Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
NSB Symposium on
Allocation of Federal Resources for Science &
May 21, 2001
Good afternoon and welcome everyone. I would first
like to recognize and to thank Dr. Eamon Kelly and
my fellow National Science Board members for bringing
us together to discuss this important issue. It's
important not only to the long-term health of U.S.
science and engineering, but also to the continued
progress and prosperity of our entire nation.
It's also a great honor once again to welcome the former
Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, to the Foundation.
I'm in no position to make any bets, but I would venture
to say that he is probably the only member of Congress
ever to have had the skull of a Tyrannosaurus Rex
in his office on the Hill. Through his words and his
actions, we see time and again that his commitment
to progress through science and engineering runs deep
He remains one of the most effective spokespersons
for increased investment in science and engineering,
and he fully recognizes the need to reshape the way
R&D funds are allocated to meet the needs of the 21st
Century. Newt, we appreciate your continued efforts
and once again look forward to gaining the benefit
of your insights.
Our agenda for today is as well crafted as it is ambitious.
We'll be examining issues that are fundamental to
policy-making and governance in any arena:
- How do we best allocate precious resources?
- Whose advice do we seek?
- What data are most reliable?
- How do we engage both decisions-makers and the
general public in the process?
As I was thinking about these questions, I stumbled
upon one on Albert Einstein's most famous statements.
This one dates to 1931, before World War II and in
the deepest days of the depression. Einstein gave
an address at Caltech, and he said:
"Concern for man himself and his fate must always
form the chief interest in all technical endeavors,
concern for the great unsolved problems of the
organization of labor, and the distribution of
goods--in order that the creations of our mind
shall be a blessing ... to mankind."
Seven decades later, we continue to draw upon Einstein's
wisdom and strive toward this ideal.
Many of us in government, industry, and academe know
that investments, public and private, in research
and development have delivered impressive economic
returns. We've always had a mix of anecdotes and analysis
to make the case. Economists like Bob Solow and Ed
Denison have helped us see the big picture, while
we've collected the stories that make it visible--from
the Internet to MRIs to Doppler radar. Those are all
part of NSF's Nifty50.
Today, the analytic evidence is getting even stronger.
We've seen the report showing that at least a third
and possibly half of U.S. economic growth over the
past 50 years can be attributed to the fruits of science
and engineering. There is a growing body of work,
and it highlights the importance of publicly-supported
R&D to industries as diverse as agriculture, aeronautics,
computers, biotechnology, and medical equipment.
But, the American taxpayer is the ultimate umpire for
assessing how federal funds are spent. And what matters
most is convincing those who pay our bills that our
research efforts and goals are in line with societal
needs and priorities.
More than ever before in history, advances in science,
in engineering, in education, and in technological
innovation are the key to our future. They're the
best hope we have for raising people's prospects,
for combating poverty, hunger, disease, and for sustaining
a secure and healthy environment.
But they aren't the only variables in the equation.
They don't add up to progress unless there's a policy
environment that supports them--one that strengthens
the nation's capacity to produce new knowledge and
exploit its potential. We're here to help inform and
shape that environment.
Setting the science and technology agenda requires
thoughtful and balanced judgement about priorities.
Finding the most effective means to turn priorities
into realities requires the best thinking the research
and education community has to offer.
We can't advance our agenda without strong public support.
Translating the technical into the accessible, and
promoting a deeper understanding of the importance
of our work is central to NSF's mission. By its very
nature, our peer-review process keeps us connected
to the community, and it gives us insight into the
most-recent directions and advances in laboratories,
schools, and classrooms.
This past weekend, I had the privilege of participating
in two commencement ceremonies. Dr. Wrighton hosted
me at Washington University in St. Louis on Friday,
and then on Sunday I was closer to home at George
Washington University. Being on the stage with Tony
Bennett, Herman Wouk, and Leonard Slatkin was daunting,
but the rain was an equalizer! We all ducked for cover.
The "Washington" theme is purely coincidental.
At both events, I told the graduates that what makes
the world exciting is not what we know--but what we
don't know. There are still worlds to be discovered,
diseases to be cured, and countless other challenges.
That's why I'm especially thankful for this opportunity
to discuss these issues. By addressing them as laid
out in the report, we'll make progress toward ensuring
that the U.S. advances the leading edge of learning
We have our work cut out for us--perhaps now more than
ever. Congressman Boehlert issued a clarion call to
the research community at the AAAS Policy Colloquium
at the beginning of the month. He warned that the
community has talked itself into a blue funk.
He said, "The mood reminds me of the opening line of
Woody Allen's essay, My Address to the Graduates.
'Today we are at a crossroads. One road leads to hopelessness
and despair; the other, to total extinction. Let us
pray we choose wisely.'"
With that, I'm happy to turn the podium back to discussants
for today's symposium. Thank you for joining us here