"The Wellspring of Discovery"
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
University of Washington
June 9, 2000
Greetings to everyone, and thank you for your introduction.
I will begin, as befits an anniversary celebration,
with a look back in time.
As you know, the National Science Foundation is celebrating
its 50th anniversary, and it is truly a
pleasure to be commemorating that event together.
It's also an honor to be serving as NSF Director at
We see here the poster created in honor of our anniversary.
The half-century mark gives us the opportunity to
reflect upon NSF's role as a generator of discoveries
and provides inspiration to probe frontiers we can
only begin to envision.
Fifty years ago, on January 4, 1950, President Harry
S. Truman delivered his State of the Union message.
By the way, that speech is wonderful to read over again
because it is full of the tenor of the times, conveying
a sense of opportunity but also a recognition of being
poised before a fateful choice. I would like to read
you a short excerpt from that speech:
"The human race has reached a turning point," he
said. "Man has opened the secrets of nature and
mastered new powers. If he uses them wisely, he
can reach new heights of civilization. If he uses
them foolishly, they may destroy him...Government
has the responsibility to see that our country
maintains its position in the advance of science."
He then called for the creation of a "National Science
That following May-on May 10, 1950-President Truman's
train stopped in Pocatello, Idaho, and that was where
he signed S-247-the act that created NSF.
By the way, we recently learned that the mayor of Pocatello
officially named May 10, 2000, as "National Science
Foundation Day." So, when you're in Pocatello, raise
a toast to NSF!
NSF received its first real budget in 1952. Here we
see grant "number one." The first NSF grant, for $10,300
over three years, went to Sidney Weinhouse at Philadelphia's
Institute for Cancer Research.
Since then, besides the transition from a budget of
three-and-a-half million dollars to one of almost
$4 billion, we have seen major changes over these
fifty years in how the federal government supports
science and technology.
We've moved from a massive infusion into physics and
engineering to a recognition that all disciplines
must be nourished.
We have watched science and engineering become a truly
We have watched disciplinary boundaries established
for convenience now receding in significance, with
some perhaps disappearing altogether.
We are watching information technology drive our progress
and accelerate the intersection of the disciplines.
I have come to view NSF not so much as a government
agency but rather as a source of ideas and discovery,
as a wellspring, if you will, of creativity.
Our role at NSF is not so much to sustain as to spark
The 50-year mark is an appropriate juncture at which
to consider what impact NSF has had as a generator
of discoveries. Let us begin by putting the agency
Of the national research and development expenditures,
the federal government accounts for barely one-fourth
of the pie.
Furthermore, NSF is a small player here-accounting
for only 3.5% of total federal investment in research
It is a very important 3.5%, however, because it underwrites
nearly one-quarter of all federal support for basic
research at academic institutions.
We can look at one increasingly familiar measure of
success: patent citations.
In archival journals, nearly two-thirds of the papers
cited on patents were published by organizations primarily
supported by public funding. The lion's share refer
to articles originating in academe.
It's one measure of how publicly funded research produces
the knowledge that spurs innovation.
We also see the heightened connections between university
and industrial science.
Even as industry spends more on research, its dependence
upon publicly funded research has grown even faster.
At the same time, we see that the National Institutes
of Health receives over half of the federal academic
But that will continue to work only if we maintain
a healthy foundation of basic science and engineering
research from which the life sciences can draw.
One more chart: This one shows some major disciplines,
and where their federal funding comes from.
While NIH is concentrating on the biomedical sciences
and psychology, NSF is building up computer science,
basic engineering, and the physical sciences.
In the non-medical areas of the life sciences, NSF
provides the majority of federal support.
Our support is truly the wellspring into which other
fields can tap.
With the worrisome slowdown in funding for mathematics
and physical science, however, with the shares out
of balance, we must ask whether it is possible to
deplete pools of knowledge.
It is instructive to look at some of the discoveries
we can trace back to NSF.
As the agency has grown, the rivulets flowing from
the source of fundamental research have turned into
rivers following unexpected courses.
We can trace the channels formed by ideas as they gathered
enough momentum to carve pathways for new ways of
I would like to recount just a few of these stories,
emphasizing at the same time that these are only examples
drawn from a wealth of discoveries we could enumerate.
Internet: It's ironic that so few people realize that
key advances in Internet technology were spurred by
federally funded research.
What we know today as the Internet grew from predecessors
in the 1980s and earlier, notably ARPANET and NSFNet.
The high-speed backbone called NSFNet was a research
and education network, used to link our supercomputer
centers to universities.
It helped to demonstrate the effectiveness of networking
technology. Now, millions use the Internet daily.
During this same early period, scientists and students
from NSF's supercomputer center at the University
of Illinois developed the first Web browser, Mosaic.
That browser moved the Internet from the realm of esoteric
university research to public communication and commerce.
PCR: We turn to the hot springs of Yellowstone National
Park for another example of an unexpected outcome:
the development of PCR, or the Polymerase Chain Reaction.
This technique, developed in the private sector, is
used in molecular biology to clone a small fragment
of DNA and produce multiple copies.
The technique we call DNA fingerprinting has wide application
in genetic mapping, medicine, forensic science, and
even tracking environmental pollution.
The polymerase used today was extracted from a heat-resistant
bacterium. The organism was isolated from a Yellowstone
hot spring, through NSF-funded research.
Thomas Brock of Indiana University found bacterium
while working out of a trailer in the park.
Eye laser: Here's another serendipitous story. We see
pictured here the standard procedure for cornea repair,
the "flap and zap."
At the top, a mechanical blade cuts a flap of cornea.
Then, an eximer laser removes tissue; at the bottom,
the flap is replaced.
The problem is the coarseness of the initial cut. A
solution was discovered entirely by accident.
In 1993, a student was conducting research at the University
of Michigan on a femtosecond laser.
This laser emits light roughly a billion times faster
than an electronic camera flash.
While the student was working, the ultrafast laser
accidentally entered his eye, and he was rushed to
The examining doctor was amazed to find a perfectly
round laser burn-far more precise than the slower-pulse
lasers the surgeons had been using. The examining
physician said, "You're fine. But tell us about this
The use of the femtosecond laser is now in the clinical
El Niņo: Sorting out the irregular oscillation of the
atmospheric and ocean conditions that we call El Niņo
is another success story.
In the early 20th century, British mathematician
Gilbert Walker first noticed the link between atmospheric
pressure in the eastern South Pacific and the Indian
Ocean-with the failure of the monsoon rains in India.
But unraveling this puzzle required advances in technology-both
in computing techniques and the gathering of massive
observational data sets.
It also took the coming together of atmospheric and
ocean scientists to reveal El Niņo's secret.
Today, we can warn the populations at risk in Indonesia,
Ecuador, or California months in advance that droughts,
rains, and other severe conditions are on the way.
Tracing the complexity of our world is a challenge.
It's one of our achievements that is more diffuse,
with pay-offs that we're just beginning to explore.
The prize, though, is nothing short of mapping the
underlying order of the universe.
The herd of zebras here symbolizes this concept to
The perspective of complexity, with its mathematical
underpinnings, helps us to see into both the physical
and the living realms, and to probe their interconnections.
Complexity brings insight into many worlds, from artificial
intelligence to economics, from ecology to materials
science, and beyond.
It gives us a perspective spanning all fields and all
scales-a richness across different orders of magnitude.
We now 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
the parts of complex systems.
Even more important than the ideas and the technologies
flowing from NSF's efforts are the individuals whose
lives and education and work that we have enriched
by our activities.
Here is one measure of return on our investment. In
the last 25 years, we have funded 78 researchers who
subsequently went on to win Nobel Prizes in their
That number breaks down to 27 in physics, 22 in chemistry,
13 in physiology and medicine, and 16 in economics.
We can take a more comprehensive look at our impact.
Today, we estimate broadly that nearly 200,000 people
each year participate directly in NSF programs and
That includes researchers, postdoctoral students, undergraduates,
and K-12 students and teachers.
In another growing realm-that of informal science education-our
support flows to much greater numbers of people.
Projects we support at museums, science centers, and
planetaria touch about 50 million people.
The figure doubles to 100 million for the audiences
of radio, television, and film programs on science.
Let's take just one example-the children's television
series called "The Magic School Bus." In its heyday
it was carried by 300 public television stations in
the United States.
Over three million children watched the show weekly.
It was the top-ranked series among young people.
It was such a success that it's now being picked up
by commercial stations.
Some of our institutional approaches have had a very
measurable impact on people. Our Engineering Research
Centers-now 15 years old-span all areas of science
and engineering. From the very start they promoted
a new culture of integrated research and education.
Students have industrial mentors, while industry representatives
work within the centers.
In fact, the ERCs are now recognized as the "flagship"
of a new kind of engineering education.
The numbers of patents and inventions and spin-off
firms are impressive. But we've also conducted a number
of surveys of companies that partner with the centers.
We've asked them about the benefits they receive. Forty
percent of the firms said that one of the most significant
benefits was hiring students who gained experience
at the center.
This finding speaks to a much larger result of basic
Employers say that center students understand industry
better, get up to speed more quickly, communicate
better, and are more adept at cross-disciplinary approaches.
Now comes the hard part. These successes give us an
all-too-tempting invitation to rest on our laurels.
Our surveys document strong interest by the public
At the same time, we see skepticism, sometimes outright
anxiety, about a host of areas-from genetically modified
foods specifically to technology generally.
We see the popularity of programs such as the "X-Files"
and the adherence to astrology.
Just as disturbing is the fact that many of those kids
who climbed aboard the Magic School Bus before kindergarten
have climbed off when they reach middle school.
All of these issues sketch the larger dimensions of
the challenge we face. The coming years will be anything
but business as usual.
The global economy is changing too rapidly for any
of us to stand still. In this new economy, information
has moved to center stage, and knowledge has become
the currency of everyday life.
To date, we have managed quite comfortably by relying
on imported talent.
As a firm believer in the internationalization of research,
I have and will continue to voice my support for cooperative
activities and exchanges of all kinds.
I nevertheless believe that we should also consider
the words of Demetrious Papademetriou of the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace.
In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, he
reminded us that our reliance on imported talent is
at best a short-term strategy.
In his words, "...the rest of the developed world is
waking up to the fact that America's cherry-picking
of international tech talent amounts to an enormous
He further points out that other nations now compete
with us for top talent. We're also seeing the suppliers
of this talent base making greater efforts to keep
it close to home. This could spur us to changes that
are long overdue.
For starters, we can begin to weave together the different
levels of our educational systems.
I've heard this called the "K-through-Grey" approach.
It supplants the antiquated notion that knowledge
is gained in so many semesters-and that only after
completing certain prerequisites are we pronounced
to be educated.
What is called for is a system of never-ending, life-long
learning that promotes versatility and flexibility.
It's tied to the notion that we need more than a highly
trained workforce. We need a highly trainable workforce-and
A university or college graduate in 2000 can expect
to change careers four-to-seven times before retirement.
We know that information technologies have created
this dynamic. They also supply the tools and means
to embrace it-as they bring resources for learning
to anyone, anywhere.
We know our universities and other educational institutions
face the challenge of reinventing themselves for a
seamless system of learning over a lifetime, cradle
Many of us in the world of science and technology are
coming to recognize an urgent responsibility to transform
how our society thinks of science and mathematics.
In fact, the dismal regard with which many people view
mathematics is a particular challenge to reverse.
We want to change its reputation from an object of
incomprehension and fear.
We want to inspire appreciation of its poetry and recognition
of its utility in helping us to sort out the complexity
of our world.
As K.C. Cole writes in her book, The Universe and
the Teacup, "Mathematics seems to have the astonishing
power to tell us how things work, why things are the
way they are, and what the universe would tell us
if we could only learn to listen."
These four beautiful scientific images, as well as
the previous one, are the work of Felice Frankel,
artist-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute
Clockwise, from the upper left, they are: vials of
nanocrystals; patterns of bacterial colonies; a hologram
of plastic; and a peeled polymer.
"Too often the visual beauty of science research
seems to be kept secret," Frankel believes. "Scientists
are trained to be suspicious of visually stunning
displays...and thus remain largely unaware of
the value of the visual poetry of their own work..."
Every discipline of science and engineering adds to
the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of discovery. We see
no limit to expanding our vision.
Indeed, we must broaden it, to a vision that pursues
greater resources for all of science and engineering.
There's no limit to what we can do, working together,
creating the linkages that will drive future discoveries.