"Turning the Clock Forward: Not Just Faster but Wiser"
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Association of American Publishers
February 9, 1999
Good morning. I am especially pleased to be here today.
Scientists are inextricably tied to publishers. Publish
or perish is fundamental dogma in science.
Yet, it is not everyday that publishers and scientists
share a conference forum, so I am delighted with your
spirit of adventure.
I see this as an opportunity to develop an ongoing
dialogue between the National Science Foundation and
the Association of American Publishers.
I have titled my remarks, "Turning the Clock Forward:
Not Just Faster But Wiser." It is inspired by an observation
made by computer pioneer, Grace Hopper. I had the
good fortune of knowing her. She was indeed a character.
She lived through and helped engender the evolution
from primitive programming to modern data processing.
She observed that, "Humans are allergic to change.
They love to say, 'We've always done it this way.'"
And then Hopper used to add, "That's why I have a
clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise."
We may not like change, but it is a constant ingredient
in our lives. At the end of this 20th century, the
pace of change is in overdrive.
This is all the more reason to insure that the changes
we make are wise and useful for our future.
In my remarks today, I will focus on four areas:
- the context in which your industry, and others,
are evolving in this information era,
- how many of those same technologies are changing
science, using my own research as example,
- how to develop added-value solutions, and
- an enormous challenge that publishers and scientists
might address together.
We all know that the field of publishing is charting
important new territories in the information era.
As scholarly and professional publishers, you are bringing
the newest information in science, medicine, and other
professions to your readers. Much of that material
is now organized and published electronically.
The National Science Foundation funds research at the
frontiers of information systems.
In addition, the Foundation has a longstanding program
in Ethics and Values Studies which, in addition to
other tasks, explores the impact of mainstream information
technologies on the larger society.
You may be familiar with the recent report by the President's
Information Technology Advisory Committee -- PITAC
It notes that federal investments in advanced computing
have yielded a spectacular return.
The report also warned that federal support for long-term
research on information technology was "dangerously
The Committee also designated NSF as lead agency for
an increased federal role in computing research. We're
committed to that leadership role and its responsibilities.
You and I, and our respective institutions, have many
areas of common interest and concern, especially in
information technology. We can learn a great deal
from each other. I look forward to that exchange.
I should mention that I am not the only participant
here today from the National Science Foundation. Dr.
George Strawn, NSF's Director of the Division of Advanced
Networking Infrastructure and Research, is also here.
He is working on the front-line of programs that will
advance information frontiers, and he's a terrific
fellow to engage in conversation.
I agree with the idea of your conference theme, "Inventing
Our Future." That's exactly what you're doing.
We all sense the enormity of change that electronic,
digital, and global are bringing to every facet of
our national and personal existence. It's exciting
but sometimes unsettling.
Eric Hoffer, migrant worker, social philosopher, and
author of The Ordeal of Change, made an important
observation about change. He said, "In times of change,
the learners will inherit the earth, while the learned
find themselves well equipped to deal with a world
that no longer exists."
Although Hoffer predated the term "life-long learning,"
he was right on the mark with the idea that it meant
survival, especially in times of change.
Many of our concerns and interests as "learners" are
related to the new electronic influence on the way
we do business. Let me first say, we are not alone.
Every sector in our economy and our culture is confronting
the pervasive impact of information technologies.
Publishing, however, is right at the center of the
Your leadership is needed to insure that the changes
we make provide added value to our scholarship, our
professional expertise, and our quality of life.
That makes ours the generation of transition in publishing
and the information age.
The decisions made over the next several years will
have lasting impact on the future directions of scholarly
Recently, in my speeches and lectures, I have been
talking about pivotal discoveries in science and technology--discoveries
that changed the human landscape and the social fabric
of our lives.
Electricity, the telephone, and the airplane are phenomena
of modern times. Scholars of ancient history remind
us how the wheel and the plow dramatically altered
civilization. Now we have the Internet and genomics.
Pivotal technologies change the possibilities and the
opportunities. They change the way we perceive our
world, the nature of our work, the process of art,
and the very pattern of our thinking.
Scientists and publishers alike recognize the dramatic
influence of information technology on our work.
Some of the "impossible dreams" suddenly become doable--peering
into the depths of matter and the distances of the
universe, winding the threads from many disciplines
into a new tapestry of understanding.
Excitement moves like an electric current through scientific
meetings in every field--biology, economics, chemistry,
Information systems have played an important role in
my own research on the water-borne disease, cholera.
Much of my research was done in Bangladesh, where
cholera is common.
It is inconceivable now for me to imagine doing my
research in the decades since my graduate student
days without computers.
My work on environmental factors associated with cholera
epidemics would be impossible without the power of
My students and I have combined sophisticated information
processing and rudimentary, community-adaptable techniques
to address the cholera problem. In many ways, it's
the epitome of high tech.
We use remote sensing and computer processing to integrate
data from many disciplines: oceanography, epidemiology,
ecology, microbiology, clinical medicine and more.
We are developing complex models to predict conditions
conducive to cholera epidemics.
This is a proactive, not just reactive, approach to
combat cholera. This strategy would be impossible
without advances in information processing.
One of our most significant findings, however, is decidedly
low tech. We found that filtering water through several
folds of Sari cloth reduced the incidence of the cholera
bacterium in the water dramatically.
Now we are testing this method to see whether it will
reduce the incidence of cholera... as dramatically.
Filtering is a technique that fits easily into the
social framework of family and village. The technique
is simple. The result and the lesson are immediate
For example, last year, I was visiting a rural village
in Bangladesh with a camera crew from Maryland public
television. They wanted to capture our research on
At a local pond, used to draw drinking water, a woman
bent down and filled her clay bottle with water.
We then poured the water from the clay jar into a clear
beaker and held it up to the sunlight. We could easily
see the brown discoloration, microscopic larvae swimming
Then I asked the woman to draw water again, this time
holding layers of sari cloth over the mouth of the
beaker. This time, when we held the beaker up to sunlight,
the water was practically clear.
Minutes later, when the crew was filming to get some
background footage, the woman stopped short at the
request to drink some water from her clay bottle.
She explained through a translator that having just
seen the results of filtering, she didn't want to
drink unfiltered water anymore.
We had just witnessed, in the span of a few minutes,
what might have taken a whole public health infrastructure
a great deal of time and money to accomplish.
A lesson to be learned from this high-tech, low-tech
combination is that each technique has an appropriate
role. What we look for are valued-added solutions
In Bangladesh, it was important to adapt a solution
that worked well in the economic, social, and cultural
framework of the village life.
You might be wondering why I have brought you far-afield,
all the way to Bangladesh. Where is the connection
to scholarly publishing?
Information technologies have exploded the possibilities
in scholarly publishing.
But as "learners," all of us understand that value-added
means making a distinction between information dumping
and knowledge producing.
It is the distinction between too many trees versus
the concept of a forest. It even brings us back to
the concept of filtering.
The philosopher-historians, Will and Ariel Durant,
addressed the information overload concern many years
earlier in the preface to their work, The Story of
the Philosophers. They said, "Human knowledge had
become unmanageably vast; every science had begotten
a dozen more, each subtler than the rest...[what]
if knowledge became too great for communication...."
A new role for publishers with the powerful tool of
information technologies is to insure that "knowledge
does not become too great for communication...."
We already know that in using the Web, scientists have
cited information overload as their most pervasive
problem. Publishers are in an important position to
be part of the solution to this problem.
An article on science journals and the electronic medium
appeared in the January 21 issue of Nature
magazine. In it, Mike Stout of Oxford University Press
said, "We are trying to get away from single journals
and think more in terms of developing knowledge environments
that integrate a number of relevant sources."
Stout talks about a mechanism that is not unlike the
solution of Sari cloth in Bangladesh; it bends to
the fundamental needs of the users by employing the
very tools of their environment in a new way.
Out of massive information, you can help create knowledge
as you develop collections.
Creating high quality collections will move us from
the quagmire of "everything" to a higher plateau of
meaning and usefulness. The trend toward knowledge
environments moves in tandem with the blurring of
boundaries in all fields of science.
As science becomes increasingly multidisciplinary,
the concept of these knowledge environments creates
a more flexible and accommodating resource.
And there is no question that science is moving steadily
in the multidisciplinary direction, despite some departmental
In fact, many of the breakthroughs in science are coming
at the juncture of disciplines. The January 14th issue
of Nature reported on the confluence of physics
and biology. It stated, "What's new is that many physicists--not
just a few isolated pioneer--are getting excited by
the challenge of tackling important questions in biology,
using the tools, both physical and mental, of physics."
The article went on to say, "In the United States,
government and private funding agencies are also promoting
the physics-biology agenda."
The new perspective of developing collections can both
advance and be advanced by this trend of blurred boundaries
in all the sciences.
Scholarly publishing is on the cusp of all these changes.
You will, of necessity, develop innovations for better
serving your customer-base.
That takes more than faster, better technology. Information
systems don't care what passes through them. Technologists
are not sufficiently informed to shape content on
The added value will come from collaborations between
technologists and disciplinary specialists. Publishers
will be pivotal in creating these alliances and collaborations.
You will be the key to adding wiser to the faster,
better equation. You can have enormous influence in
"Inventing the Future," not just for your industry,
but for a much broader segment of the global society.
Information systems are reshaping society, like electricity
and the automobile did earlier.
But unlike many other technologies, information systems
provide a powerful, direct route to new knowledge.
On the one hand, that is filled with potential.
On the other hand, that means they will have far greater
impact on the human landscape and the social fabric
of society. They will change the possibilities and
This has serious implications for broadening the already
wide gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" in
the global society.
In the next half-century, the global population is
projected to double. Global pressures, both human
and environmental, could escalate dramatically.
There is an urgent need to create a pattern of sustainable
development for the planet and its growing population.
Education and knowledge are key to achieving that goal.
But it will not be education and knowledge of the
"few." It will have to be education and knowledge
for the "many."
Currently, one-third of the world's population is illiterate.
If the population projections for the next fifty years
are anywhere near correct, illiteracy could also increase
But, information systems can change the possibilities
and the opportunities. I am asking you how publishers
and scientists might work together to expand the possibilities
and the opportunities for world literacy.
I suspect the solution will be a creative combination
of high tech and low tech. Advanced computing and
household filtering worked in Bangladesh.
I do think that scientists and scholarly publishers
might make a good combination to start that exploration.
You are among the most learned, but you are also "the
learners" at the cutting edge of knowledge-generation.
If scientists and scholarly publishers are as passionate
about knowledge and learning as I think we are, then
there are many explorations and formidable challenges
that we can tackle together.
I hope today marks the first of a continuing series
of conversations between us.