What are the New Priorities for the "Endless Frontier"?
Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Engineering Forum of Mercer University
Technology and the New Millennium: Dynamic Transitions
November 1, 1996
Good Morning. Thank you for that kind introduction.
I consider it a great honor to have been invited to
address this important gathering in one of the nation's
great cities. I know that everyone in Georgia has
probably not gotten over the Braves' tough loss to
the Yankees yet, but I'm sure that this hasn't dampened
your enthusiasm for the topics we are discussing today.
As a former baseball player and Phillies fan, I have
my own angst about the Phill's miserable performance
the past few years but I think it hasn't affected
my work at NSF too much. Not yet anyway.
I stand before you this morning with some welcome
news: I want to assure you that--as there is here
in greater Atlanta, and throughout Georgia, there
is great excitement in Washington about the future
of science and engineering and the capacity of scientists
and engineers to be partners in the great new era
of super high technology looming before us.
In this context, it is a pleasure this morning to
have the chance to share my thoughts on a topic that
many in our community view as a great unknown--New
Priorities for the Endless Frontier. I think
we all have some idea what the word "priorities" means.
It's the "new" part that leaves us at a loss. I would
therefore like to focus my comments today on what
we mean by the modifier "new" in the term "new priorities."
My aim is to launch a discussion with you on two subjects:
first, the role of information technologies in shaping
and sparking this time of change; and second, the
opportunities these changes create for progress in
science and engineering, in education and learning,
and for economic growth and social benefit--all of
which are intimately tied together.
Both of these topics require that we fully appreciate
the presence of the adjective "new" in "new priorities."
I am reminded of the classic commercial ploy that
was captured in a memorable 1950's-era cartoon from
the New Yorker and similar periodicals of that day.
A salesman was pitching his product, a brand of laundry
detergent, claiming it was better than ever. The box
said, "new and improved" in big, colorful letters.
A skeptical customer then asked, "what's so new and
improved about it?" To which the salesman confidently
replied: "The box, we put the words new and improved
As we all know in our society, internal substance
is many times masked by an attractive, but nonetheless
meaningless, external facade. Today, I hope to make
clear that fashioning new priorities for science and
technology will require more than just clever re-packaging.
Before I speak of these new priorities, I want to
give you a flavor of how and why the organization
I work for--the National Science Foundation--was conceived.
As Norm Augustine mentioned in his opening keynote,
our society is going through some monumental social
and economic transformations. The National Science
Foundation was created in a period of serious demographic,
technological and social change: namely the aftermath
of World War II. Vannevar Bush--President Franklin
Roosevelt's Director of the OSRD--Office of Scientific
Research and Development and an engineer no less--wrote
the seminal work--Science, the Endless Frontier--that
laid out the blueprint for a federal organization
that eventually became the National Science Foundation.
In asking Bush for the study that led to the Endless
Frontier Report, Roosevelt recognized the immense
contributions that science and engineering made to
the winning of the war and would continue to have
in succeeding years for society generally. Consequently,
the ultimate objective was to create a mechanism by
which the federal government would nurture and maintain
a viable integrated science and engineering research
and education enterprise that would work effectively
for the national welfare.
At NSF, we are continuing this tradition of science
and engineering in service to society. Our mission--as
set forth in our strategic plan--is to promote the
progress of science and engineering through the creation
of new knowledge, its integration, and transfer to
society...primarily through graduates from academe
and trusted partnerships among industry, academic
institutions and governments.
However, even though this responsibility is quite
broad, NSF's resources--by Washington standards--are
fairly small: a budget of roughly $3.3 billion in
a $1.6 trillion overall federal budget. We use these
resources to fund research and education projects
in all fields of science and engineering as well as
science, engineering, and math education from kindergarten
through the PhD. We fund discovery ranging from microbes
that live in hot ocean floor volcanic vents, fundamental
nuclear particles, and new carbon forms, named buckminster
fullerenes whose discoverers won the Nobel Prize in
chemistry this year...on through new computing algorithms,
advanced re-configurable manufacturing processes,
and microelectromechanical systems...to possible former
life forms on Mars, to new planets orbiting galactic
suns other than our own...out to all kinds of strange
energy and matter to farther and farther reaches of
In any given year, we support on the order of 20,000
projects that involve about 200,000 students and researchers,
chosen through merit review by 60,000 volunteer proposal
Neal Lane--my close colleague and Director of NSF--often
likes to say that NSF is involved in everything from
elementary schools to elementary particles--and it's
not clear which are more complicated or more challenging.
Nevertheless, while the original vision of Vannevar
Bush remains vital, the traditional package of "priorities,"
in the context of science and technology generally
focus on a specific set of typical but increasingly
less meaningful tradeoffs:
- Field specific tradeoffs: physics vs. chemistry,
or at a higher level, science vs. engineering.
- Mode of support tradeoffs: individual investigators
vs. research centers, people vs. facilities, or
hard vs. soft science.
- Conceptual tradeoffs: basic vs. applied, fundamental
vs. strategic, and analysis vs. synthesis...
and so on.
All of us have probably at one time or another been
involved in priority setting discussions that focused
on these and other dimensions. Trying to strike the
so-called "best" balance among these tradeoffs can
be an exercise in frustration: it alienates the best
of us; it consumes inordinate amounts of time; and
it effectively transforms integrative decision-making
into an exercise in reductionism. Put another way,
priorities frequently emerge as unexceptional, incremental
changes and perturbations within the confines of an
Today, we need to ask ourselves if these incremental
and reductionist approaches are the right approaches
for the times in which we live. I would say they are
not. These are times of extraordinary change, and
we are only beginning to grasp the full extent of
the changes at hand.
New priorities for science and technology should reflect
the richness of our varied disciplines and the integrative
nature of the changes taking place. The rapid-fire
commentators in the media usually describe our situation
in terms of one or two-word "sound bites." You've
heard them many times:
- economic competitiveness
- information explosion
- virtual organization
- corporate restructuring
- environmental imperatives
- infrastructure renewal
- shared wealth
- and so on.
These sound bites, however, can drown out a crucial
fact. A good deal of the change has been propelled
socially by growing populations with
heightened human aspirations and technologically
by the advent of high-speed digital computing. Advanced
computing has not necessarily been the most important
driver of these changes, but it has been central to
them. Combined with high-tech communications, new
computer-communications technologies have enabled
new, information rich markets, making possible the
sharing of information--voice, video, and otherwise--around
and across the world. That is what's facing us. What
we do with it is the question.
Inexorable technological change challenges our current
ethical, social, environmental, and economic systems.
Let's consider for a moment, in terms of the United
States, what the nation has to work with.
- We have a national physical infrastructure that
is valued at more than $20 trillion. Included
are the lifelines that transport and distribute
people, energy, and communications services, and
enable the flow of commerce. But much of this
infrastructure is breaking down or wearing out--and
its toll on commerce flow and national productivity
is already substantial.
- The federal budget is about $1.6 trillion. Of
this $1.6 trillion, spending on defense accounts
for 10-15%. Another 10-15% goes to the growing
interest that must service the national debt,
a debt which--not so incidentally mind you--is
$5 trillion, over three times the annual budget
and 20% of the value of the infrastructure comprising
our national home.
- Payments to individuals--such as Social Security
and Medicare checks--derived from our nation's
constitutional agreement to "promote the general
welfare", consume 60% of the federal budget. That
leaves only 8-10% in discretionary funds which
must take care of all the rest of our needs, including
the support of civilian R&D. That's not much
flexibility to work with.
- As a nation, we spend about $172 billion on R&D,
that includes industry, the government and academe.
While that may sound great at first glance, let's
look at some key facts about how we invest this
- The federal government spends about $70
billion--with almost half dedicated to
- The private sector spends about $102
billion--with about 90% focused on short-term
product and process development.
In comparison, we spend fewer absolute dollars on
civilian R&D than Japan, a nation less than half
our size. In the current environment, corporate research
laboratories are changing to respond to shorter-term
market pressures, while at the same time, financially-constrained
universities are increasingly seeking support from
Given these challenges, how do we emerge from our
growing environmental, infrastructure and fiscal problems?
Certainly by not trying split up a relatively constant
pot of national wealth through ill-advised cuts in
investment and then suffering the inevitable and intractable
political and economic consequences. There is only
one way out of our dilemma, which should be apparent
to everyone: we need to create more national wealth--wealth
that we can share for a better life as well as to
get our fiscal house in order...and we must do it
without doing harm to our environment or our democracy.
Even the most scientifically and technologically literate
among us have difficulty grasping the full potential
of the advances at our fingertips. The computer-communications
explosion is already prompting a profound redefinition
of such concepts as "community," "library," "corporation,"
"government," "university," "technology transfer"--and,
as we are seeing, "professionals in science and technology."
It's making us ask, what do we do, and how do we do
We know from the work of Robert Solow, the Nobel Laureate
economist and National Science Board member, and others,
that scientists and engineers were central to enabling
the industrial revolution and the period of progress
in the post-war era. Many credible studies indicate
that during the past half century, technological innovation
has been responsible for roughly 40 percent of the
productivity gain here in the U.S.
The noted management consultant Peter Drucker, has
observed that the source of wealth is knowledge, a
human activity that yields wealth in two essential
ways, productivity and innovation. He points out that
knowledge applied to tasks we already know how to
do is productivity, while knowledge applied to tasks
that are new and different is innovation--the process
of creating new enterprises and delivering new products
Within this context of productivity and innovation,
engineers and scientists are now being called upon
to provide even greater leadership in this emerging
age of fast-paced technological change and intellectual
connectivity on a grand scale. We should now look
forward to enabling and shaping what is yet to come--even
though we don't quite know what it is.
In a trilogy of speeches delivered in February of
this year, Vice President Gore suggested the metaphor,
"distributed intelligence," to describe a new age
of intelligent systems. It is a complicated metaphor,
based on applying the principle of parallel processing
to social challenges and economic progress.
Distributed intelligence rests upon the notion of
giving people the ability to communicate virtually
instantaneously with each other via different media,
as well as giving them access to the information they
need and to the tools they need to transform that
information into useful, productive knowledge. One
could say that this involves all of society getting
wired, except that it won't always involve wires.
This may yield an age in which the sharing of information
is instantaneous and ubiquitous.
To pursue these kinds of emerging opportunities, NSF
is exploring frameworks for the development and deployment
of new ideas and technologies for research, education
and for society as a whole, using academic science
and engineering as a testbed.
The best way to get you a sense of what we are considering
is to review a few of the monikers we are using to
describe the cutting edge and to think about what
to do. I use the term monikers because we are still
exploring what terms best capture these exciting concepts.
- We've dubbed one area, Knowledge Networking, and
it includes such topics as multi-media environments,
resource sharing technologies, digital libraries,
- A second set of topics is clustered under the
heading, New Challenges for Computation. Data-mining,
visualization, pattern recognition are some of
the key challenges here. One of the central program
elements in this is the new Partnerships for Advanced
Computational Infrastructure program (PACI), the
follow-on to NSF's existing supercomputer centers
- The third area we are exploring is Learning and
Intelligent Systems. This includes knowledge-on-demand
pedagogies, collaborative learning across physical
and virtual communities, and developing learning
technologies that are based on insights into learning
and cognitive functioning.
I won't go into great detail on any of these, but
I do want to touch upon the challenges they present.
Learning and Intelligent Systems, for example, presents
us with a fundamental challenge: Can we create an
entirely new system of learning? Can we develop new
tools and techniques that actually augment the capacity
to learn and create--for both humans and machines?
I should add that the wording in that question is
carefully crafted. Some of my colleagues argue we
should just say our ability as humans
to learn and create. It's more than just that. Machines
themselves can be creative, as well as helping us
A related challenge is to better enable the creative
capabilities of all citizens through a more facile,
symbiotic relationship with the computer-communications
systems rapidly enveloping all of us. For engineers
and scientists, the result may be a whole new way
of pursuing research, effecting discovery, and sparking
These are difficult challenges and questions--controversial
in fact. That's ideal in my mind, because we can learn
from each other's arguments and from the different
approaches and perspectives we bring to the discussion.
We have to have a way to argue vigorously and forcefully,
while not letting our personal human sensitivities
get in the way.
I like to tell people that one of NSF's jobs is to
promote intellectual eclecticism. The reductionist
approaches that I spoke of earlier, if uniquely prescribed
as the system of acceptable academic
progress, can yield homogenization of a sort--and
mute the fruits of eclecticism. You may have heard
Peter Medawar's famous quote, "the human mind treats
a new idea the way the body treats a strange protein;
it rejects it." The same thinking applies to other
subjects as well.
This brings me to my final point--and it has to do
with those new priorities I spoke of earlier. When
I was an entry level engineer at RCA, a big part of
my value to the company was my mastery of the slide
rule and my dexterity with French curves for developing
drawings and diagrams. Those aren't core personal
or professional competencies in any company today,
and my expertise with them won't get me a job anywhere,
anytime, anyplace, at a decent salary.
When we developed new product ideas back then, we
always had to wait--sometimes for several months--for
models to be built. My mind would often move on to
other ideas while we waited for the models. Compare
that with being able to sit down with a 3-D CAD program
to develop virtual models in the span of a few hours.
That represents a quantum leap in learning power and
creative potential, and we can make it widely accessible
now. This is the stuff of rewarded careers in today's
New priorities in the endless frontier of science
and technology should be viewed in this context. While
the vision of Vannevar Bush and his generation may
continue, the reductionist approach we've relied upon
so intently for several generations may no longer
suffice. While remaining of great intellectual value,
it, at a minimum, may require thoughtful reconsideration,
as we learn more about the opportunities and the responsibilities
facing scientists and engineers in the information
With all of this in mind, let me leave you with a
quote that has special meaning to me. It is from the
poet and philosopher, George Santayana (1863-1952),
who once said:
Our knowledge is a torch of smoky pine
that lights the pathway but one step ahead
This quote evokes some wonderful imagery. We cannot
see very far into the future--especially if we are
on the edge. It is indeed unknown to us, yet we suspect
it is likely to be different from the present. With
the advent of high-speed tools for learning, creativity,
and innovation, change becomes increasingly more rapid,
drawing the world's people closer in globally-based
markets, and creating almost continual shifts in the
way we interact with each other.
To prosper in this eclectic milieu, we must become
increasingly astute about making connections, working
together, and integrating across science and engineering
for the common good. The priorities we set for science
and technology should reflect this spirit of holism
and integration, as should our views of the roles
and careers of professionals in science and technology.
With the help of Santayana's torch of smoky pine,
we can take that vital step onto the path--onto the
bridge, into our future. But remember--we have
to thrust the torch forward into the path so we can
see. Just carrying it over a shoulder won't do.
Thank you again for inviting me to join you this morning.