Remarks made before the 14th Canadian Symposium on Theoretical Chemistry, Ottawa, Canada

Remarks made before the 14th Canadian Symposium on Theoretical Chemistry, Ottawa, Canada
on August 7, 2001

Richard N. Zare
Department of Chemistry
Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305-5080 USA

Professor Jim Wright, Carleton University, asked me to speak to you about “Views on Future Developments in Science.” Clearly we are on the edge of phenomenal discoveries and radically new technologies in many scientific fields. If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that some of the most important discoveries to be made are beyond our imagination.  I accept that fact. Therefore, I will not attempt to describe the unimaginable to you.  Instead, I have set myself a much more humble but hopefully do-able task.   I want to share with you a perspective on government science policy honed by six years of service on the US National Science Board, the last two years as its chair. I was appointed by President Bush in 1992 and served from 1994 to 1998 under President Clinton.  This period of service has given me the rare chance to see both political parties in action, and I can assert with confidence that the best science policy is a bipartisan one; otherwise, you have a roll coaster, and science needs stable, long-term support for it to succeed.

 I’d like to put this service to the National Science Foundation and the National Science Board in context. The year 2000 marked the 50th anniversary of the National Science Foundation and National Science Board.  These two organizations serve a unique role in the US Federal government. By Act of Congress in 1950, the Foundation is responsible for funding nonmedical research in all the basic sciences, engineering, mathematics, and technology.  The Board serves as the governing board of the Foundation and oversees its programs and operations.  The Board is also charged to advise the President and the Congress on national science policy, either upon request or on the Board’s own initiative. Before spending time in Washington, DC, I had a fairly optimistic view of what government could accomplish.  Since that time, I admit that my views have become, well, more tempered – some might say jaded!   Let me begin with a parable, which I think applies to many government programs, at least in the US:

The traditional wisdom of the Dakota people holds that, “When you discover that the horse you are riding is dead, the best strategy is to dismount.”  In government circles, however, various alternative strategies are likely to be recommended, If not implemented first.  My top-ten list is:

  1. Try a stronger whip and sharper spurs.
  2. Hire a consultant to assess the horse’s rideability.
  3. Threaten to slow or stop the horse’s career promotion or funding.
  4. Appoint a committee to study the horse.
  5. Visit other countries to determine how others ride dead horses.
  6. Reclassify the horse as “living impaired” and point to how dead horses add to organizational diversity.
  7. Harness several dead horses together to determine if that will increase horse productivity.
  8. Provide additional funding for training to improve the horse’s performance.
  9. Do a productivity study that will examine the proposition that lighter riders would improve the horse’s performance.
  10. Conclude that as dead horses need not be fed, they are less costly, do not displace other members of the labor force, and have lower overhead; thus, dead horses make a stronger economic contribution than do live horses.

I would like to take this special opportunity to suggest how I think NSF could better support US science, provided that the Administration and Congress were willing.  I know that this topic sounds provincial for an international conference but I am hoping that these remarks might be useful to those who worry about science policy — in other countries as well as my own.

Let me stress two important objectives that I believe the present members of the National Science Board fully endorse. They are:

  • First, strengthening the core disciplines;
  • Second, starting new initiatives important for the future;

First, the core disciplines.  The Foundation invests in America’s future by nurturing the health of all the basic sciences and engineering.

This year NSF is looking specifically at the size and duration of stipends in the core disciplines, a key element to attracting and keeping the brightest students in scientific fields. Whether this strategy is the best one is unclear, but it does show NSF’s commitment to basic research.

In any case, the National Science Board believes that larger Federal investments in basic research are essential, and the National Science Board has made and will continue to make that case to policy makers.  Evidence shows that long-term, high-risk investments in basic research can have high payoffs.  After the phenomenal economic expansion of the 1990s based on the infusion of information technology throughout the economy, the public is increasingly aware that innovations emerge¾often unpredictably¾from investments in science and technology.

They have seen that benefits accrue to the entire society, not just to a few industries or entrepreneurs.  Still, I confess to being extremely worried about how to strengthen the core disciplines.  Today, interdisciplinary projects are a powerful mantra repeated over and over again in proposals I see and review. Funding seems in many areas not possible without invoking this motif.  Yet, I want to stress that interdisciplinary success can only be built upon strong disciplines themselves.  However unfashionable this viewpoint seems, particularly to politicians, I believe we must find a way to strengthen the core. This challenge is not directed to the scientific community so much as it is directed to those that administer funds for scientific research.

Let me give a specific example.  We can “sell” green chemistry to the politicians, and we should — but it would be a mistake not to take some of the funds gained and reinvest them into the core chemistry programs from which innovations spring.


Let me turn next to the future.  I am sure that there are futurologist here who can paint a far more appealing picture of the wonders of scientific achievement ahead of us, so I will not even try to do that.  Instead, let me concentrate on what we might do next.

Looking toward the near-term future, the Foundation has launched five new initiatives on important areas of discovery.

(1) The Information Technology Research Initiative, now in its second year, involves seven agencies with NSF as the lead agency.  The initiative supports long-term, high-risk research that could lead to major innovations.  The goals are to augment the Nation’s information technology knowledge base and strengthen the information technology workforce.  In addition to technical areas, the initiative will look at the social and economic implications of information technology, such as factors that influence the “digital divide” in American classrooms and homes, and the adoption of e-commerce by technologically advanced, newly industrialized, and developing nations.

(2) The Nanoscale Science and Engineering Initiative, beginning this year, reflects the Foundation’s role as lead agency for the government-wide National Nanotechnology Initiative.  Nanoscale refers to the world as it works at the atomic and molecular level.

NSF is focusing its investment on several interrelated areas, including biosystems, device and system architecture, nanoscale processes in the environment, and societal implications and education of the workforce. This initiative has, in my opinion, the potential for the most extraordinary breakthroughs, affecting all fields of science.

(3) The Biocomplexity in the Environment Initiative capitalizes on the Board’s study, Environmental Science and Engineering for the 21st Century. The benefits to global society from an increased understanding of biocomplexity could be immeasurable.  The initiative is expected to add to knowledge in a wide variety of fields, including climate change, biogeochemical cycles, biodiversity dynamics, and new methods to model complex systems.

Speaking of climate change, I confess to being worried about changes in the political climate.  So many in power in my country are now saying that we do not know enough to be confident that global warming is occurring but we certainly know enough to develop an antiballistic missile shield. In both cases it is being seriously proposed that research is not a really important activity.  I emphatically disagree — but I digress … …

(4)  The Mathematical Sciences Initiative, to begin in FY 2002, recognizes the crucial role that math and statistics play in the development of the U.S. workforce. NSF expects to carry out the initiative by increasing grant size and duration, funding collaborations, bringing scientists together in institutes and centers, encouraging cross training, and supporting educational enhancements to research efforts.

(5)  The 21st Century Workforce Initiative focuses on areas in which NSF has special interest, capability, and responsibility:

(a) the instructional workforce for science, math, and engineering technology,

(b) the science and engineering workforce, and

(c) the technological workforce.

Rather than focusing on programs, the initiative is delineating the strategic directions from which programs develop, such as the science of learning, and NSF partnerships with other agencies and sectors.

This list is far from complete and I believe it has gaping holes, such as what to do about large capital facilities that are the lifeblood of certain disciplines.  It does remind me what I learned about making budgets as Chair of the National Science Board. It is a lot like making sausage, and often the more you know about the process and the ingredients, the less appetizing it is!

Science continues to be the best hope we have of improving the quality of life for all of us on this tiny planet. For science to continue and to thrive, its payoffs must not only be celebrated by those that have the great privilege of being able to take part in this activity but also by the common person who must be convinced that the quest for scientific knowledge is the greatest adventure and the best chance we have of making this world a better place.  In that regard, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of engaging the public in the joys and woes of scientific inquiry.  At a minimum, I urge that we work toward defining a college-educated person to be one who has some appreciation of science and technology. To do otherwise is to increase the divide between those few who are technically educated and those many who are not. To do otherwise is to undermine continued, long-term support of the research enterprise. We as a scientific community must face up to this responsibility to tell others what we do and why it matters to them or face becoming increasingly irrelevant to society.