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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
MITRE Corporation
MEDEA Fall 2000 Plenary Meeting
Science and National Policy
McLean, Virgina

November 29, 2000

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

[title slide: science and national policy] Use Back to Return to Speech.

Greetings to everyone. The previous discussions this morning and afternoon have been useful. Being a biologist, I interpret what I am hearing and seeing as an evolution taking place. The MEDEA that was first formed in 1992 and started at work in 1993 is beginning to "morph" into a 21st century version. I'd call it a sort of ecdysis that is underway.

In this period of jostling and uncertainty I think we can be certain of the continuing importance of the work of MEDEA.

The issues we're discussing transcend political boundaries, and the boundaries of nations. The global issues of emerging infectious diseases, global climate, food security, biotechnology, are issues that require long-term strategies and a new MEDEA.

I would like to just mention briefly how one part of MEDEA's efforts is already paying off--the work to open up classified material as a resource for scientific inquiry.

I'll move to the main part of my talk: a sketch of how the most fundamental areas of science and engineering--from mathematics to genomics--can have an immediate impact on addressing national priorities.

Finally I'll say a few words about how we've woven this synergy between basic and applied research into our planning at NSF.

[declassified satellite image of Dry Valleys] Use Back to Return to Speech.

I am showing you this satellite view of Antarctica's Dry Valleys just to give a flavor of the potential for civilian exploitation of classified data, particularly classified imagery.

Since we last met in plenary session, the National Science Foundation had the honor of hosting President Clinton at our Antarctic support facilities in Christchurch, New Zealand.

During his address on environmental policy, the President announced the release of some newly declassified imagery of Antarctica's Dry Valleys.

[Corona imagery pictures from Scott Borg's talk] Use Back to Return to Speech.

An earlier example is the "Corona" imagery from an intelligence satellite, which has now been declassified and has quickly become a widely used resource.

Here we have high quality data from three decades ago, from the 1960s, that is comparable to commercial satellite data from the 1990s. It is being used here to study Antarctica's ice sheets.

In a very real way this imagery gives us the ability to look back in time. (I would like to thank Scott Borg of NSF's Office of Polar Programs for this slide and the following one).

[SHEBA "NTM" {National technical means} imagery] Use Back to Return to Speech.

Here's another example, this time from the Arctic. We see some recently declassified imagery of sea ice structure that has proven useful in the SHEBA project.

SHEBA stands for Surface Heat Budget of the Arctic Ocean, and this imagery gives important information about the structure of sea ice. The leads of open water are key conduits of heat.

This information is used to model the heat exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere of the Arctic, in this region that is so critical to understanding climate change.

All of this imagery, and the science it enables, underscores my main point: how fundamental science and engineering dovetail with key national priorities.

I plan to highlight this dynamic through three general areas: mathematics, an area that we call biocomplexity, and the third, nanoscale science and engineering.

[MC Escher slide with EO Wilson quote] Use Back to Return to Speech.

We cannot go to a more fundamental dimension than mathematics, and yet we find that it has important applications to environmental research and, indeed, to all of science and engineering.

Mathematics is the ultimate cross-cutting discipline, the springboard for advances across the board.

I've symbolized this here with an observation from the biologist E. O. Wilson, who writes, "...mathematics seems to point arrowlike toward the ultimate goal of objective truth."

[a fractal image] Use Back to Return to Speech.

Fundamental mathematics engenders concepts and structures that often turn out to be just the right framework for applications in seemingly unrelated areas.

A good example, pictured here, is the fractal, a famous illustration of how inner principles of mathematics enable us to model many natural structures.

[monkey face graphic made of fractals] Use Back to Return to Speech.

Fractal sets like we see here can be used in computer graphics to build clouds, plants, or the surface of the sea. They are also a goldmine for medical modeling, of lungs or networks of blood vessels.

[rocket and neuron] Use Back to Return to Speech.

Newton's invention of calculus inaugurated a new role for mathematics: to enable mechanics to flourish and the physical sciences to thrive.

Today we watch mathematics empower new areas--biology, neuroscience, information technology, and nanotechnology, as represented by this nerve cell.

[weather prediction] Use Back to Return to Speech.

Mathematics is the key to prediction in many spheres, as we see in this example from meteorology.

Computing power at the terrascale, derived from mathematics, gives us the ability to predict storms on a finer scale.

In this map of Oklahoma, on the left the National Weather Service has missed the storm. On the right the prototype terrascale system predicts the storm.

[fantastic sea creatures derived from knot theory] Use Back to Return to Speech.

As a biologist I find the burgeoning two-way traffic between biology and mathematics especially exciting.

I use these fanciful images, in which knot theory gives form to fantastic sea creatures, to symbolize this interchange.

Not only is mathematics revolutionizing biology, but biology begins to foster new paradigms in mathematics.

The information science of life edges ever closer to electronic information science. Advances in understanding life may lead to new algorithms and new modes of computing, notably biological computing.

[cholera genome] Use Back to Return to Speech.

Here is an application of mathematics to biology dear to my own heart: the elucidation of the cholera genome.

I have studied this organism's relationship to its environment for most of my research career. Modern mathematics has helped us reach the brink of being able to predict, for the first time, the onset of cholera epidemics.

The sequencing of the human genome has also drawn upon sophisticated mathematics, and illustrates the onslaught of data we face not only in biology, but also in astronomy and elsewhere.

NSF's own math division director, Philippe Tondeur, puts it this way: "Data acquisition used to resemble drinking water from a tap, drop by drop. Now it has become more like drinking from a firehose."

[Nature magazine headline: "Recognition for mathematics is overdue"] Use Back to Return to Speech.

You may have seen this headline recently in the journal Nature: "Recognition for mathematics is overdue." The editorial said that "the whole of science--and society at large--will benefit" from boosting support for math.

[mathematical sciences in the U.S.] Use Back to Return to Speech.

The reality is, however, that our country's world leadership of mathematics is fragile. We've been relying on overseas talent and are not attracting enough U.S. students.

A few figures buttress the case: Fulltime math grad students have dropped by 21 percent, and U.S. citizens in graduate math dropped by 27 percent.

The support picture is dismal too: in 1997, only 12 percent of fulltime math grad students had research assistantships.

With the end of the Cold War, NSF's role in support of mathematics has become even more important. We provide about two-thirds of federal academic research support, and our share is growing.

But our grants in mathematics are small--much smaller than those in other theoretical physical sciences.

[MSI: Three Frontiers] Use Back to Return to Speech.

Our proposed new initiative in mathematics attacks this situation on three fronts. We propose to advance the fundamental mathematical sciences; accelerate mathematical interchange between the disciplines; and equip our students with mathematical skills and literacy.

I'll add that the program is still very much evolving, so the words are subject to change.

[biocomplexity] Use Back to Return to Speech.

Our initiative on biocomplexity seeks to probe both the physical and living realms of our world, and to trace their interconnections. Biocomplexity is a timely perspective because of the growing threats to our environment and the expanding capabilities of our science and technology.

Complexity gives us a perspective spanning all fields and all scales--a richness across different orders of magnitude. We know that many systems, such as ecosystems, do not respond linearly to environmental change.

Up to now, we have sought understanding by taking things apart into their components.

Now, at last, we begin to map out the interplay between parts of complex systems. In October we awarded new grants in this multiyear program.

[nano: three scales] Use Back to Return to Speech.

On still another front is our program at the Lilliputian level of the nanoscale, with NSF at the lead of a multiagency effort. These images help us to orient ourselves to this perspective.

At the left, you can see an atom, just a few tenths of a nanometer in diameter. In the middle, the DNA molecules are just 2.5 nanometers wide. To the right are red blood cells a few thousands of nanometers wide.

At this 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.

We are beginning to manipulate individual atoms and molecules. We're beginning to create materials and structures from the bottom up, the way nature does it.

Nanotechnology could change the way almost everything is designed, from medicine to computers to car tires. NSF proposes to focus its nano investment on five interrelated areas.

They are: biosystems, nanoscale structures, novel phenomena and quantum control, architecture of devices and systems, nanoscale processes in the environment, and the modeling.

[NSF's budget strategy] Use Back to Return to Speech.

We continually help break new ground through the research and education we support, but we can't let the knowledge generated lie fallow. The objective of connecting discovery to society is central to our work.

NSF's portfolio, by the very nature of our mission, must be large and diverse, addressing all fields and activities of science and engineering.

Our investments range from single investigator grants to small groups of investigators to large multi-purpose research centers.

In implementing our budget we have two major integrative strategies:

Strengthening Core Activities, and Supporting Major Initiatives.

Funding core activities keeps all the science and engineering disciplines strong. We fund those with the most creative and innovative ideas. These core activities also identify prospects for more intensive investment.

NSF is committed to fostering connections between discoveries and their use in the service to society.

A key strategy for accomplishing this is by supporting focused initiatives that enable NSF to center attention on national and global priorities. I've already described three our initiatives in mathematics, biocomplexity, and nanotechnology.

[Pressures on NSF Funding] Use Back to Return to Speech.

This chart highlights a few of these pressures and gives us some numbers to consider. These are important to keep in mind when additional investments are to be justified.

For the purpose of reference I have divided the forces on NSF funding into three categories.

The first is Process Improvements. Bolstering these activities will greatly enhance our investment return. The numbers to the right are estimates of the total increased costs to implement these suggestions across the board by FY 2005.

With these improvements researchers can spend more time on learning and discovery and less time on writing grant proposals.

Currently we are able to fund approximately one-third of the proposals we receive. Thirteen percent of the remainder are rated excellent or very good, but must be denied due to budgetary constraints.

The ability to fund these additional grants would go a long way in creating new discoveries and opportunities.

Furthermore, providing a reasonable stipend for graduate and postgraduate researchers and educators would insure that we do not lose bright young minds needed in science and engineering.

This proper compensation will attract a more diverse population into the science and engineering workforce.

The second category highlights some of the many calls for concerted national investment.

The first two of these areas are addressed in part by our information technology and biocomplexity initiatives.

Again, the numbers at the right represent the estimated costs for the NSF to implement these directives fully over the next four to five years.

Finally, I have listed emerging opportunities and noted their current levels of NSF funding this year as points of reference.

The total at the bottom provides us with a number to keep in mind as a starting point when we think of increasing investments.

However, these suggestions are merely academic if we do not effectively convey their importance to the public.

NSF-funded activities have the potential to reach a greater percentage of the American population than they do today.

We have the potential to meet a great need, as the world becomes increasingly complex and science and technology play an ever more prominent role.

[NSF: Where Discoveries Begin] Use Back to Return to Speech.

I believe that all of the science and engineering that we support has great actual or potential bearing on our national interest.

Although we cannot always foresee how our support will benefit the nation, in hindsight we can look back and see how it has happened.

We've seen how so much of NSF's portfolio serves as a foundation for areas of interest to MEDEA.

I will close by reemphasizing how important it is for us to keep taking the longer view, and for continuing to foster these connections between our science and our society.



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