Dr. Neal F. Lane
National Science Foundation
Panel Discussion on
April 8, 1996
I've had a great day here at Rutgers. You've been wonderful hosts, and my hat's off to President Lawrence and all of you for what has been accomplished here. In the meetings I've had with many of you, I've accumulated a wealth of ideas to pack in my bags and take back to NSF.
It's an added pleasure for me to be able to appear with Congressman Frelinghuysen. All of you probably already know that his activism and influence with respect to academic research in general and NSF in particular has continued to grow in recent months. We very much appreciate that strong support.
If you've looked at the actual numbers--not the projections, but the actual appropriations--then you would have noticed that science funding has fared better than most any other area of Federal spending this past year. That's due in no small part to the work done by Congressman Frelinghuysen in the trenches of the appropriations process.
We of course want to assure your Congressman that any additional funding you might be able to find for us will be invested wisely.
It's no secret that we find ourselves in a confusing and truly paradoxical period of time. The funding outlook, certainly over the long-term, has never been more uncertain or unpredictable as the Administration and the Congress work to balance the Federal budget. At the same time, however, opportunities in research and education have never been more promising or more exciting.
The evidence for this exciting era is all around us. I often say that we are on the brink, or perhaps in the midst of, a new golden age of discovery.
New breakthroughs come to light almost daily. Planets beyond our solar system, new galaxies, comets, dark matter. New elementary particles, like the top quark, and hints of structure within a quark. (Tom Devlin and others here at Rutgers continue to push back the frontiers of this field.) We are also seeing astounding genetic revelations, such as the switch that controls flowing in plants that can make a tree flower in a few months as opposed to several decades. Breakthroughs in the social sciences are giving us new insights into productivity, decision theory, and economic growth. and much, much more!
There have been other times in the history of science when major breakthroughs occurred--some will even argue paradigm--shifting breakthroughs--and we can associate names with these times--Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Pauling, Watson, Crick, and others--to pick a small sample.
But what is extraordinary today, is that major breakthroughs seem to be occurring at frequent intervals all across the frontiers of science, engineering and technology.
This makes clear that we cannot, at least must not, lower our sights as a nation when it comes to science and technology. Never again should America be caught off guard as it was with the launch of Sputnik or when we saw our competitiveness erode in the 1970's and 80's. World leadership in science is like a muscle--you use it or lose it--as a community and as a nation!
We often hear that America can no longer afford to be the world leader in science--that maybe we ought to go for second best. I want to challenge that notion. We cannot afford the alternative. We in this country don't have much of a track record on striving for "second best." I don't think we know how to do that--and I think it's a bad idea. It's quite clear that countries like Japan are taking a very different task--and backing it with growth investments in science.
I know some people ask why leadership in science matters. What difference does it make in people's lives? I'm sure there is no shortage of answers in this room, and I know there's no shortage of answers here on this campus.
One of NSF's largest investments here is for the Science and Technology Center for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science. The Center is taking a new look at problems that have confounded mathematicians for generations, including the famous traveling salesman problem.
This is not the traveling salesman who runs into problems in rural Americal, but rather the one who is seeking the fastest way to travel a circuit of five or more cities. It's one of the most famous of the unsolvable problems in all of mathematics. Yet the center here is developing insights and new approaches that are helping companies like BellCore make their telecommunications networks more efficient and more secure.
It's no accident that cutting-edge research like this is being conducted here at Rutgers and other great research universities. America's capability to keep pushing at the frontiers of science, engineering, and technology remains the envy of the world, but we need to work hard to keep it strong. It forms the heart of the science and technology enterprise--the professional workforce and the physical infrastructure--that keeps the U.S. competitive in the global economy.
All of this is made possible by the Federal investment in science and technology and by the partnership that has emerged between government, industry and academe. Furthermore, because our universities are places where learning takes place in an environment where research is integrated with education, our unique system of higher education is also the envy of the world.
I know all of us here today share the goal of upholding US leadership in science and engineering. Accomplishing this goal, however, will not be easy, and it will require the full deployment of the creative talents and energy of everyone here today.
I believe that leadership from the science and engineering community now requires a much more public and civic persona--that of the citizen scientist and engineer. We are needed more than ever to be visible and vocal in our communities. This requires our presence outside the gates of our universities, the walls of our laboratories, and the routine of our offices.
In his new book, "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark," Carl Sagan underscores this point with poetic eloquence. He writes: "We've arranged a global civilization 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 awhile, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces."
Engineers and scientists need 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. I am not suggesting that this be a technical lecture but rather a timely, down to earth dialogue, one carried out in schools, community organizations, guest editorials, TV interviews.
We should not suppose that just because this might be an awkward or unsolicited task on our part that the public will not be interested. They will, I think, be especially interested if we engage in a dialogue in which we aim to learn from the public about their perceptions and their needs and then provide information they want in language they can understand.
Some of us may do better than others, but we must all begin. And, most importantly, we must support those in our communities who make the extra effort to do this. We need to move our knowledge and understandings beyond our own community if we want public recognition of its value for continued support.
Why, you may ask, do we need to do this? We need to do this because nobody else but members of 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 great universities like Rutgers, and the true value--the tangible benefits of science, engineering, and technology to people's lives. I'm afraid that if we who best understand these things don't speak up, nobody will. And the American people will be the losers!
I often hear my friends and colleagues worrying that we will appear "self-serving" by doing this. My response is that if the "self" is the American people and leadership of the U.S. in the 21st century, then I wouldn't be too worried about appearing "self-serving!"
Despite confusion, uncertainty, this is truly an amazing era for science and technology, and I believe a wonderful time to be alive. Of course we can't afford to rest on our laurels and let others do the heavy lifting. 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.