Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Federation of American Societies for Experimental
December 3, 2001
Good evening to all and thank you, Bob, for introducing
me so gracefully. I am delighted to be able to address
FASEB's federal funding conference this year.
This is the first opportunity we have had to meet in
this format, and it's long overdue. You're a high-powered
group--the core engine of FASEB'S efforts to support
vital investments in science and engineering.
My first order of business tonight--one that I greatly
welcome--is to express our gratitude for your generous
efforts on behalf of the National Science Foundation
over this budget year.
We know that your work has been a key ingredient in
NSF's success this year. At a time when many agencies
have not received increases, or have even fallen behind,
NSF has fared well.
We find your perspectives extremely valuable and I
am looking forward to hearing what's on your minds.
In fact, I'm planning to speak for a few minutes,
but then I'd like that to lead into a healthy discussion.
Most of us have seen a recent and much appreciated
illustration of FASEB's dedication to NSF's welfare.
I'm referring to Bob Rich's recent editorial in Chemical
and Engineering News, which struck some very pertinent
Bob writes that, "As a physician and a researcher,
I am very cognizant of the medical benefits of the
research sponsored by NSF."
He also says,
"...as medical researchers, we understand that
our progress will be dependent on comparable advances
in engineering and in the basic sciences of chemistry,
physics, and mathematics. I am concerned that
support for these sciences is not keeping pace."
From the NSF standpoint, these are heartening words.
Thank you, Bob, and all of you at FASEB.
This editorial is an excellent example of the bridge-building
among disciplines that will convey our message: Basic
research is the wellspring of advances that nourish
our economy and improve our health care.
I realize I'm preaching to the choir here, and can
only ask you to continue the chorus--you're doing
a wonderful job.
As we discuss the interconnections between disciplines,
I'd like to mention a lecture I delivered recently
That talk actually had a linkage to the medical world.
As it happened, my talk was called "The Anatomy Lesson"--the
lecture was named after Rembrandt's famous painting
which evokes the public "lessons" in anatomy during
his time and later.
I found it encouraging that they invited me, a microbiologist
who works on climate and cholera, to speak to an audience
with a large clinical medicine component.
It's another sign of the convergence of basic research
and medical spheres. In a very real way, the study
of anatomy has expanded to link up with research on
It's no longer enough to seek understanding by dissecting
an object into its smallest components; now we begin
to chart the complexity that binds all of life and
our world together.
Now, as we look ahead to the coming year, I would like
to share some thoughts about our fundamentally changed--and
still changing--world, and what that might mean for
all of us in the science and engineering enterprise.
All of our disciplines are being transformed by the
revolution in biology, which poses new and sometimes
disturbing choices. Just a week ago, front-page headlines
carried a claim that the first human embryos had been
cloned--in Massachusetts, in fact. We must also contemplate
another context, 9/11, which has heralded one of the
most difficult periods in our country's history. I
would like to spend some time on what the aftermath
augurs for what we all do.
It bears repeating that both the war against terrorism
and the troubled economy are the overriding concerns
of the administration, and that these concerns are
both pervasive and persistent.
Science, medicine and engineering have a great deal
to offer our nation, both in talent and knowledge,
during a time of great duress. The investments we
have made over many decades, the broad expertise we
have cultivated, comprise an immense resource for
Previously obscure research areas find themselves in
the limelight. Our work assumes a new importance and
a new immediacy. So does our responsibility to explain
what we do, and to offer our expertise to decision-makers.
Right after September 11, NSF issued a number of grants--ranging
from studies of structural failure at the World Trade
Center site, and deployment of search-robots there,
to research on social responses to the attacks.
On another front, with NSF support, the Institute for
Genomic Research is working on decoding the genomes
of the anthrax bacilli, which can help in tracking
the source of the anthrax.
Cleaning up the anthrax-contaminated buildings on Capitol
Hill and elsewhere is another new experiment--one
that also requires scientific expertise.
The current times challenge all of us in science and
engineering to think about how we are being called
to respond to national needs in a more direct way
than perhaps ever before in our lives.
The president's science advisor, John Marburger, has
said that the major challenge before him is to combat
At the same time--as he recently told the American
Geophysical Union's newspaper, Eos--the United
States must retain its scientific leadership. "We
can't just all rush to one side of the boat," Marburger
said. "We must not permit these terrorist incidents
to diminish the long-term strength of American science."
This is a time to think about homeland security in
the broadest sense. I recently looked back at the
report called "Roadmap for National Security," which
was issued by a bipartisan Federal advisory committee
called the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st
Century. The leaders were former Senators Gary Hart
and Warren Rudman.
To quote the report,
"...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."
More than ever, we must conceive of national security
in this sweeping sense. Not only that, we need to
be able to explain how science, engineering, and medicine
are all essential to making our nation secure.
NSF's mission has always been highly relevant to the
nation's future, and never more so than today.
National security means supporting the proper tools
to advance research--from information technology to
ecological assessment to genomics, and beyond. It
also means cultivating a scientifically literate workforce
that is versatile and able to respond to change.
We know that part of this literacy is mathematical,
and NSF has placed emphasis on mathematics as a priority
area. Mathematics has a vital and growing role not
only in biology and medicine but in all of science
To be sure, mathematics has a sorry image in the United
States--adults fear it and children avoid it. Yet
a quantitatively literate workforce is vital to our
What is more, mathematics is a tool for encryption,
for facial recognition, and a host of other areas
that bear directly on our security. It's an integral
part of NSF's mission to strengthen the mathematical
underpinnings of the nation.
I think it is important, as well, to continue to stress
that the missions of NSF and NIH are highly complementary.
In some cases, we contribute to joint efforts. One
example is our two agencies' program on the ecology
of infectious diseases.
However, in other cases, NSF is almost the only federal
entity to support some key aspects of biological science.
We support 90% of long-term ecological research; 95%
of systematic biology--which is the study of biodiversity;
and 75% of evolutionary physiology.
A few more areas: we support almost two-thirds of environmental
biology, 60% of microbial biology, and over half of
This is all fundamental research. At first glance it
may not seem applicable to national needs, but the
reality is quite the reverse.
Understanding biodiversity, for example, not only gives
us a context for dealing with invasive species, but
could help us to detect and to deal with biological
warfare. Let's take the case of the West Nile Virus
and its spread in the United States. We've just completed
our third summer of West Nile infections in humans
in this country.
The virus has now spread from its initial entry into
the New York City area in 1999 to many parts of the
country, with attendant fatalities. Although the human
deaths have not reached large numbers, we know that
biological threats can sow widespread fear.
But molecular methods can help us with explanations.
Using such methods to examine West Nile, we find that
it looks most similar to a strain of the virus isolated
in Israel, and was most likely introduced by a mosquito
that hitchhiked on a plane flight.
Systematics--figuring out the relationships between
organisms--helps us put the puzzle together.
Ecological research over the long-term is also critical
to tracking how the environment changes over time.
Such research could help to sort out human-caused
change, even identify terror threats to our natural
resources, such as water supplies. We need to know
what is normal before we can track alteration and
deduce the cause.
Again, a virus provides an example--a hantavirus. In
1993, young people began dying of a mysterious respiratory
disease in a remote area of Arizona and New Mexico
in the western United States.
The culprit turned out to be a previously unknown hantavirus,
whose vector was a rodent. NSF-supported biologists,
meanwhile, had been conducting longterm studies of
rodents at a research site in the area.
They noted a large increase in the rodent populations
there. Massive rains associated with an El Nino year
had fed plant growth after years of drought. That
meant more food for the mice, which carry the hantavirus.
So it was the climate change that set off the disease
Now that the connections between the virus, the mouse,
and climate have been made, residents can be warned
in critical years.
Within that context of long-term environmental observation,
we have been discussing a network called "NEON." This
is the National Ecological Observatory Network--an
array of observatories across the country furnished
with cutting-edge technologies.
The sites would be linked and the entire system would
track environmental change from the molecular to the
global scales. We can imagine how such a network could
also serve to monitor various locations for disruptions
by bioterrorism, thus contributing to national security
in its broadest, most meaningful sense.
Many of you may know that NSF has supported studies
of biocomplexity--the dynamic web of interactions
among genes, organisms, and environments. It is difficult
to think of another agency that could support such
work, because only we house so many disciplines
under one roof. I'll cite just one new study that
brings together evolutionary biology and computer
science to trace the emergence of biocomplexity.
Researchers are performing parallel experiments with
two very different systems. One employs bacteria,
and the other uses digital "organisms." The digital
system uses computer models of entities that self-replicate,
mutate and evolve novel sequences of instructions
to solve problems. The virtual and living systems
will produce insights about each other.
Here we see a classic example of how NSF's perspective
on biology diverges from, yet complements, that of
NSF's work contributes across the board to the expanded
concept of homeland security.
The mention of computer science brings to mind our
research in cybersecurity--the security of computer
In the realm of geoscience, we have been discussing
a project called "Earthscope"--an array of seismic
instruments that will ultimately help us to predict
and mitigate natural hazards such as earthquakes,
volcanic eruptions, and landslides.
In the area of social science, we have been discussing
an approach that would study how both technology and
society advance through continual interactions.
Technological change is proceeding so rapidly that
our institutions are challenged to keep pace. It's
no stretch to imagine how such studies would also
help us to understand and cope with the changes in
our society after September 11.
In these troubled times, our country's enormous breadth
and depth of knowledge, embodied in our scientific,
engineering, medical, and education communities, is
perhaps our most valuable asset.
Much of what we do already has some bearing
on improving domestic security. All of our
support goes to strengthening our science and engineering
enterprise over the long-run--our ace-in-the-hole
in the global arena.
We need to be able to articulate our case in those
terms--to rise to the new challenge of our times.
I speak for all of us at NSF when I say that I look
forward to working with you on these new challenges,
and developing new ideas on how to meet fresh and
urgent national needs. Now, more than ever, our close
cooperation will be essential.
Once again, I thank FASEB--all of you--for your efforts
on behalf of NSF. Now I look forward to hearing what's
on your minds.