"NSF: Looking Ahead"
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Consortium of Social Science Associations
December 4, 2000
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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
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
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
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
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
The total at the bottom provides us with a number to
keep in mind as a starting point when we think of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.