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Photo of Dr. France A. Cordova

Dr. France A. Córdova
U.S. National Science Foundation


Thinking Big
Caltech Lecture Series in honor of Dr. Gerry Neugebauer

June 12, 2019

Photo: NSF/Stephen Voss

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

Thank you, George, for that very, very generous introduction. It’s just such an honor to be giving this talk in celebration of a person that we all share a tremendous admiration for: Gerry Neugebauer.

I could never have imagined, when I was complaining to Gerry about troubles with my thesis project or laughing when he was exasperated by something unexpected happening in the laboratory, that one day I would be standing here giving remarks in his honor. Let that be a lesson to you graduate students – you might want to start taking notes right now about some of your mentors. And mentors, just be aware because these stories all come back some day!

I did quite a bit to prepare for this speech. I lived another 40 years after graduating from Caltech. That journey has brought me to this moment, when I can reflect fondly on what Caltech gave me and how those gifts have propelled me over the decades.

Title slide title: Thinking BIG

Slide words:
Caltech Lecture Series in honor of Dr. Gerry Neugebauer
Cahill, Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics
Hameetman Auditorium, Pasadena, CA
June 12, 2019 – 4:00-5:00pm

Slide image: photo of Gerry Neugebauer at the California Institute of Technology

Image credit: Archives, California Institute of Technology

But first I want to give a few recollections of my own graduate student career at Caltech and hope that some of this resonates with students in the audience.

My background, as George said, was a little bit different for Caltech. I was an English major with very little science training. I had one course in college astronomy and no math. After college, I went back east to Cambridge, Massachusetts on a grant to complete an education project, it turns out, with three Caltech graduates.

Inspired by a TV show about neutron stars, I went to nearby MIT looking for summer work. They hired me, and I spent a few months there at the Center for Space Research analyzing balloon flight data. It was the earliest days of X-ray astronomy as extraterrestrial X-ray sources had recently been discovered with sounding rocket flights.

As an English major, I was asked to help edit a review article of this new field, and I secretly suspect that’s why they took me on in the first place. But it turned out to be a great introduction to a whole new field of scientific inquiry and led me eventually to becoming an x-ray astronomer.

By fall, I moved back home to California and to my family. Eventually, I found my way to nearby Caltech. My family, in fact, lived just down the road on Oak Knoll Avenue. I knew Caltech of course and its X-ray astronomy group there because of working on the review article.

I inquired about a job with the X-ray rocket group headed by Gordon Garmire, headquartered in Downs laboratory. He gave me the job and handed me Chandrasekhar’s book on radiative transfer and asked me, told me, to translate it into code for an upcoming satellite project. At the time, I didn’t have any computing experience, but the graduate students in whose office I landed were very supportive, and the Fortran IV manual was easy enough to follow.

At the same time, I took background courses in physics and calculus at Cal State LA, and then the following year a few professors at Caltech, including Tom Tombrello and Gordon Garmire and others said I could audit their courses and see how I would do. I did well enough that they admitted me into graduate school.

I think part of the reason I succeeded, for example, in Electricity and Magnetism is because there was an essay requirement. Few knew how to write essays using only Jackson’s textbook as a guide, but with my English background, I did.

There aren’t many ordinary mentors or colleagues at Caltech. My math teacher, Jon Mathews, had written, with Caltech’s Robert Walker, the textbook Mathematical Methods of Physics, and he coached me when I failed my first math exam. My instruction was to meet with him once a week and go over his book. The professor in the office next to mine, and my occasional hiking buddy, Bob Leighton, wrote the textbook on Principles of Modern Physics. That’s Caltech. That’s how lucky you all are. I was privileged to learn from the people who were shaping the fields and writing the textbooks. And they all made me feel that I would succeed.

Together with my fellow graduate students, I put together rocket payloads and then went to the White Sands missile range in New Mexico to launch them. We went without our adviser, who believed that you should sink or swim, and so we did a lot of both. We strapped the payloads in the rocket with duct tape, and we watched them rise into the night sky. Then we hurried into bunkers to see our data on black hole candidates secreting white dwarfs and the like. I had a near-death experience on the launch pad during a violent thunderstorm. But if the graduate courses in physics didn’t kill me, neither could a payload twitching with current running through its bolts!

At the time, I had an office on the 4th floor of Downs-Lauritsen, so did Richard Feynman, my instructor for quantum mechanics. His office was past the elevators on the Lauritsen side. His van was parked outside, painted liberally with Feynman diagrams. Some of you here may remember that van. He and Murray Gell-Mann, who also had an office on that corridor, would tell students how they had no time for research now that they had their Nobel Prizes. And I thought, whoa, life is tough for some.

I attended a lot of visiting lectures by prominent scientists. I went for the cookies, as students do. One significant faculty member I remember giving lectures was Peter Goldreich, who had a habit of coming to the podium looking completely underprepared or not prepared at all. He would dig into his back pocket and pull out some scraps of paper, lay them out on the desk top and then give a brilliant lecture! That was our role model there.

On the weekends, I rock climbed with other students. A Caltech engineering professor, Chuck Wilts, wrote The Climber’s Guide to Tahquitz and Suicide Rocks, and it was there that I spent a lot of great moments. One of my fellow students used to builder up the side of Millikan library. I don’t think they let students do that today.

In those days, we had a batch computer center on campus. I don’t know if you students can visualize what that might have been like. Everyone used punch cards, and we carried around these big boxes as such. The computer center turned out to be THE location to find a new friend. I also made a lot of friends jogging around the track, where usually somebody running at my pace would jog with me. That was how I met Clair Patterson; only later did I find out about his significant work detecting lead in the Arctic ice and also determining the age of the Earth.

That was Caltech to me, the most seemingly ordinary, fun people -- people jogging around the campus or playing tennis over here on the courts -- had extraordinary lives.

My toughest experiences were polishing and testing flats for X-ray reflectivity in the basement of the old synchrotron lab, using parts of the old synchrotron itself. I complained so frequently about this tedious task that my thesis adviser didn’t think I’d amount to much. I much more enjoyed nights on the mountain in the company of the infrared astronomers.

It turns out that the infrared group, headed by Gerry Neugebauer, was housed on the same corridor of Downs as the X-ray group. Gerry and Gordon had a rule. Every graduate student office had to have one IR and one X-ray student in it, so that we could expand our understanding of tools and discoveries, spanning more of the electro-magnetic spectrum. The infrared astronomers were also very interested in identifying the new sources of X-ray radiation that were being discovered all the time.

In those days, IR data were taken on strip charts. I don’t know if you students have ever seen a strip chart. It wiggles back and forth, and you can see sources as you scan over them. The quality of the night sky was determined by hoisting oneself on the dome of the 24-inch at Mount Wilson and rotating round and round. Discoveries were made regularly: new nurseries of stars, new rings around planets in our solar system, even new solar systems. And, of course, the identification of new X-ray sources.

My most memorable experiences came from making observations on mountain tops: Chile’s Cerro Tololo, Palomar Mountain and Mount Wilson. I was surprised that at Mount Wilson, all the senior astronomers had napkin rings with their names embossed on them. And the seating was done in order of the size of the telescope you were observing on.

I tried climbing the outside ladder on the big dome at Palomar, until Gerry ordered that I be stopped. In Chile, I ran between mountain tops, because I thought the freedom felt great. Lots of the astronomers did that.

One year, while doing part of my dissertation work at Harvard-SAO, I entered the Boston marathon. This was before runners were required to qualify, so anybody could jump in. Although friends said I couldn’t do it, I put one foot in front of the other, and I finished! The lesson learned -- don’t believe everything your friends say you can’t do!

My Caltech experience was immensely supportive. The laboratory research was very hands-on. Professors worked with the students in the lab or at the observatory. My appreciation for this nurturing environment was rivaled only by my excitement over the subject matter. I loved the class of stars I studied, which were cataclysmic binaries and accreting neutron stars and black holes. Anything compact and degenerate was fascinating!

I was fortunate to be among the first wave of young astronomers who worked with amateur astronomers worldwide to follow the outbursts of these stars to see if X-rays could be detected in coincidence with visual brightenings. They could! My dissertation was sealed when I discovered pulsing X-rays from two of these objects had gone into visual outbursts. My thesis comprised five published papers that I stapled together with an introduction. The acknowledgement section got more attention than the thesis itself. So, score another point for the English degree.

Through all of this, I had two mentors: TS Eliot, the poet, and Gerry Neugebauer. I’m not sure which helped most, feeling sorry for myself in The Wasteland or Gerry’s benign amusement at my travails.

In two days, I’ll be giving the Caltech commencement address – lucky me! I’ll talk about Caltech’s influence on my career, or careers. So today, I’d like to talk about my role in five administrations: what I did and what I learned. I hope what will shine through are the value and rewards of public service that I’ve gained along the way.

My first presidential appointment was from George H. W. Bush. It came while I was at Penn State, and the assignment was to serve on the National Medal of Science committee. From that experience, I learned that you have to be nominated to win a prize, and it helps to have champions on the prize committee. I was such a champion for astronomers and continue to be so to this day. I also learned that one thing leads to another. The chair of that committee recommended me to the head of NASA, who was looking for a Chief Scientist. Earlier today, when I was with students, and I’ve had many meetings with students today, I was asked just how many things should you accept to be on? I said you should accept some things with discretion because they do lead to other things. And in fact, everything I've done, and every significant change, has been because of doing some other form of public service and being recognized for that.

I served as NASA’s Chief Scientist during the Clinton administration. I’m still friends with then-NASA Administrator, Dan Goldin, who is the longest-serving NASA administrator, so I couldn’t have done too poorly! We had a lot to do. He really started pumping money into the great field of astrobiology. It was my first introduction to science policy and working with other federal agencies and seeing how policy really got done.

Among the highlights of this experience were: the first Hubble rescue mission, missions to Mars, working with astronauts to communicate the importance of human space flight; persuading Congress to approve a new South Pole station for the National Science Foundation; and getting Congress to vote -- I think it was by one vote -- for a new International Space Station. Another highlight was chairing a committee that corralled federal science agencies to agree on a common definition of Research Misconduct. The conduct of research and the health of the research environment is also something that has really interested me, in addition to scientific research itself.

I learned that it takes a long time to get things done across agencies. And when they get done, it takes even longer to undo them. I also learned how very important Congress is in securing the budgets for science agencies; how important it is to educate our elected officials about the goal of science and its benefits. And mostly, I learned that making progress is a team effort. An idea I also learned from being a soccer mom at the same time! And to think, I didn’t even know what the word ‘policy’ meant when I went to NASA.

While I was at Purdue, I received a presidential appointment from George W. Bush to serve on the National Science Board. At that time, it was a Senate confirmed appointment. Later, I received a commission from President Barack Obama to serve as a Regent of the Smithsonian Institution. Those appointments gave me a fabulous insight into NSF and the Smithsonian and led to my present position as Director of the NSF, nominated by the president in 2013 and confirmed by the Senate in 2014. And that was because of my service on the Smithsonian, where people there recommended me to the administration. So, one thing really does lead to another.

And although he didn’t appoint me, President Trump didn’t fire me, so I can actually say that I have served science and science policy in five administrations.

What have I learned from that large dosage of public service? The rest of my talk is going to be on things I’ve learned and how the science policy infrastructure is constructed in the Federal Government.

First, I've learned that relationships matter, and good relationships are key to getting things done in Washington. Respect for others goes a long way in securing these relationships. This takes time, it takes a lot of time and a willingness to sit and listen. I have people going through my office almost every day, certainly a few a week -- people who are heads of other agencies that I work with, people from the Administration, from OSTP, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, from the Office of Management and Budget. We have a lot of visitors from other countries, who are ambassadors, leaders of research agencies, even vice-presidents of some of the smaller countries. All of them are intensely interested in how the science engine works in this country, and all figure that they have a lot to learn from the National Science Foundation.

I've learned that most elected officials care deeply about science and want to ensure that the US is first among nations in science, engineering, and technology. That’s true almost to a person, that everybody I've met with, and I mean a lot of elected officials. There was one period of two months, about a year ago, that I had 70 individual visits, to senators and congressmen to talk about the National Science Foundation and its plans. These people are, however, limited in attention and funding by many competing priorities, some of them quite urgent.

I've learned that it helps to have a vision of where you want to go and a plan. Some of you heard a couple of years ago, I talked about the National Science Foundation's Ten Big Ideas.

Slide Title: A Few Big Ideas

Slides images (clockwise from top left): aerial photo of LIGO Observatory in Livingston, Louisiana; word graphic about data science; photo of a broken bridge; graphic illustrating NSF Convergence Accelerator; photo of Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), Chile; photo of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory in Antarctica

Image credits: LIGO Scientific Collaboration; James Kurose/NSF; ©; design by Trinka Kensill, NSF; NRAO/AUI/NSF; Mike Lucibella, NSF

We don’t have all night here to talk about ten. But we’ve made so much progress in the three years since we first introduced this, I thought I would share a few words about a few of these.

Three years ago was the genesis of what we call the “Big Ideas,” and there are ten of them. Six of them are research ideas and four are enabling ideas. We were in an environment where NSF was in a bit of a crisis mode. Some people were complaining in Congress about some of the projects we funded. We ended up in their so-called “Waste Books,” and we felt like we were always playing defense.

As you know from sports, it’s fine to have a good defense, but you don’t score any goals that way. We really had to turn the tables on that. With the help of the National Science Board, which is our oversight policy arm -- and there is one member, Anneila Sargent, from the National Science Board, who is in this audience -- we were urged to go on the offense and construct a strategic plan for the future that would captivate the imagination of our elected officials, the administration and the public. A plan to let people know where we were going and put up sign posts to a transformative future.

This was a novel approach for the National Science Foundation. We’re a very bottoms-up organization and have been so for nearly 70 years. We get good ideas in, and we triage them through a merit review process that other nations copy. We are a curiosity-driven, fundamental research agency, and our mission is the progress of science. But we thought, in this day-and-age, people want to have some idea of where you are going, what’s important to do, what’s important, especially to invest in, and what are your priorities.

We got ideas from throughout the agency, and we set out some big broad-based directions. It resulted in these Ten Big Ideas, which is not a unique set by any means, but it was an inspired set. Mind you, when we first postulated the Big Ideas, it was before the last election. Some of the Big Ideas turned out to be administration priorities, like our Quantum Leap goal to invest more in quantum-based research. Artificial intelligence is another administration priority goal, and cyber-security is another. All of these are imbedded and are, in fact, substrates of our Big Ideas.

We caught these trends early enough to position the U.S. as a global leader, and now we have friends all over the Washington policy environment that are really very much enamored of these goals. And we have a lot of committees, which I will describe in a moment to further them.

About these four pictures that I’ve put up here, I think you all know because there’s a large number of astronomers and astrophysicists in the group, that one of our Big Ideas is called “Windows on the Universe, the Era of Multi-messenger Astrophysics.” So of course, it’s the first time on the planet when we not only have a large suite of electromagnetic facilities to observe the universe, but we also have particle detectors, like the IceCube detector for neutrinos at the South Pole that you see in the picture on your left at the bottom. And, of course, the gravitational wave facilities that have done so well in the past few years.

Putting all those together make extraordinary discoveries, and that’s been born out in at least two very key observations recently. One is the detection of the neutron star merger by LIGO and by a large suite of ground-based and space-based observatories all over the world.

The next was the discovery of neutrinos by the IceCube experiment at the South Pole at the same time that high energy gamma rays were observed by ground and space-based observatories and put together a picture of a blazar that was flaring at the time that showed that at least one origin of high-energy cosmic rays was from active galactic nuclei. Thus solving, at least in part, one of the outstanding mysteries of the last hundred years of what is the origin of high energy cosmic rays.

There are other lessons that we got in preparing for these experiments that I will describe as I go along. If we jump across to the bridge there, we see a big gap in the middle. And one of our Big Ideas is in response to where the gaps are in what we are investing in. A significant one is in the area of mid-scale facilities. That is, we didn’t have a program dedicated to funding facilities that cost between a few million dollars and a hundred million dollars, and yet there is an enormous amount of creativity in this.

Two examples are that before the IceCube detector was built we had something called Amanda Experiment at the South Pole. It was the precursor to IceCube, and the amount of money it spent was in that regime. Another example is LIGO A-Plus which is money, about $20 million that NSF has given recently to upgrade the present LIGO experiment to be able to have reduced noise and much more sensitivity to a greater volume of the cosmos.

Those are just two examples, and there are many, many others. The Event Horizon Telescope costs something less than $30 million, so it would fall into that range. The ZWICKY Transient Facility, which can be viewed as significant on its own and also as a test bed for the upcoming large synoptic survey telescope, or LSST. There is just a wealth of invention in this gap.

We committed to funding it and put out a solicitation a few month ago, and the response was extraordinary. We got $5 billion worth of great proposals to fill that gap. So, it just shows that you can do things when you have an open mind to what you’re not doing, and what gaps really need filling that can tap into the imagination and creativity of scientists and engineers.

Then in the middle there, I have another one of our Big Ideas, which is “Harnessing the Data Revolution.” We were committed to funding data science, including all the big telescopes of the world and large vessels, where a tremendous amount of data is being collected or high-performance supercomputers. There are simply large, large volumes of data, and we don’t yet have all the techniques to exploit data analytics and data archiving in way that is efficient and effective and not so expensive. We have a lot of opportunities and solicitations out to do a better job with that.

The examples of how this is connected, of course, to astronomy are abundant. I don’t need to remind anyone here of the example of numerical relativity and how much the identification, well exclusively, of the sources that were detected by LIGO depend on computation that came about because of engaging the numerical relativists in that. Harnessing the Data Revolution is one very Big Idea that deserves a lot of extra funding.

I have one more example here which is the NSF Convergence Accelerator. It’s not one of the Big Ideas, but it is a spinoff from the Big Ideas. It’s our effort to try to deliver to an administration that is really concerned about action now. They don’t want to wait 100 years for general relativity to become GPS or for the discovery of gravitational waves. They want discoveries to be translated, and at least some of them, as fast as possible.

We recognize that we can accelerate research. We've had our Innovation Corps program now for six or seven years. It's resulted in very fast translation of discoveries to the marketplace and in more than 500 new startups. We devised the idea of having a publicly-funded accelerator that would be somewhat similar to private accelerators like TechStars or Y Combinator. But this would be an opportunity for cohorts of teams to get together around focus areas and really apply their creativity to those areas and see if they could accelerate research in those domains.

Quantum, devising the first practical quantum computer that has a hundred cubits instead of a few cubits, could be an example in this area. We have one opportunity right now to develop techniques for interrogating databases that would be inter-operable. As you know, in astronomy we have loads and loads of databases for all the different kinds of science, but it’s very hard for people outside the domain to easily access them and make sense of them all.

Going back to Harnessing the Data Revolution, let me give you one example of the importance and discovery potential of open access and having large data immediately available to the world.

About two weeks ago, I was at Princeton giving something called “The Last Lecture” to the students there. In going around the Institute for Advanced Studies with their leader, Robbert Dijkgraaf, I met two enterprising young astronomers from abroad who had taken all the LIGO data from runs one and two and reanalyzed it. That immediately struck fear in my heart. I said, I wonder if they actually rediscovered sources that are out there. I asked them, and they said, “Oh yes, and we discovered six more sources that hadn’t been found yet!”

They've published, so that’s in the open literature now. But it just shows you that when you do make your data open and accessible, bright young people with maybe better, different algorithms for reducing noise can find new sources in them.

What else have I learned? I’ve learned that investing in projects for the long term in basic research can have huge payoffs. As I said, we have a society that is driving us towards very short-term results. And yes, research can deliver something if it’s up to a certain level of technology. It can be speeded up, and we can have short-term results. The chances are higher that those would be more incremental results and not necessarily transformative results that you can get by sustaining your investment over a very long time.

Slide title: Recent Breakthroughs Enabled by Long-term Investments in Basic Research

Slide images (left to right): computer simulation of two black holes colliding; illustration of a blazar; photo of a black hole taken by the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

Image credits (left to right): Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) project (; ESA/NASA, the AVO project and Paolo Padovani; Event Horizon Telescope collaboration et al.

That is what we’ve done with the three examples here, in the face of a lot of questioning about whether these experiments would even work. These discoveries -- the discovery of merging black holes and neutron stars, the discovery of high energy cosmic ray neutrinos from a blazar or an active galactic nuclei and the imaging of a black hole for the first time. These were experiments that took a very long time. Decades, really and a lot of careful work. Though they seem magical, they really aren’t magic. It was just plain old, hard work. They had long incubations. They really required the National Science Foundation’s stalwart program officers.

In February of this year, there was a nice article in the New York Times by Dennis Overbye. Those of you who read him know he’s a wonderful writer. The title of it was, “In Science and in Sports, the Sidelines Matter.” This article went on to describe what is known in baseball and other sports as ‘the hot stove league.’ In science, he called it ‘the hot stove science league,’ which describes the people behind the scenes.

He said, “LIGO was the saga of persistence, ingenuity, and professional skepticism.” And that it was, indeed! Especially if you read, as I have done, the oral histories of the period of the '90s and seeing just what a struggle it was to get from there to here. But there are people who belong, in principle, to that hot stove science league, whose names you don’t see or hear of. But they are the ones who fight the battles for continued funding, despite the skepticism.

Slide title: National Science and Technology Council

Organizational Chart with the following words:
OSTP Director presides for POTUS
Executive Director
Committee on Environment
Committee on Homeland & National Security
Committee on Science (co-chaired by Dr. Córdova)
Committee on Technology
Committee on S&T Enterprise (co-chaired by Dr. Córdova)
Committee on STEM Education (co-chaired by Dr. Córdova)
Select Committee on AI (co-chaired by Dr. Córdova)

Image credit: design by Adrian Apodaca, NSF

Now, I want to transition to what I’ve learned about science policy. I’ve learned that policy -- as I said, a word I wasn’t very familiar with when I went to Washington the first time in 1996 -- is really important for building on the research that we invest in and giving it context. It is important to communicate to our nation and other nations what is important to us, what is of value to us. It gives what we do a structural framework to operate in, and it can often overcome barriers to science and the progress of science.

I gave one example earlier today to a group of people over at the Carnegie Institution about the radio and optical spectrum which, as you know, is threatened by a lot of stuff going up there, including a large bevy of small communication satellites to increase broadband, which are making a lot of light in the night skies and also have a lot of potential, in the auctioning of the electromagnetic spectrum, to intervene with radial observations on the ground.

All of these things take coordination across the federal agencies, and then they take coordination across other branches of the administration. Here, I show the main science policy arm of the administration. It’s called the National Science and Technology Council. Technically, the president presides, but always in practice, it’s the head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy Director, who now is Kelvin Droegemeier -- a good friend to NSF, the former vice president of our National Science Board. He’s been on board since January and is providing a lot of leadership.

We’ve had this structure in place for a very long time. It has six committees and a special committee. These are the main workhorses of science policy. I want to say a couple of words about this, because I think it’s important to know where this kind of work gets done.

First of all, I will say that all the ones in light blue are co-chaired by yours truly. I co-chair four out of the seven, so NSF definitely has a voice in shaping science and technology policy in this country. There is the committee on Environment and on Homeland Security and the Committee on Technology, which I do not co-chair.

At the very end of the spectrum is not one of the actual sustaining committees of the National Science and Technology Council. It is a select committee, because artificial intelligence is an administration priority. I co-chair that with the head of DARPA.

Slide title: Select NSTC Committees

Slide words (left): Committee on S&T Enterprise

  • Co-Chairs: Walt Copan (NIST), France Córdova (NSF), Paul Dabbar (DOE), Kelvin Droegemeier (OSTP)
  • Lab-to-Market (L2M); R&D Infrastructure
  • Networking IT R&D* (*Congressionally Mandated); International S&T* (*Congressionally Mandated)
  • Research Business Models* (*Congressionally Mandated)

Chart with words (right): Committee on Science

  • Francis Collins (NIH), France Córdova (NSF), Kelvin Droegemeier (OSTP)
  • Open Science; Physical Sciences* (*Congressionally Mandated)
  • Biological Sciences; Quantum Info Science* (*Congressionally Mandated)

Image credit: design by Adrian Apodaca, NSF

Let me give you an idea of what a couple of these committees do. The Committee on the Science and Technology Enterprise, which is new with this administration, emphasizes lab-to-market, which I’ve mentioned some things about already. Our I-Corps program, the Innovation Corps Program that’s all over the country now is an important staple of that.

It also encompasses Networking IT R&D, which is shaping new policies on open access and research business models, which are obviously important. The Committee also addresses R&D Infrastructure and International S&T. Then, the Committee on Science, which I co-chair with Francis Collins in OSTP, has an emphasis on Open Science, Physical Sciences, and Biological Sciences. And I would say the most emphasis recently has been on Quantum Information Science. We’ve already had a couple of summits together with the administration on how we can make progress and ensure our status as a world leader in Quantum Information Science.

Slide title: The Research Environment: A New Subcommittee of NSTC

Chart with words: Committee on Science; Committee on S&T Enterprise

  • Research Environment
    • Research Integrity
    • Safe, Inclusive Research Environments
    • R&D Protections
    • R&D Burdens (RBM)
    • OSTP
    • NSF
    • NIH
    • NIST
    • DOE
    New members:
    • DoD
    • NASA
    • NSA
    • USPTO

    Image credit: design by Adrian Apodaca, NSF

    Then there’s always new things that happen when new people come to town. And so, Dr. Droegemeier, in assuming the leadership of NSTC, has devised a new subcommittee which is a blend of the Committee on Science and the Committee on S&T Enterprise. By default, I also co-chair that one.

    This is a very important one to mention, because usually when we think of science policy, we think of science, of research and engineering technology. We don’t often think about the broader landscape of the environment in which we all do science. I would say of all the new things that have happened as far as awareness on the part of universities, the government, and industry is an understanding that the environment we live and work in every day is one we need to take accountability and responsibility for to make sure it’s nurturing and supporting. We need to ensure that we’re not letting people leave because they’re so frustrated with that environment, because the evidence is that we then lose talent and creativity.

    I’m proud that there is this emphasis now on the research environment. This has four components in it. One is on research integrity. That is an effort that I would give a lot of credit to the National Academies of Science and Engineering and Medicine on providing leadership and a platform for its many reports on research integrity there.

    There’s a working group on safe, inclusive research environments, and that includes harassment in all its forms, including sexual harassment. That is a place where NSF has taken a lot of leadership. The bill that was proposed this morning by the House Space, Science and Technology Committee involves all the agencies adopting the same kind of policies that NSF has adopted.

    Another is on research and development protections. This is all about one of the major issues of our day, which is on science and security. I don’t think there is any topic we have spent more time on in the last few months than what is our environment, what does it look like now, and what is it going to look like with respect to competition from other countries? We all know that an open scientific environment, in which we have generously made our universities, our research agencies, our data, and our science and technology available to the world, has all been to our credit. We are a great nation in large part from the contributions of others and working together in international ways.

    We are more and more aware that some of that feeling of security may be misplaced. That there are all sort of well-documented instances of abuse of that environment of respect and co-sharing internationally. Agencies have different postures on this, and I think you’ve all seen some things in the news about actions that other agencies have taken, like the NIH and the Department of Energy. Some have taken stronger actions to protect intellectual property or to protect people from working in two different places and not disclosing it, for example.

    NSF has, so far, taken a very measured approach there. We’ve hired the JASONs and Tom Prince is in the audience here, which we think is a very important thing. We don’t want to just talk abstractly about risk. And it’s all about risk. We want some concrete definitions of where the risks are. What it is that we should be worried about, what we shouldn’t be worried about, and where to put the emphasis. We’re really looking forward to the JASONs doing a summer study, which I think they’ve already commenced and provided some information -- not only to NSF, but really to the whole country on how to look at this in a very decisive way.

    We’re also going to come out soon with our own re-make of what’s required in a bio profile so that people have the opportunity to disclose everything. Then we have the opportunity to evaluate those disclosures. Right now, I think people are very confused over what to disclose.

    I spent more time on this item because it is such a big hot topic. Our biggest fear is that agencies, which are only concerned about the one-off cases -- and there are plenty of one-off cases -- will do something drastic to the research environment that we’ve all grown to love and benefit from in a tremendous way and our country as much, too. It’s all a question of balance. We think that by taking a measured approach we can achieve that balance. We have the good people to weigh in and help with that.

    The last item is on the ever-present administrative burdens, which I think you’re all familiar with. This involves how long it takes to satisfy all the compliance regulations, and the administration wants to do something about that.

    Slide title: Science Policy and NSF

    Slide images: Top row (left to right): covers of National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan, October 2016; Charting A Course for Success: America’s Strategy for STEM Education, December 2018; Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies, July 31, 2018 re: FY 2020 Administration Research and Development Budget Priorities; National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science; Frontiers of Material Research: A Decadal Survey, 2019; Science and Technology for America’s Oceans: A Decadal Survey, November 2018.

    Bottom row (left to right): covers of Federal Cybersecurity Research and Development Strategic Plan, February 2016; Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018; Addressing America’s Reskilling Challenge, July 2018; Reducing Federal Administrative and Regulatory Burdens on Research, May 2018; Reproducibility and Replicability in Science, 2019.

    Image credits: Top row (left to right): Executive Office of the President of the United States, National Science and Technology Council (2); Executive Office of the President of the United States, Office of Management and Budget; Executive Office of the President of the United States, National Science and Technology; The National Academies Press; Executive Office of the President of the United States, National Science and Technology Council.

    Bottom row (left to right): Executive Office of the President of the United States, National Science and Technology Council; The National Academies Press; Executive Office of the President of the United States, Council of Economic Advisers; Executive Office of the President of the United States, National Science and Technology Council; The National Academies Press

    Our major form of output on all this science policy-making has been in reports that look like these. These are all from the last couple of years. They are reports that cover everything from deep science studies and decadal type reports. Recently, we had a Frontier’s of Material Research which was a decadal study. We’re all looking really forward to the next decadal study from the astronomy community. That will help shape, for NSF at least, our directions for the next decade.

    We’ve had reports that we’ve funded on reproducibility and replicability in science. That’s a new one that just came out from the National Academy of Science. Of course, the Sexual Harassment of Women, the most downloaded report ever of the National Academies, was funded largely by NSF and contributed to by other agencies. We have Strategic Framework for Quantum Research for artificial intelligence, and so forth. There’s a large number of topics.

    Reports aren’t everything, of course, but they are a starting point. There are always about a couple dozen agencies that come together and agree on these reports, and it takes a while to do that. And as these are coming out of the White House, the administration of course has to approve them as well. But these reports are a way of telling the entire nation and the world what it is that we value, how important those values are. It is a way of positioning ourselves so that we do maintain global leadership.

    Slide image: Photo of EHT Press Conference, National Press Club, Washington, DC, April 10, 2019. From L to R: Sheperd S. Doeleman, NSF Director France A. Córdova; Dan Marrone, Avery Broderick, Sera Markoff.

    Image credit: Joel Goldberg, NSF

    I’ve also learned that communicating science is our best tool for garnering more public support. Here’s an example from the recent Event Horizon Telescope result on imaging the black hole. As you know, this was on the front page of every newspaper around the world. In fact, we have a big montage of that in one of our meeting rooms that somebody made for us in every language you can imagine. And recently the Chief Information Officer of the United States told me it was the most downloaded image in history.

    It’s a good example of the whole process of communicating science to the public. I have to say that there are major discoveries all the time. You all know that, I know that. And they’re not only in astronomy, although it seems like we’ve had a lot of them in the last few years in the astronomy world.

    Believe me, putting on eight press conferences all over the world simultaneously to the minute was a huge effort. It was a year in the making. As soon as the EHT group had their image, they had a long time in which they had to have it peer-reviewed, of course. So that gave us the time to shape the public announcement of it. I give a huge amount of credit to our public affairs team and to one person who leads that effort. A young person, probably the same age as a lot of the graduate students here, who just single-handedly convinced us -- starting with me but the whole agency -- that because it was an image it would resonate with the public. This is the thing that would resonate with the whole world, and she was right. She got everybody around that, and it just had a tremendous effect.

    Part of NSF’s job, I feel, is to go full steam with that communication to the public, and failure to do so would be a dereliction of our duty. It’s not only our job to fund great research, but we have to see that the people who are paying for it, the taxpayers and the officials they elect understand what it is we have done, what is being discovered and how important that is. When they see something like this resonate, they are tremendously excited. So much so that one of the committees of the House had a whole session devoted to this observation. Usually, we just get interrogated about the budget, so it’s really nice to get to talk about science for a change. And your own Katie Bouman was one of the panelists in that venue.

    I’ve enjoyed every aspect of my career. You heard from George about the different steps, but I think none more than my public service. I worked with creative, hard-working people dedicated to our mission. I will admit that the Federal government is not the most agile of entities, it’s slow. People told me once that NSF sometimes stood for Not So Fast, and process is sometimes over emphasized to the detriment of content.

    In fact, I’ve seen some potentially really good ideas, good programs, that were launched but just fell under their own bureaucratic weight. I think a perfectly reasonable idea can take so long and become so encumbered by the desire to simply have everyone agree on it that it just really never gets off the ground.

    But with some persistence, it is possible to set new ideas in motion and to nurture them even for decades as you all have seen as they grow and mature technically even through a lot of naysayers. Investment in originality can be protected by an army of enthusiasts, even in the face of adversity from many sectors. I think of LIGO and its many detractors and the people like Program Director Richard Isaacson, who saw it through decades of turmoil. He was recently given an award by the American Institute of Physics for that persistence.

    Today our NEON project, the National Ecological Observatory Network, that we spent almost half a billion dollars on, is under similar scrutiny, and I think we just have to persist. We have to get it right. I also think of the original engineering centers when they started under Erich Bloch's leadership had a lot of naysayers, and now they’re just tremendous.

    There are always people who want to discredit a novel idea and to label it as a waste, but one hopes that the best high risk, high reward ideas are recognized as such and protected. That's really a part of our job in the federal science agencies, to do that nurturing and protecting.

    Our proof is in the breakthroughs. NSF has funded 236 Nobel Prizes to date. NIST brags about their four! I have to say that's great, Walt Copan, great. But 236 Nobel Prizes, Fields Medals galore, and the Genius Awards -- this is evidence that our strategy in the merit review process is a good one.

    Now the biggest threat to investment in basic research looms. It's not the proposed budget. Actually, the proposed budget by the recent House mark is very, very good. It would put us at a very significant level. It's not China, and it's not some artificial intelligence robot. I think it's apathy. The result of a failure to recognize the importance of our investment in basic research.

    I still correspond with a former college roommate. She ends every message with this phrase, which she got out of some manual. "Sent from my IPhone, which is a wonderful byproduct of entrepreneurial free-market capitalism. Competition, hard-work, innovation and lack of government interference made this email possible."

    She doesn't know all the technologies in our I-Phones are the result of government investment. If you go to the AAU website, they have that exploded view of all the components of the IPhone, every single one of them you can trace to individual investigators that were funded by some branch of the federal government.

    She doesn't know that GPS itself, which lets her know where she is at any time, depends on the equations of general relativity and is owned and operated by the US Government and that she can use Google, thanks in part to NSF which funded its founders when they were graduate students starting the company.

    Investments like these have enabled researchers to think big, to stretch beyond the limits of their own imagination and to follow where curiosity alone may take them. It's that freedom to think big which Gerry and Caltech taught me and which we must all protect for the benefit of science and society.

    We have more work to do! Thank you!

    Title slide title: Thinking BIG

    Slide words:
    Caltech Lecture Series in honor of Dr. Gerry Neugebauer
    Cahill, Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics
    Hameetman Auditorium, Pasadena, CA
    June 12, 2019 – 4:00-5:00pm

    Slide image: photo of Gerry Neugebauer at the California Institute of Technology

    Image credit: Archives, California Institute of Technology