Dr. Rita R. Colwell

AAAS Annual Meeting
Anaheim, California
January 22, 1999

Science and Technology: Priorities for the 21st Century

I want to welcome everyone to this evening's panel discussion on Science and Technology Priorities for the 21st Century. I am Rita Colwell, Director of the National Science Foundation.

I have had a long and varied relationship with the AAAS, as a researcher, a colleague, a past President, and always as a friend and supporter. I am very pleased to be a moderator. We are extremely fortunate to have Neal Lane and Robert May as panelists for this session.

"The New Age of Exploration." That phrase is loaded with meaning, and it (fortunately) has much in common with our focus this evening.

Science and engineering are about exploration - of the heavens, of ourselves, of our planet, and of our society.

Today, we are embarking on entirely new journeys of exploration - journeys made possible by the multitude of emerging tools and technologies we bring to our work and introduce to our society.

These capabilities make it possible for us to see that our universe is expanding, and to detect the genes that control circadian rhythms.

Those two findings, by the way, topped Science magazine's list of the top research breakthroughs of 1998 - and both were funded by NSF.

This evening, I want to examine the directions - the compass headings - we should follow for these new voyages of exploration.

I sometimes worry that we are cruising along at great speed, but we are not sure where we are headed.

I also have ideas about a few mid-course corrections that will help us steer clear of any icebergs that might be in our path.

Before anyone leaps to any conclusions, I will not equate the great ship of science with the Titanic. For starters, I haven't seen movie stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet wandering the halls. If they were, you would bet that AAAS would see record attendance.

What I will say today is that we need to take a close look at the long term funding trends for Federally-supported R&D. They suggest that we are not on the right course as a nation.

Then, I will briefly discuss four key areas:

  • information technology,
  • the multidisciplinary area I call biocomplexity,
  • K-12 education,
  • and international cooperation.

We should think of these as markers and buoys. They can help us find the right compass headings for our future.

Let's look first at the national picture for R&D. It definitely deserves our attention. The National Science Board made this clear in its biannual compilation of Science and Engineering Indicators. It wrote: "The nation's S&E enterprise is undergoing changes in structure and priorities as we prepare to enter the next century."

R&D funding patterns have changed substantially.

    - The good news is that total national R&D funding has never been higher. It now comes to more than $200 Billion.

    - The not-so-good-news is that the federal government has been steadily losing ground to industry as a source of R&D funds.

    - In 1997, federal agencies provided 30 percent of all R&D funds in the US.

    - That's the lowest level since we started collecting the data!

    - A decade ago, the federal share was 46 percent.

    - Three decades ago, the federal share was 60 percent.

The Council of Competitiveness took stock of the national R&D picture in the Going Global report it released last September.

The Council consists of CEOs, R&D managers, and top officials from over 120 leading corporations, universities, and government agencies.

What they say is always worth listening to, and they came to a clear consensus on the need for increased public investment in fundamental research and education.

To quote: "For the past 50 years, most, if not all, of the technological advances have been directly linked to improvements in fundamental understanding. Investment in discovery research creates the seedcorn for future innovation. The Council went on to add that: "Government at all levels is the mainstay of the nation's investment in science and engineering research...Uncertainties about the stability and adequacy of funding for science worry industry and university executives alike."

Let me mention one other trend that is causing many of us to worry.

NSF's Division of Science Resources Studies has taken a close look at the mix of Federal research funding across different fields of science and engineering.

The mix has changed significantly and dramatically since 1970 - primarily through gains in biomedical fields and declines in the physical sciences and engineering.

    - In 1970, the life and biomedical sciences accounted for 29 percent of Federal research spending. By 1997, their share had risen to 43 percent. Put another way, their share rose by half.

    - Engineering, by contrast, saw its share of the Federal research portfolio decline by 12 percentage points over the same period.

    - The share going to the physical sciences dropped by over 5 percentage points.

I'd be the first person to tell you that great things are happening in biomedical fields. Some of that funding has gone to my own research. But, I also know that society cannot live by biomedical bread alone.

This trend in fact concerns many in the medical sciences. Harold Varmus discussed it in the plenary address he delivered at the AAAS meeting one year ago in Philadelphia.

Harold, much to his credit, took the bull by the horns and talked about the dependence of biology and medicine on other fields of science. In his words: "Most of the revolutionary changes that have occurred in biology and medicine are rooted in new methods. Those, in turn, are usually rooted in fundamental discoveries in many different fields."

He went on to cite laser surgery, CAT scans, fiber optic viewing, ECHOcardiography, and fetal sonograms as examples of these revolutionary advances.

This brings us back to the central question: how do we steer this great ship toward the proper course?

We know that steamships never turn on a dime, and our ship of science will not change course abruptly - nor should it.

We'll get a key signal on future directions in just over a week, with the release of the FY 2000 budget request for the federal government. I won't go into any details on the budget. (The Vice President may on Sunday.)

I will say that NSF and science in general have received strong support from the administration throughout the budget process. I think we will see a budget that provides an excellent starting point for this new era of exploration.

With this in mind, let me mention four areas that will help point us in the right direction for our explorations.

First is information technologies. You may be familiar with the recent report by the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee-PITAC for short.

It notes that federal investments in advanced computing and networking have reaped a "spectacular return."

Yet, PITAC warned that we might be resting on our laurels. It called federal support for long-term research on information technology "dangerously inadequate."

The committee recommended that NSF serve as lead agency for an increased federal role in computing research.

We're strongly committed to playing this leadership role, and we have accepted this responsibility.

NSF has a solid record in key areas of information technology research, from software to the human/computer interface, and from scalable infrastructure to the framework for high-end computing.

A key reason NSF has the lead agency role is because our portfolio includes both the information sciences and the social sciences. This fosters an integrated scientific understanding of the development and use of information technologies.

These interdisciplinary connections take on increased importance when we consider the challenges posed by our emerging information economy.

President Clinton framed these challenges quite eloquently in his commencement address at MIT last May saying, "We can extend opportunity to all Americans or leave many behind. We can erase lines of inequity or etch them indelibly. We can accelerate the most powerful engine of growth and prosperity the world has ever known, or allow the engine to stall."

This makes clear why investments in information technologies are important to NSF, but even more important for the entire country.

This brings me to a second compass heading for us - because it points also in a multidisciplinary direction. We call it biocomplexity, and it speaks to the larger issue of reaching across disciplines.

Biocomplexity requires working in and across the disciplines of the life sciences, engineering, the physical sciences, and the social sciences.

Scientists have typically studied biological phenomena at one, or perhaps two levels of resolution.

We have assumed that biological entities, from molecules to ecosystems, eventually could be understood simply by summing the properties of their parts.

It is apparent that understanding biological complexity requires a more sophisticated and integrated approach.

This new approach will interweave temporal, spatial, and conceptual perspectives. It will allow us to identify principles and patterns that function at multiple levels of organization in the Earth's systems.

Now to a third compass heading, and we probably all know where this one should point - into our communities, our neighborhoods, and especially into our schools.

Last year we got a wake up call from the set of studies known as TIMSS - the Third International Mathematics and Science Study.

The results raised important issues about the quality of U.S. science and mathematics education.

While U.S. fourth graders were gaining ground toward the goal of being "first in the world," U.S. eighth graders slipped to levels below the international average.

We also learned that we need to address both what we teach and how we teach. Our textbooks sacrifice depth for the sake of breadth. They contain many more topics than those in other countries.

For example, the science textbooks we give to our eighth graders cover some 67 topics. In Germany, they cover nine topics. Is it any wonder our kids believe what they see on the X-Files?

At NSF, we are putting together a pilot effort that we think will boost the content of K-12 education and improve graduate and undergraduate education at the same time.

This new effort encourages graduates and advanced undergraduates in science and engineering to work in K-12 classrooms.

The pilot program will target teaching and learning at several levels at once. The college and university students would serve as content experts and provide role models for the younger students.

The K-12 teachers would guide them through the ins and outs of pedagogy and classroom teaching.

We see it as a classic win-win. We improve the depth of K-12 science and math courses, and we add some breadth to the experiences of our top graduate students and undergraduates.

The fourth compass heading I'll suggest points directly toward our discussion here this evening, namely toward the international arena.

All nations want and need to develop their own domestic science and technology capability.

They want to address and solve their own problems, develop their economies, build an educational infrastructure, provide adequate health care, and also participate in the world scientific enterprise.

In order for developed nations to pay more than "lip service" to the concept of international scientific cooperation, we must commit to narrowing the scientific disparity among nations.

For many years, we have relied on mechanisms such as bilateral science and technology agreements and scientific exchanges between nations. They have worked at some level, but current and growing disparities tell us different solutions are needed.

The January 7 issue of Nature reports that the World Bank is stepping forward on this issue. It states: "Direct support for research in developing countries is now seen as more of a priority. This is because the bank believes research will help to find solutions to its priority issues, such as providing the poor with access to food, clean water, and a disease-free environment."

In the next half century, world population is projected roughly to double. Global pressures, both human and environmental, could escalate dramatically. Our inventiveness will be challenged in new ways.

We will be called upon increasingly to assist and collaborate in places distant and distinctly different. This makes clear the need for us to prepare young scientists to work on research problems that go beyond their borders.

When I was a graduate student, you applied for funds for travel for your research and a month later you got a plane ticket and left. Times have changed.

Bruce Alberts, President of the National Academy of Sciences, make this clear in the same Nature article I mentioned earlier. He said, "We've moved a long way backward in the past 40 years."

He was referring to the younger researchers. They now have fewer opportunities just to pick up and travel abroad to work with scientists in another part of the world, as I was able to do.

The preponderance of graduate education today still trains students within the walls of the university. It prepares them for work in the confines of the academy.

That's pretty narrow preparation. In turn, it provides a limited set of career expectations. It will not help future researchers to meet the changing needs of the 21st century. They need the experience of collaboration with fellow researchers throughout the world.

This will be a priority for NSF. I have worked with Eamon Kelly, Chairman of the National Science Board, to establish a new Board task force on International Issues in Science and Technology.

The time is right, and the agenda for science demands a global perspective. Suffice it to say, we are just beginning.

Let me leave you with the vision statement set forth in the National Science Policy Study - better known as the Ehlers report.

The study received the endorsement of the full House of Representatives last October. The statement reads: "The United States of America must maintain and improve its pre-eminent position in science and technology in order to advance human understanding of the universe and all it contains, and to improve the lives, health, and freedom of all peoples."

This statement reminds us that our new voyages of exploration will bring great rewards to both science and society. I look forward to working with all of you as we chart our course for the future.

Now it is time to hear from our two distinguished panelists...

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