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Photo of Dr. Subra Suresh

Dr. Subra Suresh
National Science Foundation

Keynote Address

Vision from the National Science Foundation

at the
National Academy of Sciences Symposium on
Science, Innovation, and Partnerships for Sustainability Solutions

Pew DC Conference Center
Washington, DC

May 16, 2012

Photo by Sandy Schaeffer

Thank you, Pam [Matson]. Good morning, everyone. I really appreciate the opportunity to be here. I also want to thank Pam for her leadership and efforts in working with the various people she mentioned in pulling this meeting together over a substantial period of time. I also would like to thank Ralph Cicerone for hosting this event at the National Academies.

As Pam mentioned, the population of the world is going to increase by another two billion people in the next few decades, and that's adding [the equivalent of] one extra China of today and one extra India of today to the population of the world. That represents approximately a third additional increase to the population of the world, whether we're talking about energy, sustainability, environmental sustainability, ocean acidification, rising sea levels, climate change, transportation, open infrastructure; it's really going to tax an already taxed system.

From a National Science Foundation perspective, as scientists, we can look at this as an in vivo experiment where the outcome is so critical to our survival, we cannot take chances. It's highly risky and the experiment is not very finely tuned, and we don't necessarily have well-established control conditions. So, how do we move forward under these circumstances? This is a great intellectual challenge, both for funding and for exciting young people. On top of that, educating young people about sustainability is going to be key, and that's another area where the National Science Foundation has a huge role to play.

Now, NSF, through collaboration with our sister agencies, many international partners, the National Academies, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy has been a key partner in a variety of activities. I'll just mention the three of them that have brought us together: First, the USGCRP [US Global Change Research Program], with the recent developments and announcements related to global change. Second, the Belmont Forum, where there's been significant international conversation and collaboration for co-funding to look at issues that will move us forward. And, third, the ICSU [International Council for Science] research alliance and Future Earth Initiative, and this is another area where a number of entities have come together to focus on the issue of sustainability. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the entire senior leadership team of NSF, all the assistant directors and all the directorates, and, especially, Dr. Tim Killeen who has taken a lead role through his leadership in geological sciences, which I would say has been somewhat at the epicenter of this activity within the National Science Foundation.

I want to talk briefly about a few of the initiatives that NSF has been embarking on for the past few years with renewed interest and with accelerating speed and momentum. Of course, perhaps the most visible, coherent, and transparent of these activities is the SEES initiative, Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability. Formally, it represents approximately $200 million of annual investment on the part of NSF. But, informally, it's significantly more than that, if you count the intellectual overlap and the intersection of various activities across the Foundation with the SEES initiative.

From the inside-NSF perspective, it also is enormously helpful in fostering something that I'm personally passionate about, what I call "OneNSF." And SEES is a very good example of OneNSF, an agency-wide activity where every Office and every Directorate at NSF collaborates in both education and research, in bringing together fundamental basic research. But it also looks at, as Pam mentioned, use-inspired research or Pasteur's Quadrant, with a clear focus on the very survival of the planet. And so, this is a great example of an activity from an internal perspective that moves us forward on a variety of fronts. I want to talk about a few examples of activities that intersect with the spirit of SEES that many of you may, or may not, know about.

As I mentioned, education is a very important component of SEES. Just to give you one quantitative example, NSF has 170 IGERT projects [Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Program]. These are for graduate education. We typically fund up to $3 million per IGERT over a course of five years. Forty percent of the current IGERT programs, 40 percent of 170 IGERT projects, currently have some significant SEES flavor. So, that gives you an example of the importance attached to the topic of sustainability in both science/engineering, and education within NSF.

Another program we launched just last year it has a long acronym, in the spirit of Washington. It's called INSPIRE [Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education]. Simply put, it's for interdisciplinary research, and, given that SEES very much is an example of a highly interdisciplinary activity, the idea of INSPIRE is to make sure that perhaps very high-risk but highly transformative ideas, even those coming from a single individual, don't fall through the traditional disciplinary cracks.

It will also mean within NSF, as we go through a rigorous merit review process, we have the mechanisms and the boldness to identify ideas that could be highly transformative, especially those ideas from people who don't have an established track record; this is difficult to do. In universities at least, when we evaluate people for tenure based on interdisciplinary work, we have six to seven years of data points to assess. But, with a proposal from a young person, we don't have the opportunity to do that. So, how does an agency like NSF attempt to examine how truly transformative research -- that could change the world -- could be identified and nurtured, especially research proposed by those without experience?

Another activity that has a huge impact from a nurturing-of-science point of view is a program called PIRE, Partnerships for International Research and Education. NSF, in partnership with a number of countries, will identify topical areas that could support collaborative research. And, "sustainability" is a theme identified for this year to promote that collaboration on an international scale.

Of course, we have the Arctic and Antarctic program in the Office of Polar Programs with a variety of experiments that have been underway, and I had the opportunity during the course of 2011 to visit both -- our facilities in Greenland and in McMurdo and the South Pole -- and these are activities where our commitment to large-scale infrastructure is very critical as we try to understand the [climate] changes that are taking place. In that regard, I want to mention that Dr. John Holdren and I, last year, set up a blue-ribbon panel for the U.S. Antarctica Program, headed by Norman Augustine. The panel has just about finished its work and will be releasing a formal report in July of this year, in a couple of months. That follows an NRC report that was just released on all the new scientific directions for the U.S. Antarctica Program.

In all of this, when we talk about sustainability, one of the things that we should not overlook is the intersection of social behavior and the economic sciences with natural sciences and engineering. Even though it periodically comes under attack, from different corners, NSF is in a unique position to integrate perspectives from those disciplines into the research that emerges from natural sciences. And that's an area where we continue to emphasize its importance. I want to give you one example of that, not necessarily from a viewpoint of the environment, but definitely with respect to climate. In the late 1980s, perhaps the first NSF Science and Technology Center (STC) was established in the state of Oklahoma to predict weather patterns and tornadoes. And that center, since its establishment in the succeeding 25 years, or so, has produced wonderful research, excellent software that's used all over the world, spun off companies, generated technologies that are used everywhere. Still, a few months ago, a number of people died from tornadoes in the state of Oklahoma. So, I was talking to the director of that center. I asked him, "With 25 years of NSF funding, why are people still dying from tornadoes?" and he responded that, "It's not our inability to predict occurrence of tornadoes. It's our inability to predict the response of people to warnings about tornadoes that's equally responsible for the mortality that arises from these." I think that's one compelling example of the intersection of social behavioral sciences and natural sciences and computational sciences.

There is one question we've been wrestling with, at least since I joined NSF, among my colleagues from different directorates. While NSF funds research in every area of science and engineering, and all of them are exciting, how do we capture that excitement in a few words and how do we articulate it so that it cuts across disciplinary boundaries, and how do we capture that excitement with a vision for the future? There are a number of ways in which we can look at it and there is no universal way or unique way to do this, but we have internally captured the excitement of at least the science NSF fosters in the following way. What is so exciting about science today -- science and engineering, basic research? There are at least two things that come to mind. So, internally, we prioritize these two things as possibly very exciting.

One is the "Era of Observation." We possess now an unprecedented sophistication, resolution and scope of scientific tools that, within the NSF-supported research context, can reach the outer edges of the universe. They can go three kilometers deep into the Antarctic continent. Or, at the other extreme of size, scale and force, our science tools can [explore] the nano, pico, and femto scales. And we cannot only, for example, look at the biology of a neuron in the human brain, but we can research the psychology of the human mind. That's exciting and it's not just experimental, it's equally computational and theoretical. And add to that the possibilities of individual citizens participating in science through portable devices, for example, using their iPads, which can generate a terabyte of data per day.

So, this exciting new Era of Observation, for which NSF is at the center of funding within the U.S. in the non-biomedical sciences, also is generating another new era, the "Era of Data and Information." This new era is challenging, at the same time: We have fact and fiction traveling [on the Internet] around the globe at the speed of light and unvetted, not peer reviewed. Thus, fact can become "fiction," but once fiction becomes "fact," it's very difficult to undo it. With this possibility, what kind of new science are we fostering?

I mention those two exciting new eras for the following reason. In the context of sustainability, we have recently spent considerable resources on investments, in my own personal opinion, for all the right reasons, to facilitate new data, not only to be generated, but to be made available openly to the scientific community. So, two examples of our current funding activities are NEON (the National Ecological Observatory Network) and OOI (the Ocean Observatory Initiative), where real-time data in very large quantities is becoming available. In the case of NEON, it is on the continental scale; in the case of OOI, it is on the scale of the east coast and west coast oceans. And this data is going to increasingly lead to new discoveries, even by people who are not in the original, traditional fields that would tap into this data, and that's the excitement of the interdisciplinarity of research. So, these are just two examples of data-driven and evidence-based understanding of the functional metabolism of planet Earth.

We also have other activities, like IRIS (Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology), which has more than 100 institutions in 80 countries, sharing real-time data through an activity that's sponsored by the National Science Foundation. And Dr. John Holdren, just about six weeks ago, organized an event at AAAS, announcing big data across federal agencies, and NSF was pleased to play a key role in this $200-million initiative. And from NSF's Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate to Earth Cube, which is a major collaboration between geological sciences and Office of Cyberinfrastructure at NSF, this activity will only continue to grow.

Now, research facilities are extremely important. So, the Antarctica program, the Polar Program, and the Arctic Program are very critical to provide real-time, evidence-based data for scientists from all over the globe to use. I already mentioned NEON and OOI. There are other facilities that will come into existence later this year. The NSF-sponsored building of the research ship Sikuliaq is on time and on-budget, and it'll be ready and launched on the 13th of October this year in Wisconsin. It will go to Alaska next year and will start research operations in 2014. Also, two days after that, the NCAR-Wyoming Supercomputer Center in the state of Wyoming will officially open, and I've never seen so much excitement from a state for an NSF-funded center. So, we very much look forward to participating in this.

I just want to mention a couple of quick things before I close. International collaboration in very strategic ways is extremely critical, because sustainability is not a regional effort. It's not a national effort. Changes in one part of the world will significantly affect the quality of life in a diametrically opposite part of the world. So, we're not isolated in our pursuit of sustainability. The efforts that NSF has taken, in addition to the ones that I already mentioned, include our launch last year of an activity with USAID called PEER, Partnership for Enhanced Engagement and Research. This is what I would call low-hanging fruit. USAID, as you know, funds research in developing countries and NSF -- by our mandate -- funds research by U.S. scientists. But in areas like sustainability, American scientists have to work with scientists from other parts of the world, especially in developing countries where they don't have the same scientific instrumentation or infrastructure that we have. Until last year, USAID, with its enormous resources, didn't have the same infrastructure for certain things that NSF has, and NSF doesn't have the same flexibility for certain things that USAID has. So, what we decided to do was to partner on the peer review process for the proposals. In fact, the National Academies are involved in this. And we will bring the scientists together from developing countries and the United States, and we will award grants from USAID to overseas scientists and from NSF to the U.S. researchers. So, from the time they receive the awards, they would already be seamlessly coordinated. Last year, we launched six programs with Rajiv Shah, USAID Administrator, and this year, there are more than 100 proposals, large numbers of awards that collectively will benefit from several hundred million dollars of joint research. This is another example of an activity where coordination is more important than new resources. Another example of an activity that was launched last year is called SAVI, Science Across Virtual Institutes, and we'll be announcing several new SAVIs, including in areas that will have a significant impact for the topic of sustainability.

Let me just close with an international activity highlighted in the last two days at NSF, the [launch of the Global Research Council]. Dr. Ralph Cicerone and Dr. John Holdren both participated. Because international coordination is so critical, we need to focus on key challenges that face the world with communities that have the resources to support these activities. So, why is it so important? If you look at the most recent data on global R&D funding, last year it was $1.3 trillion. Adjusted for purchasing-power-parity, one-third of that is in North America, mostly in the United States. There's a much smaller amount in Canada. Less than one-third is in the European Union. About a third, but a significantly growing amount, is in Asia. That's the first point. The second point: Last year, for the first time in the history of science funding, the ten Asian countries collectively invested the same amount in R&D as the United States did, according to the National Science Board's Science and Engineering Indicators, about $400 billion. And their investment is growing, compared to our investment.

The third point relates to future human capital development in science and engineering around the world. If you take the number of college freshmen in the three largest economies -- all the 50 states of the United States, all of the European Union, and all of Japan -- that sum equals the number of college freshmen last year in China alone. So, when you put all of that together, NSF, as a major science and engineering funding organization, cannot act in isolation. So, we organized, for the first time, the gathering, two days ago at NSF, of 47 heads of science and engineering funding agencies from 47 countries at NSF, and all of them accepted. One of them could not come because of a government restriction at the last minute, and all the rest came at their own expense. This shows an enormous interest on their part, and also, our collective sentiment was that the time for coordination is now. And, the time for action is now. One of the topics that came up repeatedly in the discussion, both formal and informal, was the topic of coordinating activities, whether you call it energy related, environment related, sustainability related, this is at the top of that list.

So, the next Global Research Council activity will take place in Berlin, jointly hosted by Brazil and Germany, and there are a number of countries that have offered to host them in the future. I see that as a potential vehicle for the international science funding community, beyond the United States and Europe, to come together in ways in which we have not done. With that, I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak here at this important event. Thank you.