Global Scientific Cooperation in the 21st Century:
Keystone of Scientific Progress and World Peace
Dr. Rita Colwell
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
at the Chinese Academy of Sciences
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
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
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
These issues will require international scientific
cooperation of the very highest order. Solutions will
come only through insights that we gain in inter-disciplinary
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
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 shipbuilding...new
crops and plants...Metallurgical skills..." Other
examples come to mind, but I'm sure you understand
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
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
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