DR. ANNE PETERSEN
National Science Foundation
NASULGC Council on Governmental Affairs, Winter Meeting
February 29, 1996
Thank you Tom (Etten) and good morning. It's a pleasure to join you this morning and an added treat to have the chance to hear Vern Ehlers. This is actually my second opportunity this week to hear Vern. He's living proof that Congress would be well served by having a higher ratio of scientists to lawyers.
I recall once hearing a speaker open a talk by saying: 'before I begin my speech, I'd like to say something.' I intend to follow that tradition this morning, and so before I begin my talk, I'd like to say, thank you to all of you.
It's no secret that this has been a difficult season for NSF and by extension for academic science. All of us at NSF have been inspired by all the friends and colleagues who have come to our aid and spoken on our behalf. We've heard from key staff people on Capital Hill that they received an avalanche of mail from the university community. We know those letters and faxes and e-mails did not emerge from thin air. I imagine more than a few of you had to take the lead and prompt and cajole faculty and administrators on your campuses. Thank you. It has made a huge difference.
Now for my talk. Tom asked me to cover two subjects this morning.
First, the lasting impact of the four weeks of shutdown on NSF and the institutions we support.
Second, he asked me to discuss how all of us can work together to make sure the value of our programs is recognized and appreciated in the halls of Congress and beyond the walls of our institutions.
I hope to keep my remarks to around 15 minutes, since the main reason I came here today is to hear from you. I'll ask Tom to signal me if I begin to use up too much time. Since he reported to me at the University of Minnesota, I thought he might appreciate this opportunity to turn the tables. This is a most unusual day, after all. We get a February 29th only once every four years, so we had better make the most of it.
Both of the topics Tom asked me to discuss bring to mind the motto of the Army Corps of Engineers: the difficult we do immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.
Our priority up until now has been getting back on our feet and catching up with our workload. We put teams on 12 hour shifts to process the 40,000 pieces of mail and almost 3,000 proposals that piled up in our mail room. You may have seen the photos that ran in USA Today or the feature on the local Ten O'clock TV News.
The other, highly visible part of the shutdown had to do with the grant making and fund transfer process. In the first two weeks after the shutdown, NSF processed 1,900 award actions totaling over $300 million. I doubt even Publisher's Clearinghouse can move money any faster. We also dealt quickly with any funding gaps for continuing awards that expired during the period of the shutdown. We now consider ourselves up-to-date on most of these matters.
In fact, if you were to walk around NSF on any given day, it would probably look like things have returned to normal, which is certainly the case for our day-to-day operations. That's the good news.
The bad news is that NSF is not an institution that leads by focusing on the day to day. One of the greatest frustrations of the shutdown is that it has forced us to exert tremendous energy just to get back to a point where we are doing no more than running in place.
Many of the initiatives and new programs designed to propel science and engineering forward have had to be put on hold and, in certain cases, canceled entirely. Seventeen review panels affecting about 400 persons were canceled because of the shutdown. Most are being rescheduled, but in many cases with significant delays. Funding for many programs may not be possible this fiscal year. For example, new awards for agile manufacturing, an $8 million initiative funded jointly with ARPA, are being pushed back to 1997. We had also hoped to start a new initiative in Learning and Intelligent Systems--an exciting mixture of education, engineering, computer and information science, plus cognitive and neuro-science--but now most aspects have been delayed to next year. We do hope to proceed with an educational technology component this year.
The list of delays and cancellations just goes on. The only advice I can give to PI's on your campus is to treat this year like a snowy day. If you have kids in school or worry about icy roads for the drive to work and you see there is snow on the ground, the first thing you do is turn on the radio to check for delays and cancellations. This of course is only true if you live in regions like the DC area. In Minnesota, you only do this if the forecast is for more than a foot and the snow is already cascading down.
In any event, you should tell people to apply this same thinking to NSF for the next few months. We are broadcasting information on deadlines and the status of our programs via the NSF Bulletin, our Web site (www.nsf.gov), and in some cases specific announcements. You should also always feel free to call us or send e-mail anytime you have specific questions or comments.
We should also recognize that there will be long lasting impacts of the shutdown that extend well beyond NSF. The greatest damage, in my opinion, is to the morale of the Federal workforce. Several factors--from labels like "non-essential" to coping with funding that comes in fits and starts--have conspired to drag down morale, and they have left most Federal workers questioning the viability of their careers.
At NSF, we know our staff works incredibly hard. Over the past decade, our budget has doubled and the proposal load has increased by half, while our staffing has remained constant. All the suggestions that Federal employees were not valued or considered valuable, therefore hit many NSF staff especially hard. We can only imagine what repercussions this will have for young people considering careers in public service. There may also be negative effects on young people considering research careers more generally, as if young scientists weren't facing enough obstacles already.
And so, when it comes to the shutdown, it's safe to say we've overcome the difficulty of digging out from the blizzard of mail and backlogged proposals. The next stage of the recovery will likely be more challenging, and some of the impacts may prove impossible to reverse.
This brings me to the second topic Tom asked me to address, which also seems like being tasked with doing the impossible. If we were to compile any list of the challenges we face, communicating effectively would be high on that list.
This is also an area where most researchers feel under-qualified and uncomfortable. My own training is in statistics and evaluation, and I confess to always being more comfortable discussing data than I am at dealing with political issues or considering the public perspective.
Some of you may have heard the story about three professors (a physicist, a chemist, and a statistician) who are called in to see their dean. Just as they arrive, the dean is called out of his office leaving the three professors there. The professors see with alarm that there is a fire in the wastebasket.
The physicist says, "I know what to do! We must cool down the materials until their temperature is lower than the ignition temperature and then the fire will go out."
The chemist says, "No, that's not the right way. I know what to do! We must cut off the supply of oxygen so that the fire will go out due to lack of one of the reactants."
While the physicist and chemist debate what course to take, they both are alarmed to see the statistician running around the room starting other fires. They both scream, "What are you doing?"
To which the statistician replies, "Trying to get an adequate sample size."
My first point on this subject is that the last thing we want to do is fan any flames or start more fires. I know you collectively and individually already have overheated agendas that are crowded with explosive issues. I gather just the mention of terms like "direct and guaranteed student loans" is liable to set off the sprinkler system.
So let me speculate on ways we can cool the flames of the debate in Congress while also igniting interest in science and engineering.
There is certainly a growing consensus on the need for action. Vice President Gore issued a direct challenge to the scientific community at the AAAS meeting earlier this month. He said: "...this democracy needs the sound of your voices and the dedication of your hearts. ...But if you view your own pursuit of knowledge as divorced from the nation's pursuit of progress, both endeavors will fall short of their goals."
Neal Lane stressed a similar theme at AAAS and in a related editorial in the latest issue of Science magazine. He called upon the science and engineering community to play a civic role for the nation, saying "nobody understands better than we who are scientists what it takes to build a strong science and technology presence."
From the feedback we've received at NSF, it is clear that many researchers are anxious to take up this challenge, but uncertain about how to proceed. Their questions and apprehension have undoubtedly come back to many of you on your campuses.
So let me leave you with a few of my own thoughts on this topic. For starters, I always tell people to abide by the old maxim that practice is the best of all instructors. My own experience has taught me that there is a strong correlation between practice and comfort level when it comes to any type of outreach effort.
It's also worth noting that we are already seeing great progress in how scientists and researchers are reaching out to society. Carl Sagan now regularly uses the pages of Parade Magazine to explain topics such as the value of basic research to millions of Americans. Through books like You Just Don't Understand, Deborah Tannen has taken socio-linguistics from the lecture hall to the best seller list. Let's also not forget that Bill Nye the Science Guy has added the phrase "science is way cool" to the lingo of the nation's 10 year olds.
Of course, most of us don't posses the eloquence of a Carl Sagan, the insights of a Deborah Tannen, or even the infectious enthusiasm of a Bill Nye. But, we don't need to in order to be successful.
In fact, Joe Friday of the old "Dragnet" TV series might just be the right role model for us. His "just the facts" approach happens to tell a great story. Think about it: Rates of return on the taxpayer's investment that reach at least 50 percent. New discoveries like planets beyond our solar system and the breaking of the genetic code. A great team of researchers and educators that spans industry, academe, and government. And, a commitment to learning by doing, specifically by linking teaching with research.
All in all, it's a story of hope and promise for America's future that builds on the successes of the past. It also should never grow stale, since every institution, every department, and every person involved adds new levels of detail and perspective.
And so, I'll conclude by saying we need to make sure this story gets told and told often, in whatever form best conveys the message. Now more than ever, preserving the health and adaptability of America's science, engineering and education enterprise is no trivial task. It requires generous taxpayer investments for research and education as well as a renewed commitment to public understanding and outreach by the science and engineering community.
I know all of you can help make that happen.
Thank you. I'll be happy to take any questions and hear your comments.