The right kind of national conversation.

“Leaders spend 80% of their time on problems, and 20% of their time on opportunities. They should reverse that ratio.” [1]

The Pareto principle (or more informally, “the 80-20 rule”) has been around for a long time, though not always by that name. The theoretical foundation may be a bit thin (“80” and “20” hardly have the status of, say, Planck’s constant), but as a metaphor “the 80-20 rule” is easily remembered, intuitively understood, and sharpens thought. It therefore finds itself widely invoked in many contexts.

Which calls to mind current national concerns and discourse.

Systemic racism, inequality, and injustice. Election rules and the future of our democracy. Covid and its cost in devastated lives and economic disruption. Guns. Immigration. Climate change. The list is long…

Each test, by itself, challenges our ingenuity and energy, and frustrates efforts to develop consensus and work together. In aggregate, they seem overwhelming. Worse still, none can be ignored, put off until tomorrow. They all must be addressed – and simultaneously, and now. They also share a common property: they are problems.

Yet each contains seeds of opportunity (motivating the slight extension here to Pareto’s initially non-prescriptive observation).

Here’s an example, close to home. For years now, scientists have detected and decried signs of an apparent decline in the popular standing of science. In the United States, political leaders have called for draconian cuts in budgets for certain disciplines. Government scientists have seen their efforts to publish research stymied. Federal science advisory groups have been politicized. Court cases have attempted to walk back science-based regulation. Most egregiously, here in the United States, politics trumped science during much of the early approach to the pandemic. Reality, once considered the foundation of any kind of public dialog, today is all too often tossed aside. All this has been characterized by some scientists as active attack. Definitely a problem.

However, at the very same time, Americans are realizing that the country owes its unique standing in the world to more than its large geographic extent, wealth of natural resources, and the geopolitical protection provided by two oceans. What matters are the people: Americans have built a culture of innovation, advancing science and technology and their application to human benefit to a degree that has been the envy of the world.

Unsurprisingly, the rest of that world – that is, the remaining 96% of the world’s population – have taken note. Given their greater numbers, other nations are catching up. Sad to say, here in the United States, this has often been seen as yet another problem, meriting alarm. Some are calling for protectionist measures.

 Scientists, and most laypeople, see this as a losing strategy in the long run. Instead, they see in this global imitation an opportunity – to double down on investments in an institution that has been a powerful driver of U.S. innovation since World War II – the National Science Foundation.

In fact, not one but two proposals for strengthening NSF are currently on the table. The first dates back to the spring of 2020. Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) introduced the so-called Endless Frontiers Act, which proposed renaming NSF the National Science and Technology Foundation, creating a new Technology Directorate within the agency, and providing additional funding totaling $100B over five years. (Details, worth the read, can be found here.) More recently, the House Science Committee has introduced a (similarly bipartisan) NSF-for-the-Future Act, adding a Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions to the agency with a recommended annual budget starting at $1 billion in fiscal year 2022 and growing to $5 billion over five years. The House bill recommends a doubling of NSF’s overall budget over five years. Significantly, it also shifts the focus from technology per se to societal challenges more broadly, including

  • Climate change and environmental sustainability
  • Global competitiveness in critical technologies
  • Cybersecurity
  • National security
  • STEM education and workforce
  • Social and economic inequality.

(More details, again worth the read, can be found here.)

Bipartisan. Creating opportunities, not just reacting to problems. Looking ahead, not into the rear-view mirror. Balancing technological facts and societal needs. What’s not to like?

Truly a national conversation worth having.

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A closing note. The conversations, and fine tuning, and the hoped-for actual plus-ups in R&D investments are needed urgently. The United States contemplates trillion-dollar investments in U.S. infrastructure. Made strategically, accounting accurately for the impacts of environmental and societal trends underway throughout the infrastructure lifetime, such investments will provide Americans a rich return far exceeding the investment. But to fail to account for such factors, or to misjudge where climate and social trends are taking us because of inadequate environmental intelligence, will lead to waste and lower economic returns – losses we can ill afford. The sooner we answer some of the pressing questions embedded in the itemized list above, the better.


[1]I recall the quoted management principle as coming from the inimitable Peter Drucker, but couldn’t find Google support for that view just now, so have left it unattributed here.

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