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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Global Scientific Cooperation in the 21st Century: Keystone of Scientific Progress and World Peace

Dr. Rita Colwell
at the Chinese Academy of Sciences
Beijing, China

October 12, 1998

I am honored and very pleased to have the opportunity to address such a distinguished assemblage of scientists. It is a privilege to be visiting the People's Republic of China once again.

We as human beings are by nature inquisitive and desire to use knowledge to promote our well-being. The pursuit of scientific knowledge satisfies our basic longing about how the world works and how we fit into it.

The pursuit of scientific knowledge has also proven to be a very powerful tool for bringing people together with a common goal of solving problems and building a world of peace and progress.

One of the brightest examples in modern times of how science acted as a force to bring people together was the extraordinary role it played in rekindling the friendship and trust between the Chinese and American people, following the "Shanghai Communiqué," more than a quarter century ago.

Now we are at the dawn of a new century, and we share a new spirit of common destiny. Our nations and other nations of the world have much in common, with respect to the desire for peace, progress, and a sustainable balance between us, as humans, and our environment. Once again, the shared pursuit of scientific knowledge provides a powerful lantern lighting the road ahead.

Your ancient legacy of scientific and engineering excellence, your modern contributions to scientific knowledge, and your determination to promote "Science and Education for a Prosperous Nation" gives me great confidence that together, our two nations can meet the challenges that we, with the rest of the world, will face in the 21st century. As partners in science and technology, we can provide a powerful, saltatory leap in research productivity and discovery for the global good.

President Jiang Zemin was quoted in People's Daily last March as saying, "Innovation is the soul of a nation's progress." The entire world will need the creations of China's strong innovative spirit in the coming century.

Perhaps the most important problems that the science and engineering enterprise now faces and will continue to face at the beginning of the century are how to use science and technology for the responsible stewardship of our planet and the benefit of all nations, large and small; and how to improve worldwide knowledge production, dissemination, and application. China's contributions are critical to the achievement of these goals.

The planet's environment and diverse ecosystems have never known national boundaries. As scientists, our discoveries have, for many centuries, crossed the bridges of national boundaries.

We scientists have frequently been the signalers that communicated and cooperated across languages and cultures. What do I mean by "signalers"? I am drawing a human analogy to the way that multi-cellular biological organisms signal their activity and thus coordinate their cellular behavior with unlike cells to ensure the survival of the organism.

For the science community this signaling is more than just biochemical. It means that we need to signal each other across disciplines. It will take biologists, ecologists, physical scientists, computer scientists, engineers, and behavioral and social scientists to understand the signals for survivability on our planet. And, it will require scientists from different countries and different cultures working together to ensure survivability, as well.

As we collaborate in an array of disciplines and across international boundaries, our work will connect and overlap. It will gain strength and insight from that blending. More than any other force in history, science, engineering, and technology have defined and designed the world in which we live. This will continue and the pace will accelerate.

But science and technology must also save that world for future generations. The American medical researcher, Jonas Salk, discoverer of the Salk polio vaccine, said "Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

Historically, most nations have taken for granted our most fundamental resources--air, water, land for food production, forests, fauna, and wildlife. Few nations, if any, can be considered heroic preservationists. America has certainly not been quick to grapple with these issues. We can see this when we examine an issue of concern to all of us: water--its availability, its purity, and its life-sustaining capacity. This will present one of our greatest challenges.

Although we call our planet Earth, we should more aptly call our planet Water because the oceans comprise the far greater part of our habitat. Even more striking is that just as some 70 percent of our planet's surface is covered by water, that same figure--roughly 70 percent--also corresponds to the share that water constitutes of our bodies.

As scientists, we are acutely aware that despite the abundance of planetary water, there is only a very tiny amount suitable for human use. Only three percent of the planet's water is fresh water; the other 97 percent is sea water. Of the tiny three percent, two percent is locked up in glaciers or ice caps. Furthermore, we also know that the one percent that is available as fresh water is often not in the right place at the right time. The recent flooding in your country and the United States is evidence of this.

Thus, we must consider the realities of waste and pollution. Waste and pollution rob our limited fresh water supply as we grapple with increasing global populations.

The challenge is water--understanding ecosystems, providing for agricultural needs, sustaining safe drinking water, maintaining the health of the oceans and our food supply.

These issues will require international scientific cooperation of the very highest order. Solutions will come only through insights that we gain in inter-disciplinary collaborations.

There is both opportunity and responsibility here for the science community. This is where a new, synthetic idea begins to take shape as a research direction, as well as social understanding. I refer to this new concept as "biocomplexity."

Biocomplexity reaches beyond biodiversity, beyond ecosystem dynamics, beyond sustainability. It includes all of that. When we speak of sustaining biodiversity, we mean primarily maintaining the plant and animal diversity of the planet; and this is a very important goal.

But "understanding biocomplexity" speaks to a deeper concept. It is not enough to explore and chronicle and record the enormous diversity of the world's ecosystems. We must do that. But we must also reach beyond, to discover the complex chemical, biological, and social interactions that comprise our planet's systems.

From these subtle but very sophisticated interrelationships, we can pull out the fundamental principles of sustainability. Our survival as a human species and the ecological survival of the entire planet depend on our ability to achieve what is a truly interdisciplinary task.

The complexity of our world also embraces how we communicate, indeed, how we handle increasing amounts of information, data and knowledge. The virtual explosion in diverse information systems presents us with a new "Age of Exploration."

In the 15th and 16th centuries, when powerful nations paid for voyages to circumnavigate the globe, those nations were looking for new trade routes and the wealth that trade would bring. At the same time, they were also mapping the shape and size of the world and discovering who inhabited it. Only seafaring vessels sailing the oceans would find that knowledge, bring it home, and empower those nations.

The historian, Paul Kennedy, describes this time in his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. He says, "Spanish galleons, plying along the Western coast, linked up with vessels from the Philippines, bearing Chinese silks in exchange for Peruvian silver ...What had started as a number of separate expansions was steadily turning into an interlocking whole..."

Kennedy tells us of cultures in many distant places learning about each other and developing a respect for each other's skills and a passion for each other's wares. But he also describes a powerful addition to those seafaring initiatives. He speaks of "the parallel upward spiral in knowledge--in science and technology...Improved cartography, navigational tables, new instruments like the telescope...better methods of crops and plants...Metallurgical skills..." Other examples come to mind, but I'm sure you understand this point.

Today, computational power, instant communication, huge databases, and extensive analytical capability have brought us to yet another age of circumnavigation. We can now explore our universe with powerful tools that unlock knowledge from the subatomic to the super-celestial level.

Like the sailing ships that were catalysts for advances in science and technology, our compact and complex information vessels and ships are triggering explorations of a magnitude not even imagined thirty years ago.

The first age of exploration spanned about two hundred years--and did not, by any means, benefit all nations equally. By comparison, our new era is in its infancy--barely a decade old--and it holds the potential to promote enormous progress and growth for all nations.

Chinese and American scientists have been engaging successfully in cooperative research projects for many years. Now, in addition to supporting individual projects, we must also begin to consider our broad portfolio of cooperation. We must consider overall policies which have significant implications for the vitality of science, engineering, and technology communities and the broader society that both supports and benefits from this work.

Underlying this objective is the assumption that a deeper understanding and an appreciation of different perspectives and approaches to issues of mutual concern will improve planning, both nationally and bilaterally, between our countries, for the effective and balanced development of science, engineering, and technology resources and their utilization in the service of broad cultural, social, and economic goals.

Our portfolio of interests must ensure that we are transcending specific disciplines, that we are addressing scientific problems from a global perspective, and that we are contributing to the knowledge-base of all of humanity. By doing this, we can help ensure world peace and the survivability of our planet.

The interests of the National Science Foundation of the United States cover a broad range of disciplines from mathematics and physical sciences to social science and economics, as well as a number of broad cross-cutting themes -- themes such as global change, integration of research and education, knowledge and distributed intelligence, life and earth's environment, and educating for the future. These are just a few examples of cross cutting themes.

Similarly, there are many disciplines and themes of special interest to you, such as global change, continental dynamics, biological oceanography, offshore ocean science, neuroscience, nanoscience, mathematics of finance, astronomy (space-based astronomy and radio astronomy), and information sciences. Together we can discuss and explore when and where our interests coincide and how we can pursue them together.

Global change and infectious diseases is one example. All the disciplines together, including the social sciences, must be brought to bear on such issues.

Scientific and technical cooperation played an important role in bringing the American and Chinese people together starting in the early 1970s. Science and technology have continued to provide a framework for mutually beneficial interaction. In the coming century, partnering in scientific and technical endeavors will become even more central, not only to the progress of science, engineering, and technology but also to the promotion of peace and to the health and well being of humankind.

Together we can invest so that science and education continue to cross frontiers and flourish--as they do best--across the great expanses of an international habitat. These collaborations will take us into new, uncharted waters. Together, we will be the new explorers.

Your colleagues and counterparts in America look forward to an era of joint scientific journeys with you. In the coming century, partnering in scientific and technical endeavors will become even more central, not only to progress of science but also to the promotion of peace.

Thank you.



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