Academic Engineering Research in a Changing World
Neal F. Lane
The Office of Science and Technology Policy convened a Forum on "Science in the National Interest: World Leadership in Basic Science, Mathematics, and Engineering," which was in Washington at the end of January. More than 200 scientists, engineers, educators, administrators, and science policy thinkers met at the National Academies in Washington and for two days discussed a broad range of issues facing the research community.
What I took away from the Forum was not a set of crisp insights into the optimal role of the federal government in supporting the research enterprise. That was not expected. Rather, I came away from the two days of discussions with an appreciation that there is a growing consensus on a number of issues, indeed challenges, that we in the research and education community must face. The public appears not to be convinced that incremental support for basic science, mathematics, and engineering should be a high priority in competition with programs that address immediate societal needs. Equally as important, however, is the consensus that we are doing many things well. So, when we look at ways that we might better respond to society's challenge, we must ensure that we protect and nurture the things that are working well.
Let me begin by noting some of the things we do well—and by "we" I am referring broadly to the science, mathematics, and engineering research and education community.
We do an exceptionally good job of educating graduate students to carry on the academic and other professional basic research tradition. We have an exemplary system of evaluating and funding quality research across
the range of research topics through merit review using peer evaluation. We have developed a number of ways to capitalize on the intersection of Interests of academic researchers, the industrial sector, and the national welfare.
These are some of the things, let's call them core values, we have developed over the years that must be preserved. One could sum them up by saying that our success in supporting research and graduate education reflects a commitment to excellence in the pursuit of new knowledge through exploration and discovery. Central to maintaining this commitment to excellence is our reliance on merit review and investigator initiated proposals. And as I said at the outset, excellence remains the key building block for the future, just as it has served the nation so well in the past.
Some would say that success on these criteria is more than sufficient. Or put in the words that are often invoked by those who would leave well enough alone. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
While I would not contend that the research enterprise is somehow "broke," if it were to break, the future of this nation would be at great risk. So I think it is time we engaged in some thoughtful reconsideration, perhaps some preventive maintenance, and a rethinking of our role as researchers and educators in the larger society. The world in which our research enterprise has been so successful has changed. The boundary conditions are different, and it would be folly to ignore that.
I say this for the same reasons that were expressed at the Forum—considerations that have been voiced by a growing number of observers (and participants) in recent years. Of course at the top of most people's list of world changes that would cause us to rethink our purpose is the end of the Cold War. This change in the basis for much of our foreign and domestic policy over the past 45 years has resulted in a shift in our national outlook.
By extension, it has resulted in a continuing redistribution of our research resources, and a reconsideration of national security as a key rationale for supporting research. Congressman George Brown summed this up at the Forum by saying: "We cut our teeth as scientists on national security. Our job here today [meaning at the Forum] is to refocus that lens on a vastly different era for science for America." Mr. Brown kindly did not observe that we scientists and engineers are now "longer in the tooth" and so is the nation. Things do change!
A second category of reasons to reconsider science and technology policy is related to the first. The issue has taken on much more urgency at a time of consistent federal budget deficits. The public and its representatives in Congress have asked: What are the guiding principles behind the myriad federally supported research efforts? And what are we getting for our investments?
For those of us who are immersed in research, the answers to such questions seem obvious—after all, look around—we are getting space-age materials, fiber optics communication, supercomputing, advanced electronics, biotechnology, and insight into the makeup of the universe and ourselves. We are getting information superhighways, new manufacturing technologies, and an understanding about global change, including the impact of human behavior on the environment.
To the research community, these answers seem so obvious that we sometimes have had trouble believing the questions are sincere. But the questions are being asked by serious people and in a serious tone, although perhaps in a somewhat more subtle manner.
Over the past year or so, questions about how priorities are set within the research community and by the various federal agencies have come from a number of quarters in Congress. Various members have stressed their desire to have a research enterprise that is more reflective of and responsive to national societal goals.
One visible response to the need for more focus in research policy is evident in congressional willingness to look with favor on such activities as the former Federal Coordinating Council on Science, Engineering, and Technology (FCCSET, for short), which has since been superseded by the President's National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). The FCCSET process identified a number of areas for improved coordination and increased R&D investment—advanced manufacturing technology, global climate change, science and mathematics education, high-performance computing and communication, biotechnology, and advanced materials processing.
Many in the research community have expressed concerns that too much emphasis in these areas, particularly by the National Science Foundation (NSF), might shift funds away from some important disciplines or skew the type of research that would be funded. Concerns expressed in Congress heightened the anxiety, and were viewed by some as a harbinger of change for NSF and its role in support of research.
At the Forum, Senator Mikulski, who chairs the VA-HUD-Independent Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, offered some clarification on the intent of her committee's report language. She emphasized that research in strategic areas is not meant to change NSF's role in supporting basic or fundamental research across the spectrum of science, mathematics, and engineering.
Rather, strategic areas provide a focus for the research and an impetus for viewing it in a larger perspective. This perspective includes the research community's obligation to consider its overall role in terms of how the fruits of research can be used to improve people's lives. Senator Rockefeller spoke at the Forum of the need to strengthen mechanisms for industry-university collaboration.
For the engineering research community, this is not much of a leap. At NSF we have a long history of successful university-based research centers pioneered by our Engineering Division. In the coming fiscal year we expect to have 22 Engineering Research Centers working with more than 600 industrial partners. Our Engineering Division has provided models for many successful partnerships between industry, universities, and the states, models that can lead the way for partnerships in other disciplines.
Although the "s" word as I call it, strategic, dominated many of our discussions, it was not the only item on the agenda, nor was it the only issue on which the participants felt they made progress.
Another important area of discussion was the development of human resources—particularly making the research enterprise more accessible and welcoming to women, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities. Many at the Forum noted that opening up the research arena is not a choice between excellence and diversity, but a recognition that true excellence cannot exist without diversity.
A related concern is in improving science, mathematics, technology, and engineering education. NSF has been a leader in seeking ways to broaden the base of students who are interested and engaged in science topics. It is widely recognized that in an increasingly complex world, every person will benefit from a better understanding of basic mathematics and science concepts as the complexity of jobs increases.
Within the engineering community, NSF has supported new ways to approach the engineering curriculum and to expand professional opportunities in ways that reflect the diversity of our country. Joe Bordogna and his colleagues in the engineering directorate at NSF have done an outstanding job in this regard. The Engineering Education and Centers Division has established four—soon to be eight—innovative Engineering Education Coalitions to look at new ways to structure the engineering curriculum. These projects provide a much more integrated vision of engineering education, a vision that reaches out beyond the traditional pool of candidates for engineering and technology education.
True progress will require a cultural change—a change that internalizes within the community a commitment to encouraging more women and underrepresented minorities to view engineering as an appropriate, even desirable, career choice.
We should also seek to provide broader education and training to talented people who pursue graduate education but do not seek to fill academic positions after graduation. Highly educated and qualified students should have a variety of options open to them upon completion of their degrees.
Yet unfortunately, graduate education in many fields of science and engineering is cause for great concern. There is a widely held view of our
Ph.D. programs that they produce graduates who are more and more highly qualified for fewer and fewer jobs. And yet the great paradox is that we can all point to distinguished programs and successful graduates who are productive, satisfied, and gainfully employed outside of academe. As a community, one of our greatest challenges is to make the path to these careers more obvious and valued by the graduate programs.
My summary of themes that I heard at the Forum is certainly not exhaustive. But I think it is representative of areas that will continue to be discussed, and more important, areas that will be reflected in congressional deliberations.
I want to turn now to the budget, which also gives us important signals about what the future holds for NSF and the research enterprise. I would like to discuss what it foretells for future budgets. I consider the budget that the President announced last week as a prototype for future budgets. It contains four dominant elements that I believe we can expect to recur in future budgets:
Relatively modest growth.
Rigorous priority setting.
A set of activities I call productivity investments, which are closely connected to the National Performance Review.
Strong emphasis on research and education activities in strategic areas.
First, the growth rate. The President considers the NSF budget as an investment in the future and has provided NSF with a rate of growth of 6 percent, which in this budget environment is an outstanding increase. And I must add that there is no guarantee that Congress will support even this modest increase, especially given the deep cuts in programs that are funded by the same committees as NSF. (Engineering, by the way, is budgeted for a 9 percent increase, but again, it is very early in the cycle.)
There is also no denying that this increase is less than what NSF has received in recent years. For the past decade, the President's proposals for NSF have generally provided increases on the order of 15 percent. Even though Congress did not always fully fund these increases, NSF's budgets often grew by a rate of 10 percent or more.
I do not think we can expect to see increases of that order anytime in the near future. There are no peace dividends or windfalls to draw from other parts of the government that Congress can tap to provide a substantial boost for science. Instead of doubling scenarios, staying a few steps ahead of inflation is now an optimistic outlook. Therefore, I believe that 6 percent is likely to represent the upper end of budget growth we can expect to see through the turn of the century—provided we continue to demonstrate that science is a particularly good investment.
The second element of this budget that I feel is prototypical of future budgets stems directly from this modest growth rate: the will to set clear priorities. Priority setting is nothing new in a budget. The inherent purpose of budgeting, after all, is to allocate resources between different priorities. In the 1995 budget, however, the priorities across NSF are much more distinct than in past years because the overall resource constraints are so much tighter. We will have to stop doing some things in order to do others.
The starkest example of this priority setting is the funding of the academic research infrastructure program. This program provides funds for the renovation of academic research facilities and for the purchase of large-scale instrumentation. It was funded at $100 million for fiscal year 1994, but the proposed level for 1995 is just over half that amount, $55 million.
Clearly, these investments in infrastructure are badly needed. Virtually every campus can document a real need for laboratory renovations or replacement and new equipment.
But given the tight budget constraints for 1995, we made a difficult decision. We concluded that our incremental dollars would go farthest and do the most for the nation by funding activities in our research and education programs.
I do want to add that the Fundamental Science Committee of the President's NSTC will be discussing academic infrastructure very soon. And I am hopeful that we can develop a government-wide response to our academic infrastructure requirements in the not too distant future. In my opinion, the problem is of such an immense scope that the only way to address it is through a response involving all of the agencies that support academic research. Furthermore, the academic research infrastructure should not be viewed in isolation from that of industrial or federal laboratories.
I turn now to the third prototypical feature of this budget—what I am calling productivity investments. These include an increased emphasis on assessment and evaluation and investments in new technologies to streamline communication and the processing of proposals. Much of the framework for these activities comes from the National Performance Review—the effort Vice President Gore is leading to reinvent government.
A first example of what we are doing in this area is a pilot project, actually a number of projects, in electronic information dissemination and proposal processing. We know that this project will eventually save trees. But we also have great expectations that it will lead to changes that will streamline many parts of the process and save your time and your university's administrative costs. These savings will also accrue to NSF, Congress, and the agencies we are cooperating with in developing these projects.
We also have initiated an important set of assessment and evaluation activities. If you have a chance to read or at least skim through our full budget justification, you'll see much more discussion devoted to how we measure
performance and track progress in key areas. On major construction projects we support, such as the LIGO [Laser Interferometry Gravitational Wave Observatory] project and the Gemini Telescopes, the budget now lists specific milestones for each year of construction through completion.
But I also want to make a point about what we are not planning to measure. I know that there has been a sizable amount of apprehension in the community about the recent emphasis on measurement and evaluation emanating from inside the Washington Beltway.
NSF will not be asking researchers to tell us on what day they plan to make a major discovery or when they will be 75 percent of the way toward that discovery or even if they will make an important discovery. No one has this in mind.
What we do have in mind is developing a common-sense approach to evaluation and performance measurement for the activities we support. I see it as being a process of experimentation—testing different ways of tracking progress, program accomplishments, and documenting results. Where these experiments work and add real value, we will incorporate them into our decision making and use them to set priorities. Where they don't work or create misguided incentives, we'll move on to other experiments.
But I hope all of us would agree that this process of experimentation is important and worthwhile. It will give us more evidence, and more convincing evidence, with which to document our contributions as researchers and educators. We are often criticized for relying too much on anecdotes to justify our worth. We need to approach the process of developing ways to gauge the value of our programs with the same rigor that we employ in our laboratories.
The fourth area that sets a prototype for future budgets is what I consider to be the dominant feature of this budget: support for research and education activities that address national priorities. As I said earlier, this issue was the focus of many discussions at the Forum.
In FY95, eight strategic areas receive a special focus in NSF's budget: high-performance computing and communications; global change research; advanced manufacturing technologies; science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education; biotechnology; advanced materials and processing; civil infrastructure systems; and environmental research.
These areas include the traditional FCCSET initiatives. For engineering, the focal points for research will be in civil infrastructure systems, advanced manufacturing technology, and Advanced Materials and Processing.
Our role begins, as I believe it must, with excellence and high standards. Through the use of investigator-initiated proposals and the merit review process, we adhere to the high standards for which NSF and the community it supports are known around the world.
Furthermore, in these priority areas, we take advantage of one of NSF's greatest strengths: its ability to foster connections of all kinds. Connections between research and education, between universities and industry, with other federal agencies, and across disciplines of science, mathematics, and engineering. These connections have proven beneficial to all participants, and to the progress of science, mathematics, and engineering as well.
Yet I am aware that NSF's focus on strategic areas is not warmly embraced by everyone. There is a sense that if NSF is supporting activities relevant to a national priority, then it is not being true to its core mission.
I understand such concerns, but I also believe they are overstated. I view this issue from a perspective of mutual benefits. We can identify many important, intellectually exciting areas of research that both advance the base of fundamental knowledge and are informed by needs in these priority areas.
I can think of many examples of research fitting this description. In my own field of atomic, molecular, and optical physics, there was never any question in my own mind or, I believe, in my colleagues' minds that much of our research was being supported because it fulfilled the mission of an agency, even though the work itself was entirely fundamental.
I want to close by noting the connection between the types of issues raised at the Forum and how these are reflected in the budget. It is difficult to know exactly how these two activities will play themselves out over the coming months. Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that they reflect a coalescence of opinion about post-Cold War priorities for science. We are developing a framework for setting priorities—a framework that continues to rely on the proven ability of the research community itself to submit for merit review its best ideas for discovery.
In the coming years the research community will be asked to focus its energies and its intellect more on areas of national interest. We will be asked to broaden our educational efforts and to seek better ways of increasing public awareness of the linkage between our work and national priorities. And we will be asked to provide clearer evaluations and a better accounting of the programs we undertake.
Challenges to the research community can be met in many ways. We can welcome the opportunity to make an even larger contribution in setting and responding to emerging national priorities, or we can seek to insulate ourselves from a world that is undergoing rapid and dramatic change. To me, the choice is clear. Our input is essential in identifying fields of inquiry where focused research will provide the basis for informed decisions, including those having to do with new technologies. I have every confidence that the research and education community will be invigorated by these challenges and will continue to seek a growing role in setting new priorities for the careful investments we must make to ensure the future strength of our nation and the well-being of its people.