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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"The Flag of Biotechnology"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
US-EC Task Force on Biotechnology Research
Arlington, Virginia

June 25, 2003

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.

Greetings to everyone, and a special welcome to our European colleagues. You have had a full day of discussions on many facets of biotechnology research, from disease resistance to environment, from food safety to neuroinformatics. Tomorrow's talks will expand even further the range of areas being explored. The agenda itself suggests a fast-paced and increasingly diverse scientific enterprise-one that harbors greater promise every day.

If we could weave a flag for biotechnology, some say, it would feature three colors: red for medical applications, green for agricultural and white for industrial. In fact, this flag may accrue even more colors over time as environmental and marine biotech and other applications add their stripes.

If one can date the birth of biotechnology from Watson and Crick's publication of the structure of DNA, the science is now celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. In keeping with this milestone, I would like to speak from a vantagepoint that surveys our progress to date and touches upon some broader concerns.

I will speak briefly about a few broader themes that may serve as a backdrop for the work of the task force, and then I look forward to some discussion with you.

My first point is that our efforts to facilitate international science are more vital than ever. In an era of international uncertainty and frequent global misunderstanding, scientific activity offers--more than ever--the potential to create ties of mutual benefit. International cooperation at its best can catalyze partnerships among nations.

Science and engineering have always flourished across national borders, but today's scale of research is unprecedented. It is worth reminding ourselves that new ideas and new discoveries emerge regularly around the world. Especially as research grows increasingly interdisciplinary, more scientific questions become global in scope. I will cite just a couple of figures to underscore this reality:

  • We in this country benefit tremendously from the international flow of knowledge and personnel. A recent statistic: more than a quarter of PhDs in the US are foreign-born.

  • Another marker: more than half of new faculty in US research universities were born elsewhere.

All of us in science benefit from international ties, and we all need to work to maintain and to strengthen those ties.

We also need to safeguard responsible scientific access to the fruits of research. As The Economist said recently, "Scientists cannot build on each others' results if they do not know them."

These truths are self-evident; indeed, we are here today because we share a mutual belief in the importance-the critical importance-of international collaboration. No science today can thrive in isolation. International cooperation is not just a matter of making our work more efficient, but of bringing together a rich diversity of perspectives.

[bioscience: sunflower etc.]
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As David Galas and Henry Riggs suggest in an editorial in the June 20 issue of Science, biology particularly exemplifies the international dimensions of the knowledge explosion. Decrying isolationist trends in the US, they point out that, "The United States has benefited remarkably from tapping into a wide range of global talent, energy and scientific creativity." Today, biotechnology is more than ever an international enterprise-one whose global sweep and shared purpose transcends the political currents and disagreements of the moment.

Let me turn to just a few examples of how exciting and collaborative that science can be, which may inspire ideas for your discussions today and tomorrow.

(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Unraveling the genome of arabidopsis-the unassuming "laboratory rat" of the plant world-was an international effort between the United States, the European Union and Japan. Sliced another way, that meant the efforts of 8,000 scientists and 2,500 laboratories. This plant-a roadmap to the plant kingdom--gives us a key to the genomics of 125,000 other plant species.

[cover of report: The Multinational Coordinated Arabidopsis thaliana Functional Genomics project]
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Now we've gone a step further, and some of you may be familiar with the project described in this report. We now know that Arabidopsis has about 25,500 genes. The new challenge is to determine the function of every one of those genes by 2010.

As the project's multinational steering committee notes, "It has become clear during the past ten years that international cooperation and communication are essential elements to success in an undertaking as large as [this project]." Here's a sterling example of how we are already collaborating, in what may be a useful model for other areas.

(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Projects to understand the genomes of crop plants such as rice and wheat also provide international models for working together to achieve results faster, such as when different countries agree to sequence different chromosomes.

This month, a US group announced the sequencing of rice's smallest chromosome, number 10; earlier, Japanese and Chinese groups published maps for rice chromosomes 1 and 4. Such collaboration is fitting since rice feeds more than half the world's population.

[Yellowstone: microbial life]
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Another area of very successful cooperation has been environmental biotechnology, and I use this image from Yellowstone National Park to symbolize the promise of this area. Unfortunately, in contrast to this pristine preserve, we have hundreds of thousands of polluted sites in the United States, and Europe, of course, has similar problems.

In fact, cooperative activities in environmental biotechnology have been successful, with training workshops in both the US and Europe, as well as post-doctoral exchanges.

Bringing young people together is vitally important -- and not just to improve the technical skills and knowledge of young biotechnologists. As Rutgers University's Lily Young says -- she is one of the organizers -- "Many of the students reported that the ties fostered at this early stage of their career would make it easier to forge overseas cooperative projects in the future." She does call for less cumbersome support mechanisms that encourage that collaborative spirit to flourish. I hope we can heed that call.

[microbial earth]
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This cartoon of the microbial earth encapsulates one of my particular interests; it expresses the global dimensions of our microbial world and suggests the scope of what I have called "microbial diplomacy." Pathogens themselves do not carry passports, and microbiologists work, as much as any scientists, around the globe.

I was pleased to notice on your agenda that there has been discussion scheduled today about the US's own Microbe Project. What a fitting area in which to enhance cooperative activities-a scientific area deeply international to begin with.

[protein data bank pic]
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Here are some molecular portraits from the Protein Data Bank, the international repository for information on macromolecular structures. This is the single international repository for information on a protein's structure-the shapes of all these proteins.

The Protein Data Bank collaborates internationally, with what are called "mirror sites" outside the United States--in the United Kingdom, Singapore, Japan, Brazil, and Germany. The establishment of sites all around the world testifies that scientists internationally are using the Bank-and that they need quick access to its data.

These are just a few examples that might serve as models for other areas of cooperation. Earlier today, I know, Mary Clutter cited some "challenges for 21st century biology" and I would like to spend just a few minutes elaborating a bit more on one of them-the absolute necessity to communicate the value and contributions of our science to the public.

We are here today because we share a belief in the value of biotechnology's promise for humankind. Agricultural biotechnology can enable the world to grow more food using less environmentally harmful pesticide on fewer acres and with less water.

However, I do not need to stress to this group that not all of the public shares this belief. On Monday I returned from Sacramento, California, where I spoke at the US Department of Agriculture's Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology.

No doubt you saw news reports about protestors there who were shouting slogans like "We Don't Want to Eat Their Corporate Creations."

I actually did not see any demonstrations on Monday. It was quiet and the response of the 120 national delegates and 80 ministers was positive.

"What really matters is not what is possible, but what people make of those possibilities." This was an observation made about biotechnology in The Economist earlier this year. On both sides of the Atlantic, biotech's greatest challenge to acceptance by society is people's perceptions of its benefits and detriments. This becomes more a consumer question than a science question.

In Europe, we know that many people are suspicious of biotechnology, especially in the area of food safety. We of course have our own debates in this country over some new technologies-stem cell research is an obvious example.

We all need to pay more than lip service to engaging the public in discussions about the science of biotechnology. Surely fostering such engagement is a mutual concern. Public perception in Europe has not been that this technology will help the environment, produce medical benefits, and bring about other improvements. We can certainly learn from each other's experiences in this realm. The National Science Foundation pledges a leading role in both the science and dialogue with the public.

Biotechnology's future will be bright if it continues to draw strength from diverse contributions, and if its flag-the flag of many colors I described at the beginning-reflects the hues and patterns of many nations. The scientific outlook for biotech is breathtaking-both in the discoveries and in the many models of US-EC cooperation upon which we can draw.

Let us also share our experiences in discoveries in biotechnology with society, not only so that our world can reap the myriad benefits of biotechnology's future, but also so that these benefits will be understood-and appreciated.

Now I would be happy to hear comments, questions, reactions...



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