Dr. Neal F. Lane

National Science Foundation



Montana EPSCoR Meeting

May 31, 1996

Concerns, Comments, and Challenges

It's a real pleasure to join my colleagues, Jack Gibbons, Ernie Moniz, NSF colleagues and all of you who've come from around the state and around the nation to be here at Flathead Lake today. I want to thank Gary Strobel, Jack Stanford, Bob Swenson, and the entire Montana EPSCoR program for giving us the chance to meet in such an idyllic setting. Bob Swenson has given an excellent description of what EPSCoR is all about in a changing world of rural states. Jack Gibbons gave us the national perspective for science and technology and remarked on the successes of EPSCoR, and posed some questions for discussion.

I've spent the last couple of days touring the state. In addition to having a great time, it's also been great preparation for thinking about the remarks I plan to make. For starters, you see so many head of cattle. I'm from Oklahoma--spent most of my career in Texas--and I've learned to be very careful not to give a speech like ones I have heard that resemble the horns on a Montana steer--a point here, a point there, and lots of bull in-between.

Even more inspiring, of course, is the state's majestic terrain and its variety of natural wonders--all made even more enjoyable by the hospitality of the people of Montana. Chip Elam got roped into playing tourguide for me, and it's clear that he could make a second career of it if he ever tires of academe.

When I was a teenager, my parents took me and my high school sweetheart on a camping trip to Glacier National Park--and a hike to Sperry Glacier. My sweetheart is now my wife of 36 years--in large part a reflection of the romance of Montana! I also want to mention that fossils were an important part of my young life. As a kid, my father would take me out to limestone outcropping along the Texas-Oklahoma border to look for fossils. This was a great spot for brachiopods, trilobitas and huge cephalopods known as ammonites, which my dad lugged back to the car.

So, I think you can imagine what a treat it was to spend some time at the Museum of the Rockies with Jack Horner talking about ancient animals somewhat higher on the food chain, and visiting the dinosaur dig at Choteau. (My wonderful wife keeps wondering if I will ever grow up!)

Yesterday, I had excellent presentations and lab visits in chemistry, physics, and at the ERC in "Biofilm Engineering." I also heard about your excellent programs in math/science education. That was just part of my whirlwind tour. We also took a stop at Mammoth to check up on the wolf population, and we built in time for studying geology, hydrology, ecology, botany and microbiology (of the extraordinary Yellowstone region).

Along the way, I learned that a gopher fossil is just as important as dinosaur bones--although it doesn't quite have the same ring to it.

All my field visits, lab tours and presentations were thoroughly enjoyable and--from a scientific point of view--simply fascinating. I want to thank all of you for making my trip so very special.

I would have happily taken two weeks instead of two days, but it was still more than enough time for me to learn why Montana is known as the Treasure State.

Today, I want to talk about another kind of national treasure, one found not only here in Montana but throughout the nation--our research universities and the system of public support that underlies their success. If you have been following discussions about the Federal budget, you'll know why this is such a crucial time for the academic research and education enterprise.

Events are unfolding at a fast pace--so fast that they seem to defy not only the laws of relativity but of gravity as well. Reports in the media can give you the impression that funding levels are going up and down at the same time. One day you read in the newspapers that the National Science Foundation is slated for a healthy increase. Then, the next week you read NSF is facing deep cuts.

If you are confused, you are not alone, but one of my goals today is to convince you of the real gravity of the situation.

It is true that the President has requested over $3.3 billion for NSF in FY 1997. This is a healthy budget by any measure. It would keep NSF's purchasing power a step ahead of inflation, which is a significant accomplishment in these times of fiscal constraint.

Of course, a proposed budget is just that, a proposal, and Congress has been known to reject the President's proposals. The House has already adopted authorizing language that would cut NSF's request by $75 million.

When it comes to the budget outlook, the devil is not in the details, it's in the totals. Congress and the President remain far apart on their spending priorities. This raises the possibility of a repeat of last year's protracted budget battles--complete with furloughs and stopgap funding measures.

The closing down of government for a month was wasteful; and it damaged our federal agencies, including the NSF and the research and education enterprise we support. The American people did not react favorably to this situation. And we are hopeful that it will not be repeated.

But, the situation is cloudy at best!

It is especially ironic that NSF and other agencies that support research and education in science and engineering find themselves in this uncertain position at this particular time. We are on the threshold of a truly revolutionary era of discovery and progress in research and education. I saw many examples of that right here in Montana over these past two days.

We now have at our fingertips an array of experimental instruments, computers, and information networks, and knowledge to open frontiers that were unimaginable just a few years ago. Over the next decade, the potential for rapidly increasing our understanding of both the natural world and the world of engineering, shaped by humans--and applying the new knowledge and technologies--is staggering.

There is ample evidence that investments in science and engineering payoff for America. Anyone who doubts this just needs to spend a few minutes in Bozeman. It's no accident that 45 high tech firms have settled there. Even in this age of instantaneous communication, companies still value being close to their key resources.

Just as steel mills were once clustered around Pennsylvania's coal mines, firms today are locating near the centers of knowledge and highly educated people found at great universities.

This is why the budget outlook should be of great concern not just for us, but for the American people. The Chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisors, Dr. Joseph Stiglitz, has explained that deficit reduction is a means to an end goal of economic prosperity. But he adds, "Cutting investments in R&D run counter to that end goal; without protecting key investments you may end up with a balanced budget but slower economic growth."

In other words, cutting NSF and other R&D agencies to balance the budget is equivalent to resorting to decapitation in order to lose a few pounds. You will succeed in losing the weight, but you will also severely undermine your future quality of life.

It is worth noting that other nations have kept their heads and chosen a different approach to government budget constraints and economic pressures on the industrial sector. The Japanese government, for example, has adopted the goal of doubling the level of public funding for science and technology. And, they are focusing on their universities, in particular.

This underscores the challenge we face in the U.S. Can we shift the terms of the debate? Rather than appearing to protect our budgets in order to maintain the status quo, can't we elevate the discussion? And, in so doing, secure the investments in research and education needed to insure a brighter future for all Americans?

I may be just succumbing to the altitude, but I believe we can shift the terms of the debate. Doing so will not be easy, and it can only begin with leadership from the science and engineering community. I foresee an especially important leadership role for the institutions that participate in the EPSCoR program.

In his editorial that appears in today's issue of Science magazine, Gary Strobel makes this very point. When he wrote that EPSCoR may provide a model that will work for the entire nation, it reinforced something I strongly believe in.

We all know the different commitments that hold the keys to EPSCoR's success--the commitment to quality as determined by merit review, the commitment to working in partnership with private industry and government at both the state and Federal levels, as well as the commitments to K-12 education and to public outreach. Gary talked about each of these in the editorial, and all universities would do well to pay close attention.

There is one other commitment that I think is equally important. It is a hallmark of EPSCoR--part of its name in fact. I am speaking of the commitment to experimentation, and I believe the entire academic enterprise would benefit from adopting a similar commitment. This I believe would ensure that our research universities remain a national treasure well into the 21st Century.

It is worth recalling that only about 125 of the 3,600 institutions of higher learning in this country are usually called research universities--only about 3.5 percent. This fact has prompted Don Langenberg, the Chancellor of the University of Maryland System, to offer the following wry observation:

"It is probably about as safe to assume that the dominant higher education institutions of the 21st century will stem from this small but powerful group of present day institutions as it would have been to assume that today's dominant life form on Earth would stem from Tyrannosaurus Rex." No offense to the T-Rex!

Before any of you start envisioning the academic equivalent of Jurassic Park, let me briefly review three areas where I believe a commitment to experimentation would benefit the entire university enterprise. EPSCoR institutions are poised to provide crucial leadership in each.

First is the area of graduate education, where there are a number of difficult issues to address:

Many universities are already hard at work addressing these issues. Some are revising their curriculum on restructuring degree requirements, providing more interdisciplinary opportunities, improving their systems for advising students, and allowing students to earn credit by working in industrial laboratories.

At NSF, we want to do everything in our power to foster a climate of experimentation in graduate education. In fact, a Task Force of the National Science Board recently recommended that we do just that--experiment on a limited scale with different modes of support for graduate students.

These experiments could include increased use of fellowships and traineeships, and placing a greater emphasis on interdisciplinary work and industry experience. We intend to begin a number of small pilot projects, evaluate the results rigorously, and then build on the most successful ones. I invite all the institutions represented here to send us your ideas and play an active role in this effort as we move forward.

The second set of experiments we need to run falls into a related area. Some of you may know that Lester Thurow is more than just one of America's top economists. He also happens to be a native Montanan. And in his recent bestseller, Head to Head, he observed a phenomenon that is directly relevant to our gathering here today. He wrote that "Americans are not used to a world where ordinary production workers need to have mathematical skills."

I would add that we are also not used to a world where nurses, auto mechanics, ranchers, farmers, and other front-line employees need the kind of critical thinking skills that one best acquires through research. At NSF, we want to see that all students have the skills and tools needed to deal with the complex and the unpredictable.

This requires investing in activities that promote learning through inquiry, exploration, and discovery. We call this the integration of research and education and it is a key theme in the NSF Strategic Plan, and one of the priorities in our FY 1997 budget request.

A centerpiece of our efforts is a new pilot activity, which we are calling Recognition Awards for the Integration of Research and Education. These awards are aimed at identifying and recognizing research universities that have already shown bold leadership, exceptional innovation, and tangible accomplishment in linking research and education.

Perhaps more important is that these institutions will have established an environment that values, encourages, and rewards faculty members not only for their research but for their teaching and other educational activities as well--such as linking student learning to research in innovative ways.

There is a widely held perception that many universities have allowed the balance between research and teaching to deteriorate over time. The EPSCoR program by contrast has encouraged institutions to build capacity in research in ways that contribute directly to the schools' educational mission. This is a major reason why all of us at NSF believe EPSCoR institutions could provide national leadership as we work together to restore the natural linkages between research and education.

I would like to conclude my remarks today by focusing on the third set of experiments we need to start, because they will undoubtedly require the boldest experimentation and imagination on our parts. This again is an area where EPSCoR institutions occupy a natural position for leadership. I call it being more active civic scientists and engineers, and it is directly related to the need for increased public outreach that Gary spoke of in his editorial.

Engineers and scientists must do much more to carry the message of value, application, contribution, and investment to the people whose lives are shaped by science and technology and who pay the bills for our work.

Why, you may ask, do we need to do this? We need to do this because nobody else but we in the science and engineering community really understands science and technology, what research is all about, how education--learning--is enriched in a research environment, the complex interdependence and cross fertilization that characterize our university system, and the true value--the tangible benefits of science, engineering, and technology to people's lives. This is why it is up to all of us to recognize the gravity of the current situation and speak up.

I will close by repeating Bob Swenson's closing quote. The famous vaccine researcher Jonas Salk once said, "our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors." In my opinion, we can help fulfill that responsibility by spreading the word about the value of research and education as investments in America's future.

Once again, thank you for inviting me to be with you. I look forward to our discussions throughout the meeting.