"Planning the Future: It Wasn't Raining When Noah
Built the Ark"
Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Chief Operating Officer
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
National Engineers Week
Greater Philadelphia Region
February 24, 2001
Several months ago, we were inundated with election
information and misinformation, and material that
was either pertinent or impertinent. In the midst
of that barrage, I consulted my copy of The Devil's
Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce. Some of you may
know this slim little collection of witty and unorthodox
I found one apropos of election decisions. It said,
"A Conservative is a statesman who is enamored of
existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal,
who wishes to replace them with others."
I am also reminded of the wisdom of Sir Winston Churchill.
He 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."
In a more serious vein, we know that elections change
styles of leadership. They alter policies. And they
can move the nation in a different direction. But
there are some societal forces that have a life of
their own. These forces possess a certain historical
inevitability that presses forward against all odds.
The increasing scientific and technological nature
of civilization has been one of those forces, an undisputed
pattern. It can be traced from early human history
to a veritable frenzy in modern times. In the last
twenty-five years, our knowledge base has exploded,
and the pace of science and technology has accelerated
with it. This accumulated knowledge is now so vast
that we can, with some modicum of confidence, anticipate
and design different futures.
In this sense, I have titled my remarks, Planning
the Future: It Wasn't Raining when Noah Built the
Ark. No one but mystics and psychics ever claim
to be able to predict future events. But I believe
that in the last several years our nation has turned
the corner in thinking about how to better anticipate
the future of technological change. There has been
a growing tendency to think comprehensively about
trends and patterns, and their collective outcomes.
Again, we're not predicting, we're anticipating.
In order to anticipate where we need to go we must
take stock of where we are. So let's begin there.
It is not enough to examine just how your field
of study has evolved or veered in a new direction.
It is not enough to know how a particular product-line
has changed. It is not enough to know how financial
markets affect a specific business.
Instead, we must ask how all fields are evolving --
in science and engineering, in manufacturing and marketing,
in the arts and entertainment, in education and the
environment. In all of these, new scientific and engineering
knowledge, and new technologies, are enormous drivers
of change. Thus, we need to be especially anticipatory
about the nation's future science and engineering
direction, infrastructure, and workforce. Science
and engineering are the cornerstones of our hyper-paced
economy. We are a society that requires complex infrastructures
and a highly sophisticated workforce.
At NSF we are all about science and engineering. Scientists
and engineers are partners in the process of discovering
knowledge and applying it to tasks that are new and
different. They bring about change; they cause disruption.
We call this process innovation.
Both science and engineering are cornerstones of innovation.
They are always changing the present to become the
future, so in essence they are fundamentally anticipatory.
The distinguished mathematician Alfred North Whitehead
laid down a simple guiding principle applicable to
this anticipatory process when he said, "The art of
progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve
change amid order."
At NSF, we are mindful of this depiction of progress.
Our task has been to foster the building of the nation's
science and engineering strength in order to strengthen
the nation's economic and social future. In that process
we support the disciplines in their constant effort
to reach the farthest frontier while maintaining their
fundamental capability. As Whitehead said, we make
progress through change in the context of order.
You might ask how a grant-making institution like NSF
does that? It can be likened to 'planning to build
the ark based on a long range forecast.' In other
words, developing a certain institutional vision.
That visionary landscape at NSF has three critical
components -- people, ideas, and tools. They are the
stock in which NSF invests. Although we speak of them
separately, they are, in fact, inseparable, and form
the core goals of our strategic agenda.
With the community's peer advice, we choose to invest
in the most capable people with the most insightful
ideas and provide tools to enable their work. With
this team, we provide the opportunity to advance a
field in a new direction, accelerate its pace and,
increasingly, help it build a bridge to another field.
In this way, we address territories that hold the
most promising potential for our future. We jointly
identify these territories as over-arching capabilities
that help to connect and expand the core science and
engineering disciplines. For the start of the 21st
century, these capabilities include nanoscale, terascale,
cognition, complexity, and holism.
The term nano encompasses nanoscale science
and engineering. Its focus is at the molecular and
atomic level of things, both natural and human-made.
Nanoscale represents things that are a thousand times
smaller than most of today's human-made devices. One
nanometer is one billionth of a meter. Nanotechnology
gives us the ability to manipulate matter one atom
or molecule at a time. This technology could lead
to a future of dramatic breakthroughs. For example,
molecular computers could store the equivalent of
the U.S. Library of Congress in a device any of us
Nanostructures are at the confluence of the smallest
human-made devices and the large molecules of living
systems. Individual atoms are a few tenths
of a nanometer. To use another comparison, DNA molecules
are about 2.5 nanometers wide. Biological cells, such
as red blood cells, have diameters in the range of
thousands of nanometers. Microelectromechanical systems
are now approaching this same scale.
This suggests a most exciting prospect. We are now
at the point of being able to connect machines to
individual living cells. And we will be able to build
a "wish list" of properties into structures large
and small. We will design automobile tires atom by
atom. The information on a thousand CDs will be packed
into the space of a wristwatch. We could have golf
club shafts as thin as fishing lines. We can foresee
nanoparticle reinforced materials for lighter and
stronger vehicles and bridges. We will design external
painting that does not need washing, cheap non-flammable
plastics, and self-repairing coatings and textiles.
Recording in all media will be able to be accomplished
in nanolayers and dots. This includes flat panel displays
and wireless technology. An entire range of new devices
and processes with startling ratios of improvement
await us across communication and information technologies.
It will be possible to vastly increase data storage
capacity and processing speeds. This will be accompanied
by both lower cost and improved energy efficiency.
Imagine new catalysts that increase the energy and
combustion efficiency of chemical plants, super-hard
and tough (not brittle) drill bits and cutting tools,
and "smart"magnetic fluids for vacuum seals and lubricants.
We will see new nanostructured drugs and drug delivery
systems targeted to specific sites in the body. Researchers
anticipate biocompatible replacements for body parts
and fluids, and material for bone and tissue regeneration.
And in manufacturing, we can expect precision
engineering based on new generations of microscopes
and measuring techniques, and new processes and tools
to manipulate matter at the atomic level. These are
just the beginning. Every field and industry will
be able to capitalize on nano innovations.
The expansion of our nanocapability will depend on
insightful researchers envisioning - imagining - its
possibilities - talented people with good ideas throughout
academe and industry.
Terascale computing is shorthand for computing technology
that takes us three orders of magnitude beyond prevailing
In the past, our system architectures could only handle
hundreds of processors. Now we work with systems of
thousands of 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 - launches us
to new frontiers.
Take for example protein synthesis within a cell. It
requires 20 milliseconds for a nascent protein to
fold into its functional conformation. However, it
takes 40 months of processor time on current systems
to simulate that folding. With a terascale system,
we reduce that time to one day -- one thousand times
faster. Think what that means for the task of functional
genomics, that is, putting our DNA sequence knowledge
When we dramatically advance the speed of our capability
in any area we give researchers and industrialists
the mechanism to get to a frontier much faster or,
better yet, to reach a frontier that had been, heretofore,
unreachable, as well as unknowable.
For several years at NSF, we have been anticipating
and planning for dramatically enhanced computing speed
and expanded capabilities. The revolution in information
technologies connected and integrated researchers
and research fields in a way never before possible.
The nation's IT capability has acted like 'adrenaline'
to all of science and engineering. Fields like physics,
chemistry, biology, and engineering are high-end computational
fields. Researchers need the fastest machines to predict
the behavior of storms or simulate 'protein folding,'
or find the origin of our rising sea level. Computer
Science researchers also need this capability to continue
advancing their field.
NSF is in the process of building a national distributed
terascale computing system. By building, we're doing
more than just connecting chips and wires. We'll need
fundamental advances in software, architecture, and
computer science across the board.
Our vision here is to reach terascale competency and
catapult capability into a whole new era of science
and engineering. We're really talking about terascale
in four dimensions - T4 as we call it.
Tera ops - computational power
Tera bits - a broader band Internet
Tera bytes - hefty storage or memory
Tera instruments - the interfaces to the computer-communications
In essence, we want to create a "tera universe or era"
for science and engineering ... and a freshly robust
Progress in 21st century science and engineering
depends upon access to world-class tools and infrastructure.
From past experience, we know that infrastructures
can either expand or inhibit our potential.
An infrastructure system can provide potential in
one era, but drag us into obsolescence in another
So, in a sense, infrastructure can be thought of as
'perishable.' This is an important understanding because
what is state-of-the-art today is conventional tomorrow.
As exciting and futuristic as terascale is now, someday
it will be eclipsed by something beyond today's furthest
And even the best tools are useless without well-trained
people who have the capacity to pose challenging questions,
conceptualize critical issues, identify opportunities,
and employ their skills to derive answers.
This brings me to the third capability we intend to
expand, cognition. The dictionary defines cognition
as the mental process by which knowledge is acquired.
Most of us would simply say, this is learning. Learning
is the foundation territory of all other capabilities,
human and institutional. Our understanding of the
learning process, that is, the science of learning,
holds the key to tapping the potential of every child,
empowering a 21st century workforce, and,
in fact, maintaining our democracy.
From the last 30 years of research, we know that people,
both young and old, absorb and assimilate knowledge
in different ways, and in more than one way. So the
"science of learning" is a critical inquiry into how
people think and learn.
More than any other species, humans are configured
to be the most flexible learners. Our understanding
of the learning process has changed dramatically in
recent years. New educational technologies tooled
to individual learning styles could transform worker
education and training.
Research in learning has built a growing body of knowledge;
however, experts believe that it's only the tip of
the iceberg. The advent of non-invasive imaging technologies
such as the PET scan and the MRI, has allowed neuroscience
researchers to directly observe the process of the
brain learning. Through these observations, they have
been able to see that practice increases learning
and that learning changes the physical structure of
the brain. With changes in structure, the brain
reorganizes itself. From this work we also know
that different parts of the brain may be ready to
learn at different times.
We know that technologies help people visualize concepts
that are difficult to grasp. And the most obvious,
technologies provide access to a universe of information
that includes digital libraries, real-world data,
and a panoply of people for both information and feedback.
As industry increasingly seeks agile and adaptive learners
for its workforce, the science of learning will make
invaluable contributions. Our ultimate goal is not
to waste a single child or, as President Bush says
it, "Leave no child behind," and to do whatever is
needed to ensure that today's and tomorrow's workers
are well prepared.
The Science of Learning is important to NSF and to
the nation. By focusing on cognition, we will advance
our capability in everything from teaching children
how to read to building human-like computers and robots.
Industry can capitalize on this knowledge in their
training initiatives, in the manufacturing process,
and in the development of new products in a field
that is blossoming. But, fundamentally, we will help
empower people and thus empower the nation, all of
which can lead to wealth creation, and social progress
Now to the 4th and 5th capabilities,
complexity and holism. They act as two sides of a
coin to guide us in the best way to use our accumulated
knowledge of science and technology to discover new
knowledge and better understand how to use it.
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..."
This territory of complexity is 'a space of opportunity,'
a place to make a marriage of unlike partners or disparate
ideas. High-paid consultants sometimes refer to people
who understand this territory and feel comfortable
there as 'out of the box thinkers.'
Today, for example, researchers are trying to put polymers
together with silicon, a marriage of opposites because
plastics are chaotic chains while silicon is composed
of orderly crystals. The result can give us electronic
devices with marvelous flexibility that are also much
less expensive. The awareness of 'complexity' makes
us nimble and opportunistic seekers not only in our
science and engineering knowledge but also in our
industrial institutions. If we operate with this awareness
we will be able to identify and capitalize on those
fringe territories which have potential for optimum
Holism is the "flip side" of the complexity coin.
Holism and complexity have a symbiotic relationship.
Complexity teaches us to look at places of dissonance
or disorder in a field as windows of possibility.
Holism 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. We see its power today in areas as
diverse as our communities, science and engineering
partnerships, and teams in any field of sports.
Something new happens in this integration process.
A singular or separate dynamic emerges from the interaction.
That's probably why when economists are analyzing
productivity inputs they refer to the residual, what's
left after you factor in capital, labor, land, etc.,
as the "black box." They can't explain the dynamism
or interaction of the leftovers such as R&D, education,
workplace interaction, and the like. They can only
recognize that something better or more enhanced comes
out on the other side.
This integration and interaction works at many levels
- the sociology of a team of workers can be a stimulant,
with ideas firing-off in many directions. Holism creates
supportive space where taking risks and challenging
the unquestionable is acceptable. Holism engenders
elucidation, the discovery of your own knowledge transformed
by other perspectives.
The mid-20th century philosopher, Josť Ortega
y Gasset wrote in his work, Mission of the University,
"The need to create sound syntheses 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 construction
of the whole."
Although holism 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.
So when we train ourselves to think about complexity
and holism as two sides of a coin, we develop a pattern
or attitude to search for the disordered fringes of
a field and to pick out fragments of possibility.
With these pieces of potential, different 'wholes'
can be created in new integration. The possibilities
are endless when you think about the flexible building
power that nanotechnology will provide, the enormous
insight from research in cognition, and the ratcheting
up of speed that terascale computing offers.
Now if you take each of these five capabilities and
you ask, what is the 'constant' or fundamental requirement
for all of them, it's the simple foundation of people,
ideas, and tools.
With them, like Noah, we too are building an ark for
an assured change in the future. We cannot precisely
predict the weather. But we have anticipated
the fundamental capabilities that will help us navigate
a successful voyage. This is our journey together.
Let us hoist the sails and set forth.