Dr. Neal Lane


IRIS Consortium Workshop

October 3, 1997

(As delivered)

Good afternoon to all of you. I'm delighted to have this opportunity to join you today and let me congratulate IRIS on the opening of its new office here in Washington. Though I remain intrigued about what brings intelligent, productive and broad minded people from the "real world" to the world "Inside the Beltway"! - it certainly can't be for the purpose of further broadening of one's perspective, since it tends to go the other way around once they arrive here.

Of course the essence of the IRIS is really embodied in the many researchers, educators and students who use IRIS data around the country - like many of you here today. So I think we can safely say that we will continue to have a broad array of perspectives that will cancel out any "Inside the Beltway" myopia. But, still, keep a close eye on it. Anyway, let me first thank David Simpson for his kind invitation to speak with you today though I wish I had had the chance to meet with you earlier this year. I was hoping to join you in Breckenridge this past Spring - not a bad location for an intellectual exchange - but that event was in the middle of a period not-so-fondly known as "Congressional Hearing Season" when I get to spend a great deal of time testifying and answering questions on Capitol Hill about the NSF budget.

Of course defending NSF's budget is really a year-round pursuit for me- it is fundamental to the job of NSF Director. That is one reason - for better or worse - I tend to think a lot about how we as a research community can better reach out to the public to discuss the great work of our publicly-funded researchers and educators.

We know, in retrospect - that as a result of the nation's support of research - the American people also received enormous benefits, from better health to higher-paying jobs to store shelves crammed full of consumer goods of every size, shape, color and price imaginable. But we never really talked much about where it all came from. Leading economists now say that one-half of all the economic growth in the U.S. in the past 50 years can be traced to innovation through science and technology. We owe it to our neighbors to tell them about that.

I am not the only one to reminisce about the "golden age of science in America"-the period after World War II through the fifties and part of the sixties. It was a great run! Public funding for science was almost unquestioned and generous, while an agenda for science was rarely discussed. That was a unique period for America in geoeconomic terms. All science was good. More science was better. In the words of Vannevar Bush - key science advisor to President's Roosevelt and Truman, science was "an endless frontier"-and support for exploring that frontier seemed almost endless as well. The implicit consensus was that our national security required it.

It is hardly news that the earlier "golden era" is now behind us. We can no longer expect public support for science and engineering research in the form of a blank check and an undefined agenda. Today, an agency that receives even a modest increase is viewed as having great success. That is why I am pleased that in this year's VA-HUD and Independent Agencies appropriation, NSF is slated to receive over a five percent increase. This - needless to say - is great news: a tremendous show of support from the Congress and the President.

However, having said that, I do not want you to believe that our work with the public on behalf of science is over. Not at all. In fact, quite the opposite, for I firmly believe the voices of the science and education community will need to be heard more than ever.

You may recall that it was with great fanfare last spring that the leaders of Congress and the President announced the agreement to balance the budget by the year 2002. This was a major accomplishment. This agreement will help put the nation on solid fiscal footing as we head into the new century, but may cause disturbing tremors - if not downright quakes - throughout the research and education enterprise in future years.

This is because the focus, as most of you probably know, is on discretionary programs to achieve a big chunk of the savings necessary to balance the budget. To some extent, this further shrinks the pool of money available for federal R&D, and it certainly increases the competition for ever-scarcer resources, especially among nondefense programs.

This point is critical for a multi-use, multi-agency-funded facility like the Global Seismographic Network -a facility with many parents - since it is managed by the IRIS Consortium and USGS and also funded jointly by USGS and NSF. As I noted in an article which I was pleased to co-author with Gordon Eaton, Director of USGS, these facilities have had a tendency to suffer within the federal budgetary process. That is why both NSF and USGS have been working together through the leadership of the Administration to better coordinate and manage an asset like the GSN that contributes not only to fundamental earth science but to earthquake hazard assessment and to national security as well.

But no matter how creatively we manage our collective scientific assets to ensure their long-term viability, the budget deal means that resources available to the appropriations subcommittees in Congress are--and will remain--extremely tight. And this will only increase the pressure on federal programs and their constituencies to demonstrate how they contribute in meaningful ways to the health and well being of the Nation.

This last point brings me quite gracefully to my next. If there is one message that I have endeavored to relay throughout my time at NSF, it has been to emphasize how important it is for the research community, the universities, and the scientific and engineering societies to actively get the message out about science and technology and its critical connection to this country's social and economic welfare.

I know that I am preaching to the converted when I stress the significant role that science and engineering have played in building our great society and must play in shaping its bright future. But this vital contribution is not so easy to convey to an uninformed public. What scientists and engineers must do is convince those who support their work-the taxpayers, who are the ultimate stakeholders in this venture.

In our work to reach out to the public, we are fortunate to have a huge reservoir of public curiosity to tap that can help bridge this gap between scientists and the public. And, I think you know what it takes. There is no question that interest in the earth sciences can play an important role in bringing the excitement of science into the home and the K-12 schools. I caught the GEO Bug when I was a kid and it has never left me

It is good to see that this natural connection between research and K-12 education is happening through projects like the Princeton Earth Physics Projects (PEPP), sponsored by IRIS and NSF. And there have been extraordinary new fundamental discoveries as well, such as the discovery that the inner core of the earth was spinning at a faster rate than the rest of the earth. This discovery spurred the interest of not only seismologists but sparked imagination of many in the mainstream media and the general public. (Of course there are many people who believe the world spins around Washington.

There have been numerous other recent breakthroughs, discoveries and innovations that have captured the interest of the public in science. Just this past year, we've seen one of the brightest comets of our lifetimes, Comet Hale-Bopp, featured prominently in the press and on our television screens.

The comet's appearance presented us a priceless opportunity to tap into public excitement and connect it to the research taking place. In a small but significant way, when a researcher, perhaps one we support, appears on CNN and makes that link, we've taken another step forward. When the public sees comet images from the telescopes funded by NSF and your institutions, that helps too.

Of course, often when TV networks come calling for a seismologist or geophysicist, it is usually because there has been a tremendous natural disaster, often a terrible earthquake similar to the one that struck Northridge or the one that sadly took so many lives in Kobe.

But we certainly don't have to wait for the comet of the century or - God forbid - "The Big One" - to come along - there are many other examples. A few months ago, one of my senior NSF colleagues Bob Corell, got the chance to discuss in the media some research drilling off the coast of Florida and new evidence about the extinction 65 million years ago. The discovery of a "fingerprint" in the sedimentary record of a deep sea core obtained by the drill and ship Joides Resolution buttressed the theory that an asteroid the impact in the Yucatan 65 million years ago perhaps driving the dinosaurs and many other life-forms to extinction. At least - it didn't do them any good. These examples demonstrate that much of what is done with NSF support can be made compelling and interesting to the public.

Indeed, while the "golden age" of generous funding for science is behind us - today we are experiencing a "golden age" of discovery - in essentially every field of science. And this new golden age has been enabled by the patient investments the nation has wisely made over the past several decades in science and engineering. The fact is: without the support, you don't get the discoveries. And while the American people may not fully appreciate the details of the cause and effect relationship I've just described, it is quite clear that they do believe that science is important.

Surveys funded by NSF continue to show that more than two-thirds of the public believes that science is a net good. And over 40% say they're strongly interested in science and technology. When we reach out with additional examples to convey the excitement and importance of research, we can be reassured by this reservoir of public good will. Nonetheless, only one in ten surveyed believes that he or she is well informed about science and technology, and only one in four claims some knowledge of science. And the vast majority of people have no understanding of the scientific process-98% of them don't know what research means. To me this gap is very troubling: two-thirds laud the value of science, but 98% do not understand the enterprise.

I have said many times that these survey results may suggest more about us the research community than they do about the public. Traditional scientific training does not prepare its graduates very well to assume a role as an activist in society, to spread the word about science.

One of my favorite science communicators, whose passing we continue to mourn, was Carl Sagan, an astronomer renowned not just for ground-breaking work in planetary science, but for his one-man campaign to increase the public understanding of science. Sagan understood the need to bring science into American living rooms, to link it to everyday life, to share the excitement of discovery. Scientists may have failed to credit him and others properly for breaking the mold of the traditional researcher and trying something new.

Last May, we honored Sagan with the NSF Distinguished Public Service Award, the first one we've given in three years, because of his many contributions to both research and public education.

Very few researchers could or would aspire to such "superstardom" in public outreach. But that is not necessary if a few researchers would step up their efforts, simply at the level of "stardom!"

At NSF we are also realizing a new responsibility as an advocate for the cause of science and engineering to the public. NSF has certainly been a longtime, quiet catalyst for scientific and technical literacy - we make substantial investments in education at all levels - but we have traditionally kept a low public profile as an institution, perhaps believing that trumpeting our successes was somehow unseemly. I might suggest that this attitude may inadvertently have carried just a whiff of elitism-well, maybe more than a whiff. We are not doing a service to the research community or the public if we do not help make the case about why science and technology matter in people's lives. Given today's budgetary climate, neither the Federal R&D agencies nor the research community can afford to appear isolated from the taxpayer who pays the bills.

In closing, I would like to return once more to Carl Sagan, because in his recent bestseller "The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark," he brilliantly exposed the danger underlying our current dichotomy. "We've arranged a global civilization," he wrote, "in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces."

Probably the most important message I've tried to convey today is that we are feeling the tremors of change for science and outreach. While it is necessary to increase public understanding of science and technology, it is equally important for scientists to deepen their understanding of the public. This two-way communication has the promise to benefit us all. And, together, we can make it happen.

Thank you. I would be happy to take your questions.

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