Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Chief Operating Officer
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
National Science Foundation
Engineering Research Centers 2000 Annual Meeting
November 6, 2000
See also slide
Good morning and thank you for the kind introduction.
It is a pleasure to be here because I have had a passion
for NSF's ERC program since its inception.
This is an exciting time to come together in Washington
D.C.-the day before Election Day-with the closest
presidential race in years. Let me say right up front
that I have no intention of making any comments about
this year's political fight. As Sir Winston Churchill
said, "Political skill is the ability to foretell
what is going to happen tomorrow ...And to have the
ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen."
Fortunately for us, we don't find ourselves in that
position today. We have come together to celebrate
the rich 15-year history and undeniable extraordinary
success of the Engineering Research Centers.
The ERCs have become recognized as flagships of a new
form of engineering education and research synergized
by partnership. In this context, I'd like to give
my perception of ERC history, highlight some of the
ERCs' greater benefits to society, encourage discussion
on the challenges of extending the ERC culture of
collaboration across the U.S. scientific and engineering
enterprise, and close with a suggestion of contemporary
capabilities that will foster future collaboration
and scientific and engineering advancement.
The deadline for the first NSF/ERC proposals was in
October of 1984. The language in the first program
announcement was full of the tenor of the times. It
recognized the nation's need for reaching the next
rung on the ladder of evolution in engineering research
and education. The goal was clear: to boost U.S. competitiveness
in the world marketplace.
We all remember what was shaping the larger context.
Throughout the early 1980s, U.S. industry was being
battered by foreign competition in nearly every sector.
The Japanese were rapidly gaining market share in
the automotive, computer, and consumer electronics
industries. They did it by capitalizing on the prevailing
knowledge base with more innovative design, more agile
manufacturing, greater productivity, higher quality,
and lower prices.
The seminal document was the NAE's 1984 report with
the Guidelines for the ERCs. It told us to look in
the mirror: part of the problem was the engineering
education system. Students had an inadequate understanding
of the engineering process-they lacked the integrative
training to convert engineering knowledge into real
gains for society.
In the 1980s, American companies were spending six
months to a year formally training newly hired engineers.
This was just to acquaint them with industrial practices
and technological innovations. It would be another
two years before industry expected them to transform
knowledge into new products. Industry and academe,
both, needed a new systems-oriented, integrative perspective.
That's the beginning. An important facet of that first
step was the expectation that an eclectic set of ERCs
would result, based on the genesis of each through
wide-open competition. And though different in breadth
and scope, they were to share overarching, defining
A cultural focus was for each center to foster collaboration
and cooperative learning for industry, academe, and
government, based on mutual respect. This vision has
been realized so well that the ERC program sets an
international example for such collaboration in today's
We certainly can't claim credit for inventing university-industry
partnership. (We're not running for President.) But
together, we have carried it to new heights. Our strategic
approach has lead the way.
The facts speak for themselves, as shown on the screen:
- Industry support for the Centers is about 28%
of the total.
- Twenty-one percent of all ERC industrial members
are now small companies.
- Fifty-eight companies have been spun off by ERCs
over the last 15 years.
- To date, ERCs have unveiled over 600 inventions,
and procured over 300 patents and 1,400 software
- In 1999 alone, ERCs transferred over 200 different
technologies to member partners that impacted
- And lastly, we've graduated almost 7,000 students.
Employers say that Center students understand industry
better, get up to speed more quickly, communicate
better, and are more adept at cross-disciplinary approaches.
And we are all proud of their contribution to today's
With all of these components, we've reversed the situation
of 20 years ago. Other nations are emulating us. The
culture of the ERCs is well matched for our fast-paced,
It is valuable to contemplate the ERC success in a
larger framework because the set of ERC innovations
influenced the "big picture" over time. Thus, let's
raise the bar even higher-let's move to the next rung
on the ladder. Our challenge is to get these cultural
changes adapted, embraced, and understood by all of
the science and engineering community.
This requires our reflection once again, as we did
in 1984, to examine the overall context.
Our "new" era is a perfect match for an old theory.
It dates to the Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter.
In 1942, Schumpeter developed the "rule-breaking"
theory of economics. He described the hallmark of
technological innovation as "the perennial gale of
According to Schumpeter, a normal healthy economy was
not one in equilibrium, but one that was constantly
being disrupted and transformed by technological innovation.
The ERCs are catalysts for healthy disruption.
They guide change by fostering collaboration across
sectors and an interdisciplinary approach to engineering
education. The present set resulted in an untraditional
infrastructure, both intellectual and physical, with
themes that are now contemporary priorities.
This new type of infrastructure expanded our nation's
engineering and technological capabilities. But infrastructures
must constantly change and have flexible components.
Or, we run the risk of an antiquated system dragging
us into obsolescence.
Cyberspace has rapidly become the newest infrastructure
territory. Our traditional infrastructure included
physical facilities, instrumentation, and research
We now have up-and-coming advanced terascale computing
systems, digital libraries, shared data and information
bases, and distributed user facilities. Indeed, we
are entering an age of robust access to rapidly growing
knowledge bases. This connectivity influences our
conduct, commerce, manufacturing, service, and even
the very social order of our society.
As leaders in the engineering community framing the
next 15 years of partnerships and engineering education
and research, we have to ask if we are paying close
enough attention to the far reaching implications
of our changing infrastructure?
Cyberspace will allow everyone, including traditionally
underrepresented portions of our society, access to
realize their ideas. In turn, we can "mine" ideas
from new sources. As we have seen from the success
of the ERC network, society benefits from shared infrastructure
In order for the United States to continue to compete
in the global marketplace, we must forge a critical
mass of knowledge, skills, and infrastructure. In
essence, NSF's strategic goals reflect this philosophy.
They are summed up by three key words: people, ideas,
and tools. We continually help break new ground through
the research and education we support, but we can't
let the knowledge generated lie fallow.
NSF is as much about preparing a world-class workforce
as it is about discovery. That's a primary benefit
from our support of research and education. Tools
open new vistas and frontiers for learning and discovery
These strategic goals move us to the realization of
our vision, which is simple and clear: "Enabling the
nation's future through discovery, learning, and innovation."
It is our job to keep all fields of science and engineering
focused on the furthest frontier, to recognize and
nurture emerging fields, to support the work of those
with the most insightful reach, and to prepare coming
generations of scientific and engineering talent.
A big and important job! A job to which ERCs are well-suited.
ERCs will continue to meet the challenge of educating
engineers for the 21st century by shaping
the future of engineering with new capabilities. Let's
discuss a few.
First, terascale. This new technology takes us three
orders of magnitude beyond prevailing computing capabilities.
In the past, our system architectures could handle
hundreds of processors. Now, we work with systems
of 10,000 processors. Shortly, we'll connect millions
of systems and billions of 'information appliances'
to the Internet. Crossing that boundary of 10^12th-one
trillion operations per second-will launch us to new
One example: protein synthesis within a cell. It takes
20 milliseconds for a nascent protein to fold into
its functional conformation. It takes 40 months of
processor time on current systems to simulate that
folding. With terascale systems, we'll reduce this
time to one day, a thousand times quicker.
We have also been examining ways to enhance our investment
in nanoscale science and engineering. This will take
us three orders of magnitude smaller than most of
today's human-made devices.
Nanotechnology is the ability to manipulate matter
one atom or molecule at a time. Nanostructures are
at the confluence of the smallest of human-made devices
and the large molecules of living systems. Microelectromechanical
systems are now approaching this same scale. This
means we are now at the point of connecting machines
to individual cells.
Next, let's turn to complexity: a new and encompassing
approach to studying our world. Problems can no longer
be attacked from solely a reductionist approach. Only
through mapping and nourishing linkages between components
within a system can we truly reflect and probe the
wholeness of the world that we study.
John Muir saw the same truth mirrored in the natural
world. His words were: "When we try to pick out anything
by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in
the universe." Science and engineering research now
crosses many scales and disciplines. ERCs are wonderfully
Because of advances in areas like nanotechnology, terascale,
and complexity, we are on the verge of a cognitive
revolution that may dwarf the information revolution.
New tools and technologies lay the foundation for
progress in many areas of cognition, like understanding
the learning process. We are also on the verge of
building human-like computers and robots and designing
networks capable of cognition.
The last capability listed on this chart is holism.
This refers to putting things together-integrating
seemingly disparate things into a greater whole. This
includes social as well as physical and engineering
systems. This is the core characteristic that stabilizes
each new rung in the ladder of evolution in engineering
education, research, and practice.
I believe the hallmark of the modern engineer is the
ability to make connections among seemingly disparate
components, and to integrate them in ways that are
greater than the sum of their respective parts.
In summary, we now have faster, smaller, and smarter
capabilities to lead us to the newest frontier.
I would like to close with a quote that has very special
meaning to me. It is from the poet and philosopher,
To me this quote evokes some wonderful imagery. We
cannot see very far into the future. It is indeed
unknown to us. Yet we suspect it's likely to be quite
different from the present.
All of us here today relate to this, ERCs have prospered
in this eclectic and disruptive milieu. We've made
connections, established partnerships, and integrated
the parts of the innovation process for the common
With the help of Santayana's torch of smoking pine,
we are now lighting the way into even newer paths,
into our future. We once again look to the ERCs to
catalyze healthy disruption and an improved society