Dr. Neal Lane


Plenary Session - Pittcon '97

"Research Partnerships for Competitive Technology"

Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy

Atlanta, Georgia

March 16, 1997

Where Will We Get Tomorrow's Innovations?

Good evening. I want to thank Janet Osteryoung, John Jackovitz, and the entire Pittcon organization for inviting me to join you today. It's a special pleasure to visit Atlanta as spring approaches. It's always beautiful here, and especially now as the magnolias, dogwoods and other precursors of spring begin to fill the air.

It's an added pleasure to share the stage tonight with Mary Good and George Brown -two close colleagues and friends - both heroes in the fight for science and technology. Pittcon has shown its openness to outreach by having a couple of phycisits join Mary on the panel. They've already planted a full garden of ideas for us to consider. I fear all that's left for me is the weeds. Of course, every gardener knows that early spring is a time for over-seeding your gardens. In that same spirit, I intend to sprinkle a few of my own thoughts onto the issues and themes my colleagues have already discussed.

My remarks tonight pose a question that I know is of great concern to each of us: "Where will we get tomorrow's innovation?" It's a question that is much on my mind as we approach a new century, and Mary and George have already addressed it in their comments.

We know it requires a strong and stable national investment across the spectrum of science, engineering, and technology - an investment that ranges from fundamental research and science and engineering education to the bridge programs that Mary has discussed. It also requires reliable sources of venture capital, plus a tax and regulatory environment that is conducive to innovation and risk-taking.

But the answer to the question of where we will get tomorrow's innovations includes something else as well. To make this clear, I want to borrow a page from Philosophy 101 and answer this question with another question. When I spoke at the AAAS meeting in Seattle last month, I posed the question of whether science is a stepchild or a superstar in the view of our society today. I chose this provocative phrasing to make a point that I consider to be directly relevant to our gathering this evening.

Our science, engineering, and technology enterprise is neither a peripheral stepchild to what happens in the nation, nor is it an almighty and all powerful superstar that is the single answer to our nation's success and prosperity. Rather, it is something else - a significant and integral enabler of what America's future will bring.

Vannevar Bush noted this when he penned the report, Science: The Endless Frontier in 1945. This report became the blueprints for the National Science Foundation and other agencies supporting academic research - George provided an excellent summary of the Cold War environment. But, we forgot that Vannevar Bush also wrote that, "Science can effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team."

Today, we describe this in many ways. We use different terms, like partnerships, strategic alliances, collaborations, and cooperative activities. All are appropriate descriptors, and they all emphasize the same basic concept that Bush himself stressed over fifty years ago.

This team spirit is much in evidence here this evening. The Pittcon gatherings have always stood apart from other scientific conferences precisely because they draw the best people from a wide array of fields and interests from industry, academe, and government. This is clear just from the wealth of different disciplinary and professional affiliations printed on our name-tags. Some of us hail from engineering, others from the life and physical sciences. Academic institutions of all sizes are represented, as are large and small businesses.

We should all take note of this, because in my mind it provides a large part of the answer to the question of where we will get tomorrow's innovations. It is an answer we cannot overlook or take for granted, and it is now more important than ever.

It's no secret that this is a crucial time of transition for America's research enterprise. As Mary and George have already discussed, the funding outlook has never been more uncertain, while the opportunities before us have never been more promising or vital to the nation's future. I would also submit that the challenges we face have been ratcheted up a few notches in just the past few weeks, thanks to a certain news item that I'm sure each of us has followed closely.

I'm speaking of course of the news from Scotland and "Dolly," now the world's most famous lamb. This news has captured society's attention as few stories from the world of science ever have.

I conducted my own very unscientific survey to gauge the level of societal interest in this story, using The Washington Post as a proxy database.

Since then, we've seen a steady stream of articles, commentaries, and editorial cartoons. We can therefore say with certainty that this story is not likely to fade away anytime soon. In fact, we've already seen anti-cloning legislation emerge from various Congressional offices, and the President has issued an Executive Order that temporarily bans Federal funding for research on human cloning. The Holy Father has even spoken out in Rome.

All of this brought to mind a story on a different but related topic that I heard recently. It goes like this: a person rushes into a TV repair shop, looking frantic and hassled, and asks, "Can you replace the batteries in my TV remote control. It hasn't worked for three days." The repair clerk replies, "Certainly, I know how tough it is to watch TV without a remote." The customer then says, "That's not the problem. I just want to turn the darn thing off!"

In no small way, those pictures of Dolly we've seen in the news have become a symbol for the larger impact of science and technology on our society. Some are intimidated by what is happening, others are invigorated by it, but virtually no one can ignore it.

This has direct implications for our work as researchers and educators. Certainly, there are very important and difficult questions to consider, especially regarding the ethical implications of the breakthroughs emerging from Scotland.

I nevertheless see a different and in some ways even more important role in this discussion for each of us - and the research enterprise generally. We should take advantage of this time of excitement and ferment to amplify the signal we have been sending for the past decade or so, and that the Pittcon gatherings have sent for much longer.

That signal is one of being open and accessible, committed to reaching out to all of society and to linking research with education, committed to working across disciplines and sectors, and committed to ensuring that our national investment in science, engineering, and technology delivers the highest possible return to all Americans.

Given the events of the past few weeks, it would be only natural for many people, even some of our best friends, to begin asking if science is going too far, too fast. Combine that with the generally tight funding environment, and you can see why I believe we have our work cut out for us.

Fortunately, we are already sowing the seeds for our future success. Pittcon's "Science Week" is a prime example of what we can accomplish. By opening our doors to local teachers and students, we open a new window on the discovery process. This week provides us with a great opportunity to extend our reach, and we also have National Science and Technology Week coming up at the end of April. I encourage you to visit NSF's web site at "www.nsf.gov" if you would like more information on some of the events being planned for the "other" Science Week. We are expecting to open the week with President Clinton's announcement of the National Medalists of Science and Technology - so please stay tuned!

Countless other examples of what we can accomplish collectively are in our immediate vicinity as well. Here in Georgia, the umbrella organization known as the Georgia Research Alliance is forging new and productive ties between the state's universities, government, and business community.

In his address to Georgia's State Legislature this past January 16th, Governor Zell Miller called the research alliance, and I quote, "an economic development partnership that is producing results." It has helped to boost academic R&D here in Georgia, and it has been a magnet for attracting research-intensive industries to the state. Georgia, to its credit, seems to know where it will get tomorrow's innovations.

Now, it's up to all of us to help our nation arrive at the same answer. We know from countless studies and examples that investments in science and engineering deliver high returns. As Mary has pointed out in her remarks, nearly half of all real economic growth in our economy over the past fifty years can be attributed to advances in science and technology.

Medical imaging systems, new environmental technologies like bioremediation, multimedia systems, and the World Wide Web are just a few of the examples that testify to this. Advances in fundamental science and engineering spur technological progress, just as new technologies open new frontiers for research. We are increasingly aware that investments in science and technology are inseparable from job creation and economic growth.

The work of top economists like Edwin Mansfield provides further evidence of this direct linkage. Mansfield's recent work has focused on links between academic research and innovation in industry. He has found that government support lays the foundation for successful industry-university collaborations. Academic research that attracts industry support is most often an extension of work supported by public sources. This again testifies to the importance of Federal support, since over 60 percent of the funding for academic R&D comes from NSF, NIH and other Federal agencies.

That finding, coupled with today's Federal budget environment makes this an especially crucial period for industry-university linkages. Over the last two decades, we have seen partnerships between academe and industry grow from virtually nothing into a bountiful landscape of innovative endeavors.

In the current environment, nothing would be more dangerous than to look at the gains we've realized and assume we can rest on our laurels. Even with the growth we've seen over the last fifteen-plus years, industry support for academic R&D remains a small portion of the total for academic R&D, and it constitutes an even smaller portion of industry's total R&D portfolio.

If you were to read NSF's budget request for FY 1998 -- I find it quite stimulating but have to admit that you might find it a good cure for insomnia -- you would see that we are working to give cooperative activities an extra push and take them to a new level. For starters, we recognize the invaluable leadership that the academic research and education enterprise provides to our nation. NSF supports nearly 50 percent of the basic research conducted at colleges and universities in essentially all fields of science and engineering - outside of the biomedical areas that NIH supports. Our FY98 request strongly reaffirms our commitment to academic research, and to linking the research process with teaching and learning.

The single largest new initiative in our budget this year is in the area we refer to as Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence - KDI for short. This is a broad-based, multi-disciplinary effort that aims to keep academic science and engineering at the leading edge of information technologies.

We have all witnessed first hand the potential offered by advances in computing and communications technologies like massively parallel computers and the World Wide Web. They have literally revolutionized how we conduct research and disseminate results. With the web, we can now look up birth rates in the next county and perhaps soon in the next galaxy. It's been said that if air travel had progressed as quickly as computing, we'd be able to fly coast to coast in 10 minutes for $30 -- of course we would still spend hours messing with airports.

This rapid progress has not been an entirely smooth ride, of course. Most of us have also experienced the frustration these technologies can bring. A simple search can turn into many hours of fruitless surfing. My grandkids think that's the best part of the web. I love my grandkids, but I think we can do better.

That is why KDI is a centerpiece of our FY98 budget. It will support research that will help us take the next quantum leap forward in terms of both scientific progress and economic and societal benefit. The academic enterprise is the focal point for this effort. Web browsers, computer aided design, technologies for learning, and reliable methods of transferring data are just a few of the advances and benefits that have deep roots in academic research across a wide range of fields and disciplines. It is impossible to predict the next level of tools and capabilities. But, we can be confident they will be spectacular!

Chemistry, and analytical chemistry in particular, has a long history of advancing the state of the art in both science and technology. Some of you may have heard a story, perhaps apocryphal, about the brilliant 19th Century chemist, William Thomson, better known as Lord Kelvin. I completed a post-doc at Queen's University in Belfast, North Ireland, where Kelvin was born. His statue greeted me through the fog each morning, as I walked to the department of Applied Mathematics through the Botanical Gardens of Belfast.

According to numerous accounts, Kelvin was the kind of person who never let his mind rest, even for a moment. We all know of him for his seminal contributions to thermodynamics and other fields. He was also a top yachtsman in his day, and his love of the sea brought him several patents. He designed a number of mechanical devices for sailing, including a compass for the British Navy, and a device that could calculate tide tables for any time, past or present.

The folklore inspired by his intellectual prowess is even more remarkable. The story has it that Kelvin would design these machines in his head, start them running -- and then check them weeks later for progress and wear! That's a 19th Century form of virtual reality.

While I do not know if this story is fact or fiction, I do know that thanks to advanced diagnostics and sensors, today's instruments are a good match for Lord Kelvin's mental simulations. Super-efficient computer algorithms and ultra-fast hardware allow for the acquisition and analysis of data in real time. This has made it possible to monitor pathological disease states in humans, and to continuously track wear and tear in automobile engines and other systems. These advances all have deep roots in the instruments needed to advance the frontiers of chemistry and other areas of science and engineering.

This is the kind of progress we are hoping to spark through our portfolio of investments in KDI. We are putting $10 million into a multi-agency effort to build the Next Generation Internet, and we are adding nearly $50 million to our investments in a range of multidisciplinary KDI activities. This includes such areas as Learning and Intelligent Systems, Knowledge Networking, and New Approaches to Computational Tools. These are all exciting both from a scientific standpoint, and for their very real potential to drive economic growth and job creation throughout our society.

I would like to close on this note, because it is only by recognizing the larger impact of our work that we will answer the question of where we will get tomorrow's innovations. When we talk for example about topics like KDI and industry-university cooperation, we know that nothing matters more than the experience students gain through these activities. Mary often reminds me that technology transfer is a contact sport. It works best when students take their research skills, their ideas, and their enthusiasm from university laboratories to industrial settings. And, it is particularly effective when those students have gained some industrial experience while they are still in school.

These connections belong front and center in our thinking. We know that research -- or more generally, inquiry-based learning -- must become an essential part of the learning process for students at all levels. And, we know that networks and linkages between researchers, users, doers, and interested observers must become the rule and not the exception for science, engineering, and technology.

Thanks to the efforts of Pittcon and all of us here this evening, we have already designed a prototype that points to way to success on each of these scores. We have set a high standard for team spirit, for reaching out, for connecting research with education, and for ensuring that investments in science and technology advance our nation's overall goals and priorities.

In closing, let me just restate once again that the answer to the question of where we will get tomorrow's innovations lies in the sum total of all these contributing parts. It is not a simple answer or one that will be easy to accomplish, but in my mind it is an answer that is as unmistakable as the arrival of spring.

Thank you again for the chance to join you this evening. I look forward to our discussion.