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Volume 84 Issue 11 | pp. 15-19
Issue Date: March 13, 2006

Cover Story

Arden L. Bement Jr.

NSF director shares excitement for foundation's future, enthusiasm for ongoing research, and insights into science and technology policy issues
Department: Government & Policy, Science & Technology
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Credit: Photos By Peter Cutts
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Credit: Photos By Peter Cutts

When President George W. Bush rolled out his fiscal 2007 budget on Feb. 6, a smile came across the face of National Science Foundation Director Arden L. Bement Jr. that hasn't left since. The reason: The proposed budget reverses a trend of poor funding growth for the foundation for the past five years and slates it for a nearly 8% increase over the 2006 appropriated level.

Bement, 73, who considers himself an eternal optimist, is clearly excited about what this funding increase will allow NSF to do, but he remains realistic in acknowledging that the physical sciences continue to face some difficult challenges. He recently sat down for an interview with C&EN to share his enthusiasm for the future of NSF as well as his insights into other science policy issues.

"A lifetime of involvement in research and leadership in academia, industry, and government has given me a broad perspective of what constitutes good research and what makes the system work well," Bement says. But above that, he has found that success requires two things: patience and persistence.

Bement's experience comes from his 50-year career that started after he completed his doctoral degree in metallurgical engineering, and it includes administrative stints at the National Institute of Standards & Technology, the Department of Defense, and the Battelle Northwest Laboratories. He has also been on the faculty at Purdue University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has worked in the private sector at TRW and General Electric. Among his committee and board credits is a term on the National Science Board (NSB), the body that sets policies at NSF.

This depth of experience has prepared Bement well for meeting the challenges of running the $5.6 billion foundation with its shifting scientific and budgetary pressures. Because NSF had been forced to operate under tight budgets, according to Bement, few new initiatives were started in the past few years and some existing ones were phased out to refocus overall investments.

The outlook changed when the President announced the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) and included support in the 2007 budget proposal to begin doubling the NSF budget (C&EN, March 6, page 57). Members of Congress have indicated their support for this initiative, but the final budget won't be set until the 2007 budget is approved later this year (C&EN, Feb. 20, page 27).

"Our outlook is again bright under the President's announcement that he's going to double the NSF budget in 10 years," Bement says. "We have plenty of steam at the present time to more than accommodate the increases."

But ACI does more than just bring in more funds for NSF. According to Bement, it is significant because it "puts science and technology policy back on the radar screen. The importance of this policy area to our society going forward is now being recognized.

"More than that," Bement continues, "the future isn't a projection of the past. We're in a new era and the competitive pressures are different, and the way in which we will compete in the future is going to be vastly different.

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Credit: Photo By Peter Cutts
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Credit: Photo By Peter Cutts

"In many aspects, it's going to be the circulation of brain power around the world as much as the circulation of goods and trade around the world that's going to determine how well a nation does and how competitive it'll be in the future," Bement explains. "We must be much more engaged on a global scale if we're going to stay in the game."

It's this goal of staying in the game that has led the Administration to develop ACI and to target NSF for significant budget increases. The foundation will use the greater funding to continue its support of cutting-edge basic research, training graduate students, supporting education at all levels, and building new tools and facilities for science.

"At the same time, we are also going to be mindful of special national needs like homeland security, climate change, networking and information technology research and development, and other areas identified by the Administration," Bement says. He adds that several initiatives associated with these national needs are relevant to the chemical science and engineering community.

One new initiative that should be of direct interest to the community deals with sensors and sensor systems and involves a major research program on improvised explosive devices, Bement points out. "This is an initiative which we will be very much relying on the chemical community to address," he notes.

"Another area that should be of interest to the community is our increased investment in cyber-infrastructure," Bement says. "One of the new initiatives that started in the Chemistry Division is cyber-enabled chemistry-looking at problems of unprecedented complexity." Not only has NSF stepped up investment to expand the availability of terascale computing capabilities, but it also is starting to invest in "leadership-class high-scale computing machines that will take us to the petascale," he notes. (Going from terascale to petascale represents a jump from 1012 floating-point operations per second to 1015 floating-point operations per second.)

Other areas at NSF that fall under ACI in which chemistry and chemical engineering will play a key role are green chemistry, especially in manufacturing; interdisciplinary fields such as nanotechnology; the interface between chemistry and the life sciences; and energy research, including fuel-cell research and alternative-fuel research.

Although the President's 2007 budget gives research a boost, members of Congress and other observers worry that the funding levels designated for education at NSF are too small. For Bement, however, it's about maximizing the available funds to meet the most pressing needs and developing a balanced portfolio.

"Education is an area where you just can't have enough funding," Bement says. "The role of NSF is really to carry on research in education and to inform us how to optimize teaching and learning. Those are areas where we are going to continue to try and grow as rapidly as we can, especially with our future budget increases," he explains.

Bement notes that concerns over education funding at NSF often stem from looking only at the foundation's Education & Human Resources budget. He points out that several key programs in education are actually part of the Research & Related Activities (R&RA) budget and should be included in calculating NSF's overall education spending.

"Our research experiences for teachers is funded out of R&RA," Bement explains. "And furthermore, our Graduate Teaching Fellowships in K-12 Education program is also partly funded out of that account, and it is one of our most effective interventions," he says. This program enables graduate students under fellowship support to return that support through service in high-need schools, where they serve as role models and provide motivation for younger students to study science.

"We've tried to come up with a balanced budget that takes care of our most pressing needs," Bement notes. "With the significant investments in education in R&RA, we feel that we have a balanced portfolio. That's not to say that if we had larger budgets, we wouldn't put more funding into education throughout NSF," he explains.

NSF's educational support also goes beyond specific programs. "Right from its very founding over 50 years ago, the tradition of the foundation has been to integrate education and research," Bement says, adding that "we've done that consistently over the lifetime of the agency.

"Even in graduate research, we educate the graduate students in the course of doing research," Bement notes. "That integration pays huge benefits for society, because that knowledge and technology go with the graduate students when they leave graduate school to go into the private sector or into academics," he says.

In addition to programs to improve education, NSF also is a large supporter of programs to increase diversity in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) areas. According to Bement, these programs are making a difference.

"It's true that if you measure the trends of increased diversity over a long period of time, there's been more or less a linear trend with a very low slope," Bement says. "But, we're beginning to see that trend increase with the slope becoming more exponential.

"This is where patience and persistence pay off," Bement notes. "I think our investments are going to begin to show a dramatic improvement not only for the number of African Americans, but also for the number of Hispanics and especially of women studying in STEM fields," he says.

Credit: Photo By Peter Cutts
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Credit: Photo By Peter Cutts

Bement believes that one way to improve diversity is to recognize that a number of pathways lead to STEM fields. "We need to take into account that a lot of education of minorities takes place in two-year community colleges," Bement points out, adding that "more and more, a lot of teachers are also getting their education at two-year schools. There is a pathway here not only from secondary schools into community colleges but also from community colleges to matriculating to four-year colleges and universities."

According to Bement, "We have to look at all combinations of the pathways and be sure that we are paying attention to facilitating broadening participation." To this end, he encourages people to stop looking at the STEM fields through a straw, or pipeline, and instead allow people to flow into and out of these fields at every possible juncture.

"Just as there are pathways into science and engineering, there are also pathways out," Bement says. "Those are all a benefit to society, and we shouldn't feel that we are only interested in the B.S. graduates who are going to stay in science and engineering. We should be interested also in providing science- and engineering-trained students into the other professions such as law, business, and medicine, because that's all in the interest of having a technologically informed public," he explains.

It's this need for a technologically trained workforce that is also driving NSF's education programs, particularly those targeted at the K-12 level.

"As a nation, we've got to continue to interest our young people in learning about math and science regardless of what career they pursue," Bement notes. "In many respects, in a society entering the information age-which is where we are today-it's vitally important that we have a population well-educated in the role that science and technology play in everyday life," he says.

"It's also important to start investing in education very early if you really want to have the best scientists and engineers necessary to be competitive globally," Bement says. "For that reason, we do have a concern in working with children in the schools not only to develop an interest in education but also to be sure that the education they get in math and science is the highest quality that can be provided," he points out.

As the world continues to change, NSF's goal is to maintain U.S. science and technology leadership by continuing to fund the most cutting-edge research. This includes being committed to meeting all the needs of the scientists and engineers that it supports.

"NSF is a bottom-up organization," Bement notes. "The founding premise of the foundation was that the scientific community is the best judge of good science. The community is really the place to go in order to understand where the frontier is and where the hot areas are in moving that frontier forward. We at NSF try to keep our ears to the ground and engage the community whenever we can through workshops, advisory committees, committees of visitors, and other venues," he explains.

"It's this relationship with the community, along with NSB," Bement says, "that keeps our programs especially robust, keeps our budget balanced, and makes the work very defensible to decisionmakers in the Administration and in Congress."

To help keep NSF well-positioned for the future, the foundation is in the midst of revising its strategic plan. Comments were solicited from the public earlier this year, with the final plan due to Congress in September.

"We've gotten extensive and constructive feedback," Bement notes. "It has been very informative, because it's probably fair to say that some investigators weren't even aware that we had a strategic plan. So a lot of the comments that have come back have been very complimentary, in that we not only have a strategic plan but also that it made sense."

Aside from NSF's current focus areas, Bement says he expects the plan to emphasize international interactions. "Not only do we have to provide more opportunity for faculty and students to have an international experience, but we also have to have more collaborations and more interactions with researchers in other parts of the world," he explains.

For some who are already actively collaborating, whether internationally or interdepartmentally, dealing with tenure has created some concerns. According to Bement, the best time for collaborating is often after tenure.

"Before tenure review, it's critically important for investigators to demonstrate their ability to do independent, world-class research," Bement says. "It's important to demonstrate that they can form a research team and be very effective in mentoring graduate students. For some researchers, it can be very difficult to conduct those sorts of activities in conjunction with collaborative arrangements. Plus the fact that time is so compressed during those early years, because so much has to be done-including learning how to teach," he notes.

Once tenure is gained, however, Bement explains, "there is greater flexibility and freedom to engage in collaborative and interdisciplinary research. Researchers are also in a better position to build on international networks."

Another challenge to getting tenure is receiving federal research grants to support one's work, which is becoming more difficult as success rates at the major funding agencies have fallen. At NSF, the success rate for research grants is about 20% on average.

For Bement, the key to successfully getting an NSF grant again comes down to patience and persistence. "It's a winning formula," he points out.

"I would say that if you had a choice of writing a lot of proposals and trying to work the odds, or writing at least one good proposal, getting feedback from our merit review system, and then using that to upgrade the proposal and resubmit, the latter is the better option," Bement says. "That course of action is always going to be eventually more successful," he adds.

In addition, Bement says investigators should work closely with NSF program officers to "understand the chances of success for a given application and to identify research areas that are most likely to succeed in getting funding." He points out that "program officers try to be as helpful as possible because they want to see the most promising investigators succeed."

Bement also advises scientists and engineers to recognize that the sciences are rapidly converging. "Scientists are very quick to advocate for their own science field at the expense of others," Bement explains. "As the fields converge, however, it's important to advocate for science in general, because a field will not progress if it does so narrowly and in isolation."

As an example, Bement points to the convergence of the biosciences with the chemical sciences. "This convergence is opening up whole new opportunities that will advance both chemistry and biology," he notes.

"The same thing is happening with the social and physical sciences," Bement points out. "They're beginning to converge, because after all, we're now in a realm of human-computer interfacing, where the computer is not just a piece of heavy iron on the floor; in many cases, it's an extension of the human being. It's a prosthesis, if you will. Opportunities as well as challenges related to this convergence really are at the interface of the physical sciences and the social sciences," he says.

Like the converging sciences, the world, too, is converging and becoming more level, as author Thomas L. Friedman has written in his book "The World Is Flat." While recognizing that a flattening is happening, Bement notes that the world hasn't completely lost its topography.

"The world is still very spiky," Bement says. "The U.S. has some of the bigger spikes in terms of the quality of our higher education, the quality of our research facilities and equipment, and also our fairly open stance in engaging international students from any part of the world who don't represent a threat to come and do research openly and to be educated in the U.S. All of those really do represent very large spikes," he notes.

"It's also fair to say that our system of innovation in this country is without parallel in the world," Bement explains. "Our ability to innovate and come out with what I would call 'killer' applications or products that destabilize the marketplace is still very high," he says.

But the U.S. cannot just rest on its leadership. "We can't be complacent because we are the target. Everyone would like to knock us off our spike or peak and develop their own peak. We have to be diligent. We have to continue to invest. And in a knowledge society, the investments that really count are the investments in research and development, the investments in human capital and education, and the investments in infrastructure that help facilitate the innovation process," all of which are investment areas targeted by NSF, he says.

 
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