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Photo of Kathie L. Olsen
Credit: Sam Kittner/kittner.com

Dr. Kathie L. Olsen
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation

ARCS Winter Meeting

Willard Hotel
Washington, DC

January 19, 2006


Thank you, Mary, for that kind introduction. Many thanks to you and ARCS for inviting me to speak at your Winter Membership Meeting. Although I must say, it doesn't feel much like winter in Washington these days. But since I've just returned from Antarctica, which holds the record for the coldest temperature ever recorded on earth (-89.4 °C), I am not complaining!

It was an exciting visit to the Ice. I was able to see first hand the vast array of research that's conducted there. Our work in the polar regions is unlocking valuable information about the Earth's climate. Ice core samples, for instance, which are cylinders of ice drilled out of glaciers, have been critical to revealing what we know so far about the history of our climate.

As a student, I never imagined that a science career would lead to such opportunities, and I am certain that many of today's young people cannot fathom the broad career options available with science and engineering degrees.

So I am pleased to talk this evening about science and engineering education in the U.S. Promoting education has been one my highest priorities during my federal career -- at NASA, OSTP, and NSF.


And I am also familiar with the high value ARCS places on science and engineering education. Your contribution of more than $50 million in scholarships is outstanding! I agree wholeheartedly with your organization's mission statement: you are "contributing to the worldwide advancement of science and technology."

Indeed, you truly heeded the national call in the aftermath of Sputnik to reestablish U.S. dominance in science and technology.


It was a national call with which NSF is also well familiar. The NSF Act (of 1950) established the Foundation partly "to promote the progress of science…"

I want to talk a little about NSF and our responsibilities. Some of you may know that NSF is a unique federal organization. NSF is the only government agency with the mandate to support fundamental, frontier research and education across all scientific and engineering fields.

This is different from the numerous federal agencies that have mandates in everything from agriculture to health to energy and beyond. We cover the entire spectrum of disciplines.

Our responsibility is to always focus on the frontier. But a dual part of our mandate is to help ensure a robust science and technology workforce.

We are committed to develop programs to recruit and retain students in science, engineering, and math. These programs are instrumental in producing a highly skilled S&T workforce that is essential to maintain the current pace in discovery and innovation. The U.S. economy is increasingly dependent on science, engineering, and technology.


According to economists, up to half of U.S. economic growth during the latter part of the 20th century stemmed from new technologies and the advances in science and engineering that enabled them.

Our successful investment in leading-edge research and education has set a standard worldwide. As a result, industrialized and developing nations alike are doing their utmost to increase their R&D intensity and expand their talent pool through growing investments in research and education.


Recent reports have highlighted these realities as well as the consequences for the U.S. if we fall behind other nations in responding to them. The recent NRC report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, concludes: "This nation must prepare with great urgency to preserve its strategic and economic security... The United States must compete by optimizing its knowledge-based resources, particularly in science and technology, and by sustaining the most fertile environment for new and revitalized industries and the well-paying jobs they bring."

In recent testimony before Congress, Norman Augustine, former Chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, put the challenge this way:

"In addressing the future quality of life in America, one cannot help but notice warnings of what appears to be an impending perfect storm."

Augustine's "perfect storm" is a confluence of changing circumstances that now threaten America's economic and global leadership. Among these, he sites "the pervading importance of education and research in science and technology to America's standard of living."

We remember the anxiety over Sputnik and the resulting excitement about space exploration that led to a boom in funding for science and engineering research. (And, which we all know, also led to ARCS emergence.) In the eighties, concerns about increased Japanese competition led to an innovation explosion in industry and business.

Unfortunately, the competitiveness challenges are still with us and are intensifying. Now we see the "competitiveness issue" in terms of globalization, a much more complex, permanent, and challenging environment involving the world's most populous countries as rapidly emerging economies. These circumstances call for a sustainable, long-term response, not just a short-term fix.


America's response must focus on building an inclusive, world-class, science and engineering workforce.

However, we all know that we have a problem attracting students to pursue science and math. Statistics from the National Research Council's, "From Scarcity to Visibility" report show that between 9th grade and college enrollment, there is a significant decline in the number of students interested in science. The number of males interested in a science track drops by 50% while the number of females interested in the science track drops by 80%.

According to the NSF Science and Engineering Indicators 2004 report, approximately 31% of white, 43% of Asian/Pacific Islander, and 35% of underrepresented minority students entering college in the U.S. intend to major in S&E fields. The Indicators also note that the percentage is greater for men in every racial/ethnic group than for women. But, there is a considerable gap between freshman intentions and successful completion of the S&E degree. The Indicators quote a study of college freshmen in 1993 that showed that fewer than 50% of those intending to major in S&E completed an S&E degree within six years, and that women and underrepresented minorities dropped out of S&E programs at higher rates than other groups.

Today, the world faces increased global demand for highly skilled scientists and engineers, at a time when American students seem to be walking away from careers in science and engineering. This does not bode well for America's future economic security.

The 2004 Indicators also report that, since 1980, the number of non-academic (or technical) science and engineering jobs has grown at more than four times the rate of the U.S. labor force. Yet, the European Union, China and India, for example, are driving the demand for skilled science and engineering students, scholars and workers worldwide through accelerating investments in research and education. As this demand grows, countries around the world will not hesitate to try to repatriate talent from the U.S. with attractive incentives. It's even more important that we reverse the trend of U.S. students turning away from science and engineering careers. Should large numbers of foreign students decide to return home, that would certainly leave a vacuum without qualified people prepared to step-in. The Economic security of any nation depends upon it having a strong domestic base of science and engineering talent. America's current trend foretells an insecure future for science and engineering workers in a world where the competition for these workers intensifies.

In order for America to reverse this trend, we need to begin "at the beginning." The first step is to attract young talent so vital for the next generation of discovery. We must spark a curiosity in students at the earliest ages, and remain committed to their retention through postdoctoral studies.

As William Butler Yeats tells us, "Education is not the filling of the pail, but the lighting of a fire."

There are a number of ways to ignite a fire in our students. As our technology advances and our educational resources grow, students gain more and more opportunities to learn. Museums, television shows, the Internet, and computer games, give them the chance to increase their knowledge in science and math. Even the latest gadget, the Ipod, provides unique opportunities to teach and learn.

However, nothing replaces the influence of our teachers, who are so instrumental in attracting and encouraging students to purse science and math. We need good quality teachers; teachers who are trained and committed in these disciplines to help students explore the possibilities of science and math and to intervene in those critical periods where young people become discouraged and risk losing their interest. The shortage of such teachers affects the quality of the science and engineering workforce and ultimately our global competitiveness.

We also recognize that the undergraduate years are a critical juncture in the pathway of education. It is during the undergraduate years that students often develop a passion for certain fields of interest. It is a time when students begin to formulate their life goals. It is a period which marks the starting point for professional careers and professional schools.

That was certainly my experience. I began college convinced that I hated science. However, a teacher in my first college science class communicated the wonder of biology to me so forcefully, that I decided to pursue biology as a career.


In addition to attracting students to science and math at an early age, we must also focus on broadening the participation and including the many viewpoints and perspectives that reflect our population. And that means addressing gender issues and other obstacles to the advancement of women and minorities.

Year by year, the economic imperative grows for broadening, empowering, and sharpening the skills of the entire U.S. workforce -- just to remain competitive in the global community.

Fortunately, we have a wellspring of untapped talent in our women, underrepresented minorities and persons with disabilities. Our need to broaden participation and increase opportunity is critical, for both the science and education communities and the nation.

The National Science Foundation's commitment is evident in our broad portfolio of programs that foster the greater inclusion of this critical cadre of heretofore-underutilized talent. They do so by a variety of means, from shaping curricula, to providing hands-on research experience and mentors, to funding stipends.

Our ADVANCE program, for instance, is designed to increase the number of women in academic science and engineering. Among other things, the program helps women move through life's transitions without loosing ground in their careers.

NSF's LSAMP, CREST, and MSI programs are all geared to broadening the participation of underrepresented minority students. LSAMP has graduated more than 200,000 underrepresented women and minority students with science, engineering, and math degrees.

We have a number of programs that reach out to all students studying science, engineering, and math. NSF supports innovations to improve education at all levels.

The GK-12 program partners graduate students pursuing frontier research with K-12 teachers in their classrooms. The ATE and CCLI programs are focused at the Community College Level.

At NSF, we strive to develop education pathways -- pathways that have no end. Education is a life-long journey, throughout which there are milestones, marked by graduations, degrees and changes; but there are no conclusions, limits or boundaries. We need to bridge the segments that exist between elementary, secondary and higher education so that students can build a seamless body of knowledge. In addition we need to mentor and nurture them throughout their pursuit.

So what can you do to further these objectives? You can continue doing what you have done so well, for so long: support the best students pursuing science and engineering research and education. Your continued unity and involvement played a role in reestablishing the U.S. dominance in science and technology for nearly 50 years, and it will undoubtedly be important to maintaining our position in the global economy 50 years from now.

Thank you. Now I look forward to hearing your views and ideas.



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