"Science, Technology and Education at the Frontiers"
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Converging on Growth
March 20, 2001
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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
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
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
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]
"...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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.