CONFERENCE ON CALIFORNIA COALITION
FOR SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
May 28, 1996
I have titled my comments, "What A Beautiful Fix We Are In." In 1802, after signing a peace treaty (Treaty of Amiens), Napoleon Bonaparte was reputed to have said, "What a beautiful fix we are in now; peace has been declared." I think that America in general and its R&D community in particular can report similar contradictions. It is good to have national problems that are less ominous than those presented by the Cold War. There are so many intellectually exciting and important non-defense areas of research in which to expand our investments, that the difficulty of choosing is enormous. That is the "beautiful" part.
Now for the "fix." Despite that envisioned potential, the end of the Cold War has called into question our previously unquestioned rationale for federal support of R&D funding -- just when almost every field looks like an explorer's paradise. That dilemma for R&D has been enhanced by the more recent efforts to balance the federal budget by the year 2002. And all of this is unfolding at a time when global economic competition is reaching new heights, with strong signs of continued escalation.
I have said over the last several months that balancing the budget by cutting federal R&D spending is a very risky experiment -- an experiment that this nation has not chanced before. I firmly believe this to be the case.
But as I contemplate our options, I think about Napoleon's phrase "a beautiful fix." We are a great, fortunate, resourceful, talented giant of a nation. We have led the world in peace and in war. I am not a cock-eyed optimist by any means but I see a strongly mitigating factor to our intensifying R&D dilemma of shrinking funds, expanding potential, and escalating global economic competition. In fact, it is better than mitigating -- it is a factor that offers clear opportunities. And it presents itself today at this conference. A "beautiful fix" seems to be the fruition of a desired outcome that also offers a whole new set of dilemmas, less ominous but not necessarily less challenging. A "beautiful fix" is the creative license to make something new. It is the window of opportunity to gather together many pieces of accumulated experience in a new adventurous way.
This timely meeting on a California Coalition for Science and Technology is just such an adventure. It is best depicted by a phrase that was recently called to my attention -- the phrase "science is we," spelled WE. Actually, I discovered (that is code for staff work) that the more expanded phrase is credited to the painter Claude Bernard who said, "Art is I; science is we." Today we should broaden that personification of "science" to "science and technology."
My point, however, is that, by natural orientation, the conduct of science and technology development lends itself to collective and collaborative activity. This is an extremely important recognition at a time when the federal stewardship of science and technology is changing dramatically. I do not have to document those changes to this audience. But in addition to the current looming budget threats, it is worth noting another change -- less than twenty years ago, the federal share of support for research at our universities was the lion's share -- some 70 percent. That fraction is now 60 percent, with industry, institutional, state and other sources weighing in more heavily to change the equation. The birth of this California Coalition, in many ways, represents the natural and logical amplification of the concept that science and technology are "we." This Conference is the elaboration of that "we;" it confirms how science and technology develop and progress.
Now, one would have to retort that if this collaboration is such a natural instinct, how is it that we haven't come to "state science and technology coalitions" until rather recently?
To respond from the lighter side, the comedian Mort Sahl said, "A conservative doesn't want anything to happen for the first time; a liberal feels it should happen, but not now." That pretty much accounts for universal deferral.
On the more serious side, perhaps that answer has more to do with the fact that national governments are in charge of national defense, and America's most significant science and technology initiative was a direct outgrowth of World War II, and it continued to be driven by the Cold War for the next forty years. Thus, we saw an inherent overlay of central national financing and direction.
Despite that presence, there has been a steady trend, fledgling at first, toward cross sector connections, partnerships, collaborations, and cost sharing arrangements among R&D players, over the past 20 years. Much of this was precipitated by the federal government's evolving role from sole patron to limited partner. For many of those same years, we in the science community continued to talk about the legacy of Vannevar Bush (F.D.R.'s equivalent of a science advisor). We believed that Bush had defined an exclusive "compact between science (universities) and society ( federal government funding)." In reality, Bush expressed a much broader and more inclusive vision of science and technology, as an important player on a team of many diverse players.
Part of what I believe you are crafting today -- The California Solution: A Coalition for Science and Technology in a Knowledge-Based Economy -- is an expression of "doin' what comes naturally" for science and technology, an instinct to be collaborative -- planting the power of "we." You are, in fact, forging those many accumulated pieces of experience in a new and adventurous way. This is an innovative, uplifting exercise with old and new players, and old and new ideas.
I am proud to say that NSF has, over the years, made its own contribution toward promoting the power of "we." In particular, our Engineering Research Centers have been the embodiment of partnerships and collaborations among principal science and technology players -- universities, industry and government. I am pleased to report that a few days ago a new group of four centers (ERC) was announced, one each in California, Michigan, Washington, and Massachusetts. Each is funded over five years at about $12 million.
The California center at USC is already an "Integrated Media Systems Center". It will continue to combine multi-media technology and imaging science research and will develop the next generation of multimedia technology. With strong industry participation and inclusion of the K-12 educational community, it portends to make an important contribution to the California economic renaissance of which you are all a part.
Perhaps some among you are wondering how I would define the EVOLVING federal role in science and technology? The federal government role, I believe, is fourfold. First, the government is a leader in defining a broad vision, inspiration, and overarching direction for the nation's science and technology enterprise. The Clinton Administration policy document, Science in the National Interest , developed under the leadership of MRC Greenwood, with a hand from Ernie Monix and others is a significant example. More recently, the expanding role of individual scientists to promote public understanding of science and technology has been articulated, as well as the need for universities to create genuine integration of research and education.
Second, the government can create incentives to move us in those overarching directions. Those incentives are often federal dollars associated with new programs. The Engineering Research Centers and the Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR) are just two of many examples of successful initiatives designed to move us in new directions.
Third, the government can be a partner in collaborations that are industry and/or university led, for example NIST's Advanced Technology Program. Fourth, the government must preserve and protect those things that no other institution or group of individuals can adequately safeguard -- such as public health, safety, the environment, and most importantly, our core capability in scientific and engineering research and education, including support of our universities and colleges.
States, on the other hand, are the "hotbeds of new ideas and innovations." To use a more erudite depiction, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis referred to the states as "laboratories of democracy." Brandeis, one of the progressive activists of the early 20th century understood the importance of a state's ability to experiment in real experiences and in real time. He also appreciated the inherent value of the uniqueness of each state.
As this California Coalition for Science and Technology takes form, it will capitalize on the unique qualities of this great state, among them a diverse and outstanding system of higher education ranging from community colleges to some of the nation's finest graduate schools. California is also our window on Pacific Rim commerce, and the entertainment industry center of the universe, to name only a few of so many "particularly California characteristics."
The federal government has much to learn from California, indeed from each and every state. Undoubtedly, state coalitions will teach us the importance of flexibility, being alert and adaptive to changing conditions. At the federal level, we more often make the mistake that the implementation of an idea translates into the intractability of an idea, and the much too infrequent admission that some things work and others don't or as Jack Gibbons (Physicist) Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, often says "Apply the theory of holes -- when you're in one, stop digging!" I believe we are improving in this regard. And I know that state science and technology coalitions will continue to broaden our thinking.
In closing, let me reiterate that as a nation, "we are in a beautiful fix." We need to be appropriately grateful for the "beautiful" part and equally determined and energetic to solve "the fix." I have no doubt about our creativity and resourcefulness for the task. Just looking around this room tells me that the "power of we" will prevail for America's future. Will it be easy? Assuredly not. Will it be exciting as well as difficult? Most certainly. At times like this, I am always encouraged and enlightened by the wisdom of the science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin, who said, "It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters in the end." I wish all of you good luck, an engaging journey, and a fruitful outcome.