Neal F. Lane

Neal F. Lane, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, headed the National Science Foundation from October 1993 to August 1998. The agency administers $3.3 billion per year in almost 20,000 research and education projects in science and engineering. Prior to taking the post at NSF, he was provost and professor of physics at Rice University in Houston, Tex.

The former physicist is deeply concerned about the future of funding for scientific research. He believes that researchers and his agency should play a stronger advocacy role in informing the public of the importance of their work.

Scientific American contributing writer Alan Hall spoke with Lane in April 1997, in Washington, D.C., after Lane spoke at a meeting of the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.


SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: The NSF dispenses about one quarter of all the federal grant money for research in areas other than medicine. The effort in Congress to balance the federal budget is likely to put a crimp in that funding. What is the outlook for the future?

NEAL LANE: I remain very concerned that the nation will not be doing enough to maintain and strengthen its position as a world leader in science, engineering and technology over the next several years. Without the support and understanding of taxpayers, we surely will not be able to meet that challenge.

I have characterized the projected cuts for federal R&D over the coming years, no matter which projections you use, as a "very risky national experiment." In today's climate of budget balancing and downsizing, any agency even holding its own is doing well. An agency that receives even a modest increase is viewed as having great success. I am pleased that in President Clinton's budget proposal to Congress, NSF received a 3 percent increase, while R&D overall went up 2 percent.

SA: We seem to have come a long way from the '50s and '60s, when generous public funding was almost unquestioned.

NL: It is hardly news that the earlier "golden era" is now behind us. We can no longer expect public support in the form of a blank check and an loosely defined agenda.

Yet we know in retrospect that the American people received enormous benefits, from better health to higher-paying jobs to store shelves crammed full of consumer goods. Leading economists now say that one half of all the economic growth in the U.S. in the past 50 years can be traced to innovation through science and technology.

SA: If the interest in Comet Hale-Bopp and the recent cloning of Dolly the sheep is any indication, the public seems to care about science.

NL: At NSF, our surveys continue to show that more than two thirds of the public believes that science is a net good. And over 40 percent say they're strongly interested in science and technology. When we reach out with additional examples to convey the excitement and importance of research, we can be reassured by this reservoir of public goodwill.

Nonetheless, only one in 10 surveyed believes that he or she is well informed about science and technology, and only one in four has some knowledge of science. And the vast majority of people have no understanding of the scientific process--98 percent of them don't know what research means. To me this gap is very troubling: two thirds laud the value of science, but very few understand the enterprise.

SA: What can be done to build more public awareness of the importance of science?

NL:Over my last couple of years at NSF, I've come to believe that it's time for the science and technology enterprise to embrace reaching out to the public. In more personal terms, researchers need to engage in genuine public dialogue with their local communities, in the mold of what I have come to call the "civic scientist."

Before I became NSF director, I was accustomed to speaking to scientists around the world and to students, but otherwise only rarely to groups outside the research community. Now I've come to see how vital it is to reach beyond the converted--even to the Rotary Club, the local radio talk show, community forums of various kinds.

SA: Are researchers getting that message?

NL: This is a crucial period of transition for academic science and engineering. Awareness of the need for researchers to engage in some kind of outreach is growing. A few weeks ago, we saw 23 scientific societies--including the major organizations representing many physical scientists, mathematicians and electrical engineers--issue a joint statement at a press conference, asking the president and Congress for a significant budget increase in federal support for research. I was struck by this remarkable unity across scientific disciplines.

SA: But are scientists capable of communicating their research to the public? A guest on a recent National Public Radio talk show observed that "somewhere between high school and a Ph.D., many scientists forget how to speak English."

NL: Researchers simply must learn to speak in terms that their nonscientist friends and neighbors can understand. As Allan Bromley, president of the American Physical Society, said on National Public Radio recently, "If you can't explain what you are doing and why you are doing it to any intelligent layman, that really means you don't understand it yourself." I might even venture to say that it is time that such outreach be numbered among the professional responsibilities of scientists and that training for it become an integral part of science education.

SA: What about your agency? It has certainly been a supporter of science but hardly a cheerleader.

NL: Even NSF is changing, realizing a new responsibility as an advocate for the cause of science and engineering to the public. NSF has been a longtime, quiet catalyst for scientific and technical literacy, but we have traditionally kept a low profile as an institution, perhaps believing that trumpeting our successes was somehow unseemly. I might suggest that this attitude may inadvertently have carried just a whiff of elitism--well, maybe more than a whiff.

SA: As you know, many researchers are relying more on funding from companies and private sources as the government tightens its purse strings. Recently we have been hearing that some are delaying publication of their results--or even not publishing at all. Aren't they likely to be less help in getting the message out?

NL: This is not good for science; it is not good for education. As they say, everyone has their price. Some scientists are selling their souls. But the research we support at NSF must be made available to the public.

The climate for science has changed forever. While it is necessary to increase public understanding of science and technology, it is equally important for scientists to deepen their understanding of the public.