Our terascope, nanoscope, and holistically-enabled capacities, place a premium on the ability to communicate, to cooperate, and to work across disciplinary, organizational and cultural boundaries. Tomorrow's workforce will need an astute grasp of how to interact within a multitude of boundary crossings.

These changes accelerate the demand for a broad range of perspectives in our decisionmaking institutions. To ensure that no segment of society is left behind, we must employ the talents and skills of all ages; all skill levels; and all economic, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. We can't afford to leave a single idea unexpressed or a potential solution unexplored.

Bill Wulf, director of the National Academy of Engineering, once said that, without diversity, "...we limit the set of life experiences that are applied, and as a result we pay an opportunity cost – a cost in products not built, in designs not considered, in constraints not understood, in processes not invented."

Happily, our eclectic population brings to our society an assortment of skills, a variety of objectives, and a polyglot of perspectives – all of which are necessary to rationally address a complex frontier of constant change, for which there is no crisp algorithmic approach.

As leaders in broadening participation, we must adopt the concept that, if we are to understand the changing needs of a complex, interconnected society, the talents of all of our citizens are essential and must be robustly embraced. We must encourage a plethora of ideas and a diversity of training that will open our eyes to possibilities not yet imagined.

This presents an extraordinary opportunity, one that we must meet with commitment.

By broadening participation of underrepresented minorities, our engineering workforce will be ever more capable and competitive. Industrial innovation will be ever more robust from the benefits of diverse perspectives from a diverse set of engineers. Society will be served ever so much better.

I should like to make the case for these claims by addressing two key elements underlying the swift current of change in which we are engaged today, two elements I believe match well with the background material prepared for your workshop, namely:

  • Cacophony and complexity
  • Heterogeneity and holism

Consider these as shorthand for new capabilities that are impelling societal transformation and as underpinnings for engineering careers in all disciplines during the next couple decades.

Let's start with cacophony and complexity. Cacophony is typically defined as "disharmony" but for our purpose, it describes a bantering of ideas. Cacophony is a wild discussion, brain storming, or heated debated that leads our thinking to new places, breakthroughs, and intellectual disruptions.

Cacophony's companion is complexity. Mitch Waldrop, in his book Complexity, writes about a point we often refer to as "the edge of chaos." That is, "where the components of a system never quite lock into place, and yet never quite dissolve into turbulence either...The edge of chaos is where new ideas and innovative genotypes are forever nibbling away at the edges of the status quo..."

You need cacophony to understand that complexity can hold 'a space of opportunity,' a place to make a marriage of seemly unlike partners or disparate ideas. You need cacophony to identify how to mobilize that locus where chaos can be reshaped or transformed. The awareness of 'complexity' makes us nimble and opportunistic seekers not only in our science and engineering knowledge but in our industrial and academic institutions as well.

If we operate with this awareness we will be able to identify and capitalize on those fringe territories which have so much potential. Complexity teaches us to look at places of dissonance or disorder in a field as windows of possibility.

Now, let's take a look at heterogeneity and holism. The dictionary defines heterogeneity as diverse, varied, and non-homogenous. Heterogeneity depicts teams of diverse professionals – maybe for example engineers, chemists, programmers, psychologist, and social philosophers – addressing a common problem.

The growing diversity of the U.S. population offers us a unique advantage to marshal the perspectives and wisdom of different cultures, thought patterns, beliefs, and behaviors.

Holism, the companion of heterogeneity, teaches us that combinations of things have a power and capability greater than the sum of their separate parts. Holism is far from a new idea. We have seen it work in social structures since the beginning of civilization. Something new happens in this integretive process. A singular or separate dynamic emerges from the interaction.

Although holism, the process of integration, is an ancient dynamic, what is new is that it can be applied to the vast accumulated knowledge of science and engineering and the new knowledge that is burgeoning as we speak.

To gain the most powerful advantage from holism we need to have heterogeneity of participants. We need diverse perspectives, different beliefs varied cultures, numerous approaches in training, and maybe even rule breaking across the board. This is a formidable task but it is probably the surest path to innovation solutions. The goal is to bring the intellectual chaos and disorder together in a new way to form a different and unique "whole," to create a distinctly different harmony. The frontier of engineering presents an unimaginable set of opportunities; engineers have a responsibility to create a symphony from these which will enable us to enjoy a better society. This certainly is a task for which engineers should be well prepared.


Another path to greater diversity of thought, concept, and action is through getting more people, communities, and organizations on the team.

Our new knowledge-based society places a premium on ensuring that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Data, instruments, equipment, skills--all aspects of research, development, manufacturing, and service--are becoming too complex and interdependent for one worker, one company, or one nation to realize their full integrated potential. It is imperative that we focus on a reliance on complementary skills and make a commitment to working together toward common goals.

Cooperation must be as prevalent as competition.

A team thrives on diversity. Differences in race, ethnicity, and gender are a positive force to spur creativity and dynamism, to ensure the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts. Divisions only hold us back and sap our energy.

A greater role for highly inclusive teams and partnerships among students, faculty, institutions, and industries can synergize the tasks and end the isolation that people might otherwise experience as minorities in a majority context. This can apply to a white native-born man in a graduate school heavily populated by foreign-born students as easily as it can to an African-American woman in a traditionally white male profession.

There is no better place to begin than with our children. Through the national Math and Science Partnership program, NSF brokers partnerships between universities and local elementary schools and secondary schools. This is not merely an attempt to improve pre-kindergarten-through-12th-grade math and science education. It is a way to retrain students and faculty at all levels to reach out to underrepresented populations and to think in terms of what each person and each level has to offer the community. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

NSF also funds a program entitled "Integrative Graduate Education Research and Traineeships." This program teams graduate students and faculty to conduct research at the intersections of traditional disciplines, further breaking down barriers between people and professions.

Our role, as leaders, is to make the desire to participate in eclectic teams and partnerships important in the decisions that drive career choices, companies, and national goals.


Finally, we must be open to changing the rules and procedures, particularly the tacit ones, that govern students, faculty, graduates, agencies, businesses, professions, and nations.

The rules set up by the traditional, industrial complex, for example, as pointed out strongly in your background material, include the concept that time is linear, and that getting the job done posthaste is the cultural norm. We must be open to the possibility that other paradigms may be more successful in meeting the diverse needs of a complex society.

Again, one of the most important venues for change is education. Peter Senge, an MIT management guru, once remarked, "Schools may be the starkest example in modern society of an entire institution modeled after the assembly line."

When it comes to broadening participation, the complexities of the future call for a range of diverse approaches to education--not an assembly line.

The NSF initiative called the Science of Learning is broadening our knowledge of how people learn, make choices, and view the world. Research on learning is telling us that people have various styles of absorbing and processing information. Accepting a variety of styles, rather than squeezing people into a common learning box, might be the next breakthrough in education.

We must not hesitate to apply new knowledge, even when it means relinquishing the familiar or overturning the status quo.

I want to mention one NSF success story in promoting diversity. The Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation was established to increase the number of minority students earning baccalaureate degrees in science and engineering.

The program is successful in that nearly 400 institutions are participating, and the program has produced nearly 200,000 minority graduates in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology, now at a clip of 25,000 per year.

What I want to highlight, however, is the path to the final destination. The program creates partnerships between research universities and 2-year and 4-year colleges, aiming to remove the barriers between education and research, and the barriers between undergraduates, graduates, and professionals. The program provides role models at each level.

While the precise methods vary in different regions of the country, the underlying premise of the Louis Stokes program is consistent: changing the rules of traditional education can lead to more successful strategies.


I want to applaud each of you—for the curiosity that drives you to explore a rapidly changing society, and for your wisdom in seeing the value of a more inclusive and integrative professional endeavor.

The National Science Foundation is a willing partner in creating leaders and role models to meet the diversity challenge.

Our statutory mandate includes the responsibility to broaden participation in science and engineering research and education. Our larger responsibility is to support a broader and more diverse knowledge base and technological capability among the entire population.

Together we can help expand educational opportunities, create wealth and prosperity, and meet the unfulfilled diversity goals of our national agenda.

Thank you.

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


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