Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Chief Operating Officer
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Challenges for NSF in the 21st Century:
Cacophony and Heterogeneity as Elements of the Symphony
Florida International University
February 22, 2002
It gives me great pleasure to celebrate Engineers Week
here with you at Florida International University.
Although only 30 years old, Florida International
University has distinguished itself as a young, energetic,
and large institution who's College of Engineering
holds as its goals to educate, to innovate, and to
serve. More generally, you are a university in continuous
evolution - conscious of the changing world and arching
toward those changes so that your students have skills
to match the times. And being young, you have great
agility to capitalize on opportunities to innovate
with contemporary flair and futuristic spirit. Great
things are happening here in the Sunshine State; thank
you for involving the National Science Foundation
Engineers Week is a celebration of the achievements
of individuals and the profession, and a chance to
share with others what engineers do and might do.
As we celebrate Engineers Week here in Miami, our nation's
capitol is celebrating both engineering and music.
This month, the National Symphony Orchestra is performing
the music of immigrants who came to America seeking
freedom, safety, and opportunity to express themselves.
Entitled "Journey to America," this two-week festival
is showcasing the works of composers who were not
born in the United States but who were attracted here
by our exotic rhythms, the multi-cultural folk tradition,
and audiences hungry for music - in concert halls
and on the radio and through other media.
Celebrating diversity in music, engineering, and science
forms a base for my subject today, "Challenges for
NSF in the 21st Century." I have titled
my remarks "Cacophony and Heterogeneity as Elements
of the Symphony." I hope that gets everyone's attention.
In more ordinary words, it is a celebration of an
enhanced role of engineers and scientists in society
built on what they do best intellectually. It is also
about the evolving role of the university in research
and education, to wit: the creation, integration and
transfer of knowledge. And it's about people, without
whom there is no knowledge.
So, let's do some imagining about the future: The societal
role of scientists and engineers has always been exciting;
now it grows more formidable. What are its key contemporary
elements that impel us to formidable deeds? What is
it that ensures we will do the right thing as well
as do things right? What is the 21st Century
envelope within which we do our work and have our
fun? I start by dissecting the title of my remarks.
Cacophony is typically defined as "dissonance" or
"disharmony," but for us it describes a bantering
of ideas. Cacophony for us is a wild discussion, brain
storming, or heated debate at the knowledge frontier
that leads our thinking to new ideas, breakthroughs,
and intellectual disruptions.
As for heterogeneity, it implies "diversity", "dissimilar
constituents," "non-homogeneity". This definition
serves us well. Heterogeneity depicts teams of disciplinary
- trained participants - maybe engineers, psychologists,
chemists, programmers, and social philosophers, for
example - addressing a common boundary-crossing issue.
It also describes an eclectic group of these folks
along with students and schoolteachers forming a community
of learners and achievers.
And my third key word, symphony, is synonymous with
masterpiece, a work of art, an opus. That is the tune
that engineers and scientists are humming today -
the symphony of people functioning together holistically
to learn, discover, and innovate.
Cacophony, Heterogeneity, and Symphony describe the
successful conduct of societal advance in today's
technologically based world. As the Industrial Revolution
matured in the mid-twentieth century, our societal
elements of separateness and career homogeneity began
Now, careers evolve throughout a person's lifetime.
Instead of just mastering a profession and working
within the limited walls of a sole discipline, today's
workforce takes the tools of their individual disciplines
and expands them outward to new endeavors and cross-boundary
interactions, changing the character of their disciplines
in their wake.
These migrations through workplaces and applications
truly require building upon the fundamental training
and thinking ability that are garnered from a solid
education. The expertise of a well-educated engineer
or scientist is portable through sequential careers
possibly in government service, academe, and industry.
We are all engaged in lifelong learning and, in today's
world, increasingly able to collaborate with colleagues
from across disciplines and other boundaries. This
is like a symphony, where the beating drums, light
sounding flutes, and heavy bases are orchestrated
into a wonderful and unique production.
A key word in science and engineering today is transformation.
People and ideas are evolving along with the tools
that people use to create their ideas and realize
them in service to society.
Those my age look back and recall how technology advanced
from the vacuum tubes that comprised electronic circuits
of the 1940s, to miniaturized transistors of the 50s,
through integrated circuits and into the micro-circuits
Only some of us here today have ever held a vacuum
tube, but any of us can still view them in antique
shops and in physical or on-line museums. Vacuum tubes
ranged in size from that of a thumb to a fist and
much larger, and many were needed to operate a TV
or radio and they were fragile. Can you imagine hooking
your headphones into a musical device the size of
a microwave oven and dragging it around to listen
to classical music, Salsa, or Rap? NO WAY!
Scientists and engineers laid the groundwork for consumer
products like WALKMAN and M3P players. Global citizens
now carry hundreds of tunes in the palms of their
hands. As megabytes of music fly through the Internet,
"download" has replaced "record."
Music listeners anywhere and anytime, can access the
innovations of icons like composer Aaron Copland who
blessed us with "Fanfare for the Common Man;" trend
setters Gloria Estefan, Madonna and Jennifer Lopez;
guitar player Jerry Garcia and the cherished Grateful
Dead; or song writer and performer Michael Jackson
and his earth shattering Moon Walk. The creativity
of these diverse and talented music makers is enjoyed
across the globe because of knowledge created, integrated,
and transferred by scientists and engineers.
Let's take an historic look at how all of this became
possible: Astronomers tell us that the universe is
about 10-15 billions years old. The Earth is about
4.5 billions years old, so geoscientists say. Organized
civilization is on the order of several thousand years
old. The industrial Revolution is about 200 years
old. The electron was distinctively discovered only
a mere century ago. The automobile, airplane, and
radio have been with us for about a century, TV about
a half century. The all-electronic digital computer
is about 50 years old; so, too, is the transistor.
Recombinant DNA about three decades. The Internet
about a decade and so on...
The pace of technological change is hastening, prompting,
for example, the slogan for this year's Engineer Week:
"Without Engineers, the World Stops". Certainly, the
availability of the world's finest music to all of
its inhabitants would not have even begun without
the innovations made possible by scientific discovery
and engineering integration, both interacting in a
fine symphony melded of cacophony and heterogeneity.
The pace of this change presages the 21st
century as a distinctly global age. There are new
opportunities, new threats, new frontiers, and new
constraints. There is a growing need for partnerships
and collaborations across a variety of boundaries.
The global integration prompted primarily by technological
innovation creates a set of realities for government,
industry, academe, and the population in general that
is different from the past.
Our national security is very much based on alliances
and cooperation with other nations. Instant communication
and advanced transportation make our world integrated,
porous, attached, and overlapping in every way.
For industry, the global marketplace is a wish list
of opportunity along with a reverberation of economic
woes. The accelerated pace of new knowledge and technological
obsolescence is simultaneously invigorating and daunting.
For academe, the constant churning and change in society
makes us unnervingly alert to staying ahead of the
curve. We are compelled to think about success, potential,
and opportunities. These challenges coalesce with
the concepts and priorities in NSF's agenda and I
am sure they must fit into your vision for the university
and form a conglomerate for framing the future.
Making decisions in this complex mix amounts to making
good judgement by being well informed, with a good
dollop of imagination thrown in.
I return now to the key elements of this new global
symphony and add strategic elements that NSF believes
to be grand challenges, at least through the start
of the 21st century.
- Cacophony and complexity
- Heterogeneity and holism
- Nano, and
These are shorthand for the new capabilities
in science and engineering we believe will
transform society. They will also change and
reinvigorate our nation's system of higher
In what better root could scholarship lie?
Cacophony's companion is complexity. Science writer,
author, and physicist, Mitch Waldrop, wrote in his
book Complexity, 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
You need cacophony to understand that complexity
can hold 'a space of opportunity,' a place
to make a marriage of 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 commercial
institutions. It is also needed to understand
how best to move higher education into a new
If we operate with this awareness we will be
able to identify and capitalize on those fringe
territories that have so much potential. Complexity
teaches us to look at places of dissonance
or disorder in a field as windows of possibility.
When we come to heterogeneity - or eclecticism
- 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 integration process. A
singular or separate dynamic emerges from
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 a heterogeneity of participants.
We need diverse perspectives, different beliefs,
varied cultures, numerous approaches in training,
and even "rule breaking" across the board.
This may sound like a formula for disaster
but, in fact, it is probably the surest path
to innovative solutions. The goal is to bring
the chaos and disorder together in a fresh
way to create not discordance, but rather,
form a different and unique "whole," to create
a distinctly different harmony, a grander
Cognition may sound like the odd one out in
this list. It not only fits but it is the
very beginning of the process. 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 holds
the key to tapping the potential of every
child, empowering a 21st century
workforce, redesigning education from K through
16, and, even in maintaining our democracy.
The social philosopher and leader, Marian Wright
Edelman wrote in her thin volume, The Measure
of Our Success, "...America cannot afford
to waste a single child." President Bush calls
his education initiative, "No child left behind."
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.
We know that cultural experience, social interaction,
and communal participation are primary forms
of learning. By the time a child enters school,
these cultural norms and values are already
in place. We know that being an expert does
not guarantee your ability to instruct others
about the topic. That has important implications
for training teachers.
We know that more than any other species, humans
are configured to be the most flexible learners.
Humans are intentional learners, proactive
in acquiring knowledge and skills, although
much of what we learn is outside of any formal
instruction. And, it turns out that we are
more successful learners if we are mindful
or cognizant of ourselves as learners or thinkers.
Cognition is a critical inquiry into all aspects
of how people learn. To date, our knowledge
of the "science of learning," is probably
just the tip of the iceberg of what we have
yet to learn. Our ultimate goal is truly [not]
to waste a single child and to teach and train
a workforce that is well prepared and can
adapt and change.
Of the five capabilities that form the cluster
of my remarks, two are advanced technologies
- nano and tera. Without the least exaggeration,
I can say that they will catapult society
into a new and unimaginable era.
Nano is short for nano-science and engineering
and it has the potential to eclipse everything
we can do in manufacturing today - from airplanes
to pharmaceuticals, from the smallest to the
largest tools we use to learn and create.
At nanoscale, things are portrayed at the molecular
and atomic level of things, both natural and
human-made. A nanometer is a billionth of
a meter. Until the scanning/tunneling microscope
was invented twenty years ago, we could not
observe molecules on a surface. Soon, our
micro world will become a nano world. We will
connect nano-machines to individual living
cells. Nano capability will allow us to build
a "wish list" of properties into structures
large and small. For cars, trucks, and airplanes
nano-particle reinforced materials will allow
lighter bodies, self-repairing coatings, and
In electronics and communications, it will
be possible to vastly increase data storage
capacity and processing speeds. This will
produce lower costs and improved power efficiency
as compared to current electronic circuits.
We can expect a novel, smaller generation
of "music machines" out of nano that will
satisfy the cravings of music lovers everywhere.
In pharmaceuticals, health care, and life sciences,
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.
This new nano capability brings together
many disciplines of science and engineering
to work in collaboration. The scope and scale
of nano create an overarching, enabling field
not unlike the role of information technologies
today. We are witnessing the start of a nano
Enter terascale computing, a power-driven tool
that will boost all disciplines and give wings
especially to our nano pursuits.
Terascale computing is shorthand for computing
technology that takes us three orders of magnitude
beyond prevailing computing capabilities.
In the past, our system architectures could
handle only 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
When we dramatically advance the speed of our
capability in any area we give researchers
and industrialists and scholars the mechanism
to get to a frontier much faster or, better
yet in terms of NSF's mission, to reach a
frontier that had been, heretofore, unreachable,
as well as unknowable. Terascale computing
will launch us to frontiers still without
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. A next
step was to build the most advanced computing
infrastructure for researchers to use, while
simultaneously broadening its accessibility.
NSF is presently deeply in the process of enabling
this distributed leading-edge computational
capability. This decade will see extraordinary
advance in our capacity for visualization,
simulation, and robust handling of enormous
sets of data - the latter being labeled with
the moniker "Big Data."
Together, these capabilities will have increasing
impact on the nature of society in the 21st
century. We know how the recent revolution
in information technologies has already connected
and integrated researchers and research fields
in a way never before possible. These capabilities
will have the "wow" effect.
We, the scientists and engineers, have a grand
challenge before us. It is to create the masterpieces
of discovery and innovation that will be society's
future. Discovery and innovation in the 21st
century are riding on an express train whose
rapid pace may sometimes boggle our minds,
but also dares us to do our best.
At NSF, our challenge is to put the right people,
ideas, and tools at the controls of this technology
express. How does NSF determine which rails
of discovery to support? We ask ourselves
three critical questions: Will this be an
investment in intellectual capital? Does it
soundly integrate research and education?
Does it promote partnerships among those individuals
and disciplines that are key to success? If
the answers are yes to all three questions,
then NSF embraces the research and education
and it's value for our future.
By now, some of you must be thinking, gee I'm
on this train and having some trouble hanging
on or some of you may be anxious to get on
this train. A good part of this scenario has
to do with perspective - the way we think
about things. Attitude, approach, and astuteness
will count a great deal. Putting together
teams of people that can elucidate each other's
thinking instead of just agreeing with it
will be critical.
You need to gather unlikely partners whose
theologies, ideologies, and psychologies seemingly
don't match. Create a brouhaha of thinking.
Take educated risks. Believe in yourselves.
Make good music.
As you embrace this yeasty journey, I leave
you, as members of and visitors to the greater
Miami society with its rich base of artistic
flair, educational substance, innovative accomplishments,
and, yes, superb music, with this guiding
principle from the writings of Mark Twain:
"You can't depend on your judgment when your
imagination is out of focus."