Neal Lane, Director
THE FUTURE OF THE NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Let me first commend Frank Rhodes for convening an extraordinary meeting, Charlie Hess and his colleagues for organizing it and chancellor Vanderhoef for his hospitality. I also thank the University of California-Davis for making it go well. The stimulating, often provocative ideas presented by so many distinguished and thoughtful speakers have created an atmosphere filled with potential and possibility for the future, and no small amount of challenge.
I have heard it said, "Daring ideas are like chessmen; they may be beaten but they may start a winning game." From yet another perspective, according to that "noble philosopher" Pogo, the time is one of "insurmountable opportunity."
I must say that being the last speaker after such an array of stellar presentations is quite intimidating, to say nothing of the fact that there is little left to say. However, I recall the words of a famous observer of academics who said, "to a true academic a parcel of time is like a golden goblet, not to be drank from, but to be filled." So, in that spirit I will carry on. I note from the agenda that I am to address "The Future of NSF." Although this is a subject which my colleagues and I tackle in one way or another every day, I am pleased with the opportunity to address more comprehensively the future direction of the Foundation.
Nobody knows better than the Board, the fundamental wisdom and vision contained in NSF’s Strategic Plan and its core strategies. It speaks of "developing intellectual capital"--people and ideas, mentoring; "integrating research and education," and "promoting partnerships"--forming linkages, making connections; and "strengthening the physical infrastructure," which is the instrumentation and facilities the researchers need. The Strategic Plan, which the Board helped develop, serves and will continue to serve as the backbone of the Foundation’s philosophy and direction. You will be able to see the core values, goals, and strategies embedded in my remarks today.
My remarks will also echo several points I have made in talks around the country and in Washington over the past several months. First, I think we must begin with the most fundamental reality. The National Science Foundation, like many other agencies and institutions, is an integral part of our national government. To remind myself of the primary purpose of our government, I went back to our earliest history, to the Preamble to the Constitution. Among other things we are responsible for promoting the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and to future generations.
Let me now fast-forward one-hundred and seventy years to the National Science Foundation Organic Act in 1950. As the then-newest member of the Federal family, the government established us, "To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense; and for other purposes." That is surely a broad and grandiloquent mandate that echoes the sentiment expressed at the founding of our .
How have we fulfilled this mandate? This is a question people have asked many times in the past 45 years. In 1965, in our 15th year of existence, the House Science and Astronautics Committee, now the Committee on Science, conducted an extensive series of hearings on NSF and found that we were neither as broad nor as active as they believed we should be. The opposites of broad and active are narrow and passive and that was, at least in part, the Committee’s criticism.
Before I go any further, let me be clear that in mentioning a 30-year-old report my purpose is to raise the level of our individual and collective insight and reflection, not to criticize NSF today or in the past. The report, however, identified the questions and issues which deserve continual examination. Most of them appear in one form or another regularly in our discussions.
The 1965 report emphatically suggested a much stronger, more proactive role for the Foundation and the Board, in particular in framing national science policy. Under the topic of issues requiring further scrutiny, the report named the proper balance in the Foundation’s support of education and teaching, as opposed to its support of research. It finally stated, "Once granted its annual budget, NSF has to a large extent followed a practice of waiting for talented outsiders to suggest appropriate projects on which to spend it." The report shows us a trace of déjà vu.
Replying to those criticisms today, we can say that the territory of national science policy grows larger as the extent and pervasiveness of science and technology in society increases. We are still grappling with research and teaching, now under the rubric of the "integration of research and education," insuring that student learning benefits from the culture of research. We have, however, made significant progress both in raising awareness in the university community on this issue and in developing NSF programs which encourage faculty to think more in these terms. We are, I am sure you would agree, a long way from passivity today. Quite the contrary. In my opinion, the Foundation and the Board are called upon to be even more proactive in their leadership. We heard similar views in yesterday’s talks.
Let me elaborate a bit. The NSF is the only Federal institution whose mission is solely to support research and education in essentially all fields of science and fundamental engineering. The welfare and progress of the Nation are our reasons for being and for having a $3.2 billion budget to invest. The Nation’s populace is our constituency. The larger science and engineering research community, primarily in the nation’s universities and colleges, is the means by which we accomplish our mission.
Now some in our community might argue with that conception. They might, in fact, see the academic research community as NSF’s constituency. If this were the case, then our mission and final goal would be only to insure the welfare and progress of academic researchers, confident that their brilliance and hard work would take care of the needs of the Nation. Without a doubt, we cannot improve the quality of life for Americans without a viable, well-supported research and education community to create its spectacular work to that end. If we understand our larger goal as national well-being, then we should come to the conclusion that part of our responsibility is to help lead that community of researchers and educators in the most beneficial directions for itself and for the Nation.
I do not mean that we should in any way dictate the following: how universities are run; how science departments should operate; what the curriculum should be; how research should be conducted; or any other such dogmatism. Rather, we as the Federal institution mandated to promote the progress of science across all fields and advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare, should accept that action agenda as a major mandate for genuine leadership.
All well and good for such a bold pronouncement, but how do we proceed? Leadership is not doing everything, or even most things, ourselves, but rather inspiring and motivating others in appropriate directions. Leadership is articulating perspectives that the status quo often masks. Leadership is initiating dialogues on topics that are necessary to address but usually avoided at the risk of breaking ranks. It is informing the science community about shifts in public perception and attitude which will affect their work. It is creating programs at NSF which will move the direction of science and technology toward outcomes which may not occur without incentives and new criteria. Most assuredly, leadership is rooted in core values, holding to the highest standards in the review and support of people and their ideas. However, leadership is also about change, pushing the frontiers in many directions, trying new approaches, nudging the system, and taking some risks. Most importantly, leadership on the part of NSF does not mean top-down dictates from government to community, but well designed and articulated policies and programs which develop from ongoing dialogues. This last one is not always easy. First, the entire science and engineering community does not vote on everything. Even if they did, everyone would not agree. Somebody will always perceive any change as "top down." In addition, NSF is part of government. Its status as an "independent agency" does not mean it can simply ignore the priorities of an Administration or Congress. The Foundation will always be challenged to deal with this reality.
We are continuing to do our work with all these challenges in mind. There is no question that our CAREER1 and GOALI2 programs are important incentives for the science and engineering community to move out into new territory. The various systemic reform initiatives are innovative approaches to improve science and math education. The new post-doctoral fellowships are designed to get scientists engaged in K-12 education, perhaps the single most important problem in America today.
The proposed awards to universities which show creative approaches to the integration of research and education are yet another significant leader. Through these awards we hope to help identify several models that colleges and universities may choose to emulate by highlighting the successes of some path breaking institutions. We hope to use this information to determine what might be the next phase of leadership in the "integration of research and education."
Although these are definitive current examples, there are so many earlier examples that we now think of as part of the Foundation’s "old order" but were, and still are, path breaking. These include all of our centers programs: engineering research centers, science and technology centers, and materials research centers. These are just a few examples of collective activities where multidisciplinary research is the norm, team efforts are encouraged and industrial partnerships are substantial. They also include EPSCOR which is a successful example of partnerships between the Federal government, states and universities, and a host of others. The significant point, however, is that in terms of NSF’s leadership, all of these examples should be thought of as markers along a continuum, evidence that NSF has continued to evolve in response to change and must actively move forward with confidence.
In every case where NSF has nudged the system to change, there has been resistance--inside as well as outside of NSF. Previous directors can show you their scars. We simply have to accept that as a part of progress. Our goals at NSF must always be to: innovate; demonstrate; evaluate; embrace the successful, and conversely, to abandon, without remorse, even the most precious ideas, projects, programs, and facilities if they appear counterproductive or simply less productive than other approaches. This has never been easy. It will be even harder now into the future.
Before going any further, I think it is important to comment on the role the Board has continued to play in all of this. The Foundation and its National Science Board are a major reason--many will argue the major reason--why science and engineering have flourished in America for almost five decades. The role and value of the Board has not always been well understood or appreciated by everyone; indeed that is probably still the case. It is my view that the Board’s role will be critically important both to NSF’s future, as the Foundation meets increasing expectations in a rapidly changing world and a constrained budget environment, and to U.S. science and technology. In the past, the Board has helped shape the national agenda, for example, with its reports on education. The challenge is greater now--it is the whole U.S. science and technology, research and education enterprise which needs attention. I believe the need is urgent! We heard that message yesterday from Erich Bloch.
Why do I believe that the road ahead is even more challenging than it has been in the past? Despite the extraordinary things we are doing in science and technology today, we are, at the same time, experiencing increasing societal disparities and worsening problems. This is true as a Nation, and it is true of a world filled with political strife, an expanding population, and finite natural resources. This is not a trifling observation, rather it notes a serious disconnection which will test society, science and technology in entirely new ways. The science and engineering community will not be able to avoid being intimately involved in society’s efforts to deal with its most vexing problems. If it tries to avoid that involvement, it will pay a price in terms of decreasing public understanding, appreciation, and support.
There are several reasons for a disconnection between scientists and engineers doing path breaking research, and the growing societal problems that the Nation is experiencing. I think they would include the way that we educate our scientists and engineers and, conversely, the way we educate everyone else. We do ourselves a national disservice when we train scientists and engineers only in science and technology. I do not mean that chemistry and electrical engineering students do not take courses in the arts, social sciences, and humanities--although often they find ways to avoid much serious study in this realm. What is really missing is any synthesis or integration among these fields. The science and engineering courses spend little time on historical or social context and the humanities courses are entirely devoid of science and technology. What is true with courses is even more true in research.
And yet, the world in which the work of scientists and engineers bears fruit is a world of integration and overlapping consequences. It is a world in which we may find the nonscientific, social, and ethical questions more difficult to grapple with than the scientific ones. If the mandate for NSF is not only to promote the progress of science but to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare, then we, who are the Foundation, ought to be leaders in helping to bridge the chasm of great science and even greater societal problems.
Some would suggest that this is not our role or responsibility. I would say that if our only constituency were the science and engineering academic community and our only concern knowledge for its own sake, that might be the case. As I said earlier, America and its populace are our constituency. And the major problems facing our society, and the global society, are, for the most part, human problems. Because we live first and foremost in a human society, our most pervasive influence is always the human reaction to circumstances--in economic systems, in Nation states, or as individual family members.
Science and engineering are frequently taught in a vacuum. Yet society expects these powerful forces to address the larger context of humanity and its great unsolved problems. How can we expect scientists and engineers to play this more comprehensive role if we do not educate them for this awareness?
What then am I suggesting? For starters, graduate and undergraduate education in science and engineering need to reflect this larger human context in which science and technology have such strong influence. A degree in science or engineering ought to reflect more than knowledge of experimental instrumentation, computers, data banks and lab procedures, and presentations in prestigious meetings and journals. The sophisticated knowledge and understanding in which all of us delight is necessary, but it is not sufficient.
A broadened educational context could also provide more expansive perspectives with which to pursue the numerous career options which exist beyond academia and research labs for those with a graduate degree in science and engineering. We must actively encourage such a direction. Lest you think that my point is that only scientists and engineers are narrowly educated, let me dispel that notion. In a world that is propelled by the forces of science and technology, the education of most non-scientists is almost completely devoid of any understanding of science and technology, and the nature of research. We cannot expect to have a meaningful dialogue which bridges this chasm if we do not, in addition, concern ourselves that non-scientists must also be more broadly educated.
Now, since I said earlier that NSF leadership does not mean telling universities what to teach, and science departments how to operate, am I speaking in contradiction? No! First, NSF can initiate productive dialogues on these issues without taking dogmatic positions. We can encourage universities which are exploring new directions by establishing experimental programs. We can influence the mindset of a new generation of scientists and engineers by revising the criteria for grants such as CAREER and GOALI and thus rewarding an expanded field of training and engagement. We can influence undergraduate education in similar ways, for example by expanding our undergraduate research programs. A second reason is that the views I have expressed are not NSF-centric or government-centric, they are held by many in the academic community.
We must also look hard at a changing research agenda, which should interact strongly with the educational one I have just discussed. Here, I believe, we can make more rapid progress. The Foundation should explore new ways to engage many of the nation’s brightest scientists and engineers--and their students--in research, as well as related educational activities which deal with the most daunting of societal problems. The NSF can encourage these improvements by promoting more partnerships with universities and colleges, with industry, and perhaps increasingly with states and cities.
Our decision, together, to support the proposal for a consortium on violence research is an excellent example. We must be open to others. This does not--at least should not--imply anything approaching an abrupt or wholesale shift of the research community’s efforts or NSF’s programs. We must continue to support world-class programs in biology, astronomy, electrical engineering, chemistry, economics, geology, physics and so forth. Indeed, these should be the bulk of our programs. The frontiers are advancing rapidly in essentially all fields, and in all fields, the U.S. must be a leader. However, it does mean real change--initially at the margin--in the research culture and in the visible impact of the results of research on people’s lives in ways they recognize and value. We will no longer be able to get by with the excuse, "These problems are too hard!" Nor can we afford to over promise the outcome.
Some will view all this as interference with the status quo--so be it. Some may say that if we deviate at all from the traditions of disciplinary based research, we will endanger the future health of science and engineering. I believe the opposite is true. We are talking about some of the most intelligent, dedicated and able people in the world. If motivated and supported, they will do extraordinary things, as the past has clearly demonstrated.
In closing, let me briefly touch on one more area. As has been debated many times and discussed at this meeting, the Foundation and the Board should be a principal partner in helping to frame national science policy.
Earlier this year when we had the first glimpses of the new Congressional cuts for Federal R&D, the Board spoke out strongly in defense of the whole R&D enterprise as an integrated system. We had both a responsibility and a perspective to influence the debate. But, we cannot, at least should not, let up. The projected budget reductions in civilian R&D, I believe, pose serious threats to the U.S. science and technology enterprise. But the nature of these threats has not been as well articulated as it could be, and the general public is unaware that there is a problem. The National Science Board continues to play an important role, perhaps an increasingly important one, in developing the arguments and informing the public in understandable words and concepts. I strongly encourage the Board to be more proactive, helping the public and their elected representatives to better understand science and technology and, perhaps, helping our researchers and educators to better understand the public. In Erich Bloch’s words, "If we are going to have science in the national interest, we are going to have to have a national interest in science!"
In the end, this effort will require a much more involved and visible science and technology community to be successful. In short, it will require a new kind of civic leadership on the part of researchers and educators, a message Anne Peterson and I are attempting to convey to our colleagues around the country. We continue to get many responses about the concept of a civic scientist. I believe we are being heard. Some even agree. But very few know where to start, and they need help.
I have said on several occasions that we are in the midst of a golden age of discovery and perhaps on the threshold of an even greater one. Along with great discoveries, however, comes the hard reality of a smaller Federal government, and the public expectation of doing more with less.
In times of Federal belt tightening and transition, NSF has an important leadership role to: protect America’s investment in its future; set priorities; keep standards high; help create a future golden age of science and technology; and more importantly, ensure that all the benefits flow to society. This will require the courage and determination of the Board and the entire Foundation staff as we work together on this difficult task. I want to take this opportunity to compliment the Board and my NSF colleagues--these very tough times could pull us apart--I am so impressed that we are working as a team. Thank you all for that.
Let me add a post script. There is some risk in taking a more active stance. Some will advise us to hunker down and try to hold onto what we have and maintain as much status quo as we can protect. I take the opposite view. We owe it to the people who pay for the science, as well as those who perform it, to be a bit bold at this critical time. My colleagues on the NSF staff and I look forward to working with the Board as we step up to that challenge.
Borrowing from a poster Frank Rhodes saw in a Wisconsin school, perhaps we should put up a big sign on the NSF building that reads: "This building is a magic place. We are making tomorrow."
2Grant Opportunities for Academia Linking with Industry