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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Science, Technology and Education at the Frontiers"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
SUNY-Stony Brook
Millennium Technologies:
Converging on Growth

March 20, 2001

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 to everyone. I'm delighted to be here at Stony Brook.

Shirley and I go back more than twenty years to our days at University of Maryland. Shirley was Chair of English and Provost of Arts and Humanities at UMD. We both started work on a performing arts center. Well, Shirley, 20 years later it is ready to be dedicated! We have always been pioneers!

I can't think of a more appropriate location to talk about Science, Technology, and Education than here on Long Island. Shirley reminded me that Long Islanders helped put the first humans on the moon, (and Neal Armstrong was a Purdue Graduate) and I was a couple of years behind him. Thus, with Brookhaven next door, this region has always been at the forefront of science and technology.

That brings me to the topic of my remarks: Science, Technology and Education at the Frontiers. I'll be speaking today about a topic I believe is vitally important; that is, the need for a specific kind of convergence for the nation.

We must bring science and engineering education up to speed with the pace of scientific progress and technological innovation. From that topic, I will provide a brief tour of a select few of the future directions in science and technology that NSF is highlighting.

Let me begin with a bit of context - first, a few words about the National Science Foundation's new 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're summed up by three key words: People, Ideas and Tools. They reflect NSF's strength - a broad base of research and education activities that provides the nation with the People, the Ideas, and the Tools needed to fuel innovation and economic growth.

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.

These strategies aim for nothing less than world-class leadership in science and technology.

Let me put the work of NSF in a different context. NSF accounts for just under 4 percent of federal research and development spending. But that 4 percent supports roughly 50 percent of the non-medical fundamental research at our colleges and universities.

NSF programs involve nearly 200,000 scientists, engineers, teachers, and students. Each year, about 40 percent of the funding for research grants provide support for researchers and students. That includes more than 61,000 post doctorates, trainees, and graduate and undergraduate students.

These are the young scientists and engineers who will provide the highly skilled workforce required in the new knowledge-based economy.

Our new vision and strategies are cut to suit the extraordinary times in which we live. In the past twenty-five years, our knowledge base has exploded, and the pace of science and technology has accelerated with it. Knowledge has become the currency of everyday life.

And no wonder. We now recognize that new knowledge is the principal source of high wage jobs, wealth creation, competitive advantage in global markets, and improvements in the quality of life.

That recognition lies behind this Conference. The technologies you're considering today are the wellsprings of the "new economy." They are the source for so much that is changing and will continue to change our lives.

As it does in so many areas, Long Island helps to set the pace for the nation. We're surrounded by top-notch educational and research institutions, and industries that are at the cutting edge of the new economy.

That's the good news. We also need to stay abreast of the warning signs on the horizon. We need to heed these if we want to keep pace with expanding opportunities for progress in science and engineering.

Let me explain. An economy rooted in science and technology can't sustain itself without a growing cadre of scientists and engineers. Let me quickly show you some charts to reinforce my point.

U.S. bachelor's degrees in engineering, the physical sciences, and math and computer sciences are declining.

The number of 24-year-olds with science and engineering degrees is growing dramatically in other countries, while it is stagnant or declining in the U.S.

The situation is even worse for engineering degrees alone. A 24-year-old in Japan is three times more likely to hold a bachelor's degree in engineering than one in the U.S. One in South Korea is 2.7 times more likely; and one in the European Union is 1.6 times more likely.

While graduate degrees in engineering, the physical sciences, and math and computer sciences are either static or declining in the U.S., other nations are boosting degrees in all these fields.

Just a few weeks ago the Wall Street Journal carried this chart on its front page. It shows that the number of U.S. students enrolled in graduate science and engineering programs has decreased while the number of foreign students in those programs has gone up.

You may have heard of a new report called U.S. Competitiveness 2001. It tells the story. " ...the trend lines [are] in the opposite direction, even though demand for technically trained talent [is] rising."

Not so the trends in other nations. They are on the rise - from Singapore to Germany to Japan to the UK.

We are simply not producing enough workers trained in science, math and engineering to meet the needs of today's technology-based society. Let me quote to you from another report released last month by the U.S. Commission on National Security [for the] 21st Century.


"...the inadequacies of our systems of research and education pose a greater threat to U.S. national security over the next quarter century than any potential conventional war we might imagine."

If you ever had any question about the nation's need for science and engineering talent, this should banish your doubts.

In fact, I hope it will encourage you to go to local secondary schools and encourage students. Tell them to take more science and math courses that will qualify them for careers in science and engineering. Tell them some of the exciting things that scientists are discovering. Convey to them the passion you have for your own work.

Just last Friday I spoke with members of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. They've identified the severe shortage of skilled workers faced by Washington's technology companies as one of the most important hindrances to growth in the region. It's the same all across the nation.

What should we be doing about this situation?

The title of another recent report suggests one answer. It's called Land of Plenty: Diversity as America's Competitive Edge in Science, Engineering, and Technology. The report provides the findings of a Congressional Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development.

It issues a clear call, a warning. We're making some strides toward including everyone in the general workforce, although we still have far to go. But we're not making any progress in changing the composition of the science and engineering workforce.

The general workforce is headed in the direction of more inclusion. It's not there yet, but there's progress.

The science workforce looks mighty exclusive. This is dangerous for the nation. We need the talent of every worker in order to compete and prosper.

The growth will come from expanding the pool of science and engineering talent. That expansion must come from what this report identifies as the mostly untapped potential of underrepresented minorities and women -- America's "ace in the hole" or "competitive edge" for the 21st century.

We can do this. The general workforce already reflects more gender equality, and racial and cultural diversity than ever before. Projections show that the growth in the U.S. labor force through 2008 will come mostly from women and minorities.

We still have a long way to go, but we are reaching out and cashing in on the talents and skills of many more of our citizens.

I may not be a fortuneteller, but it isn't very difficult to read these cards. We need a convergence of research, technology and innovation within education to reverse these trends.

The National Science Foundation is committed to building a scientifically savvy workforce and a cadre of professional scientists and engineers for the 21 century. We're committed to being inclusive and tapping all the talent in the nation.

Here at Stony Brook, I know I'm preaching to the choir. We don't need to dig very deep to uncover rich veins of progress.

A few nuggets. Stony Brook is one of only ten institutions nationwide to receive NSF's RAIRE award. RAIRE stands for Recognition Awards for Integrating Research and Education, and it marked a major milestone in NSF's efforts to inject a new sense of priorities in the system.

Stony Brook is also spearheading a major NSF-funded program to increase minority participation in science, math, engineering and technology fields. It's the kind of effort we need to see on a national scale.

Now I'd like to tell you about some of the things NSF is doing to grow that workforce - beginning with K-12 education.

NSF will be leading the President's larger effort to ensure that all K-12 students have the opportunity to perform to high standards in math and science. NSF's Math and Science Partnership Initiative will provide funds for states and local school districts to join with institutions of higher education.

The goal is to raise math and science standards for students, and improve the quality of teachers and teaching materials. The initiative will also look for innovative ways to reach under-served schools.

The Partnership initiative builds on foundations laid by NSF-funded efforts like our systemic reform programs. Many of the details need to be worked out, but I can tell you that it will deliver top quality math and science instruction to many more students.

Here's another proposal that NSF has included in its budget request. We want to increase stipends for graduate students in science and engineering. Right now, the average stipend level is less than half the average wage for bachelor's degree recipients.

We know that many college graduates don't apply to science and engineering graduate programs for financial reasons. We also know that underrepresented minorities are far more likely to cite financial reasons for not continuing their education. Between 1994 and 1997, first-time graduate school enrollments dropped 12.6%; enrollment figures for African-Americans fell 19.6%.

These figures tell me that financial support for graduate students in the science, mathematics, engineering, and technology disciplines is critical to ensuring a diverse and globally competitive workforce of scientists and engineers. This is a step in the right direction.

Another area of tremendous progress is research in cognitive neuroscience, computational linguistics, human and computer interactions, and learning environments. The time is ripe to bring these fields together to develop a better understanding of how students learn.

We also need to develop and test educational tools that incorporate information technology to gain a better understanding of how they can be used effectively in the classroom.

NSF is already supporting Centers for Learning and Teaching. These bring together K-12 teachers and researchers. The idea is to provide opportunities for teachers to develop deeper knowledge of science and mathematics, gain new skills in the use of information technology in education, and integrate these with new research on learning.

I'm always amazed that we are in the predicament I described earlier. Science is exploding with new knowledge and innovative technology that was the stuff of science fiction and is now science fact. Yet, little has changed in our classrooms. In the 1890's, classrooms were "chalk and talk".... and they're still "chalk and talk" today.

Now we need quality innovations in education, and NSF's programs are a start.

That leads me to my second subject for today. I want to say a few words about the frontiers of science and engineering, and I'll focus on a few areas we've been highlighting: information technology, nanotechnology, and biocomplexity in the environment. Increasingly, these areas overlap, with progress in one field informing and expanding knowledge in another.

In science and engineering, information technology has already set off irreversible change in the very conduct of research. In every scientific discipline, we are facing an avalanche of data. As we develop sensors that expand our ability to gather data at all scales, from nano to global, the avalanche is gathering momentum. To be sure, visualization and perhaps even sonification of data offer ways to handle the volume of data as well as to grasp its complexity. Information and communication technologies also offer us new capabilities to collaborate on research around the globe.

This Conference is proof of the fact that many technologies take root in the highly fertile zones at the borders of disciplines. Early research investments are already showing the way to new horizons for other disciplines.

Take medicine, for example. In January 2000, television watchers of the Super Bowl saw actor Christopher Reeve rise to his feet and walk to receive an award. The segment, of course, was computer-generated; Reeve has been a quadriplegic since a fall from a horse in 1995.

For the first time, however, some patients with injuries to lower vertebrae actually are beginning to stand once again. The advances that make this possible rest on the foundation of basic research.

Another promising front is neuroprosthetics. At the California Institute of Technology, for example, NSF supports research into the very seat of intention in the brain to understand how the cerebral cortex plans the reaching movement of our arms.

Yet another approach is a direct brain interface which people with disabilities could use - -without physical movement - to guide technology to carry out specific actions.

Nanotechnology's ability to fashion ever-smaller sensors places us on the cusp of a revolution in monitoring and diagnosis. A few months ago an Israeli company announced a new "video pill" - complete with camera, battery, and transmitter. A patient swallows it and then passes it a few hours later. The pill collects information about the patient's digestive tract.

Natural meets artificial in this nanochip created by Stanford University engineers and scientists. Nerve axons can regrow through the tiny grate in the center of the square, a silicon membrane.

The chip then modifies and distributes the impulses, simulating the electrical activity of a normal nerve synapse.

Another illustration is these micromachined needles developed at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The tips can pierce skin easily and without pain - a novel new method for drug delivery.

For comparison, this pair of images takes us from in vivo to in silico. On the left are the tiny structures of the eye of a fly.

On the right are the artificial structures: the same micromachined needles with sharp tips of less than a micrometer across.

Microelectromechanical systems are now approaching this scale. The prospect of what lies ahead is nothing less than thrilling. We are on the frontier of being able to connect machines to individual cells.

Basic computational methods are a primary wellspring underlying these medical wonders as well as so much of information technology. More broadly, mathematics and computer science are transforming all of biology, with shockwaves that will reach the realm of health care.

Take the small weed called Arabidopsis, whose genome sequencing made headlines last December, the result of a joint effort by the United States, Japan, and the European Union. We call Arabidopsis the mapmaker for the plant kingdom.

Arabidopsis is just one part of the onslaught of genomic data that is increasing by a kind of "Moore's Law" for genomes. In 1999, the amount of data on prokaryotic genomes at The Institute for Genomic Research doubled from 14.8 million base pairs to 31.8 base pairs. By the year 2000 this doubled again to 60.3 base pairs.

Biologists are also borrowing tools from linguists, underscoring in the process that information is their common currency. Technology invented to recognize patterns in speech is now used to find patterns in DNA. The fields cross-fertilize by sharing techniques to manage large data sets, paradigms for evolution, and tools to model sequences of symbols.

On a Planetary scale, we find information technology helping us to track emerging diseases as they evolve. Daily reports on the "ProMED" web page not only provide the current status of an outbreak in five languages, but also create a biography of a disease, such as West Nile Virus, over time.

To unravel the complexity of life on our planet, we must chart the ribbons of interconnections between cells, organisms and ecosystems, past and present.

A new term for what we study is biocomplexity, as depicted in this slide. It's another priority area for NSF. We are watching nano-, bio- and information technology speed each other's progress. They are bringing us to the brink of being able to observe complexity at multiple scales across the hierarchy of life.

Envision being able to wave a tool packed with sensors - not a Geiger counter but an "eco-counter" - that would inventory the health of an entire ecosystem.

Another vision is to integrate the Internet with environmental sensors and wireless technology, throughout the physical world.

Scientists at their home laboratories would be connected by the Internet to a seamount covered with instruments. They could manipulate robots and instruments, while anyone could watch on the web.

We must begin by charting the basic interactions in an ecosystem. An NSF-supported study called GLOBEC - Global Ocean Ecosystem Dynamics - has traced how complex ocean physics interacts with ecological relationships.

The study gave insights into overfishing of the Georges Bank, an area in the Atlantic Ocean that has served as the "breadbasket" of fishing for New England over a century and a half. By the early 1990s, however, its fisheries were depleted.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration took the model results and applied them directly to manage scallop harvesting on the Georges Bank. The models predict good source regions for scallop larvae - areas that should not be harvested.

Based on the analysis, one region safer for harvest was reopened, with the take netting $30 million for the New Bedford, Massachusetts community.

Predictions as well as collaboration are hallmarks of a three-dimensional simulation of the Chesapeake Bay developed by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and partners.

Researchers located around the country can explore the virtual bay in 3-D together, as avatars. This could hasten the interdisciplinary collaboration needed, for example, to tackle the Bay's distributed pollution problem of large-scale runoff from farmer's fields.

From such pioneering examples we can imagine one day assessing the entire environment of our planet, and being able to make solid choices for sustainability based on a deep grasp of biocomplexity.

Of course, this is just a smattering of the possibilities. Exploring the frontiers is the challenge that makes the science and technology enterprise worthwhile for all of us - in research, in industry, in education. We can reach these frontiers, and go beyond them. I 'm sure many of you will be the pioneers leading the way, and at NSF, we look forward to working with you. Thank you.



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