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NSF Is Still Making Key Investments in Science and Technology

By Neal Lane

The topic of change and its relationship to our souls reminds me of a time in my cherished academic life when a colleague defended the budget for the physics department to the university provost. The provost sighed and said, "Why is it that you physicists always require so much expensive equipment? The math department requires nothing of me but money for paper, pencils and erasers. And the philosophy department is better still. It doesn't even ask for erasers."

For an instant, perhaps, my colleague might have wished he had been a stereotypical philosopher in that situation - assured of existence in that often intangible and unmeasurable environment. However, tangibility and accountability are now even more the order of the day in academe as well as government. The Government Performance Results Act (GPRA) is upon us. The U.S. Congress passed the Act, and President Clinton signed it into law, in 1993. It is designed to improve the operation of all government programs by establishing a system of program performance goals and a method to measure the results. Starting with FY 1999, all federal budgets will be performance based.

I doubt that any one of us disagrees with the statement that excellent research in science and engineering does benefit society in countless ways, making it one of the best investments taxpayers can make for the future of their country. Moreover, many researchers choose their fields and projects with societal benefits in mind, even if the research itself is quite fundamental and intellectually challenging. But, measuring those benefits, let alone predicting them rightfully, gives us pause. And, increasingly, that is what we are going to be asked to do in a balanced budget environment.

With that in mind, I'd like to talk about some of NSF's key investments in science and engineering for the coming year. Our FY98 budget request strongly reaffirms our commitment to academic research, and to linking the research process with teaching and learning. Our bottom line increases by 3 percent, to just under $3.4 billion. Most of our research budget focuses on core support of excellent research in all disciplines of science and engineering.

The NSF's request for the Physics Division for FY 1998 is $148.22 million, up from $138.72 million in FY 1997, which represents a 6.8 percent increase. Research project support constitutes roughly $104 million of this figure, with the remaining $44 million funding being put towards facilities both national and international in scope. I should also note that these numbers do not include construction for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), most of which did not come from the physics budget.

In addition to providing strong support for the core programs of each of the disciplines, we are focusing some of our budget on a few broad areas that the research community considers to have particular promise. One of these is Knowledge & Distributed Intelligence (KDI), a broad-based, multi-disciplinary effort to keep academic science and engineering at the leading edge of information technologies and to insure that the necessary research is supported to advance those technologies. It is perhaps the most encompassing venture NSF has ever pursued, cutting across all fields of science and engineering research and touching education at all levels. Clearly, it is relevant to the trends and technologies that are driving growth and opportunity in our economy and society, from networks to sensors to virtual reality systems.

KDI will support research to help make the next quantum leap forward in terms of both scientific progress and consequent economic and societal benefit. New approaches to computing, intelligent Web browsers, technologies for learning, and smart, efficient and reliable methods of handling huge amounts of data of all types are just a few of the advances and benefits that have deep roots in academic research across a wide range of fields and disciplines.

For FY98, we are seeking an increase of nearly $60 million for our portfolio of KDI activities. This will cover NSF's role in the Next Generation Internet, as well as a set of multidisciplinary activities such as learning and intelligent systems and knowledge-based networking. The research focus in these areas will include how to merge computation, data and representation for highly complex problems such as real time storm predictions and environmental modeling. More broadly, we'll be trying to determine ways to manage and make productive use of the flood of information released by emerging technologies.

An overarching theme for KDI and NSF's programming generally is our commitment to linking research with education. NSF is launching an experimental, $20 million activity to broaden graduate training known as the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training Program (IGERT). In our FY98 request, programs like Research Experiences for Undergraduates and Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry (GOALI) are all slated for major increases. All of these aim to make research and discovery an essential part of the learning process for both graduate students and undergraduates.

Instrumentation remains a high priority for NSF. In FY 1998 we are continuing our support for major research instrumentation, as well as providing on the order of $180 million for instruments and equipment through grants and other support mechanisms. In addition to LIGO, we have several major construction projects in the FY 98 request. Others, such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), are on the near horizon. One of the important framework elements of the discussion regarding the federal budget has been the Budget Agreement developed in May by the President and the Congress. This agreement laid out the blueprints for a plan to balance the budget by the year 2002. For all of us who care about research and education however, this long-sought agreement does not mean everything is fine and our work is done. Quite the contrary. Our voices will need to be heard more clearly than ever.

The focus of the Budget Agreement was on discretionary programs rather than entitlements to achieve the majority of the savings necessary to balance the budget. To some extent, this further shrinks the pool of money available for federal R&D, and it certainly increases the competition for ever-scarcer resources, especially among nondefense programs. Discretionary spending includes most of what we think of as "government": parks, prisons, highways, food safety, and many other functions, including NSF, NASA, EPA, and other nondefense R&D activities. Thirty years ago, non-defense discretionary spending activities accounted for nearly a quarter of all Federal spending. Today they constitute barely 1/6 of the total. Even more disconcerting is that this 1/6 of the pie will shrink to roughly 1/7 over the next five years, as entitlements grow by more than 20 percent. The implications for science and engineering should be of concern to all of us.

While the Budget Agreement does not translate immediately into reality, I do view its implications for federal R&D as one of a series of particularly significant "warning shots across the bow." I also view it as a cautionary signal which provides us some time and opportunity to communicate to Congress how vital this country's investment in science and engineering is to the nation's welfare.

You may have heard the story about how Albert Einstein's theories and investigations were an almost impenetrable mystery to his second wife, Elsa. "Couldn't you tell me a little about your work?" she complained one day. "People talk a lot about it, and I appear so stupid when I say I know nothing." Einstein thought for a minute or two, frowning deeply as he searched for a way to begin his explanation. Then his face cleared and he proclaimed, "If people ask, tell them you know all about it, but can't tell them, as it is a great secret!"

While we might appreciate Einstein's humor, the reality is, the general public believes that we scientists do want our work to be a great secret. Unfortunately, we have not done a very good job of sharing the excitement of new scientific knowledge or the adventurous nature of scientific discovery with the world at large. Yet it is the rest of society that supports the opportunity for us to pursue that satisfying work. I believe it must be our responsibility, in the role of "civic scientists," to provide them the opportunity to learn about that which is so satisfying to us as scientists, and so important to society's well-being.

The communication should not be a one-way process in which the scientists talk and teach and the public listens and learns. On the contrary, the research community has as much or more to learn from the public. How then does that happen? There is a social, political, and philosophical context in which all activity takes place in a society. This critical process of dialogue cannot be learned overnight when a new development emerges or when a crisis occurs. It must be firmly in place and functioning with trust on both sides.

NSF surveys show a strong public interest in science and appreciation of its value. Nevertheless, those same surveys indicate that the public has little confidence in its ability to understand that same science. This says more about the science community than it does about the public. Over the last 50 years, we scientists have been accustomed to working in the relative isolation of universities and laboratories, immersed in the autonomy of our own work. At the same time, the world outside has been increasingly defined in scientific and technological terms. Thus, the public does not have good grounding for most issues of science and society. And the science and engineering community does not have good grounding in dialogue with the public about either the science or its societal implications and concerns. We cannot afford for this situation to continue.

The point is not to know the difference between a quark and a lepton. Even Ph.D. scientists and engineers can not have thorough grounding in every field. What is needed is the ability to probe, to question, to grasp concepts, and to develop some confidence in the consensus that forms in the research community about a discovery or advance. The ability to grasp concepts, principles, and processes is a path to holistic comprehension.

We often find it hard to abandon even briefly the detail of our disciplined work. However, in order to bridge the gap between science and society, and between the scientist and the public, we will have to move to a different level of discourse. We can begin to depict our knowledge more in terms of the process by which we learn and discover: the demanding, testing, skeptical regimen of the scientific method. We can portray our work in the way that physicist and novelist C.P. Snow suggested when he said, "Science is the refusal to believe on the basis of hope." Our challenge is to learn that the detail and obscure terminology of our fields is not the path to public understanding of our work. We need to incorporate analogy and metaphor as tools for helping others to understand.

Scientists are powerful players in contemporary society but we are discovering that the exercise of that power to do research and create new abilities from new knowledge carries with it responsibilities beyond our laboratories. We must help the public understand the nature and the value of science. Whatever our national languages, we must speak in ways the general public can understand. We must listen and learn from the society at large in order to be better researchers, teachers, and communicators.

Neal Lane is director of the National Science Foundation. This article was adapted from a lecture delivered at the annual meeting of the Fermilab Users Group on 14 July 1997.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin