Dr. Neal Lane


AAAS Annual Meeting On Engaging Science, Sustaining Society

Seattle, WA

February 14, 1997

Science: Stepchild Or Superstar

I am very pleased to participate in this year's AAAS meeting. It's especially nice to be invited back; I hope that is some indication that I wasn't too much of a bore last year. Or, perhaps the organizers simply want to give me another chance. In any case, I am anxious to get your reaction to a few thoughts.

My three plus years in Washington have, taught me a new appreciation for the job of politicians and policymakers. These positions demand diverse and detailed knowledge. It doesn't come through in the media, but the issues are highly technical and most of the solutions require complex compromises. I will say more about this later.

This meeting is an excellent opportunity for me to catch up on the latest thinking across the many disciplines of science, a time to further marvel at the pace of discovery, and a chance to interact with, and listen to, the researchers and educators who are the foundation of U.S. science. I would be dishonest if I did not also say that it is refreshing to travel from political Washington to picturesque Washington.

The theme of this AAAS meeting, Engaging Science, Sustaining Society, is closely connected to some issues I have recently been discussing with other groups of researchers and educators. The title of my remarks, Science: Stepchild Or Superstar, is perhaps a bit more dramatic and will obviously require some explanation on my part.

The issues that I pose today are, I believe, important to the future of American science and technology. And, if properly addressed, they can also favorably impact the long-term support for science. Let me be very clear at the onset. It is apparent to me and to many others that past federal support for research, particularly in universities, has been a critical element in our nation's position of unquestioned world leadership and of continuous high standard of living. With the goal of perpetuating that strong record, today I want to discuss the issue of not only sustaining, but expanding, the role of science. And, here I include all fields of science and fundamental engineering.

By being provocative and posing the choice of "stepchild" or "superstar" as a view of science, I hope to impress upon all of us that science in our society is at neither extreme. It is neither a peripheral stepchild to what happens in the nation nor is it an almighty superstar for our nation's success and prosperity. Rather, it is something else--a significant and integral enabler of what America's future will be. We cannot do everything with it, but we cannot do anything without it!

I have spent the last two years speaking to groups of scientists about the necessity to actively engage in dialogues with voters and policymakers about the valuable contributions of research to our national welfare. I have, in fact, characterized the projected cuts for federal R&D over the coming years as a "very risky national experiment" In today's budget balancing/government downsizing environment, any agency just holding its own is doing well. Any agency that receives even a modest increase is being described as a great success. I am pleased that in the President's budget proposal to the Congress, the National Science Foundation received a three percent increase. And science overall went up over two percent.

In the President's State of the Union address, and earlier in the Presidential campaign, we heard strong messages about the importance of education, science and technology, and the environment. The President's Inaugural address noted major scientific and technological advances as milestones defining the 20th century. In it he also indicated that moving from the Industrial Age into the Information Age would mean increasing reliance on science and technology. I am cautiously optimistic that all of this will be favorably translated in the final budget that emerges from Congress many months down the road. We must keep in mind, however, that the final budget will also reflect the commitment on the part of both the President and the Congress to balance the budget by the year 2002 and there are a lot of competing priorities. As I suggested a moment ago, "most solutions require complex compromises," and this will be no exception.

What we do know is that all R&D agencies and programs will not be treated equally, for better or for worse. And for NSF, like its other government counterparts, the lengthy budget process is complicated at best and torturous at worst. And this is just the beginning.

How well science and technology can weather the budget wars is, in large part, up to the commitment of you, the hard working research community, the universities, research institutions and industry. These three groups are, after all, comprised of the individuals who best understand research and its benefits. The task will be to articulate how scarce taxpayer dollars allocated for research in science and technology can translate into goals for the society as a whole.

It is easy to blur the distinction between the means to reach a goal and the goal itself. A budget, for science or anything else, must be understood as only a means to a larger goal. In fact, Einstein, in his clairvoyance, cautioned us of just such a dilemma. He said, "Our age is characterized by perfecting the means while confusing the goals."

The goal for the taxpayer-supported-science-budget is to uplift and improve the nation and its citizenry through the discovery and application of new knowledge. A viable budget is a necessary part of the means to that goal. Equally important is the understanding on the part of the research community--scientists and engineers-- that public funds support public goals. These dollars are intended to leverage solutions to problems common to our society. They must be viewed by the public as investments that pay big dividends, not as costs incurred in order to keep smart and curious people happy. That is our challenge.

I think I have come to understand more about the public and political perception of science and scientists from the vantage point of the NSF directorship. At least I face this issue often in my job. I am struck by the disconnect between some of those perceptions and the reality that I know. One hears a great deal about the dogma, and sometimes rivalry, of the disciplines, coupled with the sense that there are categories-even classes-of scientists, ranging from the most elite to the most pedestrian, depending on their work--a kind of pyramidal structure.

I find this a very disturbing portrayal of a community of professionals I both respect and know to be among the most capable, hard working and right-thinking individuals on the planet.

Not infrequently, policymakers, perhaps reflecting a public's perception, express the view that "more money with fewer strings attached" represents the real "goal" -even the expectation-of the research community. I do not believe that to be the case, but such perceptions must be faced, and they must be changed in order for the reality to emerge. This task suggests that science in America must realize a new role and reflect a new image.

I am frequently confronted with questions about why we are able to do increasingly outstanding, even breathtaking, science at the same time that many societal disparities and problems are also increasing. We in the research community would all agree that our long-held professional goals of teaching and research are surely of paramount importance, but perhaps they are not sufficient. Rather, a further goal I believe we should contemplate is to understand better what science can offer in addressing the many physical and social problems that hold our civilization in the grip of numerous contradictions.

Many of us old timers reminisce about the "golden age of science in America," the period after World War II through the 50s and the 60s. It was a time when public funding for science was almost open-ended and an agenda for science was rarely discussed. That was a unique period for America within the context of world history and world war. Our economic rivals were severely weakened by the war, and we had only one behemoth political/military rival whose foreboding omnipotence helped fill the coffers of science. All science was good. More science was better.

That economic era is long gone, but it took our nation and its businesses and industries almost fifteen years to come to grips with the new economic era, with competition from a rejuvenated and robust Europe and Asia. The political/military period of so-called "peaceful co-existence" has more recently ended with the close of the Cold War in 1989. With it has gone the Cold War rationale for generously funding scientific research, primarily to keep us safe. We can debate just how strong this rationale really was, but I think we could agree it was substantial.

Many of us in government, industry, and academia know that investments, public and private, in research and development pay off handsomely in economic benefits. It has worked that way for decades, but until the last several years we primarily had anecdotal evidence. Now economists confidently note that industries as diverse as agriculture, aeronautics, computers, biotechnology, and medical equipment grew strong and dominant as a result of federal investments in science and technology. In fact, economists now estimate that over the past fifty years innovation has been responsible for as much as half of our nation's economic growth. Even using conservative annual rates of return, like 20 percent consistently over decades, we are talking about a stockbrokers fantasy. So there is increasing recognition that science has never been a peripheral stepchild to the process of societal progress.

But we must be pragmatic in recognizing that science is also not the superstar--by definition--the only player in that process.

The significant contributory role that science plays is often difficult to portray to the public. It does not matter that we know that research is a high-value investment. What matters is convincing those who pay our bills. The taxpayers are, in fact, the ultimate stockholders in this valuable venture. And so it is incumbent on the research community to neither portray science as a single-handed super-achiever, nor to portray itself as a community detached from or above the fundamental concerns of our society. We are, in fact, a critical partner in America's comprehensive enterprise needed to achieve our diverse national goals. That proper portrayal is our job for now and for the future.

And in that near future, it seems to me that despite the threat of some more-than-dismal budget scenarios, science will rise on the cusp of a new, albeit different, "golden era" in America. It will almost assuredly be an era that will break some of the old canons, but it will also expand beyond the limits of our traditional conceptions of a research enterprise. It will, I believe, be an era that resolves some of the contradictions of science in America today. Let me elaborate a bit on some of those contradictions.

There is no question that the pace of scientific advances has accelerated, almost exploded, in the last decade. Our capability to tackle problems of global and universal nature has progressed dramatically with advanced instrumentation, computing power, and communication. But, in spite of dramatic breakthroughs in almost every discipline, we have not as yet convinced the electorate, and those they elect to represent them, that federal research programs are critical "investments" and should be increased even under the constraints of balancing the Federal budget.

Perhaps one reason for this disconnect is that the electorate does not perceive science with the possible exception of health as concerned with society's problems but rather with abstract questions of nature and the universe.

Jacob Bronowski, the renowned chronicler of science said more than two decades ago, "The world today is made; it is powered by science." But we have not been able to comprehend ourselves, let alone convince others, that a science degree--Bachelors, Masters, or Ph.D.--really is, or ought to be, an enabling degree for a vast spectrum of tasks that our society needs.

We educate and inspire our scientists to reach the very pinnacle of their disciplines. But we have not as yet been able to see that a society predicated on science and technology needs its scientists and engineers not only in universities and research laboratories but in every facet of leadership in the life of the nation.

In fact, sometimes we have failed to properly appreciate or credit one of our own who chooses to move beyond our strict definition of "scientist.' I am thinking particularly of Carl Sagan who was, in many respects, a pioneer and real American hero. He recognized early-on the importance of public understanding of science and contributed considerably toward that goal in his lifetime.

His life and his work should serve as a cautionary tale for all of us as we enter the "new era for science." I believe that era will be a time in which scientists and engineers will move naturally throughout the society, leading with their unique skills. We must respect and encourage those who choose these new paths. We must value their contributions in present, as well as posthumous, perspective.

Sagan himself said of the teaching and learning of science, "When, through indifference, inattention, incompetence, or fear of skepticism, we discourage children from science, we are disenfranchising them, taking from them the tools needed to manage their future."

But here we have yet another contradiction. In light of such comments it should seem ironic to us that we take for granted that a law degree is a good background and foundation for doing almost anything in our society. And yet, that very society is totally infused with, and driven by, science and technology. Why then do we rarely think of a science degree in the same way?

Logic would almost surely suggest that the "enabling degree" of the 21st century should be one in science or engineering. I say this not to mollify science Ph.D.s, who are understandably frustrated, bouncing from one post doc to another but, rather because I believe it is what America will need increasingly in the coming century.

Why then is this not happening? Why do we not envision ourselves in this very way? To begin, we have not been educated to think that we are needed as leaders in other parts of the society. In fact, there has been a certain isolationism inbred in our training, a certain expectation that the university or prestigious research laboratory is the only truly valued place for Ph.D. scientists. There aren't so many of these jobs in today's downsizing environment.

Many departments are currently cutting back on their graduate enrollments. I believe this is a prudent step in the short term. However, taking the larger view for our society in the 21st century we must not focus on educating fewer scientists but rather on educating scientists to see themselves on broader career horizons. It is primarily a matter of attitude. We must also teach our students not to wait to be asked but to step forward and propose the challenges. And we who are their mentors need to work with our university administrators to help open new doors.

Does this mean that today's Ph.D. degree already prepares graduates for those possibilities? In some cases we know from experience that it does. Although as the larger societal role for scientists evolves, there will need to be more elasticity in the configuration of science Ph.D. degrees. This does not mean that every Ph.D. experience must be different from the past. We will always need gifted scientists, totally focused in their research quest, to make the great discoveries.

However, the future graduate degree experience must take into account the large number of graduates who will make other important contributions in education, business, government, and elsewhere in our society. And have no doubt, the society needs them in these tasks. We need to think of scientists and engineers in that larger role and teach our students how to envision themselves there.

In the end, the system must encourage those who aspire to be the next Albert Einstein or Linus Pauling to go for it. The world will need them. But, we must be sure that those who choose other career directions are aware of the opportunities, have access to broader experience and skills while still in school, as well as the career advice and mentoring they need. The latter will require new institutional responsibility and commitment on the part of the university and the department. Perhaps these have not been the tasks of the past forty years, but almost assuredly they will be part of the agenda for the next forty years.

Some of this is already happening on campuses and in collaborations across the country. There are many pockets within science departments that are bubbling with, what my generation might characterize as, "unconventional activity." Although these examples of innovation and change are still the exception and not the norm, they are exciting, diverse, and growing . They indicate a willingness on the part of the research community to move into new territory, try different approaches.

I think it is important to acknowledge and understand the direction of these efforts because, I believe, they are leading us to a future, "much broader golden era" for science.

As the role for science expands, the funding base for science will also expand and further diversify. We have already witnessed a substantial shift in the last twenty years of support for science. In 1976, the federal government funded 50 percent of all R&D performed in the nation. Ten years ago, that figure was 45 percent, and today it is less than 35 percent. The combination of balancing the budget and the goal of smaller government suggests a continued decline in the federal percentage and amount of R&D funding, including support for academic research.

In what I think of as a future "golden era" of science, the federal government will be much more a partner with industry, academia, state governments, and other parts of society. This unprecedented degree of partnership will be part of the continuing evolution of science in American society. And, increasingly, the doers and the users of science will be connected by yet to be established networks, through collaborations as individuals, groups, and centers. And those doers and users will perhaps at times even switch roles.

The face and the foundation of science is being pushed in this expanded, collaborative, and much more fluid direction by two powerful and diverse forces. The vast explosion of information technology and learning tools is one force. The dynamism of the global economy is the other. Let me just close with a quick snapshot of each.

We are living in the infancy of what scholars and song writers all term the "Information Age." Everyone seems to recognize the significance of this shift from an industrial era to an information era. There are, however, no adequate definitions of what an information age means. It is more than computing power, digital transmission, global communication, and multimedia integration.

It is perhaps useful that definitions and descriptions currently escape us. Information systems and learning tools are powerful but still somewhat enigmatic mechanisms. We know what they can do today but we cannot actually imagine what they will enable us to do tomorrow.

I am not exaggerating. I will only remind us of two prominent misjudgments of the future. Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM in 1943 said, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." And Ken Olsen, president, chairman, and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation said in 1977, "There is no reason for any individuals to have a computer in their home."

No one would question the intelligence or capability of either of these corporate giants, leaders, and visionaries. What their comments teach us is our own limited ability to imagine in an almost unimaginable way. The few who sometimes can are the science fiction writers and we never cease to marvel at their foresight, clairvoyance, and income.

This new information era, whatever it turns out to be, without doubt calls for a new form of leadership and vision from the academic science and engineering community. We know from the history of medical imaging systems, the Internet, the World Wide Web, and countless other technological marvels that academic science and engineering has helped us develop the most visionary applications of the new tools and technologies.

The convergence of insights from studies in human cognition, linguistics, neurobiology, the science of computing, and communications and other fields will contribute to and will shape what we do with these new capabilities. I think few would doubt that these integrated information forces will have a powerful impact on both the economics and the sociology of the nation.

We must move with clarity and imagination to use them toward productive ends. We must also imagine what futures we do not want and take appropriate preventive action. We must use them in ways to consciously eradicate the divisions in society between the "haves" and the "have nots. We must be acutely aware of the danger that they could work in the opposite way, creating deeper divides in our population.

At the National Science Foundation we are using a multidisciplinary approach that we have initially termed Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence (KDI) to stretch our horizons in this still amorphous area.

The second force changing the face of science in America is the dynamism of the global economy. There are myriad examples of how this is happening. I have chosen one in information technology to highlight the collective power of these two forces.

In a summer issue of New Technology Week (July 29, 1996) the lead story began as follows, "Mushrooming manufacturing infrastructure combined with strong technological leadership demonstrated by companies in China, South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and Taiwan poses a formidable threat to many American companies, ...East Asian electronics manufacturers collectively are becoming nothing less than a juggernaut propelled by exploding growth that shows no signs of easing anytime soon. ...Information technology is a major driver behind the growing technological and manufacturing capabilities of East Asian countries."

In information systems alone, the numbers from China for example should alert us to be very attentive.. There are 350,000 information technology engineers in China, right now as we speak. They are employed in research institutes, state companies, and universities. A software park is planned for the city of Shanghai that will employ 30,000 such engineers. And the pipeline of professional talent has even stronger implications for the future. In 1995, China had more than 44,000 students in U.S. universities and more than 24,000 in Japanese universities.

I use this single illustration of electronics and information technology to portray the determination, skill, and dynamism that is indicative of the global economic environment. We know that this is far from an isolated example. America will be confronted with aggressive competition in every field of knowledge, every industry, and every technology.

Economies in East Asia are currently growing at average annual rates approaching 10 percent. The U.S. economy in the 1990s has grown an average of just under 5 percent. In order for this nation to compete, to retain and attract new corporate investment, to maintain and improve its standard of living, we must forge a flexible and innovative critical mass of knowledge, skill, and infrastructure. It must include public and private schools, colleges and universities, industry and small business, government at all levels, and the talented personnel from each sector. It must be guided by a collective vision of where we need to go and a collaborative spirit of how we can get there.

Science and scientists and engineers will be neither a stepchild nor a superstar in this critical mass. Rather, they will be the consistent enablers on a team for the 21st century. Vannevar Bush, in his report Science: The Endless Frontier said, "Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team." I think his words become increasingly prescient. The new role and image of science is vastly larger than the World War II generation of scientists could envision. The world has changed since then and science in society must be science in this new, changed society. It will not necessarily be an easy transformation for many institutions, including many universities. Much of the reward system is rooted in ground that will be shifting. Many of my generation will not agree with the new direction and directives. Many in my children's generation will be the reconnaissance scouts.

But the hallmarks of this change will be a much more expanded role for science, and scientists and engineers, throughout the society, because the nation is increasingly dependent on their expertise and the fruits of their work. The competition from foreign economies, the global social and societal problems, and the continuous evolution of national security will demand of science new knowledge and solutions.

I believe that this new engagement of scientists in the mainstream of society will not damage their creativity, dull their insight, or destroy their focus. On the contrary, I suspect it will have an energizing, invigorating effect. Scientists will be in the thick of turmoil, in the forefront of seeing how societal problems evolve and escalate, and in the center of managing the dynamics of disparate forces.

With the inherent capabilities of a scientist's education and training--critical thinking, research skills, analysis, reliance on the facts--there can only be better insights and larger benefits to the nation. It will require some risk-taking on the part of those of us who have operated in the same comfortable framework for a long time--probably an adventure like trying flying lessons at age 58; it may be a bumpy journey for those of us heavily grounded in the status quo. And for those younger and still timid of challenging the system, it will pose the dissonance of being caught between present and future, a tense change (no pun intended). But I believe that these hesitations or vacillations will be short-lived.

The more permanent result will be refreshing and stimulating to science and scientists in every field. Realizing a new role and reflecting a new image will raise science and engineering to a much more prominent and responsible position in America in the 21st century. A new golden era for science will open more opportunities for our nation among nations, and more opportunities for scientists and engineers in every facet of our national life.

Neither the peripheral stepchild nor the omnipotent superstar reflect the enduring and creative role of science in our society.

We in science know that we are at a crossroads. There is an old road where the signposts and signals are familiar. They have guided us successfully for several decades. We have always done excellent work, and many times extraordinary things. But there is a new road where the altitude is higher, the visibility greatly expanded, and the signposts and signals as yet undetermined. I know we can master its challenge.