NSF & Congress
Dr. Rita Colwell
National Science Foundation
Before the House Committee on Science
Subcommittee on Basic Research
September 28, 1999
Chairman Smith, members of the subcommittee, thank
you for inviting me to testify at this important hearing.
Mr. Chairman, today's hearing on the benefits of basic
research is both appropriate and timely. The approach
of the new millennium brings with it the 50th anniversary
of the National Science Foundation. We therefore welcome
this opportunity to discuss how NSF has promoted progress
across our society and how we can all be confident
that NSF's investments deliver a high return to the
My testimony today will cover three general topics.
- First, I will share just a few highlights from
NSF's many historical accomplishments. These highlights
speak directly to the sources of growth and job
creation in today's economy.
- Second, I will examine trends related to the health
and vitality of current investments in basic research.
- Finally, I will describe a number of specific
activities at NSF that promote the connections
necessary to ensure that today's advances in basic
research become tomorrow's sources of innovation
Many commentators have recognized the importance of
basic research to our health, welfare and economy.
All signs are that advances in knowledge have driven
one-half of the growth in the U.S. economy since the
close of World War II. It is only in recent years,
however, that we have witnessed the incredible payoffs
that flow from patient and sustained investments in
the pursuit of fundamental knowledge.
This fact was brought home quite vividly by the covers
on the September 27 issues of two of America's leading
news magazines. Both Time and Business Week feature
cover stories on the E-conomy -- the dot-coms and
Internet-based companies that are reshaping the economic
landscape. The articles describe in detail the impact
the Internet has had on all forms of commerce -- from
soup to nuts, literally.
It is significant in itself that neither article mentions
NSF or the other Federal agencies that launched this
great information revolution.
- It was only 30 years ago this past September 2
that very first message was sent via what became
the ARPANET. At the time, e-mail was an afterthought.
The primary goal was to give researchers access
to what were then leading-edge computing facilities.
- The NSFNet of the 1980's was the first true network
of networks, hence the term, internet. Indeed,
it was David Mills, an NSF grantee at the University
of Delaware, who made it possible to have one
Internet as opposed to a Tower of Babel of competing
electronic networks. Mills developed the first
widely-used Internet routers -- the gateways and
switches that guide the bits and bytes of data
around the globe at the speed of light. That's
why many people say NSF put the "inter" in Internet.
When we look back even further into NSF's history,
we find equally compelling examples of the impact
of basic research. Recombinant DNA technology is a
At the time of the founding of NSF in 1950, the study
of genetics was in a period that by today's standards,
can best be described as the Genetic Stone Age. Indeed
at that time, the structure of the DNA molecule had
yet to be discovered. Many scientists were highly
skeptical that there could be a molecular basis for
One of the very first grants NSF ever awarded was to
Dr. Max Delbruck, for a study entitled "Mechanisms
Underlying Genetic Recombination in Bacteria." The
results of Delbruck's work and teaching contributed
to the rise of modern molecular genetics.
One of Delbruck's students, Dr. James Watson, went
on to discover the structure of the DNA molecule --
for which he and Francis Crick won the Nobel Prize
in 1962. Delbruck himself won the Nobel Prize in 1969
and another Delbruck student, Renato Delbecco, with
David Baltimore and Howard Temin, won a Nobel Prize
in 1975 for their adaptation of Delbruck's techniques
to the study of animal viruses.
Today we are reaping the fruits of this important early
work. We are in the midst of an age of genomics, the
biotechnology industry is a multibillion dollar industry,
and the United States is the world leader in biotechnology
with applications from agriculture to aquaculture
to pharmaceutics. The genomics revolution is enabling
the study of whole genomes rather than single genes,
giving us a perspective on living systems that we've
never had before.
This particular example brings to light one aspect
of the impact of basic research that we often overlook.
NSF's Engineering Directorate recently sponsored a
set of studies on today's leading technologies: areas
like cell phones, fiber optics, and computer assisted
design. It's well known that the great majority of
the seminal work in these areas was performed by private
industry -- at labs like Corning, AT&T, and Motorola.
Does that mean that NSF had no role? Hardly. When you
go back and look at the work, a clear pattern emerges.
Scientists and engineers who went to graduate school
on NSF fellowships and research assistantships often
brought the key insights to industry. In a number
of cases, they became the entrepreneurs who created
new firms and markets.
To use the words of the authors of the study -- "NSF
emerges consistently as a major -- often the
major, source of support for education and training
of the Ph.D. scientists and engineers who went on
to make major contributions...." [emphasis in original]
This diverse array of advances and discoveries compels
us to pay close attention to the current context for
research in America. We know that our economy is the
envy of the world. Its continuing growth is being
fueled primarily by expansions in the service sector
and in the information technology industry.
The current R&D funding environment, however, sends
decidedly mixed signals about prospects for sustained
growth and innovation. To use the words of the National
Science Board, "The nation's S&E enterprise is undergoing
changes in structure and priorities as we prepare
to enter the next century."
R&D funding patterns have changed substantially.
The good news is that total national R&D funding
has never been higher. It now amounts to more than
$240 billion. That's up almost 9 percent over the
Just as important for policy-makers, however, is the
shift in shares for Federal and industry investments.
Industry now provides nearly 70 percent of our total
national investment in R&D.
The Federal government provides barely more than one-fourth
of the total. A decade ago, the federal share was
46 percent. Three decades ago, the federal share was
Some have looked at these data and said, all is well.
The economy is strong; employment is growing. Why
can't we rest on our laurels?
The answer to that question becomes clear when we examine
the growing linkage between industrial innovation
and public investments in research.
You may be familiar with the now-famous study by Dr.
Francis Narin and his colleagues at CHI Research.
It was featured in the 1998 National Science Board
report, Industry Trends in Research Support and Links
to Public Research. NSF has helped to fund Dr. Narin's
work as part of our biennial publication, "Science
and Engineering Indicators."
Dr. Narin's study demonstrates the linkage between
patents granted in the U.S. system and research published
in the scientific literature. When we ask where the
knowledge that drives innovation comes from, the answer
is clear. It comes predominately from publicly-supported
research. Nearly two-thirds of the papers on cited
on recent U.S. patents were published by organizations
primarily supported by public funding.
Just as important is that the rate of these linkages
is increasing dramatically. Nearly 50,000 citations
on U.S. patents issued in 1996 referred to scientific
and technical articles. That has increased more than
five-fold since 1988. Private industry is increasingly
dependent on academic research and other publicly-supported
The federal government alone has the ability to make
the long-term investments needed to sustain the remarkable
growth and progress we are enjoying today as a society.
This was best expressed by the Council on Competitiveness
in the report, Going Global, that it released late
The Council consists of CEOs, R&D managers, and
top officials from over 120 leading corporations,
universities, and government agencies. They came to
a clear consensus on the need for increased public
investment in fundamental research and education.
To quote: "For the past 50 years, most, if not all,
of the technological advances have been directly linked
to improvements in fundamental understanding. Investment
in discovery research creates the seedcorn for future
innovation. Government at all levels is the mainstay
of the nation's investment in science and engineering
The Council went on to add that: "Most [industrial]
R&D managers are investing with an eye on the
bottom line, but more than a handful wonder from where
the next generation of breakthrough technologies will
This brings me to the third and final section of my
testimony, Mr. Chairman -- how NSF encourages the
connections and partnership that link the pursuit
of knowledge with those who are best able to apply
it and put it to use.
NSF's strategic plan directly addresses this point
-- as expressed by our second outcome goal: "Connections
between discoveries and their use in service to society."
We have specified in our FY2000 performance plan that
realizing this goal will mean that "the results
of NSF awards are rapidly and readily available and
feed, as appropriate, into education, policy development,
or use by other federal agencies or the private sector."
This will occur through an array of activities. The
connection between the new knowledge that results
from basic research and future applications is perhaps
most clearly exemplified in NSF's center activities.
Nearly 1500 companies participate as partners at NSF
sponsored centers. These represent not only high technology
firms, but also financial services, insurance, and
pharmaceuticals companies. NSF's support of the Small
Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business
Technology Transfer (STTR) are also obvious examples
of the nexus between basic research and applications.
But less obvious examples are equally important. One
of the best links between leading edge scientific
and engineering thinking and solutions to real world
problems occurs when a business hires a college graduate
who has had a chance to work on an NSF funded research
project. Twenty thousand graduate students and nearly
30,000 undergraduates are directly involved in NSF
programs and activities every year. NSF programs such
as Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry
are designed specifically to provide cross-fertilization
between academic researchers and industry engineers
The research investments that NSF makes do not end
with the individual investigator who receives a NSF
grant, the graduate student trained in the latest
techniques, or the small business with an SBIR award.
These investments are catalysts. They shape our economic
future through new knowledge that pays for itself
again and again and again.
Other forms of government policies are also vital to
U.S. technological leadership. Governments can encourage
collaboration and nurture the sharing of knowledge.
They can permit heretofore restricted activities and
offer incentives to move in risk-taking directions.
For example, in 1980, when the U.S. was at its highest
distress over competition from Japan, the federal
government initiated policy changes that over time
have fostered our current innovative posture. One
of the problems was that our national system of investment
in science and technology was dedicated to strengthening
our national security and winning the Cold War. Private
sector companies - outside of military contractors
- had little access to innovations produced in federal
The creation of technology transfer statutes such as
the Stevenson-Wydler Innovation Act and the Bayh-Dole
Act, both championed by the Science Committee in the
1980's, were important milestones. Their concepts
were simple but their impact considerable. Stevenson-Wydler
made it government policy to move technologies out
of the nation's over 700 national laboratories.
The goal was to get the technology into the hands of
those who could turn it into marketable products or
processes. What started as a trickle turned into a
In the process, Stevenson-Wydler changed the culture
in both government and industry. The old barriers
and suspicions between the two sectors began to weaken.
There was an increasing sense of the two sectors sharing
common goals of boosting innovation and productivity.
With the Bayh-Dole Act, we saw a first step in broadening
U.S. patent policy. In particular, it gave universities,
doing research under government contract, the right
to keep the technologies they had developed and seek
patents for them in their own names.
This was a sea change in government policy. It helped
reverse the pattern of mass accumulation of government
technologies that then languished in the forgotten
land of archiving and storage. It also opened a new
entrepreneurial path for university and government
researchers to begin marketable ventures of their
In essence, the government was trying to change its
own long-held rules in recognition that the times
had changed, and that survival required a new game
In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, let me add that NSF's
has a had a proud history of investing in the best
people, the most imaginative ideas, and the most innovative
tools. All of this is done with an eye toward their
potential use in service to society.
We of course know we cannot rest on our laurels. We
will have even more exciting opportunities in the
future because of research that we are investing in
- Nanotechnology is allowing us to build machines
so small that they are rapidly approaching the
scale of human cells. Consider: a nanometer is
to an inch what an inch is to 400 miles. We are
on the verge of building machines on that scale.
- New devices based on quantum computing or DNA
computing could make the information revolution
of today look like a paltry beginning.
- And, understanding of the social and cultural
impacts of technological change could change the
scope and manner in which new technologies are
Last year's National Science Policy Report - produced
under the leadership of the House Science Committee
Chairman Sensenbrenner and Vice Chairman Ehlers -
captured this very point.
"The federal investment in science has yielded
stunning payoffs. It has spawned not only new
products, but also entire industries. To build
upon the strength of the research enterprise we
must make federal research funding stable and
substantial, maintain diversity in the federal
research portfolio, and promote creative, groundbreaking
We are very proud of the impact of NSF-supported basic
research over the agency's first 50 years. With your
support and the Congress' support, Mr. Chairman, the
next 50 years promise to bring even greater rewards
to all Americans.