Dr. Neal Lane


Luncheon Address

American Meteorological Society
Annual Meeting

Long Beach, CA

February 4, 1997

Research Investments:
Past Performance and Future Forecasts

Thanks Paul and good afternoon. My thanks go out to the AMS--and to Paul, Warren Washington, and Dick Hallgren in particular-for inviting me to join you today.

This is a tremendous pleasure for me. Like so many people, meteorology was an early inspiration for my own interest in science. Many of you may know that I grew up in central Oklahoma-near the region that's appropriately known as Tornado Alley. Needless to say, in those parts of the country, there are times when people really do always talk about the weather. A few even think they can do something about it.

Oklahoma is a great state with terrific people. But, it lacks seashore, rocky mountains, skyscrapers, or most anything to excite the imagination of a kid growing up. The exception for me was storms-magnificent thunderstorms. Could be it's the ozone, but for whatever reason, I have always loved storms. Maybe that's why I've come to enjoy life in government.

This afternoon, I want to make a special point of thanking the membership and leadership of the AMS for helping to gain control of one storm that began swirling a few months ago. You deserve immense credit for raising awareness on the scientific impact of the proposed international treaty on additional protection for databases which was discussed at the recent World Intellectual Property Organization Conference in Geneva.

Your input was very important to developing the U.S. negotiating position for the Conference. It now appears that international deliberations on this issue will proceed at a more reasonable pace-and can be expected to recognize the need for the free and unrestricted exchange of scientific data. Thanks again for all of your efforts on this vital issue.

I also want to extend a very personal thanks to you for giving me a very welcome excuse to escape winter in Washington. It's always a pleasure to visit Southern California. Being here today reminds of a story about a friend who moved from these parts to the Washington area some months back. He didn't know what to expect of winter, and was caught somewhat by surprise. We had a real cold snap in mid-January: glorious days, not a cloud in the sky, but crisp and very cold. The thermometer barely reached 20 degrees for a high.

This friend liked to jog around lunchtime. He saw the sunshine and headed off in his light running togs-just shorts and a T-shirt. (Obviously not a meteorologist.) When people saw him out there shivering with his teeth chattering, they asked him about his warm weather attire. He replied, "Hey, where I come from, the sun works!"

It may be interesting to talk about how the sun's warming power varies with geography. I was recently at the South Pole, where the difference is striking--I would even say "teeth chattering." Today, however, I want to share a few thoughts about a system that delivers with remarkable consistency.

My remarks are entitled, Research Investments: Past Performance and Future Forecasts. I intend to examine our system of public investment in research and education.

Before turning to those two topics, however, I would like to ask for your input and assistance on a third subject. You may have read in the science press or learned in the NSF town meeting yesterday about proposed changes in NSF's merit review criteria. This is an important process-as virtually all of the 30,000 new proposals NSF receives annually undergo merit review.

The current criteria have been in place for over 15 years. Given how important peer review is to determining the merit of proposals, it is prudent to examine the criteria from time to time. The merit review process has worked quite well at NSF, but based on the views of many reviewers and program directors we think the criteria can be simplified and made more useful to proposers, reviewers, and to NSF program officers.

This past May, the National Science Board established a task force-co-chaired by Warren Washington-to review the current criteria. The task force has recommended that NSF replace the current four criteria with two-one emphasizing intellectual merit and quality, the other focusing on educational, societal, and other impacts. This is not a major departure from the current criteria, where two of our present four criteria address the issues of utility and infrastructure (human and physical).

We therefore think of the proposed criteria more as a condensation and a clarification of the major elements addressed in the current criteria. It is also worth stressing that above all other considerations excellence in people and ideas will remain the guiding principle for all of our award decisions.

I won't say much more about this today, except to encourage you to review the current and proposed criteria and then send us your thoughts. We've set up a special section of NSF's World Wide Web pages to provide information on this process. It includes the NSB Task Force's report and other pertinent information, as well as feedback screens for you to send us your comments. You can find it all at www.nsf.gov. You can also call us or write to us if you prefer.

Your input is crucial to the success of this process. These are your criteria. You'll use them to review other people's proposals, and others will use them to evaluate your proposals. In an era where we are declining on average two proposals for every one we fund, the importance of the criteria cannot be overstated. I hope you will take the time to send us your thoughts. We are grateful to Warren Washington for his leadership and patience in moving this forward.

It should come as no surprise that both merit and impact form the central focus of the proposed criteria. This is not new at NSF. Indeed, these two concepts loom large over the history of public support for science. To make this clear, I would like to recall the exploits of Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell. Who was he, some of you ask. Admiral Shovell was a heroic commander in the British Navy in the early 18th Century, but he figures into the history of science and technology for other reasons.

In the fall of 1707, Admiral Shovell led his fleet of five gunships to triumph over the French Mediterranean forces at Gibraltar. In wake of this victory, he sailed his fleet toward home, expecting a hero's welcome for himself and the thousands of troops under his command.

But when they sailed within 20 miles of the British coast, disaster struck. Four out of five ships were sunk, and over 2,000 lives were lost.

This disaster was not the result of a trap laid by the enemy. It was not caused by storm or sabotage. The culprit in fact was the single-greatest challenge facing sea-faring nations of the day. It was longitude--or to be more precise, an inability to determine longitude. Unable to navigate by sight because of fog, the ships struck rocky shoals off a small group of offshore islands.

There is much more to this story--including an ironic twist involving Admiral Shovell's own fate as he washed ashore. It is all recounted in a book that has reached the bestseller lists without much fanfare. The book is entitled "Longitude," and its author is Dava Sobel, a science writer formerly with the New York Times.

Because longitude has no natural analogue to the equator, it defies simple determination. Celestial navigation provides one method-but one requiring data, calculations, and difficult ship-board observations that were beyond the abilities of most 18th Century sailors.

Another, more practical method requires knowing the exact time at two places on the globe simultaneously. Of course, in the days before quartz watches and instant communication, this was no simple determination.

The absence of timepieces that could remain accurate over months at sea proved the undoing of many great sea captains. Sobel writes that every great sea captain of the era of exploration, from Da Gama to Balboa and Magellan to Drake, became lost through an inability to gauge longitude-though most were not in such dire straights as Admiral Shovell.

For this reason, the story of longitude is a story of scientific research being enlisted to address a societal challenge. Sobel writes:

"The active quest for a solution to the problem of longitude persisted over four centuries and across the whole continent of Europe.... Renowned astronomers approached the longitude challenge by appealing to the clockwork universe: Galileo Galilei, Jean Dominique Cassini, Christian Huygens, Sir Isaac Newton, and Edmund Halley, of comet fame, all entreated the moon and stars for help. Palatial observatories were founded at Paris, London, and Berlin for the express purpose of determining longitude by the heavens....

"In the course of their struggle to find longitude, scientists struck upon other discoveries that changed their view of the universe. They include the first accurate determinations of the weight of the Earth, the distance to the stars, and the speed of light."

Sobel also pointed out that the quest for longitude also marked the first large-scale investment of public treasuries into science and engineering research. European governments offered generous prizes for workable methods. The British Parliament's Longitude Act of 1714 set a prize of 20,000 pounds for a reliable method--a sum that translates into several million of today's dollars.

The prize eventually went to John Harrison, a brilliant clockmaker with no formal training, but extraordinary skills and tenacity--in a result that miffed the scientific establishment of the day. Harrison's clocks earned the name "chronometers" --a term still reserved for only the most accurate timepieces.

Celestial navigation has remained a valuable navigational aid, but it never proved practical as a stand-alone method for determining longitude. It is nevertheless noteworthy that even after nearly three centuries, the charts Edmund Halley and his contemporaries developed in their quest for longitude remain among the most accurate accountings of the stars and planets ever produced.

While I cannot do justice to the richness of this story and the complexity and human struggle behind all of these accomplishments, there is one valuable moral I would like to pull from this story. We see here research responding to society's need, and at the same time sparking progress in both fundamental science and the development of new tools and technologies--simultaneously, and in a mutually reinforcing way.

This same storyline emerges from countless other great quests we have tackled as a society--such as putting a human on the moon, battling polio and cancer, and securing victory in World War Two. In these and countless other areas, we have risen to the call of great societal challenges, and at the same time opened new frontiers for exploration through research and education.

This storyline runs to the core of the origins and purposes of the highly successful system of research we enjoy here in America. It's no secret that our system of public funding for research emerged from the contributions of science to the Allied victory in the second world war. This connection between societal goals and scientific progress is also evident in the mission of the National Science Foundation. Our enabling legislation directs us "to promote the progress of science [and engineering]" and "to advance the national health, welfare, and prosperity..."

This duality of purpose is one of the secrets to the success of our system of science and engineering. It allows individual initiative and creativity to flourish without rigid centralized control, and at the same time works to achieve larger national objectives.

One often hears terms like "basic" and "applied" attached to research, implying that one form has utility and the other does not-and that we can tell the difference. What we have learned from history is that research defies any such pigeonholing. More often than not research opens new frontiers for exploration and improves the quality of our lives--simultaneously. What really matters in discovery is the quality of the researchers, their ideas, and their having the freedom to explore wherever their minds take them.

No field provides better examples of this duality of purpose than meteorology.

We had a number of severe storms in the Washington area this past year--including a few tornadoes. When I'd hear the reports, my first instincts were always to turn on the local news and check out the Doppler radar images of the storm centers. You don't need a Ph.D. to appreciate the value of tracking storms with such precision. We've come a long way since my days growing up in Oklahoma, when tornadoes literally came out of nowhere.

I imagine few people outside the AMS appreciate that sophisticated systems like high-resolution Doppler weather radar didn't just happen. No one just sat down one day and said, "I'll invent Doppler radar" the way Edison invented the light bulb.

All of us here today know the story is quite different. Top researchers at NCAR, in universities, and at other centers, continuously sought better ways of tracking and predicting severe storms. It was the pursuit of this larger goal-combined with support from NSF, NOAA and other sources plus major technological advances in integrated circuit technology in the private sector-that led to the remarkable development of Doppler radar as we know it today.

Of course, this is just one of many such examples. When we improved our understanding of the large scale oscillations over the tropical Pacific, we for the first time gained the ability to predict the severity of El Nino events. That has given fisherman and farmers the lead time they need to prepare for these events. It has even helped mitigate outbreaks of cholera and other infectious diseases, saving many lives and billions of dollars along the way.

Of course, I know that when some people hear about these improbable connections between fundamental research and societal benefits, they say, 'that's just luck.' They say it's not something you can ever expect, let alone use as an investment strategy for public monies.

I prefer to think of these examples in light of Louis Pasteur's observation that "chance favors the prepared mind." New York Yankees' manager Joe Torre came up with another way to explain this in the wake of his team's surprising World Series victory. To use his words: "the harder you work, the luckier you get."

We have learned from history that the hard work made possible by our system of support for science and engineering brings our nation much more than just good luck. It in fact brings the good fortune of progress and prosperity. There is no need to take my word for this. Consider, for example, the data on U.S. economic growth since World War II. Our real GDP has grown by a factor of six over the past five decades, thanks in large part to scientific and technological progress.

Many top economists, including a number of Nobel Laureates, have studied in depth the drivers of this growth-and they've come to one clear conclusion. Innovations emerging from science and technology account for nearly 50 percent of all economic growth over the past half-century.

As we look to the future, we would think that this strong, irrefutable evidence would speak for itself. Based on past performance, there should be no question that investments in science and engineering create better jobs, eradicate disease, help to clean our air and water, and promote prosperity and opportunity across our society.

Unfortunately, just a glance at the Federal budget outlook would suggest that not everyone sees things as clearly as we do. The forecast shows some stormy weather on the horizon-in the form of reductions of up to 20 percent in the purchasing power of Federal R&D investments. Like any forecast, it's subject to change, but these predictions cannot simply be wished away or expected to change by themselves.

The coverage of last fall's Presidential campaign was not easy for anyone to follow, but if you paid close attention you may have heard an important theme emerge from the chatter. President Clinton on a number of occasions spoke very strongly in favor of investing in research and education. By the end of the campaign, he'd made science, engineering, and technology a key feature of his metaphorical bridge to the 21st Century. This theme came through in his inaugural address as well, and we may hear it echoed once again in tonight's State of the Union Address.

Later this week, the day after tomorrow in fact, the President will release his budget plan for fiscal year 1998. I can't release any details of the budget. You nevertheless should know that--within a very tightly constrained bottom line--his spending priorities will embody this theme of investing in science, engineering, and technology.

Of course, if you follow the budget process, you know that the release of the President's plan is only the first step in the march from ideas to action. The Congress will almost certainly have different priorities than the President. That means it is up to all of us to work together and ensure that investments in science and engineering attract the same, strong bipartisan support they have received for generations. I believe this will require an unprecedented degree of attention on your part.

Let me close therefore by reemphasizing the main point of my talk today. We have a great story to tell. It's a story that dates back to the conquering of longitude and one that comes to life today in Doppler radar, El Nino predictions, and countless other examples. All of these examples teach us an invaluable lesson. When we extend the frontiers of research, we also move forward as a society, as a civilization, and we plant the vital seeds of human progress and prosperity.

Now, it is up to all of us, working together, to sustain this system of investing in research and education. We need to ensure that this system is better understood, and that it remains fully vibrant and vital as we move into the 21st Century.

That is the challenge I would like to leave with you today--to make sure these stories are heard. By doing so, we might just be able to inject a measure of change-ability into those troubling forecasts of the future. The need for your attention and effort is urgent and continuing, requiring both dedication and tenacity. I know I can count on you for both.

Thank you again for this chance to join you today. I'll be happy to take a few questions, if time allows.