"Looking to 2001 and Beyond"
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
University Research Association, Inc.
January 27, 2000
I last met with you as a group nearly a year ago, and
I am delighted to be here once again.
As recently as yesterday morning, I was worried the
weather would keep us apart.
You might recall that when we last met, it was just
after the release of the President's budget
for the current fiscal year. On this occasion, I find
myself in a slightly different situation. I am speaking
to you 11 days before the budget is to be released.
That isn't all. I'm sure you are aware that this evening
the President delivers his State of the Union address
to Congress. Now I've learned enough in my year or
so at the Foundation that you don't get out ahead
of your boss or Congress.
Thus, in any other year, I wouldn't be able to say
much about the main subject on our minds: the funding
outlook. But, the President made it easier for all
of us last Friday when he announced the major initiative
for research and development.
It provides a real shot in the arm for the R in R&D,
and most importantly, for the work of the Foundation.
I've always said that my biggest challenge as NSF Director
is to strengthen the core disciplines while moving
forward in interdisciplinary areas. This budget meets
that challenge. It does both, and does both well.
Let me briefly review the highlights of what the President
- It begins with a $3 billion increase in the 21st
Century Research Fund. That's the bottom line
for the core S&T programs across the government.
- The centerpiece of this investment is a $675 million
increase for NSF. That's not just the largest
dollar increase in our history, it's actually
double the largest increase ever proposed.
- It's a jump of 17.3 percent.
- This would put us around $4.6 billion, a pretty
good number for our 50th anniversary.
Finally, and this for all of us in this room is probably
the most significant news, nearly half of our increase
will be money available for what we often call core
Half of the increase, over $300 million, is not tied
to any of the focused initiatives. That gives us the
flexibility we've been seeking for years.
One commentator wrote that the budget news has put
a new bounce in my step. To tell the truth that's
an understatement. I've got more bounce than Michael
Jordan right now.
Coming back down to Earth: we've all been around Washington
long enough not to count any budget proposal as a
slam-dunk. There's a lot of support for R&D on the
Hill, and it remains strongly bipartisan, even in
an election year. But, we will have to work together
as never before to make this record increase a reality.
The starting point for making this happen is understanding
why it happened. We need to step back and ask what
factors led to this dramatic show of support for NSF
and fundamental research? In other words, how did
we do it?
The answer is still forming in my mind, but I see it
as the result of two sets of forces.
- There were a number of forces that pushed
things in the right direction: the strong economy,
a growing awareness of funding trends, and finally,
our rapid improvement as a community in explaining
the benefits of fundamental research to society.
- Then, there were powerful pulls from
emerging opportunities. They are what has captured
everyone's imagination. I'll discuss them in a
Without a doubt, one of the most powerful pushes came
from the man who works just a few doors down: Alan
Greenspan. When he said, "something special is happening
in the U.S. economy" - and it's happening because
of science and technology - people sat up and took
That ended the argument over whether the information
revolution was just a fad or was truly a fundamental
That got the attention of people at higher pay grades,
and it made it possible for the rest of us, working
together, to be heard and to build awareness. All
around Washington, people's eyes stopped glazing over
when we presented our arguments. The key was that
it was truly a team effort.
We could talk about the importance of engineering and
the physical science to heath care, and people took
notice. They know we've been saying that at NSF for
years. This year, they started to hear about it from
the head of Pfizer.
We could talk about the mix of public and private funding
in our national portfolio and why it matters. Industry
R&D may be growing at a record rate, but its dependence
on public investments is growing even faster. We had
the charts and graphs with patent data and other indicators
to show this.
Even better was that we had CEOs lining up with you
and your colleagues in academe through the Council
on Competitiveness and other forums. Both ends of
Pennsylvania Avenue listened when we all spoke with
One final push came from the S&E community as a whole.
We're finally learning how to make a consistent, unified
case for investments in fundamental research and education.
We still have lots of work to do on this score, but
we're getting there. It has been exciting to watch
this take shape across our various communities, and
I thank all of you for helping to make it happen.
This year, our combined efforts will be needed more
That brings me to the factors that pulled the debate
forward. As, I said, the various pushes got everyone's
attention. That's only half the battle. We also had
to generate excitement about future investment opportunities.
I can't go into great detail on the budget and the
various initiatives until all the documents are released
on February 7. I, nevertheless, can give you a good
sense of the overall framework plus a few highlights.
We can start with Information Technology Research.
You know this as the initiative that grew out of the
PITAC report. It's now underway, and the response
has been overwhelming -- literally.
The first solicitation brought 2,400 pre-proposals.
They came from all disciplines: not just computer
scientists, but also mathematics, physics, psychology,
the social sciences, educators, and even a number
of artists as well.
That's the kind of creativity and imagination we were
hoping to inspire, and that the nation needs. This
highlights the overall goals we've outlined in the
budget. They pose great research challenges. I'll
mention just two examples.
In the past, our system architectures could handle
hundreds of processors. Now, we are working with systems
of 10,000 processors. We know, in a very short time,
we'll be hooking millions of systems and billions
of "information appliances" up to the Internet. We
need new methods and theories to develop the architectures
for scaling up to these levels.
Next, consider how we represent information. A visual
bit is not the same as an audio bit or a textual bit.
And, they all differ depending on the content and
the context. We therefore need a new kind of information
theory -- one that incorporates these different types
Like the ITR initiative, the Biocomplexity in the Environment
Initiative has gotten off to a great start. We've
had special competitions in FY99 and 2000 that focused
on bringing together interdiscplinary teams to model
the complexity that arises from the interaction of
biological, physical and social systems.
In FY2001, we be able to greatly enhance this framework.
I'll just mention one area we see as especially promising:
- We'll be expanding our knowledge of geomicrobiology:
which means examining the Earth's crust as a microbial
habitat. This research should lead to greater
understanding of a range of phenomena, from the
recovery of secondary oil supplies to the bioremediation
of contaminated acquifers.
The key to all of this is reliance on cutting-edge
capabilities: such as genomics, molecular sequencing,
informatics, robotics, remote sensing, and advanced
mathematics and modeling.
Next is Nanoscale Science and Engineering. This is
NSF's contribution to the National Nanotechnology
This effort is truly inspiring. One nanometer (one
billionth of a meter) is a magical point on the dimensional
scale. Nanostructures are at the confluence of the
smallest of human-made devices and the large molecules
of living systems.
- Individual atoms are around a few angstroms in
diameter -- a few tenths of a nanometer.
- Ten shoulder-to-shoulder hydrogen atoms (blue
balls) span 1 nanometer. DNA molecules are about
2.5 nanometers wide.
- Biological cells, like red blood cells, have diameters
in the range of thousands of nanometers. These
are approaching the same scale as micro-electrical
mechanical systems. This means we are now at the
point of connecting machines to individual cells.
One priority area is biological nanotechnology -- a.k.a.
Much of the photosynthesis that powers forests unfolds
inside tiny cellular power houses called chloroplasts.
These contain nanoscale molecular machinery (including
pigment molecules like chlorophyll) arranged inside
stacked structures, called thylakoid disks, that convert
light and carbon dioxide into bio-chemical energy.
Call it what you want -- that's a power supply.
We are already seeing the impact of these emerging
capabilities and trends on the workplace.
According to a recent U.S. News cover story on jobs
and job titles:
- Today, if you're working in accounting - the odds
are you'll have E-commerce in your title.
- In agriculture - the hot career tracks are in
- If you're in telecommunications - you'll need
to understand broadband architectures.
- The construction industry is looking for smart
The list goes on. What's clear is that emerging technologies
aren't just for researchers anymore. They touch every
sector and every institution.
This all speaks to the importance of NSF's investments
in what we call the 21st Century Workforce.
We are emphasizing three areas:
- Number one is understanding the nature
of learning. There is amazing work taking place
here. It links the cognitive sciences and the
- Then, we are connecting this to the development
of the instructional workforce -- our teachers.
- Built into all of this will be activities
that boost the participation of underrepresented
The goal is to get our entire society ready for the
Right now, we're looking at a society of information
haves and have-nots. That has to change -- if we are
I want to close with a few words about the Foundation's
50th Anniversary, because this budget proposal
carries special significance in the context of NSF's
history. It is a record setting increase. And, best
of all, it is a budget that reflects the lessons of
It focuses on national priorities, as it must. But,
this investment also recognizes that one of our highest
national priorities must always be to stay at the
leading-edge of science and engineering across the
board. Over half of the increased funding is for just
Whenever we tell the story of NSF, we continually cite
the benefits of fundamental research. It's a familiar
list: MRIs, lasers, the Internet, Doppler radar, and
These advances almost draw upon a multitude of disciplines.
We know MRIs emerged from chemistry and physics, but
we forget that they never would have become what they
are without advanced mathematics. Doppler radar pushed
the limits of atmospheric science, information science,
and engineering - and opened new frontiers in each.
That's why we have made such a strong push to boost
grant size and duration and bring on more young investigators.
It's all about shoring up the base - and being true
to our history.
We couldn't ask for a better way to mark NSF's 50th
Anniversary. With all of you, working together, we
can get NSF's second 50 years off to a great start.