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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Science and Technology in a Global Society:
Crossing Boundaries to New Frontiers"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
The International Forum on Science Funding System
Oriented to the 21st Century
Beijing, China

August 1, 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.

[Title slide]
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President of the National Natural Science Foundation of China, Vice Minister, Respected Guests, and friends from around the world: I am honored to be here today amongst distinguished scientists, engineers, and statesmen from the People's Republic of China and from around the globe.

I've had the privilege of visiting China on 6 previous occasions and I am delighted to be back again. I greatly appreciate the graciousness of my hosts.

And I'm genuinely delighted to join with the National Natural Science Foundation of China in celebrating its 15th Anniversary. This is a splendid opportunity to recognize your many achievements in advancing science and engineering research and education.

The National Natural Science Foundation of China and the National Science Foundation in the United States have a long and productive history of cooperation. We have worked together over the years through many exchanges and visits, and in a large number of joint research projects.

[Proverb slide]
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I like the proverb: "Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success."

This proverb captures the spirit of our ongoing partnership.

We first came together over 15 years ago. The result has been success by any definition. We have learned together, and from each other. I'm confident that our partnership will only deepen and expand in the years ahead.

All of us here today - from many nations and every region of the globe - can appreciate that proverb. We have all worked across national boundaries to expand the frontiers of knowledge.

As scientists and engineers, we have much in common, no matter what our nationality might be. We relish our diverse national cultures, and we also share a common culture of learning, inquiry, and discovery. Much more unites us than divides us. As part of the international community of science we share common concerns that reach across national borders. As each of us aims to strengthen our nation's capabilities in research, we also aim to contribute to the cumulative knowledge that lifts the prospects of people everywhere.

Meetings such as this are an important part of strengthening our cooperative efforts. We in the U.S. know how we benefit from gaining different perspectives and from building closer ties with international colleagues. Our common pursuit of new knowledge is a powerful tool for bringing people together toward the common goal of solving problems and building a world of peace and prosperity.

[Knowledge is the currency of everyday life]
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Advances in science and engineering are central to the aspirations of all nations, large and small. In the 21st century, new knowledge and the technological innovation it fosters will drive economic growth, and determine the quality of life and the health of the planet.

Science and technology have always been a powerful force for human progress. In the 21st century, more than ever before in history, we have the opportunity to advance global prosperity as we expand the frontiers of knowledge and make possible ever greater achievements. Our commitment to international collaboration will determine how effective we are in realizing this great potential.

I will talk with you today about the major challenges of 21st century research and the progress we can make toward meeting these challenges through international scientific cooperation.

Let me start by sharing a recent - and very enjoyable - experience.

Just two weeks ago I was delighted to be present at the International Mathematical Olympiad when this year's winners were announced. I should explain that this is a very tough, international mathematics competition for secondary school-age youngsters from around the world. The U.S. hosted the competition this year, and the National Science Foundation was a major sponsor.

Although each young mathematician competes as an individual, there is always spirited competition among the teams from each country.

[Chinese IMO Team]
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I congratulate our hosts. The team from China ranked first overall! I met these splendid young mathematicians, and we all are proud of them - and of every participant.

[US and Russian Teams]
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I also can say that the U.S. and Russian teams tied for second place.

[Four winners with perfect scores]
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Importantly, four participants got perfect scores - two Chinese and two Americans.

This was a celebration on an international level of the beauty of mathematics! It was an event that reminded me that there is great hope for us in our children.

Nothing we can do in the international community of science could be more important than providing world class science and mathematics education for our youngsters, and opportunities for our young scientists and engineers to participate in international activities. They need these opportunities to share perspectives and build friendships to ensure even greater international cooperation in the future.

[Three points slide]
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This brings me to three points I wish to make today.

First: scientific and engineering research is now a truly global enterprise.

Second: science and engineering have changed in ways that make international cooperation in research and education essential for the advancement of knowledge.

And third: we must find new ways for scientists and engineers around the world to work together.

Let me begin with my observation that science and engineering research have become a global enterprise in today's world.

[Science & engineering research is a global enterprise.]
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Science and engineering are at the heart of the 21st Century. New knowledge is a powerful driver of economic prosperity and a force for human progress. That makes new knowledge the most sought after prize in the world.

Nations around the world recognize the central role of science and technology. Let me mention a few indicators.

  • Investments in research and education have been rising, because all nations understand the power of science and technology in transforming their economies and improving the lives of their citizens.

[Chart showing ratio of 24-year-olds holding S&E degrees]
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  • In country after country, the proportion of 24-year-olds holding science and engineering degrees has been increasing, sometimes significantly. An example is China's more than three-fold increase between 1985 and 1999. That is an extraordinary accomplishment. Yet despite progress in this area by many nations, we all face the need to train more of our young people in science and engineering than ever before.

[Chart showing research collaboration by region]
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  • In research, we see a rising share of the world's scientific and technical publications with co-authors from different countries.
  • The investments in research we make in each other's countries have also risen dramatically over the last decade.

Interactions among nations now regularly include issues depending directly on an understanding of science and technology. A sign of how seriously this is taken in the United States is the recent appointment of the first Science Advisor to the Secretary of State. That's a clear recognition of the pervasiveness of science and engineering research and education and the positive influence that international cooperation in science, engineering, and technology has on world peace and stability.

[Good ideas slide]
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Good ideas are found everywhere across the globe.

In theory, science has always been international. The results of fundamental research - from the origins of the universe to the fundamental properties of matter, from the interaction of oceans and atmosphere to the human genome - are open to all.

In practice, the spread of new knowledge and its applications has often been glacially slow.

[Information and communication tools are fostering a new science...]
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Today, that pace is quickening. The revolutionary new information and communications technologies are turning theory into reality. Science and engineering are now a global enterprise.

In the last ten years, the technologies derived from advances in science and engineering have swept across the globe. We can collect, store, and manipulate vast quantities of data. We can share those data and communicate new knowledge essentially instantaneously. These capabilities open new doors for international collaboration that were unworkable only ten or fifteen years ago.

[Changes in science and engineering...]
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These tools are also changing the very way we conduct research and creating a new science of the 21st century. When we dramatically advance the speed of scientific research in any area, we give ourselves the mechanism to reach a frontier much faster. Or, better yet, to reach a new frontier that had been unreachable, as well as unknowable.

[Folding protein slide]
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Here is just one example. It takes just 20 milliseconds for a nascent protein to fold into its functional conformation. Until recently, it took 40 months of computer time to simulate that folding. With new terascale computer systems - operating at one trillion operations per second - we have reduced that time to one day. That's 1000 times faster. Just consider what that means for tapping our knowledge of genomes!

Let's take the example one more step. Estimates of the number of different proteins in the human body have ranged from 10,000 to 50,000. Only about 1,000 of those have been studied. We now know from work on the human genome about the process of protein turnover - the constant synthesis and degradation of proteins. That may push estimates up substantially.

Understanding the function of each protein in this vast array will require many of the best minds in the world - wherever they are. No single nation can go it alone.

Speed is only one dimension of the new tools. The capacity to catalog enormous quantities of data - terabytes, in fact - is just the flip side of being able to manipulate the data.

[Genomics slide]
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Both features have greatly enhanced work on the human genome. It's not surprising that this work is the result of international collaboration. The same is true of work on the plant genome, which hold so much promise to improve nutrition and health worldwide.

[Arabidopsis slide]
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Unraveling the genome of the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, announced just last fall, was the result of a very successful international collaboration. International teams are moving forward with work on every major food crop plant.

But these powerful new tools are only one feature of 21st century science and engineering research. Combined with major advances in mathematics and analysis, they have opened up whole new territories for exploration.

[Complexity slide]
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One of these is the investigation and understanding of complex phenomena. A striking picture is beginning to emerge from the burgeoning quantities of data available to us in many fields. It portrays systems with a huge number of interdependent and interacting variables. It highlights the importance of dynamic and non-linear behavior, and emerging structures. We are only just beginning to understand the nature of this complexity and the challenges and opportunities it presents to research.

A striking picture is beginning to emerge from the burgeoning quantities of data available to us in many fields. The portrait it provides is of systems with a huge number of interdependent and interacting variables. It highlights the importance of dynamic and non-linear behavior, and emerging structures.

[Cholera slide]
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These features appear in systems as diverse as the atmosphere and the basic functions of the brain, including cognition. They also appear when we investigate dependencies within and between different systems at different levels of organization. I've seen this in my own work on cholera, which spans systems from genes to microbes to humans, and from ocean circulation to epidemics.

Let me give you an example. One of the emerging areas that the National Science Foundation has identified as a priority is "Biocomplexity in the Environment."

[Biocomplexity slide]
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The term "biocomplexity" refers to the dynamic web of often surprising interrelationships that arise when living things at all levels-from molecular structures to genes to organisms to ecosystems--interact with their environment.

Studies of environments and ecosystems have begun to document phenomena characterized by abrupt changes, thresholds, and non-linear dynamics. In mathematical terms, this is behavior that is "complex." Earthquakes and the extinction of some species are examples.

We have also become aware of the extent to which humans interact with and alter the environment. Changes in land use have resulted in dramatic changes in landscapes, water resources, and biodiversity. We understand now that changes in global climate cannot be understood without taking into account the effect that humans have on the environment - the way our individual and institutional actions interact with the atmosphere, the oceans and terrestrial ecosystems.

Scientists have begun to tackle the intricacies of interactions among biological, ecological, physical and earth systems, and are now confronting the challenges of forecasting outcomes of those interactions.

[Global problems require international solutions}
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These challenges are inherently global. We all have a stake in the results of research in the areas of climate change, emerging diseases, biodiversity, sustainable energy, and earthquake and storm research, to name just a few. International collaboration will not only speed us along our path to knowledge. It will allow us to begin unraveling the staggering complexity that pervades these phenomena.

[Collage of different disciplines]
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This points to another way that scientific and engineering research is changing in the 21st century. In many areas of research, scientific progress requires the cross-fertilization of ideas, models, and experimental platforms from many disciplines. Modern biotechnology has developed with contributions from a broad range of disciplines: biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering, and computer science. Nanoscale science and engineering - one of the potentially revolutionary technologies of the 21st century - calls upon an equally diverse range of disciplines.

The increasing complexity, the need for multidisciplinary approaches, and the global nature of much research, require that we draw on different perspectives to solve common problems.

[We need ideas from a broad range of specialties, etc.]
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Science is becoming a science of communication and collaboration - especially international collaboration. We need ideas not only from a broad range of specialties, but also from different geographic regions and from all cultures.

In this same way, advances in science and engineering knowledge are linked more intimately with innovation than ever before. We now realize that scientific research and technological innovation drive each other. In the larger sense, innovation depends upon a mutual, synergistic set of interactions that includes not only science, engineering and technology, but social, political and economic interactions as well. The pace of both scientific progress and technological innovation has increased synergistically.

These are profound changes in the conduct and the nature of our scientific enterprise. International cooperation is no longer a luxury. It is essential for advancing science and engineering research in the 21st century.

[We must find new ways for scientists and engineers to work together]
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I come to my final point, which may be the most significant for all of us here today. We must find new ways for scientists and engineers around the world to work together.

Of course, we shouldn't abandon our current forms of cooperation that have served us so well. Opportunities to meet face to face and to work together through exchange programs are the basis for friendships that enrich our collaborations and our lives. But we must do more.

We need to reach beyond current models of cooperation and make the most of the powerful new tools at hand. One example is the virtual collaboratory.

Let me explain by describing a project the National Science Foundation is funding in the U.S. The Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation - we call it NEES - is a 21st century model of collaboration - literally, a laboratory without walls or clocks.

[NEESgrid slide]
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Researchers at approximately 20 geographically distributed equipment sites will be linked through high speed Internet connections. They will be able to operate equipment and observe experiments from anywhere on the net. They will have access to a bank of earthquake engineering data and to high performance computational tools. Researchers on the net will be able to construct physical or numerical simulations and visualizations of experimental data.

Over time, NEES will grow, as other sites with unique experimental capabilities join the network. NSF envisions NEES as a virtual international collaboratory with experimental and analytical resources distributed around the globe.

We are only at the beginning of the great revolution in information and communications technologies. We know how to share information, but we are by no means doing all we can to take advantage of the power of computer and communications technologies to foster international collaborative research. Distributed data banks, shared computer and visualization facilities, and other tools of the future will enable truly international research. They will give the research community the capability to call upon scientific and engineering talent wherever it is located and whenever it is needed.

[Soon every part of the globe will seem as close as our own back yard]
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As we develop new ways to work together, we will speed the application of new knowledge to common problems. In a similar vein, we can extend international cooperation to countries large or small that are still struggling to develop a strong science and engineering base.

Just around the corner is a world linked by wireless communications and in constant contact through video teleconferencing. The world of vast distances and differences is shrinking, and soon every part of the globe will seem as close as our own back yard.

We need to keep our eyes on that future and plan now for the time when we are all next door neighbors. That will define science and engineering in a 21st century society.

Let me conclude with this final thought. We are fortunate to be scientists, engineers, and educators at the beginning of the 21st century. Whole new territories of knowledge are on the horizon, with the promise of major advances just ahead. We can begin to envision how new knowledge and technological innovation can help us solve some of the seemingly intractable problems that confront us. The pursuit of scientific enlightenment transcends political, cultural or language barriers.

Each of us is fortunate to be working to advance our nation's commitment to basic science and engineering research and education. As we work across boundaries to open new frontiers in science, we are also building bridges between nations, and advancing global prosperity and peace.



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