"Capable Innovators and Innovative Capabilities"
Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation
Remarks, The 4th Annual Leadership Initiative in Science Education: Partners in Innovation
Chemical Heritage Foundation
May 21, 2004
Thank you, and good morning to all of you. I'm delighted to join you here
at the Chemical Heritage Foundation for today's conversation on Partners
in Innovation. Elsa Reichmanis excited us last night with a wonderful keynote
address - it made my soul sing to hear her placing integration in parallel
with reduction! So I'd like to start this morning with a quote from a 1930
book by philosopher José Ortega y Gasset entitled Mission of
"The need to create sound synthesis and systemizations of knowledge… will
call out a kind of scientific genius which hitherto has existed
only as an aberration: the genius for integration. Of necessity
this means specialization, as all creative effort does, but this
time the [person] will be specializing in the construction of
Also, as Arnold Thackray mentioned last night, when I was Dean
of Engineering at Penn some years ago, he convinced me that the
School of Engineering and Applied Science should support the founding
of an organization that would honor the heritage of chemists and
chemistry. I thought it was a terrific idea then, and I haven't
changed my mind since!
Why did I, and do I, feel this way?
Well, respecting the history of any field gives us a broad view
of the dynamic process of discovery, and also sharpens our focus
on the present. We can see more vividly what is new and vital to
our own times and circumstances. Along with Ortega's vision, both
perspectives will help us approach our task.
So, what is new about our times and circumstances?
Civilization is on the brink of a new industrial world order.
Prospering in an increasingly fierce global marketplace will not
be accomplished by those who simply make commodities cheaper and
faster than the competition. They will be those who develop talent,
techniques, and tools so advanced that there is no competition.
Assuring our future requires a workforce so well trained and capable,
so agile and up to date, that it thrives on the continuous technological
change and fast-paced progress that are an absolute certainty in
Today's knowledge-based society places a premium on creativity,
innovation, and ensuring that the whole is greater than the sum
of the parts - a veritable fever of curiosity and realizing ideas
that explodes old paradigms with astonishing insights.
The NSF believes that these characteristics are vital to the nation's
Science & Engineering enterprise and, in fact, to the overall future
of the nation. Our vision statement reflects this: "Enabling the
nation's future through discovery, learning, and innovation."
Discovery, learning and innovation are about the future. They
are powerful forces for progress. To continually cross boundaries,
explore as yet unimagined territory, and find fresh paths to a
better future require daring, boldness, linking and a taste for
adventure. These are risky undertakings, so we need courage, grit
and determination to see us through. Thus, our scientists and engineers
need capabilities that enable them to work robustly across boundaries,
to handle ambiguity, to integrate, to innovate, to communicate,
and to cooperate. All of these were pointed out by Elsa last night.
These are the components of a holistic education, one which dwells
on developing lateral or functional thinking as well as vertical,
in-depth thinking in all students, one which enables innovative
capabilities in our students.
So, we have gathered here today--from business, academe and government--to
consider how we can work together to advance this agenda. I've
titled my remarks "Capable Innovators and Innovative Capabilities." I
see this as an opportunity to explore elements of a framework for
working together as capable innovators to reach our common
educational goal of fostering the innovative capabilities of
our contemporary students, workers, and citizens. Above all, I
want to emphasize that we have the conceptual tools in hand to
make rapid progress if we begin acting in earnest. I will offer
three proposals that could help us along the way.
My first proposal is that we welcome the force of creative
transformation to our educational institutions, training
enterprises and classrooms. I have in mind a blossoming of innovation
in education-a revolution, if you will--that will take learners
to a whole new dimension of performance--at every age, and in
every learning environment.
The economist Joseph Schumpeter, writing in the 1930's, coined
the phrase "creative destruction" to describe the process by which
innovation disrupts--and displaces--old technologies and practices
as new ones emerge. The old gives way to the new as a necessary
feature of a vigorous economy. Old industry structures and relationships
are repeatedly displaced or altered by new forms. In recent years
we have seen this process at work, with many corporations--and
now universities and schools--seeking to reinvent themselves.
When we think of innovation as something that people do to accomplish
a common end, we can speak instead of creative transformation--the
flip side of creative destruction. We are only just beginning to
understand that innovation is as vital to our educational prowess
as it is to our economic prosperity.
Peter Senge, the MIT organizational learning guru, once remarked, "Schools
may be the starkest example in modern society of an entire institution
modeled after the assembly line." The assembly line is a thing
of the past in most industrial settings, but it still lingers in
our "pipeline" approach to education. What we need today is a range
of diverse approaches to science and engineering education--not
an assembly line.
Embracing creative transformation takes courage. We must accept,
and even encourage, the disruption and risks that will inevitably
accompany the emergence of new institutions and practices in science
and engineering education. As humorist Will Rogers once said, "Sometimes
you have to go out on a limb, because that's where the fruit is." Focusing
on creative transformation as our central vision can cultivate
a benevolent approach to robust change.
This brings me to my second proposal. If we want transformations
in science and engineering education to reflect our vision and
serve our needs over the long term, we must exploit the principles
of holistic design to guide and shape creative transformation.
Let me elaborate.
"Design," says the architect and ecologist William McDonough, "is
the manifestation of human intent." 1 Engineers,
educators, and managers are accustomed to thinking in terms of
systems designed to meet specific ends. Applying this directly
to the larger context of economic and social institutions is a
radical step that takes us beyond our normal zones of comfort.
But innovative thinking can drive design of all kinds - not just
in technology and business processes, but also in education, and
even in policymaking.
Contemporary science and engineering teach us that novel and often
surprising patterns and structures emerge in all kinds of systems-from
markets to ecosystems, from human brains to electricity grids,
and on all scales down to the nano. The "holistic" element in "holistic
design" alerts us to look for these subtle signals in the environment
and use them to give direction to our designs.
Many of you will recognize the architect Eero Saarinen as the
designer of Dulles Airport, the TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport,
and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. He was fond of quoting2 the
advice of his father Eliel, also an architect of great distinction: "Always
design a thing by considering it in its next larger context-a chair
in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment
in a city plan."
Holistic design requires this view. Our ability to understand
the larger context in which we discover, learn, innovate and work-the
discipline, the sector, the society, and even the time in history,
the moment in civilization, is crucial to linking our innovations
to common goals. Context is not window dressing or peripheral knowledge.
We cannot expect to act with vision and foresight while handicapping
ourselves with, what amounts to, blinders. With a holistic understanding
of the context, we can shape a future of our choice.
As we develop our vision of educational reform, we need to go
beyond a simple focus on the realities of the moment and embrace
the complexities of the future as well. We will be better designers
over time if we consider the chair within the room.
Planners often evaluate the external and internal influences that
are driving change in an enterprise or institution. Drawing this
contrast can help distinguish those aspects over which we have
some direct control from those larger issues that are less tractable.
Useful as this practice may be, it can also be downright stultifying
if we maintain rigid boundaries between external and internal influences.
Crossing familiar boundaries, establishing novel relationships
that integrate our knowledge and experience with the diverse and
eclectic experience of others, increases our options dramatically.
It gives us tremendous power to guide change. The most successful
partnerships--intellectual, educational, social or institutional--capture
the potential that integration provides.
As we set out together, as capable innovators, to apply the principles
of holistic design to science and engineering education, there
will be disconcerting moments when our vision of the path is not
crystal clear, but the need to move forward is compelling. That
is one of the essential tensions between creative transformation
and holistic design. My third proposal is thus that we adopt a
strategy of constructive ambiguity.
Accepting ambiguity gives us tremendous power and flexibility.
We can move ahead without knowing precisely where we are going,
while making subtle course corrections along the way. And we can
take advantage of entirely new developments and points-of-view
to enrich and broaden our vision.
We can learn to recognize those contexts in which greater definition
may close doors prematurely on future options. There are times
when working on parallel tracks is the only way to provide the
space necessary for innovation until it is ripe for integration.
One-size-fits-all is not likely to be the mantra of education in
the future. Everything we know about discovery, innovation and
learning today warns against commonality. We need plenty of elbowroom
and tolerance to experiment with new structures and models.
The strategy of constructive ambiguity is appropriate to uncertain
and risky circumstances because it puts a premium on increasing
our options for the future rather than locking us into a single
path. As we move forward, experimenting and testing fresh practices
and models, patterns and structures will emerge that create a platform
for the next generation of innovations. A commitment to tolerate
ambiguity can help us work together to design new educational paths
and learning environments to suit the changing needs of our society.
My three proposals are perhaps audacious. They should make us
at least a bit uncomfortable--otherwise, we are not far enough
outside familiar bounds to be on the cutting edge of innovation.
I am not suggesting that we give up our old landmarks. I am suggesting
that we sail as far as it takes to see the new landfall ahead.
I said at the outset that I would offer you some perspectives
on the innovative capabilities necessary to flourish in
our times. It should come as no surprise that these are precisely
the ones I have suggested that we employ as partners in educational
Openness to creative transformation, designing with cognizance
of the broader context, and flexibility and adaptability in progressing
toward a goal are innovative capabilities that we must
not only learn to apply, but learn to teach and foster as well.
Students can learn the process of innovation, holistic design,
and tolerance for ambiguity from models taken from our collective
experience, and long before they are sent out into the world. At
a university, in a grade school classroom, in the workplace, at
home, we have the opportunity and responsibility to help students
learn how to see the larger context of society and extrapolate
good insight from those pictures to project options for the future.
I want to strengthen the case for my proposals by drawing an analogy
between a complex, adaptive system and our own endeavor.
In a complex, adaptive system, diversity, or heterogeneity--of
components and the interrelations among them--generates complexity,
which may in turn generate novel, emergent behavior. "Adaptation" arises
when a complex, adaptive system morphs by changing the rules of
interaction among its component agents. Now for the analogy!
Increasingly, scientists and engineers, educators, and entrepreneurs
are working across many different disciplines and fields and in
different sectors to make the connections that lead to deeper insights
and more creative solutions. Discovery and innovation are now products
of the pooled expertise and talent of many individuals.
I do not mean that each person contributes a "unit of value" and
thus helps to build the whole, like bricks in a building. Rather,
successful outcomes depend on the interactions among diverse
individuals. Something new happens in the process of integrating
the different intellectual skills, experience, and perspectives
of partners. A dynamic emerges that creates a whole greater than
the sum of the parts.
We should always view these combinations as creative arrangements.
They are not formulas to be automatically replicated but rather
new patterns to be ingeniously enhanced each time we design the
next combination. Partnerships must permute, reshape, and regenerate
to stay fresh and responsive to the demands of new knowledge and
Educating scientists, engineers and workers cannot proceed by
formula. Rather, it requires creating a framework of capability
around the talent and individual inclination of each student, providing "boundary-crossing" experiences
and flexible and diverse partnership combinations.
Earlier I said that the conceptual tools to accomplish our educational
goals were in hand. We do not need to wait for another decade,
another generation, to begin acting. Moreover, although we have
no formula, we already know how to do it. With concepts and this
tacit knowledge, we move forward. If we conscientiously practice
these three proposals, our partnerships--among industry, educators
and government--will be reinvented as well.
I began by noting that history can help us broaden our perspective
as well as focus on what is vital to our times. I want to conclude
by relating a very recent bit of history related to chemists and
Dr. Peter Agre is a physician who shares the 2003 Nobel Prize
in Chemistry with Dr. Roderick MacKinnon [for their work on microporins].
In his Nobel Banquet speech, he notes how the boundaries separating
disciplines have become blurred, as scientists are increasingly "following
their curiosities even when they run beyond the formal limits of
their training."3 He
cites his own Nobel award and several others as examples. Here
is an instance of "boundary-crossing" and partnership of the highest
But there is more. He speaks about significant decisions that
citizens might make foolishly and dangerously-from the toxicity
of chemicals to climate change-if they do not understand science,
on some level. He refers to education as "our single greatest defense" against
this ignorance. Here is an example of placing our educational goals
for science and engineering in a larger societal context.
He concludes with a request. "Please join Dr. MacKinnon and me,
he says, "in applauding the individuals that foster the scientific
competence of our society and are the heroes behind past, present,
and future Nobel Prizes-the men and women who teach science to
children in our schools." This gives the old phrase "standing on
the shoulders of giants" a fresh, deeply human and inclusive meaning!
This enriches and expands our heritage by including a broader community
and recognizing the value of their contributions to advance discovery
I believe this addition to our chemical heritage will be honored
for its consequence, and Dr. Agre and Dr. MacKinnon remembered
for their generosity and foresight.
Now I will follow their lead by concluding with a request to all
of you. Let's really make excellence in science, mathematics, engineering
and technology education genuinely prized in our society. Let's
value and encourage innovation in education as much as we do in
industry. Let's initiate more inclusive and diverse partnerships
that bring fresh talent and perspectives to the education enterprise.
We can step forward confidently, even as we experiment with a number
of models, tolerating ambiguity and welcoming flexibility. Only
then will we be able to discern the shape of a new educational
landscape, with its shifting and multiple options for our future.
And let's do it together.
1 William McDonough, "A Centennial Sermon: Design, Ecology, Ethics
and the Making of Things," delivered at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, February 7, 1993.
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2 Eliel Saarinen, quoted by his son Eero, Time 2 June 1977.
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3 http://www.nobel.se/chemistry/laureates/2003/agre-speech.html. Last accessed May 18, 2004.
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Return to a list of Dr. Bordogna's speeches.