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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"NSF: Looking Ahead"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Consortium of Social Science Associations

December 4, 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.

Good afternoon! Thank you so much for inviting me to be with you this afternoon. I'm honored to carry on a long tradition of NSF Directors speaking at COSSA Annual Meetings. COSSA and NSF have been working together for many years - and I hope that partnership will continue.

Your voices have been an important force in promoting of the value of research and education. And your help will be especially important as we work toward launching the new initiative in the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences. But more on that later.

Right now I'd like to thank Howard Silver. Over the years, he's done yeoman's work supporting science and engineering in general, and NSF in particular, wearing his other hat as CNSF President.

But you don't have to take my word for this! Here is Representative Ken Bentsen speaking on the House floor.

"Under his direction, the scientific community has brought the accomplishments of the National Science Foundation to a broad audience, explaining the many ways in which NSF-funded research has improved our understanding of the world and increased our standard of living."

So, thank you, Howard. Sam Rankin has big shoes to fill.

When Howard invited me to speak with you, he suggested that I talk about my plans for NSF in light of changes in the administration and Congress. I'm reminded that Benjamin Disraeli once said, "Finality is not the language of politics."

Disraeli said that in 1859, but I think we're learning that lesson all over again! I'm sure the political scientists and psychologists and sociologists among you will be busy unraveling the consequences of this election for a long time to come.

In a more serious vein, we know that elections bring many changes. They change styles of leadership and alter policies. But there are some forces that have a life of their own. The pervasive influence that science and technology are having on our lives is one of these forces.

In the past twenty-five years, our knowledge base has exploded, and the pace of science and technology has accelerated with it.

We're truly fortunate to be working at such a time. Important discoveries are being made every day, and new ones are just around the corner. But it isn't just knowing more about the world that's so gratifying. It's also putting this knowledge to use - to increase economic prosperity and social well being.

If you've ever studied the quotes on the walls of the Library of Congress, you may have seen the one that speaks to this. It's from Shakespeare and it reads:

"Knowledge is the wing whereby we fly to Heaven."

And this is an especially exciting time to be speaking with you about NSF. Our budget may not be bound for heaven, but it's on an upward trajectory. We've just received the largest budget increase in NSF's history - 13.6 percent - raising NSF's total budget to $4.4 billion. This percentage increase, if continued on an annual basis, would allow NSF to double its budget in about six years.

This increase is nonetheless just a beginning. Our scientific wings have been clipped for far too long. Larger investments are needed to repair the erosion that's occurred in the nation's fundamental research enterprise.

Let me show you what I mean.

Today, the average NSF grant is $93,000 dollars. In real terms, that's worth $1,000 dollars less than the average grant 40 years ago.

Each year, NSF receives about 30,000 proposals. We're able to invest in only about one-third of these. But there are real gems among those that we can't fund. 13 percent of these unfunded proposals are highly rated. That's a portfolio of nearly $1.5 billion in lost opportunities.

The average duration of NSF grants is 2.8 years - far too short. The average for the National Institutes of Health, by the way, is 4.1 years.

Put these items together, and it's no surprise we're all feeling like we're on a treadmill. Instead of spending time on research and in the classroom, we turn out proposal after proposal.

As you can see, we need a new kind of deficit reduction in this country. We need to reduce the cost to the nation of not pursuing promising ideas and proposals, and the cost of not supporting and training the nation's most talented researchers, students and educators. These lost opportunities will eventually translate into lost jobs, lost wealth, and lost possibilities to improve our every-day lives.

This next chart shows our estimate of the dollars that NSF will need to begin reducing this deficit. These are really modest increases.

The first group, called process improvements, gives estimates of what we need - over a five-year period - to remedy some of the ills I just described to you.

There is one figure here that I haven't mentioned, but it's absolutely essential. We'd like to increase the stipends for doctoral students and post docs by 50%. We hope this will go some way toward stemming the loss of students in science and engineering. Today's stipend levels qualify you for food stamps.

The next group highlights some of the many calls for concerted national investments in key areas.

The first two of these areas are addressed in part by our Information Technology and Biocomplexity initiatives. The numbers are what we estimate it would cost to implement these directives fully over the next four to five years.

Finally, I've 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.

These last areas remind us that we need to do more than increase grant size and duration. In addition we need to pursue research at the frontiers of discovery where the promise of returns is high.

In the recent past, these areas of emerging opportunity have included new initiatives in Information Technology Research, Biocomplexity in the Environment, Nanoscale Science and Engineering, and the 21st Century Workforce.

This year, we are proposing to increase our investment in nanotechnology and launch a new initiative - long overdue - in the mathematical sciences. As you all know, progress in mathematics is integral to every branch of science and engineering, including the social sciences.

Looking down the road, NSF will be proposing a new initiative in the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. Many of you here helped us craft this, and I'm sure you're all thinking: "It's about time!"

The figure you see in the overhead represents the current level of funding for research in the social sciences. We can all agree that it's not enough!

Let me point out that NSF has been fully aware of the needs of the social science community and the contributions it can make to each of these initiatives. There can be no question that the social sciences are an integral part of NSF's vision of research at the frontiers of discovery.

Let me explain what I mean.

There is an increasing need for interdisciplinary, multi-dimensional research that includes social, behavioral and economic components. Each of NSF's special initiatives addresses this need.

The Information Technology Research initiative is a good example. Last year we called on you to help us design a program of awards to strengthen the infrastructure of the social and behavioral sciences - databases, high-speed computers, and networking technologies.

This coming year NSF will expand support for research on the uses of information technology by society for both educational and economic purposes, and the resulting effects on people's lives.

This year, the Biocomplexity in the Environment Initiative will substantially increase the emphasis on human impacts on the environment and on decision-making.

In the 21st Century Workforce initiative, the main component will be a number of centers designed to integrate research on learning and research on IT-enabled learning tools. Research on cognition will be a critical component of this effort.

And in the Nanoscale Science and Engineering initiative, our next step will be to explore the potential impacts of nanotechnology on our institutions and our lives as human beings.

In each of these cases, new knowledge in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences will help us construct a picture of our world that is more comprehensive and complete. NSF will continue to integrate research in these disciplines into other areas of investigation.

Important as all of these activities are, the time is also ripe for a special focus on the social sciences. The opportunities to advance research have never been greater.

With new tools and new forms of collaboration, we can expect advances that can transform our understanding of our societies, our institutions, and ourselves.

How we learn, how we make decisions, how we plan, how we adapt to change, what institutions and systems best meet human needs and reduce risks to ourselves and the environment - these are just a few of the areas that research can enlighten. After all, these very human activities will determine the shape and tone of our future.

Through workshops and consultations with many of you and other leaders in the SBE community, NSF has begun to reach a consensus on the broad outlines of a new NSF initiative in the social sciences.

Let me briefly describe our current thinking about this initiative, which is still being crafted.

Change, driven by technological innovation, has become a central feature of our lives.

I said before that as scientists we are fortunate to be living at a time when new knowledge and the technological innovation it drives are exploding.

For the most part, we can view these changes with optimism and hope because they have the potential to increase our prosperity and improve the quality of our lives.

But we may also find ourselves dismayed by the frenzied pace of change. In part, we are unnerved because we know far too little about how the transformations that technology is fueling will affect our lives, our families, our institutions, and our futures.

The idea behind the new initiative is really quite simple. We humans continually create and employ technologies. We are doing so today at a pace unmatched in the past. These technologies in turn have a wide variety of impacts on the humans who use them and on the world in which we live. Understanding the diverse and complex links between humans and technology is the kernel of the new initiative. The growing complexity and interdependence of the world of human affairs makes this a challenging task, but all the more necessary.

Let me say that I'm impressed by the richness of the possibilities for advancing knowledge in the social sciences. We certainly aren't short on fresh ideas as we sit down at the drawing board.

We desperately need a renaissance in the study of human thought and action. Not all of the changes human beings bring about are positive. All of us are looking to the social sciences to help us make the knowledgeable choices that will guide us down the path to a successful future. New knowledge can vastly increase our menu of options.

Let me mention several broad themes in fundamental research that could help us along the way.

Looking more closely at the process of innovation is one place to start. We know that innovation, fueled by knowledge, is a key to economic growth. Understanding what stimulates and what hinders innovation could help us realize the full potential of technology to increase prosperity.

Along the same lines, research on learning and cognition can help us increase the benefits of technology. Understanding how people process information could help us design computers that fit human needs like a well-worn glove. That would make the benefits of information technology more widely accessible, and it will help us realize its full power to transform education.

Technological change is occurring today at a faster pace and over a broader scale than ever before in history. We face a substantial challenge in understanding how people respond and adapt to these changes.

And we often know too little about what changes to expect from technological change. Illuminating the social, economic, and environmental effects of new technologies would give us a better guide to the potential risks and benefits.

Finally, all of these efforts can be enhanced by the development of improved methodologies throughout the social sciences.

This all too brief description can only give you a preview of coming attractions. It is all still evolving. I know we'll continue to rely on all of you for help in forging the final plan.

Before I conclude, I want to make clear that all of this goes to the heart of NSF's mission and vision. This year we have begun to implement a new NSF five-year strategic plan. It lays out an updated vision for NSF.

It is clear and simple: "Enabling the nation's future through discovery, learning, and innovation." Not long ago, you would likely not have seen the word innovation in a vision statement for NSF. Now it's there - side-by-side with learning and discovery.

To move toward the realization of this vision, we have identified NSF's three strategic goals. They are summed up by three key words: People, Ideas and Tools.

We continually help break new ground through the research and education we support, but we can't let the new knowledge generated lie fallow.

NSF is as much about preparing a world-class workforce as it is about discovery. That's a primary benefit from our support of academic research ...and that's been the intent for NSF since its start.

And the tools - the research platforms, databases and computer facilities - open up the new vistas and frontiers for learning and discovery and innovation.

This brings me to my final point, and takes me full circle to the missed opportunities I talked about earlier.

It has never been easy to explain to those outside the scientific community why fundamental research not only deserves their support, but why it should be at the top of the national agenda.

NSF will need every bit of help you can offer in making this message sing for the new initiative in the social sciences. I know that you and your colleagues can do that eloquently. And I urge you to do it often!

Thank you so much.



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