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Dr. France A. Córdova

Dr. France A. Córdova
National Science Foundation


At the Ribbon-cutting of the
Interdisciplinary Science & Engineering Complex (ISEC)
Northeastern University
Boston, Massachusetts

April 3, 2017

Photo: NSF/Stephen Voss

NSF Director France Córdova speaks at the April 3, 2017, opening ceremony of the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex

Image credit: Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Good afternoon, and thank you very much, President Aoun, for that lovely introduction and for inviting me to participate in the opening of this extraordinary facility--the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex.

I was thinking during your remarks that the year you came to the States was the year that I came to Boston to run in the famous Marathon. When I reflect back on that experience, I think what I enjoyed most about it was the company of people who, like me, decided that they would pick a pace that they could finish. And it's having that persistence of vision that helped us make it to the finish line. You pick your pace and you just go for it, and you're with a lot of people who feel the same way.

I think that characterizes an endeavor like this: that persistence of vision of students and the faculty and the Administration committing to going the full mile. You have achieved something absolutely spectacular. And the marathon's not finished: This is when the research really gets new energy.

It's a great honor, Mr. Mayor, Senators Warren and Markey, and Congressman Kennedy, to share this moment with you all. I've had the pleasure of meeting many of you in Washington, and it's just a delight that you're here today. I'm also pleased to see that Dr. Diane Souvaine, Vice Chair of the National Science Board, is with us for this important event.

In this magnificent atrium, with light streaming in from all sides, I am reminded of what Winston Churchill--who was fascinated with architecture -- once said: "We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us."

That observation is reflected in the innovative, forward-looking design that demonstrates Northeastern's global leadership in use-inspired interdisciplinary research. As President Aoun has said, "The new complex ... will be a hub of scholarship and teaching that will significantly advance Northeastern's mission as a use-inspired research university."

The exterior of Northeastern University's Interdisciplinary Science & Engineering Complex (ISEC).

Image credit: Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

On behalf of the National Science Foundation, America's premier research agency for all the basic sciences and engineering, we warmly welcome this new facility to the nation's growing ecosystem of technological incubators.

The ISEC Complex will put into practice the concept of "convergence," which can be characterized as the deep integration of knowledge, technique and expertise from multiple fields to form new and expanded frameworks for addressing scientific and societal challenges and opportunities.

Convergence merges strengths of different disciplines, different thinkers, to create something unique, something more resilient. It is such an important and dynamic concept that when NSF senior leaders recently developed the "Ten Big Ideas" that are at the forefront of science and engineering, we cited "convergence" as one of those Big Ideas. It's interdisciplinary research in action.

And we are now in the process of releasing a Dear Colleague Letter--it should go out today, it's actually timed for this event--that focuses on convergence and offers research funding for this endeavor. It says that convergence has two primary characteristics:

One is the "deep integration across disciplines [where] new frameworks, paradigms or disciplines can form from sustained interactions across multiple communities."

And, second, it's "research driven by a specific and compelling problem [that is] is generally inspired by the need to address a specific challenge or opportunity, whether it arises from deep scientific questions or pressing societal needs."

These two descriptors clearly reflect the concept behind this new ISEC Complex. NSF is calling on the scientific community to use this approach in addressing grand research challenges--thus putting Northeastern University well ahead of the curve!

As you know, NSF has long played a critical role in promoting U.S. leadership in science and engineering, creating innovations that drive the nation's economy and educating the next generation of scientists and engineers. And, Jaclyn [Lock], your speech perfectly embodied that other essential half of NSF's mission: Your having a Graduate Research Fellowship is just tremendous. I don't know how many in this audience know how tough it is to get that kind of fellowship.

Like Northeastern, NSF sees great merit in breaking down barriers between disciplines and expanding the opportunities for interactions among researchers. As I was standing upstairs before this ceremony, looking at all the glass windows, I thought, "This is the true definition of transparency." Right, folks? Everybody can see what everyone else is doing!

NSF recently announced a new partnership with Northeastern and US Ignite called "Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research" that will manage nearly $100 million in public and private investments over the next seven years to deploy city-scale wireless research platforms. And I know, Mr. Mayor, that is one of your main enthusiasms.

This innovative partnership will enable use-inspired fundamental research and sustain U.S. leadership and economic competitiveness in wireless communications and technology. We're all anxious to see what is beyond 4-G.

We believe that the great challenges of our time--challenges like harnessing big data, ensuring access to clean water and clean energy, managing a technology-embedded society, one that by the way we cannot do without our social and behavioral sciences--will not be solved by any one discipline alone. They'll require the expertise of an array of disciplines, a diverse group of passionate people. They'll require us to work together in innovative ways, to listen and learn from each other. They'll require an interdisciplinary environment like this complex. That is why we are so focused on the concept of convergence, which is an intentional coming together of disciplines to attack big challenges.

Educational institutions that promote collaboration and convergence will strengthen students' knowledge and potential in the global competitive marketplace. And it is global, and it is very, very competitive. I agree with some of the previous speakers, who talked about how amazing it is that other countries are putting so much of an investment into science and technology. We cannot afford to discontinue our marathon and stop in place and just give up.

Our convergence efforts have benefited from multiple partnerships with educational institutions and with the private sector. We're very proud of our Industry-University Collaborative Research Centers, which are leveraged by a factor of ten through industry's private participation.

I want to close on a personal note. It has been precisely three years--just about to the day--since I was sworn in as the 14th NSF Director.

I've spent much of the last three years meeting with elected officials in Congress and other government officials among our distinguished agencies. I've met with scientists, researchers, administrators, educators and many, many students in this country and abroad.

And I've come away with an even deeper appreciation of the interests and talents of everyone in the science, engineering and educational ecosystem--and their commitment to science and technology as being responsible for all those amazing things that we take for granted now and that will certainly lead the way into the future.

As I testified last year before the House Science Committee, "More than ever, the future prosperity and well-being of Americans depends on sustained investments in our science and technology." It requires a persistence of vision.

This is an exciting--and a challenging--time for science. It is a time to nurture a mutually supportive environment that will empower scientists, engineers and researchers everywhere, both as individuals and teams, to continue the search for new knowledge and to create the new tools that are needed for future discoveries. And I imagine much of that will be done right here.

For nearly seven decades, the National Science Foundation has empowered discoveries across a tremendous spectrum of scientific inquiry, and we never lose sight of our commitment to explore the unexplored.

I am confident that Northeastern's Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex and NSF will be vibrant partners in that effort.

Thank you again for the opportunity to join you for this celebration, and congratulations!