New NSF Director Speaks at AAAS Forum
Dr. Arden L. Bement Jr.
The following is the text of a speech Dr. Arden L. Bement Jr., director of the
National Science Foundation,
gave 21 April 2005 at the 30th Annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy in Washington, D.C.
Greetings to everyone. I want to thank AAAS for the opportunity to make some remarks at today's luncheon. This annual gathering of scientists and policy people is appropriate. I'm reminded of a story that Margaret Thatcher tells in her memoirs.
When Gladstone, the quintessential politician, met Michael Faraday, he asked him whether his work on electricity would be of any use. "Yes, sir," remarked Faraday with prescience, "One day you will tax it" (Margaret Thatcher, The Path to Power, Harper Collins, 1995, p176).
Some of you may know me from previous incarnations but I am here today as the new Director of NSF. Despite that I am an old hand at government, most recently as the Director of NIST. In some sense I am also an old hand at NSF, having served on the National Science Board and as acting Director throughout most of 2004.
I have nevertheless discovered that NSF is different when you daily reside in the building and preside over both momentary and momentous decisions. As a Board member, I visited NSF at regular board meeting intervals and kept abreast from a distance. As the Director, I am experiencing for the first time the pulse and dynamism of the building and its countless connections to the science and engineering community.
This has prompted me to think hard about the mission of the Foundation, and my vision for its direction. Today, I'd like to give you a window on the process of my thinking, not as a prescription but rather a preview, with instincts and musings. These few minutes are not time enough to articulate an entire new vision but just time enough for a sketch.
Let me begin with the larger context in which NSF resides, the Federal government. Numerous federal agencies have prescribed territorial mandates in everything from agriculture, to space, health, energy, education, and beyond. These are subject or area-specific responsibilities. NSF, on the other hand, has a comprehensive, over-arching mandate and horizon.
We are a very small agency with an "endless" mission. I have chosen the word endless deliberately.
Part of our job is to keep all the fields and disciplines of science and engineering research healthy and strong. But strong is not enough because the flip side of what we know in science and engineering is everything we don't know.
Vannevar Bush glimpsed that when he chose his title, Science: The Endless Frontier. As most of you know, Vannevar Bush's work was the blueprint for the creation of NSF.
So NSF is unique in its initial orientation, to stay at the frontier. It is important to distinguish what the frontier is and what it is not. The frontier is risky, so if it's "safe science," NSF should not fund it. The frontier is murky and without definition, so if there are no big unanswered questions in a proposal, NSF should pass it up.
In addition, NSF faces a dilemma, perhaps uncommon to other agencies. As an institution, we are perceived to be able to do everything create digital libraries, solve competitiveness problems, provide infrastructure, support innovation, build centers, improve K-12 math and science education, help develop the science and engineering workforce, and much more.
I believe that above all, NSF must generate ideas, mark out the creative path, or solve a fundamental research question. If we wind up enmeshed in the nuts and bolts of these activities, then we've strayed from our purpose.
Our primary task must be to tenaciously dog the frontier. The frontier is our bull's eye. We can't dally in the outer circles; we have to stick to the very heart of the matter.
Let me describe this in another way. Industry has short-term research goals. Increasingly, other Federal agencies are also adopting shorter-term perspectives to meet new national needs.
That is appropriate. But if we, at NSF, stop short in our pursuit of high-risk endeavors, it seems to me that we leave an absolute vacuum. In a science and technology-based world, to divert our focus from the frontier is to put the nation at peril.
Now, you will ask, what defines the frontier besides risky and murky? We have, in my opinion, a highly successful potpourri process that defines the frontier. NSF is not the first mover in identifying a new piece of the frontier. To my mind, that would be top-down and inappropriate, even wrong. I trust our built-in institutional mechanisms acute listening devices.
This is not telepathy but rather a constant, close relationship with the community we serve, the academic science and engineering research community. We have an ear to the ground and can pick up the faintest signal a new word, a different kind of question.
This is an immediate signal to be alert for something new buzzing in the community. The noise begins to escalate. This is when NSF must become proactive. This is when we are likely to hold a workshop to gather ideas and opinions from the community. I think we should increase the number of workshops, both nationally and internationally, to pick up news and to get news back to the community.
I also favor the system of rotators to pick up the latest ideas and bring fresh thinking into our own space. One-third of NSF's staff of 1,300 is made up of researchers "on loan" who rotate in from the universities for one or two years to serve as program officers. This mechanism insures a healthy infusion of fresh and current perspectives. It also helps us identify programs which should be phased out in order to move available resources back to the frontier.
We also cull far-reaching ideas from the many unsolicited proposals we receive. All of these mechanisms keep us from becoming institutionalized, rigid in our thinking and process.
That is a danger for any bureaucracy; for NSF, it would be all the more damaging because part of the Foundation's half-century of success is attributable to our agility.
I want to insure a perpetual dynamism in the building and in all of our connections. Our most critical connection, of course, is to the pulse of the community. If we lose connection to what is humming about the "great beyond" then we've essentially dropped the ball.
It is absolutely essential for us to protect that focus as the world becomes more complex with many more layers of distraction and expectations.
NSF views all of its connections as partnerships. Most are not formal partnerships, but I am firm that all must operate under the same principle everyone in the partnership is both a teacher and a learner. You have to have something to offer and you should have something new to take away. I plan to put strong emphasis on collaborations because there is a global tail wind pushing in that direction.
I believe that the Foundation has a critical role to play in our nation's position and responsibility in the global arena. I view this as both a challenge and a commitment and take it very seriously.
It is not news that other nations have learned to do what we can do. Some are even eclipsing us in targeted R&D investments in such fields as nanotechnology, biotechnology, broad-band communications, and computer science and engineering.
To give you an idea of how fast science and engineering are moving, five years ago nanotechnology could be considered the frontier. Today, several nations have advanced programs in nano. This is not to suggest that nanotechnology has matured, just the opposite.
Its potential will be realized in the coming decade and beyond. Its impact on society will be pervasive. However, it does mean that the frontier has already moved substantially forward.
For NSF, the searching and scanning for the next revolution is ongoing. The term quantum computing has already entered the lexicon of exploration and discovery.
The chatter from the university community e-mail will bring more new ideas. One or more of those ideas will define the next revolution. Given the pace and progress of research aided by increasingly sophisticated tools, it won't be long.
The challenge for the U.S. is always to make the gigantic leap beyond where other nations are looking. That will become increasingly difficult with the prospect of nations like China and India building powerful economic momentum through a burgeoning science and engineering workforce and strong research capacity.
This is a high-powered, high-stakes endeavor that will be determined by several factors, not the least of which will be securing ample resources on our part.
The key economic factor in this 21st century is new knowledge. I see new knowledge comprised of three components: education, new scientific discoveries, and cyberinfrastructure to translate new data into new information and knowledge.
Fundamental research now represents the hidden capital that not only drives our economy but economies throughout the world. Economic success will depend not only on the rate of discovery, but also in reducing the lead time to convert new concepts into useful applications.
Our aim at NSF will be to foster the nation's science and engineering strength to power our economic and social future.
This will continually refresh our science and engineering capital. I am aware that our prosperity and success as a nation rely importantly on how much we understand about human and social dynamics how people learn, why some institutions succeed and others fail, how to prevent poverty and reduce crime.
This is why NSF has aggressively pursued frontier research in these areas. However, these are also universal issues, not specific to one nation or culture.
A nation's greatness is not defined by its military prowess and economic strength alone. There are pressing needs and issues: global water needs, predicting climate change, finding alternative energy sources, protecting ocean resources, reducing hazards from natural disasters, fighting disease, and of course, securing the nation.
Some of the most noble aspirations and goals may not be quantifiable, but a great nation is also measured by its sense of justice, its benevolence toward those less fortunate, its passion to understand our living environment and the cosmos, its respect for others, and its appreciation for their differences.
Science and engineering continue to be important vehicles for solving problems and improving the lot of humankind.
I am committed to a science and engineering that not only unlocks the mysteries of the universe but that addresses the problems of humanity and the planet it shares. These guiding principles will define the new frontier.