Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Council of Scientific Society Presidents (CSSP)
American Chemical Society Building
November 19, 2001
Good morning to all of you. I'm delighted to have this
opportunity to join you, though I remain intrigued
about what brings intelligent, productive and broad-minded
people from the "real world" to the world "Inside
the Beltway"! It certainly can't be for the purpose
of expanding one's perspective, since it tends to
go the other way around. Your experience, wisdom and
research are required now more than ever in this critical
period of our nation's history.
Perhaps Charles Dickens captured it best in that phrase
we've heard quoted a lot these days, when he said,
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
Our country has never been wealthier or more productive,
while at the same time stunned and stricken by the
destruction and loss of life within our own borders.
The September 11 events have made clear that these
are very definitely, different times.
It is times like these that reinforce our need for
dialogues about the future of science in America and
the role of the science community in determining that
future. That makes our discussion today about science
policy in the next 25 years both timely and highly
Historically, our goals and values as a scientific
and engineering community have been framed within
the larger context of societal needs. The success
of our nation's science and engineering enterprise
has always been inextricably tied to our larger vision
as a nation.
Since World War II, science has played an increasing
role in the nation's agenda. From 1945 through to
the end of the Cold War, a primary focus of our national
goals was preserving our freedom, while securing our
safety from annihilation. Science and engineering
research were integral to achieving those guarantees.
And as our country experiences a new kind of war,
our dependency on science and on the global leadership
of our science and engineering enterprise proves even
We have now been launched into a new war against terrorism,
complete with its own chaotic and confusing dynamics.
Our nation's science policy will once again be framed
by the larger context in which it exists. This new
period of angst can be the "era of foresight" in science.
We see clear needs for science, engineering, and technology
to, once again, protect society and prevent future
problems. If we can predict, we frequently can prevent.
Our accrued knowledge from decades of research can
and should increasingly be directed toward prevention.
In an old Icelandic saga there is a description of
the character Snorri. It was said of him that "He
was the wisest man in Iceland without the gift of
foresight." To me, this has always meant that Snorri
had a great deal of knowledge but he didn't quite
take his knowledge to the next step. He didn't use
it to see implications, to anticipate the future.
Without foresight, he could easily be caught by surprise,
and obviously without a plan.
We need to develop a broader, more anticipatory perspective
in our research. We need to increase our emphasis
on envisioning future possibilities, good or ill,
as a mechanism to predict. Undoubtedly, this will
open new vistas in our exploration and discovery.
This must take place at the same time that the research
community maintains a freedom and passion for new
As all of you know so well, knowledge is our strongest
insurance for preparedness. Without a combination
of old and new knowledge, we cannot develop foresight.
As we evolve increasingly into a knowledge-based society,
our economic growth, our national security, and our
social well-being will depend on the most advanced
discoveries in every field. Knowledge is the bedrock.
Our ability to develop foresight gives us a kind of
early warning system - a guard against unintended
China experienced devastating floods in 1998 that were
partially attributed to intense over-logging. If applied,
scientific knowledge could have accurately predicted
the consequent flooding and devastation.
In contrast, California now prepares for the heavy
rains while the sun is still shining, as information
technologies allow us to predict the El Niño and La
Niña weather cycles up to nine months in advance.
Clearly, science can be an effective predictor. To
prevent, however, requires more. The research
community needs to find more effective methods to
use its capacity to predict real world consequences.
Prediction and prevention go hand in glove. This is
not always as easy as it sounds.
Let me offer an example from my experience researching
cholera in Bangladesh. Satellite remote-sensing technology
allowed us to predict incidents of cholera by scanning
sea-surface temperatures. The rising temperatures
would bring cholera epidemics. I also learned first
hand that solutions or preventions to problems must
always be feasible within the social, cultural, and
In Bangladesh, where cholera is common, expensive water
treatment plants are neither practical nor affordable.
But the cloth to make Saris, the traditional dress
for women, is common and inexpensive.
I found that filtering water through 10 folds of Sari
cloth reduced the incidence of cholera dramatically
because we had discovered the cholera bacteria were
associated with zooplankton, which could easily be
filtered out, taking the cholera bacteria stuck to
and in the zooplankton with it. It was a culturally
acceptable practice to filter drink, usually to remove
flies! And, it fit easily in the social framework
of family and community.
This is a major step forward from the old pattern of
remedial action, that is, reacting to major, devastating
epidemics. And, it could not have been done without
an interdisciplinary approach that included the social
As the world grows smaller and we are increasingly
called upon to assist and collaborate in places distant
and distinctly different, our inventiveness will be
challenged in new ways.
For the larger, sometimes global scale, research programs,
our individual research knowledge and understanding
will not be sufficient. To devise and implement strategies
at the interdisciplinary level will require our cooperative
attitude and our comprehensive vision.
The world has always been a delicate balance of many
complex forces, not the least of which is humanity
-- in all of its diversity of cultures, goals, and
However, our future holds an abundance of new science
and technology that will improve our ability to understand
and address these differences and to better predict
and facilitate future coherence in global society.
The expanding knowledge of our research-base and our
sophisticated tools empower us to perform the extraordinary.
Foremost among them are information technology, genomics,
and nanotechnology. These innovations herald new ways
to pose and answer questions. We can now précis research
questions to anticipate rather than remediate.
We already see manifestations. Sequencing the human
genome opened up an entirely new world of biomedical
research and potential miracles of diagnostics, prevention,
and treatment. Cures for infectious diseases will
be read from the genetic blueprint of the causal organism.
As we use this genetic information to understand humans
at their molecular and biochemical level, we must
also be responsible to understand the interactions
at social levels. When interpreting data gleaned from
the human genome project, we must be careful to proceed
in a manner consistent with human and ethical needs.
DNA sequences should be used to help individuals,
not cause potential harm.
In a world even smaller than genes-the Lilliputian
level of the nanoscale-we are now arranging atoms
and molecules to mimic nature's creations.
One nanometer-one billionth of a meter-is a magical
point on the dimensional scale. Nanostructures are
at the confluence of the smallest of human-made devices
and the large molecules of living systems. Red blood
cells, for instance, have diameters spanning thousands
Micro-electrical mechanical systems now approach this
same scale. We are at the point of connecting machines
to individual cells, increasing our digital storage
capabilities with nanolayers and dots, and building
lightweight, super-strength materials atom by atom.
We also recognize that nano will have many applications
far beyond our current speculations.
Today, scientists predict that nanofabrication will
have the capability to transform our world with even
greater impact than information technologies have
done. For example, silicon polymer nanowires may cheaply
detect traces of TNT and picric acid in both water
and air. These tiny wires, 2000 times thinner than
a human hair, could be used to detect explosives in
terrorist bombs and land mines.
In a completely different realm, information technologies
touched and transformed almost every face of our lives,
our work, and our economy. As a result of a new software
program, RAMPART, developed after the Oklahoma City
bombing, we can explore the future probability of
events occurring and what the losses might be.
In fact, much of what we do today would be impossible
without the powerhouse capability of advanced computing.
We are now on the brink of terascale computing that
takes us three orders of magnitude beyond prevailing
In the past, our system architectures could only handle
hundreds of processors. Now, we work with systems
of thousands of processors. Shortly, we'll connect
millions of systems and billions of 'information appliances'
to the Internet.
Crossing that boundary of one trillion operations per
second launches us to new frontiers. The list of dramatic
changes and choices that science has triggered is
so diverse it verges on the wondrous and the daunting.
We generate data faster than we can interpret it,
but it is the interpretation and its application to
society that carries the value.
However, as we also know that our research always exists
in a larger societal framework, it must include education.
We do ourselves a national disservice when we educate
and train our scientists and engineers only in science
and technology. The world in which their work bears
fruit is a world of integration and overlapping consequences.
The recent anthrax cases remind us that social and
ethical questions may be more difficult to grapple
with than the scientific ones.
If we are to remain at the very frontier in science
and engineering, the need for increased scientific
and engineering knowledge is abundantly clear. To
that end, education will be a critical driving force.
The alternative to not being at the forefront of science
and technology is the alternative of being left behind.
Economic survival means being on the cutting edge
of discovery and knowledge creation.
Within our own borders, this issue is critical to all
of us because we need more people to turn new knowledge
into innovation. We need the talent of every
student and worker in order to compete and prosper.
Yet, degrees in engineering, physical sciences, and
math and computer sciences are either static or declining
in the U.S. Meanwhile, other nations are churning
out degrees in all these fields.
A 24-year-old in Japan, for example, is three times
more likely to hold a bachelor's degree in engineering
than a 24-year-old in the U.S.
And graduate enrollment in S&E fields among U.S. students
has continued to decline. From 1986 to 1997, bachelors
degrees in Mathematics declined by approximately 30
percent (from 16,531 to 12,723). Since 1998, the number
of doctoral degrees awarded in science and engineering
dropped 5 percent.
We simply must produce more workers trained in science,
math and engineering to meet the needs of today's
science and technology-based society.
What should we be doing about this situation? We should
begin tapping the full range of the nation's native
born science and engineering talent. This includes
everyone, especially women and underrepresented groups.
Our national need for scientists and engineers cannot
possibly be fulfilled by the traditional white male
population. We must focus on attracting women and
our diverse minority population to these professions.
To prepare them for science and engineering careers,
NSF programs are starting with early education, with
the President's, No Child Left Behind, initiative.
We were pleased when President Bush charged the agency
with leading the Math and Science Partnerships of
his education initiative.
At the center of this Partnership plan is a $1 billion
dollar investment to strengthen and reform K-12 science
and math education. We are busy working on this initiative,
which begins this fiscal year.
We're asking scientists, mathematicians, and engineers
at universities and colleges to work with educators
to achieve some very ambitious goals.
NSF will provide funds for states and local school
districts to partner with institutions of higher education.
The goal is to help ensure that all K-12 students
are prepared to perform at high standards in science
The partnerships program will strengthen a decade-long
investment in math and science standards coupled with
improved curricula, textbooks, and software. Other
issues of concern and attention are the shortage of
math and science teachers, and supporting present
teachers through ongoing university-connected professional
But the program doesn't end there. We especially hope
to fund model programs that are geared towards eliminating
the performance-gap between majority and minority
students, and develop research evidence on how to
reach under-served schools and students in creative
The President's Partnership Initiative is only one
element in NSF's integrated strategy to promote science,
technology, engineering and math training to a broader
As we reflect on our knowledge-driven society, we all
know that knowledge alone is not enough to make a
better world. The Founding Fathers framed a set of
primary values for our nation based on the independence
of, and the respect for, individuals. Armed with these
values, science becomes an important vehicle for human
With these values to guide us, we have made appropriate
choices for ourselves as a nation. But we are not
alone in the world.
Let me share with you in closing comments that Congressman
George Brown made in a 1993 at the National Research
Council. We in the science community sorely miss his
foresight and vision.
I bring his words to you because you are an international
community of scholars and public policy experts. As
always he left us with important ideas. In a speech
titled A New Paradigm for Development: Building
Dignity Instead of Dependence, he said,
"This work must begin first by viewing developing
nations as partners instead of as step-children.
.Of all the many ways in which we can cooperate
for the global good, the case for science and
technology cooperation with science-poorer nations
is perhaps the most compelling. To do so, we must
abandon the instinct to judge others by their
past accomplishments or to judge our own accomplishments
as the proper path for others.
We know that science and technology are an important
force to help balance the world's inequities.
The job of the science community, and our nation's
leaders is to find a host of mechanisms to make
use of the knowledge and benefits, working as
I think that says it all. Thank you.