The National Science Foundation's Role in the Arctic
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Opportunities in Arctic Research: A Community Workshop
Arlington Hilton Hotel, Gallery I
Thursday, September 3, 1998
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to say a
few words as this important workshop begins. I am
eager to share with you the great anticipation I feel
about my new post at the helm of NSF. Part of the
excitement is the opportunity we share to chart a
visionary course for future research in the Arctic.
I'd like to take this moment to speak seriously about
how to shape future science in the Arctic region.
As Eric Hoffer wrote, "The only way to predict the
future is to have the power to shape the future."
NSF needs the community's advice to strengthen its
leadership role in this extreme region of the world,
a geographical region whose physical and human resources
can teach us so much.
Anticipation and pro-action -- these are directions
in which science should move in the next century.
We know that the Arctic and the rest of the world
can no longer afford to focus on remedial solutions,
so often the approach of the past. Now, with our sophisticated
tools and the explosion of knowledge, we have the
power to foresee and to predict, in a way we never
could do in the past.
There is a physical phenomenon that is specific to
the Polar Regions that can provide a clue to a direction
we should take. On a cloudy day in the Arctic, a ship's
captain looking over the pack ice of the ocean might
not be able to see very far into the distance. But,
a brilliant patch of clouds in a dark sky signals
to him or her a patch of ice ahead, even though it
can't be seen.
Just the opposite -- a dark spot in a dazzling expanse
of cloud -- can indicate open water ahead. This "water
sky," as it is known, physically indicates the way
to go -- and, similarly, the Arctic metaphorically
can give direction and inform the rest of the world.
Interdisciplinary connections are absolutely fundamental.
They are synapses in this new capability to look over
and beyond the horizon. Interfaces of the sciences
are where the excitement will be the most intense.
Let me offer a broader, a wider view, a concept that
might help to frame the discussions today and tomorrow.
I've begun thinking a great deal about what I call
"biocomplexity"...the network formed by chemical,
biological, and social interactions among our planet's
systems. The areas optimum for this new way of understanding
are the Polar Regions.
How can we grasp this enormous complexity of our world,
our planet? This is something that science, engineering
and technology must help us to do. In the Arctic --
with its huge ocean, that is relatively little understood,
and its living systems, with their human adaptations
-- we behold a vast treasurehouse of discoveries yet
to be made. One of the virtues of the Arctic may be
the wonderful opportunity to trace the interactions
of the physical environment and the living inhabitants.
NSF's initiative called "LEE" -- short for Life in
Earth's Environment -- provides a way to investigate
this wealth of opportunities in a truly integrated
way. I expect the Polar Regions -- with their lessons
about extreme environments and marvelous teachings
about the sustainability of life -- to be central
to this exploration.
The Arctic also offers a model for the fusion of science,
technology, and the ethical conduct of research. We
have a wonderful opportunity to build on the interdisciplinary
teamwork and partnerships with Arctic communities
to launch a new phase.
A little over a decade ago, I chaired a National Science
Board study that made recommendations on NSF's role
in the Polar Regions. For the Arctic, the report suggested
NSF establish research centers and logistics to support
science. We can celebrate implementation of one of
the major recommendations of the study. NSF now has
a thriving program to support the social sciences
in the Arctic.
Although some progress has been made since the study,
much remains to be done. An intriguing possibility
to consider is for NSF to establish a network of environmental
observatories, just one of any number of possibilities.
We need your advice about the potential for the Arctic.
It would be efficient and effective to build on facilities
that already exist. Monitoring the Arctic environment
at these sites over the long-term will move us faster
toward a science of anticipation, or pro-activity
that I mentioned earlier. Like the "water sky," they
could help us to see the way ahead.
One such NSF priority is the Polar Cap Observatory,
among many which would enable us to make unique measurements
of the ionosphere and atmosphere in the high-latitude
Arctic. These studies would help us understand better
"space weather," which can disrupt satellites and
communications systems. Only in the Arctic can we
fill the gaps in knowledge of energy transfer between
the solar wind and the atmosphere.
A network of facilities that integrate research and
education might also help us shape and anticipate
our future in another way. A very important way and
that is to help train future generations. We are all
aware of the potential for polar science to catalyze
young imaginations, to fire them up to connect with
science and, thereby, strengthen our nation's scientific
literacy. This has to be an integral part of future
The Arctic is also ideal for the kind of network on
which science thrives--international connections.
The Arctic should be a beacon for international cooperation
in the world of research. We at NSF are exploring
possibilities for cooperative funding by different
nations at Summit, Greenland, for example.
Another natural target for international effort is
the critical issue of contaminants in the Arctic --
on land, in the region's great rivers, and in the
sea. Enhancing our fledgling cooperation with Russia,
exploiting the declassification of Arctic data on
both sides of the Bering Sea -- these are the kinds
of international linkage that open exciting new directions
I have attempted in this short time to offer a few
ideas for you to mull over, but I'm conscious of standing
before a gathering of experts, really solid Arctic
expertise of great breadth. I'm eager to hear your
questions and comments on our opportunities in the