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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


The National Science Foundation's Role in the Arctic

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
Opportunities in Arctic Research: A Community Workshop
Arlington Hilton Hotel, Gallery I

Thursday, September 3, 1998

(As Delivered)

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 polar science.

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 to explore.

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 Arctic.

Thank you.



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