APRIL 12, 1996

Changes for Science in the 21st Century

I am very pleased to be here today. For me, coming back to Chicago is like coming home. I earned all three of my degrees here over many gratifying, albeit challenging, years. And I am continuously grateful for the fine education I received. In addition to gaining much important knowledge, I learned how to learn at the University of Chicago. I believe that my experience here changed the course of my professional life.

Today I want to talk about some changes for science in the new century. I will begin with an issue specific to universities and then move on to one that encompasses the larger science and engineering community. Basically, my message is that research universities must regain public confidence in our commitment to the educational mission, and all engaged in the research enterprise must generate public support for investments in research.

Perhaps the most unique and comprehensively beneficial feature of American research universities is its integration of research and education. The mutual benefits of faculty discovery and student learning made U.S. universities distinctive relative to those in other countries, and have created outstanding institutions. The University of Chicago was one of the first research universities and remains a leader among U.S. institutions.

Many of the nation's research universities, however, are under fire about the commitment to their educational mission. Especially our outstanding public research universities have seen reductions in state support and all universities have been criticized for high tuition costs. Headlines were captured recently by the revelation that college tuition pays for not only education but also research at some universities. That this fact would generate alarm requires our attention. You may have had a reaction similar to mine: Of course tuition at research universities buys the finest education from faculty engaged in discovery. Why is this alarming? If the research faculty are not delivering undergraduate education, parents or taxpayers may feel they were cheated, victims of "bait and switch."

We should ask, who is teaching undergraduates at research universities. We know that faculty who spend the bulk of their time on research also teach. The majority of research faculty teach mostly or exclusively graduate courses, but about one-third of them were found to teach undergraduate courses in a recent Department of Education survey of university and college faculty. Even though the numbers of undergraduate and graduate students are about even at the University of Chicago, your recent report on undergraduate and graduate education identifies the concern here about faculty not teaching undergraduates at least in some departments.

It is also worth noting that over the past twenty years, 10% more faculty with PhDs in science and engineering report that they spend most of their time doing research, with 12% fewer primarily teaching. Regardless of how one views these trends, a larger set of forces makes clear that the integration of research and education deserves greater emphasis in NSF's programming and at academic institutions. Today's students will spend their careers in a 21st century workplace that presents complex and open-ended challenges requiring skill with technology and communication. The students who will thrive in this environment are those who have been educated in a discovery-rich environment.

We know that research is really about learning. It is this concept that rests at the heart of NSF's commitment to linking research and education. We have already established a number of programs that pursue this strategy at the faculty level and at the disciplinary level. To further it at the institutional level in academia, we are establishing an experimental activity, Recognition Awards for the Integration of Research and Education.

These awards are aimed at identifying and recognizing research intensive universities that have shown bold leadership and tangible accomplishment in capitalizing on the mutual benefits of research and education. Perhaps most important is that the identified institutions will have established an environment that values, encourages, and rewards faculty for both research and teaching. We also hope that the awards will give renewed vigor and prestige to a concept crucial to the development of America's future human capital, that of instilling in students the joy of learning so that they can continuously use this throughout their lives. Based on my time here, I would think that the University of Chicago has a strong record of success in this area.

Moving beyond the arena of the university to the realm of the larger scientific and engineering community, Neal Lane and I have recently talked about the current time as the cusp of a "new era of discovery." The possibilities in science and engineering seem both multitudinous and wondrous, not in just one discipline, but across all disciplines. Recent examples range from the discovery of the genetic switch for flowering in plants to the discovery of planets beyond our solar system. The promise of a new golden age is, however, heavily dependent on public support and the role of the science community beyond the university to generate that support.

One of the major reasons for the supremacy of American science over many decades has been the steady federal commitment to fund scientific research at our universities. The prominent and successful role that science played in World War II almost assured its generous support in the post-war period. That commitment remained unquestioned for the duration of the Cold War because science was viewed as the key to our national security and safety in a divided world. This was a shocking idea the first time I heard it. As many of us know, there were many civilian applications as a result of that research that proved to be of equal or even greater value than national defense. But we did not emphasize these civilian applications as an additional rationale for taxpayer support of research.

Federal funding for research followed this national enthusiasm for the important role of research and development for national security. The role of universities in the nation's research enterprise has grown more prominent even as national research funding expanded dramatically. Academia spent $100 million for basic research in the early 1950's, 25% of the national total, and accounted for close to $15 billion in the mid-1990's, or roughly half the nation's total. It has been in this position for more than two decades now.

The dramatic increase in research funding in the 1960's developed the research university as we know it today. An even larger increase was seen in the 1980's, though this increase was larger for defense-related research and was much more widely distributed than the earlier increase, expanding the ranks of research universities.

With the end of the Cold War in November of 1989, the rationale for assured funding for science was weakened. And the recent initiative to balance the budget over seven years has put all public money, including that for the support of research and development, under the microscope of value, contribution, and accountability. The effort to balance the budget is intimately tied to significant downsizing of the federal government and the diminished availability of federal funds, including funds for R&D. The multi-year budget authorized by the new majority in Congress would result in a one-third reduction in the federal R&D budget by 2002.

Recently, I heard some very smart people debunk as alarmist the idea that the projected one-third cut for federal science and technology will actually occur. I think that this is a risky form of denial that could prompt us to wait and see until the situation is not reversible.

For example, both the administration and Congress expect NSF to play our part in budget downsizing. With only 4% of our budget in administration--an extremely lean percent for both public and private grant making--any cuts we take are in the grants we make.

In the March 29 issue of Science magazine, an article by Andrew Lawler entitled "A Slippery Slope For Science," states, "...no matter what the outcome of the November elections, the longer term picture for most science and technology agencies is unambiguously ominous." For example, although NSF does not yet have a budget for 1996, the budget agreed on by Congress is significantly lower than the President's request and leaves us at roughly 1995 level, $3.2 billion, ignoring inflation. It has been similarly difficult to know the budgets of other agencies at this point; only NIH received a good increase and many agencies have incurred deep cuts leading to decisions to cut out major programmatic areas. For example, one area of science that appears to be at risk is oceanography, due to major reductions at NOAA and DOE. NSF has a mission to fund all fields of science, but with just over a $3 billion budget, we are unable to compensate for many of the reductions anticipated at other agencies.

The overall conclusion of Al Teich of AAAS is that the original budget cut estimates have not been achieved in 1996 because most federal agencies have not yet gotten 1996 budgets and have been spared with the more moderating effects of continuing budget resolutions. But all of the federal budget wonks believe firmly that R&D budgets will be reduced significantly in any balanced budget scenario.

Those of us in science know that the nation's investment in R&D pays a handsome return in social and economic value for the dollars invested, an annual return that ranges from 20 to 50% depending on its scope. In fact, when Joseph Stiglitz, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, released its R&D report some months ago, he explained that deficit reduction and balancing the budget were the means to an end goal of economic prosperity. However, he also said, "Cutting investments in R&D run counter to that end goal; without protecting key investments you may end up with a balanced budget but slower economic growth." It is the equivalent of trying to lose weight by decapitation.

Today, exercising fiscal responsibility while protecting investments that promise future growth and prosperity requires that we keep our heads, exercise wise judgment, and also reach a broad constituency. In the past, support for science was easily assured through the consensus of policy makers that science aided national security. But different times demand different kinds of accountability. The ballooning of the budget deficit in the 1980s along with the economic drain from interest on the federal debt have energized the electorate to demand greater accountability of all government investment, including science and technology. The public wants a leaner and keener, though not necessarily meaner, government. They are demanding smaller but better.

Continued support for science at any level will require public recognition that science yields valuable benefits. And if we share Joe Stiglitz's view that R&D investments yield economic growth, we must be even more persuasive. This new political and economic environment will require an extensive public and civic role for scientists in all sectors. Our community is needed to build the broad constituency for science among the taxpayers who ultimately pay for government supported research and development. We are needed, more than ever, to be visible and vocal in our communities. This will require our presence, as scientists, outside the walls of our laboratories, offices, and the gates of our universities to a much greater extent than ever before.

In Carl Sagan's new book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In the Dark, Sagan speaks of the dangerous discrepancy between a society based on science and technology and a public almost entirely ignorant of those same forces. 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 a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces..."

Although science and technology are the primary forces that undergird modern society, we will not easily be able to sustain their health and viability to toil on society's behalf if the citizenry cannot comprehend their value and contribution. In an atmosphere where, as Sagan says, "almost no one understands science and technology," you cannot expect people to measure the subtle and complex potential of R&D funding against other government expenditures with more direct tangible results. Under these circumstances, science and technology could lose out in the long run.

When it comes to science and technology, the American people could be their own worst enemy--a little like the old Pogo philosophy of "we have met the enemy and it is us." This in turn threatens the nation's sustainability in a science and technology powered world. Part of our task must be to prevent that from happening.

Unquestionably, this is new work and a new role for scientists and engineers. It may not be the kind of work we envisioned as we chose sophisticated technical careers, but it is not without challenge. At this point, you must be wondering what specifics I can provide to illuminate the "public or civic role for scientists."

I believe, for example, that it is important to go out into the community to talk about how everyday commodities or practices, such as the latest fat-free foods, CD players, laser surgery, or community policing are all the products of research. Such efforts are critical for public understanding.

But what do I mean by "going out into the community?" There are diverse opportunities to address groups that are integral to the community but not science oriented. The Rotary Club, the League of Women Voters, and the local PTA are just a few examples that come to mind. And why do I think that this should be the work of scientists and not politicians or publicists? Not an unreasonable question. I would argue that only scientists are the genuinely credible people to deliver the message and answer the questions. We are the only people able to explain the nature of research--how new findings can alter or reverse old beliefs, and how disciplines can cross and overlap to give us totally new perspectives. This is our business, and we can talk about it knowledgeably and with tremendous enthusiasm.

I understand that some of us may have neither the desire nor the will to take up such a "civic challenge." In fact we may rather convincingly argue that the very nature of the scientist is the antithesis of this public persona. I am reminded, however, of some sage advice by Alexis de Tocqueville, the astute chronicler of American democracy. He said, "We succeed in enterprises which demand the positive qualities we possess, but we excel in those which can also make use of our defects."

De Tocqueville leaves me little doubt that if we try, we will triumph. And likely, we will also find the experience personally rewarding. At the very least, providing encouragement and other kinds of support to your colleagues who do take on this noble challenge would be an important contribution in itself.

You might also argue that if the public had some interest in science they would make an effort to understand it. Well, there is an interesting, albeit troubling, discrepancy here. Many surveys, including ones conducted by NSF, indicate that the vast majority of the public believes that science is a net good. A large number are fascinated with science but only a small minority feel that they understand anything about science.

In fact, in a speech that Neal Lane gave recently at the annual AAAS meeting, he posed a question to the assembled science community. If the public loves science, and yet has very limited understanding of that same science, doesn't this say more about us than it does about them? I think the answer is probably yes. And so, as we anticipate the prospect of a new era of discovery, we must accept the fact that it likely hinges on the public's recognition of important societal value and contribution from science. And it will be primarily our task to educate the public to that debate.

It would also be a misjudgment for any of us to think that this "civic role" belongs primarily to one particular segment of the science community to the exclusion of others. In the current public/private R&D system, these distinctions are irrelevant. Over the last decade, the U.S. has struggled to put in place a diverse and comprehensive R&D enterprise that can contribute to our national goals in competitiveness, in health, in education, and in environmental protection.

This system is composed of universities and colleges across the nation, industry, small business, mission agencies, national labs, state economic development councils, and many public servants and private entrepreneurs. It is the wonderful synergy and interplay between and among these components of science, technology, and education that have enabled us to create a new and vibrant sociology for America's economy. Thus, it falls to all of us in science and technology to consider this civic role as our own.

As Neal Lane and I have traveled around the country delivering a similar message to various science and engineering groups, audiences have often agreed with the philosophy but seem perplexed about how to implement it. And yet our experience has been that there is at least one person in every audience who has already made a foray into the community. We have taken to collecting some of their examples to offer to other audiences.

Several weeks ago, Neal Lane spoke to a group of science faculty and administrators. Afterwards, a physicist came up to tell him of a series of local radio commentaries he had done on science and society over the last two years. Some topics were "Science for Society: the 1995 Nobel Prizes," "Exploring the Promise of Biomass Energy," and "The Crisis in Federal Support for Science."

Now I admit, not all of us want to do radio commentaries, but there are many ways to create the understanding and convey the value of science. Someone else mentioned teaching an adult education course on "science in your daily life." And there are already many examples of scientists working with teachers and students in public and private schools.

We had an E-mail message from a Professor of Biological Sciences who has had extensive experience working with the public on scientific issues. He offered to work with us at NSF to develop some programs involving interaction with the public on science issues. I should say that NSF has had a serious science outreach program for many years. Nevertheless, we are always interested in expanding the scope with new ideas.

I am not suggesting that we have received unanimous agreement on this issue. I am also not suggesting that all of us will do this with ease. When I was at the University of Minnesota, I had many opportunities to interact with the public and from that experience actually developed both some skill and ease at doing it.

Clearly, I consider this issue of communication with the public of utmost importance. And I have never imagined it as a one-way exercise. We will do as much learning as we will do teaching, and that is part of the opportunity here.

In closing, I want to share with you a recent comment on this issue by Dr. M.R.C. Greenwood, just named as Chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz. While at the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House, she stimulated the gathering of scientists from across the country that led to the President's science policy statement, Science in the National Interest. She said, "If we are going to have science in the national interest, we are going to have to have a national interest in science." She has surely said it more succinctly than I have. I hope you will give this message serious consideration and share it with your colleagues.

Thank you.

Return to list of Dr. Petersen's speeches.