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Photo of Dr. Subra Suresh

Dr. Subra Suresh
National Science Foundation

Integrative Graduate Education Research and Traineeship Project Meeting

Washington, DC
May 31, 2012

Photo by Sandy Schaeffer

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

View a video of this speech.

[Slide 1. Title slide]

Good morning, everyone. It's a great pleasure to be here this morning.

I see so much of what I call "intellectual horsepower" in this room. And when I see a gathering like this, I am reminded of a story about President John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s having invited all the then-living American Nobel laureates to a White House dinner. During the dinner he made a comment the last time there was so much intellectual power in this room was when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. [Laughter] But I don't think this room may have seen this [level of] intellectual power before. So, thank you all for coming.

NSF's IGERT program is an integral part of our commitment to foster graduate education and training, especially at the intersections of traditional disciplinary boundaries, and I'm really glad that you all have an opportunity to participate in this program and make this program better. Let me take a few minutes to talk about the history of the National Science Foundation, because this may not be known to all of you, even though many of you do know about it.

[Slide 2. Vannevar Bush slide]

NSF started because of the vision of one individual, Dr. Vannevar Bush, in the 1940s. This is a picture of Dr. Bush, who was first trained as a mechanical engineer. He was one of the pioneers in the early forms of computing. He's also one of the two co-founders of what is now known as Raytheon Corporation. He was also head of the Carnegie Foundation at one time. He wrote a report, titled Science: The Endless Frontier. A reproduction of the report's cover is shown on the right [of the slide].

This report had an interesting thesis: Innovation is absolutely necessary for the economic prosperity and national security of any country. Innovation necessarily arises from basic research in science and engineering, and that basic research is best done at American universities and colleges, because they provide an environment for free thinking. They also train young minds; these are the people who are the bedrock of innovation. And, last, but not least, it is not only the role, it is the obligation of the federal government to support the innovation enterprise at universities and colleges. Therefore, we need entities that nurture and foster that kind of innovation.

At the time, Bush's thesis in his report was extremely controversial, and the President rejected it. Eventually it got accepted, in 1950, by President Harry Truman. Congress accepted the report, which led to the creation of the National Science Foundation.

The first-year budget of the National Science Foundation, the whole year budget for all NSF was $212,000. We've come a very long way. So if somebody complains that NSF doesn't have enough money to give, think about that.

[Slide 3. OneNSF slide]

The IGERT Program represents what we at NSF have been talking about for little more than a year, the senior leadership team. And when Ram [Ramasubramanian] introduced Joan [Ferrini-Mundy], he talked about her leadership role in integrating education with NSF’s research directorates. And that's an extremely critical part of one of the aspects of what we call "OneNSF."

NSF, like most universities, has organizational structure. We have different directorates, we have different offices, some of which have evolved historically over time. Like any department in a university, school, or college, NSF directorates have their own organizational structure. In large structures, it's very important for us to ensure that the walls between different disciplinary boundaries are highly porous and allow people to cross.

And one of the notions of OneNSF is to make sure that people who are working in very different disciplines, in different corners of NSF, have an opportunity to combine their talents and their resources so that they can identify the best people and the best ideas in the country. Our objective is to support the best research, especially that done by young people. That is one of the key parts of what we call OneNSF.

Another part of OneNSF is achieved in forums like this, which brings together NSF-funded people who are doing completely different things in different parts of the country, who otherwise would not have an opportunity to come together. The forum facilitates interactions that can create something new. For example, a new field, a new idea, a new pattern, a new company. It may be new scientific knowledge that may not have any immediate practical application. That is also very much in the spirit of OneNSF. So, the IGERT Program is a microcosm of what we call One NSF at a very high altitude level. And, I'm really pleased about the outstanding successes that IGERT has had over the past few years.

[Slide 4. FY13 budget slide]

Let me say a few things about the budget, because this is on everybody’s mind, especially in an election year. NSF’s [FY 2013] budget request to Congress from President Obama a few months ago was $7.373 billion. I want to put this in perspective. This may seem like a lot of money, but we support 300,000 individuals in the U.S. every year. Also, last year Americans spent $7 billion on potato chips. So an actual science foundation just barely beat out potato chips. [Laughter] I hope there is nobody here from Idaho. If so, I wish you all the best. I have nothing against Idaho, but we do want to do better than potato chips. [Laughter]

This represents an increase of $340 million, which, in this economic climate, is a very strong endorsement with the support of the Administration. After that, the House and the Senate have marked up NSF’s budget for 2013. Of course, it's a long road between markup and actual signing of the budget by the President, and that may or may not happen before the election. But the interesting thing is the House has marked up the budget for NSF on a level that is only $40 million below the President’s request. I want to remind you, it's a Republican-controlled House.

The Senate has marked it up for a 3.4-percent increase instead of a 4.8-percent increase. But the point I would like to make is that despite all the issues that we have, despite the economic difficulties, it's important for me and my colleagues and NSF to continue to communicate the importance of science for the country, and it’s equally important for the policymakers to appreciate the importance of science. And last year, in 2012, and this year in 2013, we are heartened by the bipartisan support for the National Science Foundation. I very much hope that continues this year, because it's very critical for the future innovation of the country.

[Slide 5. Graduate Research Fellowship slide]

I also want to go back to 1952, when NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program was created. Since 1952, NSF has cumulatively supported 46,500 graduate research fellowships. Until about 2010, we provided 1,000 graduate research fellowships per year. In 2011, we decided to double that number to 2,000. And despite the fiscal uncertainty that we faced last year, the possibilities of a budget cut fortunately did not materialize. The NSF senior leadership team, and, of course, the Foundation, decided unanimously that the future innovation engine of this country resides in the hands of graduate students, post-docs, and young faculty members. So, we will not cut the number of graduate research fellowships, no matter what happens to the budget. And that's the principle under which we’ve been operating for 2011, 2012, and 2013. And we will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

In addition to that, increasing the dollar support for graduate research fellowships has been long overdue. So, while doubling the numbers just two years ago, we've also slightly increased the reimbursement for tuition and for the cost of living, but, because of budget constraints, there are not to the levels we would like to see. We can't do all of them at the same time, but we are trying to do that gradually. This is something to which we are really committed. The graduate research fellowship has had enormous impact, and I'm going to show that in a later slide.

Before I go to that, let me talk about what impact NSF has had and how we work. This is very important. I mentioned the approximate budget of $7.4 billion; that's the budget request for this year. And NSF is by far the largest basic science and engineering funding agency in the world. Our mandate is to support all fields of science and engineering, including social, behavioral, and economic sciences. The one area that we do not support is clinical research and research on human diseases. Although, we do have a biological sciences directorate, which supports agricultural science, plant science, genetics, cellular and molecular physics, all biological sciences including cellular and molecular biology, microbiology, bio-informatics, and so on.

Plus, we have bio research and healthcare research in other parts of NSF. For example, in the computer and information sciences and engineering directorate, one of the major activities for last year was a new area that has turned up in different corners is healthcare-related research: portable devices and issues associated with health monitoring in real time.

These are exciting developments within NSF. With a $7.4-billion budget, we operate with an overhead of less than 6 percent. Unlike NIH [National Institutes of Health] NSF does not fund research performed internally. All the money we receive goes back to the community, minus the overhead. And the overhead rate is less than 6 percent. I challenge anybody from any university to run a university with that kind of an overhead. I come from a university where the overhead rate was 68 percent! NSF is extremely nimble, extremely lean, there is no fat to cut, despite sometimes what we get criticized for. This is why I want to emphasize this fact. There is no fat to cut in this system.

Scientists do no internal research at NSF. So, we don't advocate a particular view from research findings. Research findings derive from the science performed in the community of NSF-supported researchers. And we facilitate researchers' opportunities to publish their work in an open way and to let the research community itself use the money.

Last year, we supported 285,000 individuals in the country. That includes K-12 students, teachers, school systems, undergraduates, and beyond. We call it "K through grave": [laughter] undergraduates, graduates, post-graduates, well beyond PhD, any age. [In all, we support these individuals] in 1,800 institutions. The institutions also include not only universities, colleges, community colleges, and [K-12] schools, they also include science museums, NOVA programs, Science Friday, citizen science projects, science communication efforts, and so on.

[Slide 6. Era of Observation slide]

I mentioned that we awarded 46,500 graduate research fellowships since 1952. That is in addition to approximately 40,000 research assistants supported each year through NSF-funded grants at universities and colleges. So it’s a large enterprise.

[Slide 7. NSF at Ground Zero slide]

Here are some more numbers. Since 1950, NSF has supported 197 Nobel laureates. And here's the difference between NSF and the Nobel Prize committee: we identify Nobel laureates several decades before the Nobel Prize committee identifies them. And, on average, we've given the Nobel Prize winners more money than the Nobel Prize committee has. Those are important points to remember. It's more difficult to identify potential than it is to identify performance.

So NSF has used the peer review system; it has used it for 62 years. It's not perfect, but we had the heads of 50 research funding agencies from across 50 countries at NSF two weeks ago. They all unanimously agreed that as imperfect as it may be, NSF's merit review system is probably the best system. They are trying to emulate it. Countries including Ireland, South Korea, China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Nigeria have all created -- or, are in the process of creating -- science funding agencies that are modeled after the U.S. National Science Foundation. The Indian Parliament just created the National Science and Engineering Research Program, which is modeled after NSF.

Here's another data point among graduate research fellowships: 30 of NSF graduate research fellows have won the Nobel Prize since 1952. They received the NSF graduate fellowship, then did the work, usually through NSF funding, and then won the Nobel Prize. A very good example is NSF secretary, Steven Chu. He was an NSF graduate research fellow. He also had NSF funding during his academic career, and, as you know, he won the Nobel Prize in 1997.

Here's another statistic: Out of the 46,500 graduate research fellows supported by NSF since 1952, 440 have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. That's a success rate of one percent. That's significantly more, almost an order of magnitude more than the success rate for election to National Academy of Sciences in the general population of scientists.

[On the topic of] economic and social impact [of NSF-supported research], let me just give a few examples. In the 1960s, NSF funded basic research, mathematical research and computer science research -- before there was a field of computer science -- into global positioning systems [GPS], which, at that time, was primarily for intelligence gathering and military applications. NSF did not ask the question “What is the value of this research,” because it was intellectually stimulating; it pushed the boundaries of basic knowledge. We funded it. Of course, it helped the military, DARPA, and others. But, most important, who would have known at that time that we would all be using GPS in our mobile phones today?

If NSF had made the requirement that basic research into GPS should lead to a mobile device in the 1960s, we would not have funded it. So that's the point I want to make. Often, basic research takes a very long time, and this is why we want to do research for the sake of pushing the boundaries of knowledge, even though we haven't identified its future economic impact.

Having said that, NSF's work has led to a lot of economic impact in a very short period of time. Let me give you a few examples about basic research being essential, as Vannevar Bush said. In the 1970s, when American industry decided that mathematical and process modeling was more of an academic exercise, rather than something with much industry relevance, NSF supported it, and that led to a technology called "rapid prototyping." This played a key role in our economic competitiveness in manufacturing in the 1980s in many industries, including in the semiconductor industry. In 1995, NSF supported a graduate student to do purely mathematical research for a [web]page rank method, which at that time did not have a practical application. That led to the creation of Google. The graduate student was Sergey Brin, who worked with fellow student Larry Page. In the late 1990s, when President Clinton launched the National Nanotechnology Initiative, NSF was the first agency to create nano-science and nano-engineering centers.

Since 1999, NSF-funded nano-science and nano-engineering centers alone, which were funded solely for basic research, have led to 180 companies being created over the decade, which involved 1,200 major corporations. [They were] founded because of basic research. So, these are examples, the SBIR [Small Business Innovation Research] program. This program started at NSF in the 1970s. Now, there are 11 federal agencies that offer the SBIR program. The SBIR program has launched hundreds and hundreds of companies and led to tens of thousands of jobs. And it's a very tiny fraction of what NSF does.

We come to the IGERT program. As I mentioned, the IGERT program is very much a part of what we call OneNSF. It's a microcosm of our vision for NSF. This program is the engine of innovation for interdisciplinary research. It is extremely critical for human capital development. And IGERT institutions not only train students and young scientists in their own institutions, they are responsive to local entities and innovation communities wherever they are. You all do this.

Here are some numbers. Since 1998, NSF has awarded 278 IGERT awards. It has supported more than 6,500 Ph.D. students in the U.S. The total investment in IGERT from NSF is $862 million. That's a huge sum of money but for a very good purpose, and we are very pleased with the impact it's had. One of the largest interdisciplinary programs, which is a very good example of OneNSF, is the SEES program: Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability. Approximately 40 percent of the SEES program has some type of an overlap with IGERT. There are 170 active IGERT awards that have some self-selected or self-identified goals to play in sustainability. And that represents approximately 40 percent of SEES activities.

I want to take a couple of minutes to talk about an issue that is especially in relevant to this audience. We asked ourselves this question because we talked to Congress. And, yesterday I went and talked to the Thomas Jefferson High School, which is a science and technology school here in Virginia. We have to articulate the excitement of science at this juncture in time. There are many different and exciting points that NSF [could highlight], but how do we capture them in very simple terms so that we can convey the excitement of science to very broad audiences?

After a lot of discussion inside among our colleagues within NSF and with the community and our advisory committees, we have cast a vision about the excitement of science into two broad categories: This is what I call the new "Era of Science" in 2012, and within that we can categorize them into two buckets: The new "Era of Observation" and the new "Era of Data and Information." This [categorization] cuts across every field of science and engineering, including social sciences.

And here is the excitement of this: Just take the NSF-funded activities. At one extreme, in the new era of observation, we now have [large scale] experimental tools and the infrastructure, for example, for [neutrino] research in Antarctica, and [astronomical research] through telescopes in Chile, Hawaii, Arizona, and Puerto Rico. On the one hand, they have the resolution, scope, and the bandwidth to capture the outer edges of the solar system and universe. So, we're talking about a scale on the order of billions of light years.

At the other extreme, we also support research that explores phenomena at nano, pico, and femto scales. So we can take a single biological molecule or a neuron in the human brain, and we can impose forces to it at a resolution of a pico-newton, measure displacements of a nanometer, or record at a temporal resolution of a femtosecond. And so we can go from femto, or smaller, all the way to billions of light years, in terms of observation [scales] with a level of sophistication that we could not have achieved even five years ago.

That experimental capability, combined with advances in computational hardware and software, gives us an infrastructure to develop new knowledge at a level that we could not have foreseen a few years ago. Add to that the sophistication of theoretical capabilities. NSF funded the research at Princeton University that led to solving Fermat's Last Theorem last year. It was an NSF grant that supported that curiosity-driven research and the theoretical proofs that have come out of this.

In addition to that, we have what we call "citizen science." What do I mean by that? We have new opportunities with technology. Take an iPad, for example. An iPad can generate a terabyte of data per day. So you can envision the possibility of a middle-school child anywhere in the world accessing data that comes out of a hundred-million-dollar facility that NSF funds in real time. The child could participate in an experiment in which the child actually gathers data where he or she lives. That data becomes part and parcel of real-time data that established scientists in different parts of the world use for their research. That's one example of citizen science. So this is the exciting new era of observation.

The new era of observation has led to unprecedented amounts of data and information. One of our challenges is how to decipher fact from fiction, signal from noise, because there is so much noise. Sometimes the signal gets overwhelmed in this massive amount of data, which travels unvetted -- not subject to merit review -- around the globe at the speed of light. And once it gets out there, it's very hard to undo [flawed data]. So how do we do research so that five years from now and ten years from now, we can archive data, we can retrieve data, we can access data, we can store data, we can ensure inter-operability of data across platforms so that we can take that information and extract useful knowledge that will move the community forward collectively?

We must add to that the complexities caused by open access to publications and data and the issues of privacy, intellectual property, cost, national security, competitiveness, cyber security, as well as the social and human behaviors associated with these. I take the personal view that good science anywhere is good for science everywhere, provided that you have open free-flow of information with a transparent peer review system that ensures scientific ethics and integrity and respect for, and protection of, intellectual property. If you can ensure that, then I think open access would be extremely valuable for everybody. But we need the infrastructure to ensure this, not just in the U.S. but collectively.

So we organized a summit at NSF two weeks ago, invited the top 50 research funding agencies in the world to come to NSF and launched a virtual entity called the Global Research Council (GRC). The GRC will create principles of engagement for all the funding agencies in the world over the course of the next four to five years. The next meeting will be hosted jointly by Brazil and Germany in Berlin a year from today. And that will take up additional issues beyond peer review, which we addressed two weeks ago.

[Slide 8. INSPIRE slide]

In the context of interdisciplinary research, one of the programs we launched last year is called INSPIRE [NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education]. The idea is very much in the spirit of IGERT. We tried to identify areas of potential intellectual pursuit where even a young individual without an established track record, but who has a lot of patience and good ideas, and who identifies with disparate fields, can bring the fields together in ways that will move the boundaries of science forward. In 2012, we supported INSPIRE with $24 million. Our request for 2013 is $63 million. And we are very pleased to note that we've had a lot of interest in the community and very soon will announce the first of these awards.

[Slide 9. I-Corps slide]

Along the lines of moving innovation forward, about a year ago we launched a program called the "NSF Innovation Corps" (I-Corps). The idea behind this is that we support basic research to the tune of about $6 to 6.5 million a year. Virtually every research project that we support leads to a publication. Many of them lead to patents, but a small subset leads to technologies and processes (for example, software) that go beyond [the basic research]. We facilitate such translational work without taking money from basic research, because that's not the mandate of NSF; our mission is basic research. It will always be basic research. Without taking money from basic research, making tiny investments to push the basic research discoveries further along so that others can pick them up helps NSF serve the community and the innovation space much better than what we have done. This is the spirit of I-Corps. We facilitate public-private partnerships with several non-profit foundations. Our goal is to create a national network, a virtual national network of mentors and training programs that will help aspiring entrepreneurs in universities, and who receive NSF funding, to be part of the ecosystem, especially when their universities don't have the resources. That's the goal.

I'm delighted to report that in the first year we will have a hundred programs. In about six weeks from now, we'll be announcing some new activities related to this for the second year. We'll be announcing a national network, and the goal will be to significantly expand it without necessarily increasing funding or taking money away from basic research.

There are two IGERT programs that participate in I-Corps. Professor Karen McDonald, who's a 2007 IGERT grantee, together with Ph.D. student and IGERT trainee Lucas Arzola, from the University of California–Davis developed a new method for manufacturing vaccines. Using non-transgenic tobacco products, this is called "SwiftVax," and the process is faster, cheaper, and greener than existing egg-based methods. The second IGERT program involved in I-Corps is at the University of Washington. That group is working with native American Indians in a completely different space in a different technology. This IGERT group also has received an IPO grant and they have a company, or a venture, called "Carbon Cultures" that they are trying to create.

These are examples of interdisciplinary research being integrated with innovation. We'll be announcing three new IGERT grants with I-Corps funding. This is another example of OneNSF. We are one program: NSF has for quite some time supported fundamental science and engineering research and education.

[Slide 10. Fundamental science & engineering research & education slide]

Let me close with three take-home messages for this group. The first message is especially for the graduate students who are being trained as part of the IGERT program: The 21st century is going to be a century of technology. We all know this. Whether you are an engineer or a scientist, it doesn't matter. Even just to survive in the 21st century, if you are an English major, history major, or you are in any field, you will not be able to get away from technology. Science and engineering enterprises will be part and parcel in this century.

NSF has a very critical role to play. So in the graduate training program, I would strongly urge everyone to make sure that your science and engineering training at your home institution is at the cutting edge. How do you benchmark it as cutting edge? I’ll come to that in my third take-home message. So, that's the first point I want to make.

The second take-home message is that science and engineering without good involvement of social, behavioral, and economic sciences will not have the fullest impact. I'll give you one example. One of the earliest NSF Science and Technology Centers, actually the very first one, was in the state of Oklahoma to study tornadoes and weather patterns. And that center, formed in the late 1980s, has produced wonderful technologies, created software, spun off companies, and created jobs. Its software is used all over the world, now. But still, people died from tornadoes last year in Oklahoma. So I asked the director of the center, given that they received 25 years of NSF funding, why are people still dying in Oklahoma from tornadoes? He had a very interesting response: "It's not our inability to predict tornadoes that's causing deaths, it’s equally our inability to predict people’s responses to warnings to tornadoes."

That's a very good example of the need for the interface between social sciences and natural sciences. So that's the second point, and my personal view is that a well-rounded scientist, especially a natural scientist, is one who not only has an appreciation of policy and social science, preferably, they even speak several languages and have an appreciation for other cultures.

The last point I want to make is in respect to benchmarking. Whether you live in a local community in a small village in the U.S., whether you work for an American company or a foreign company, you could work anywhere in the world; it doesn't matter: Your competition is all over the world. It's not where you live, it's not in your institution, and it's not in your country.

And that's the benchmark you want to use. I'll give you one example. Grinnell College in Iowa is an elite, small liberal arts college right in the middle of the country. Last year, ten percent of all the applicants for the freshman class were from China. About ten percent of all the applicants from China have a perfect SAT math score. So, you don't have to go to China to lose out in the global competition; you can lose out in Grinnell, Iowa. If you cannot compete on a global scale, in Grinnell, Iowa, you will lose the global competition. That's my third take-home message.

[Slide 11. OneNSF slide]

With that I want to thank you. I want to wish you a very good workshop for IGERT. And those who are watching through the webcast, I wish you all the best in IGERT programs. The output of your research is what makes NSF what it is. Your successes are what I use to ask for more funding for the National Science Foundation. I wish you all success. Thank you.



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