Skip To Content Skip To Left Navigation
NSF Logo Search GraphicGuide To Programs GraphicImage Library GraphicSite Map GraphicHelp GraphicPrivacy Policy Graphic
OLPA Header Graphic

Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
American Society for Engineering Education
Engineering Deans Colloquium
Mayflower Hotel

February 9, 1999

Good afternoon. To start our conversation today, I would like to take a few minutes to review what's been front and center at NSF this past week - namely the FY 2000 budget request.

I'd like to share a few of the highlights from the request - and do so in a way that puts it in a larger, national context.

We have an excellent budget at the starting gate in what was - and remains - a very difficult budget environment.

The overall budget picture can be confusing at first, but it becomes clearer when we start at the top and drill down.

Domestic spending is the key for NSF and virtually all of non-defense R&D. It's not a pretty picture.

The total for domestic discretionary in FY 2000 is some $28 billion lower than it was in FY 1999. That's a 13 percent cut - in budget authority.

That's where we started with OMB. Fortunately, where we finished with OMB looks much better.

The Administration has produced a strong package of investments in research.

  • Basic research across the government is up by $700 million.
  • Academic R&D is up by over $350 million.

The bottom line for NSF is $3.95 billion or about 6 percent above the FY 1999 level. Our support for research projects is up by 8 percent.

Taken all together, these increases - both for NSF and for research in general - provide one more reminder of the Administration's commitment to investing in fundamental research and in education.

They make for seven years in a row of supporting increases in research. It may not equal Cal Ripken's streak - but it's a solid record, and it's still going.

Before I turn to details of the budget, I'd like to say a few words about how NSF fits into the overall R&D environment of our country.

When we step back and examine the context for science and engineering in America, a number of trends emerge that deserve our attention.

A good place to start is with the National Science Board's biannual compilation of Science and Engineering Indicators.

The Board put the situation into a nutshell. It wrote, "The nation's S&E enterprise is undergoing changes in structure and priorities as we prepare to enter the next century."

This is borne out when we look at the national picture. R&D funding patterns have changed substantially.

- The good news is that total national R&D funding has never been higher. It now amounts to more than $220 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.

- The federal government now provides only 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 on Competitiveness took stock of the national R&D picture in the report, Going Global, it released last September, only a few months ago.

The Council consists of CEOs, R&D managers, and top officials from over 120 leading corporations, universities, and government agencies. I know many of you and your colleagues take part in its deliberations.

What it has to say is worth listening to. The Council 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. Government at all levels is the mainstay of the nation's investment in science and engineering research...."

The Council went on to add that:

"Most [industrial] R&D managers are investing with an eye on the bottom line, but more than a handful wonder from where the next generation of breakthrough technologies will come."

The Vice President addressed this point in his talk at the AAAS meeting late last month in California.

He stressed that the government must support "the long-term investments that most companies can't afford to make."

Let me mention one other trend related to these long-term investments that is causing concern among many of us.

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.

Over the past 25-plus years, the mix has changed significantly and dramatically - primarily through gains in biomedical fields and declines in the physical sciences and engineering.

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

- Engineering, by contrast, saw its share decline by 12 percentage points over the same period, falling from 31 percent to 19 percent of the Federal research portfolio.

The combination effect is just as significant. Engineering and the physical sciences - taken together - accounted for 50 percent of federal research spending in 1970.

That's down to 33 percent today - a drop from half of the total to just about one third. I know that is not news to many of you, but it's taken more than a few people by surprise.

I'd be the first to tell you about the great things that 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, very much to his credit, made a very bold observation when he talked about the dependence of biology and medicine on other fields of science and engineering! 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."

Harold then went on to cite laser surgery, CAT scans, fiber optic viewing, ECHO cardiography, and fetal sonograms as examples of these revolutionary advances.

This brings us to the FY 2000 request for NSF, and the need for increased investment in research and education. NSF is the fulcrum for all of science and engineering.

NSF is the only agency whose mission covers research in all fields of science and engineering, as well as education at all levels - cradle to grave, practically speaking.

We support the fundamental work that benefits the mission agencies down the line.

For this reason, it is important that we continue working together - as a community - to support investments that reach all fields and disciplines.

Let me turn now to the budget...The bottom line for NSF is fast closing in on a $4 billion milestone.

The Administration agreed with us when we said loudly and clearly that research investments deserve the highest priority...and the positive response we got is reflected in the 8 percent increase for research project support.

The headliner in this budget is the new initiative in information technology. The rationale is both obvious and clear.

As Internet growth has gone through the roof, IT has become the essential fuel for the nation's economic engine.

The numbers speak for themselves. The latest estimates show that the IT has generated one-third of the recent growth in the U.S. economy.

It now accounts for 7.4 million jobs...and it pays wages that are 60 percent higher than the private sector average.

The challenge now is to sustain this record of success, and there are worrisome signs that we might be resting on our laurels.

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

PITAC concluded that federal support for long-term research on information technology has been "dangerously inadequate." In its words, "support in most critical areas has been flat or declining for nearly a decade, while the importance of IT to our economy has increased dramatically."

This has led to the government-wide initiative: Information Technology for the 21st Century - IT2 as it's called.

Across the government, IT2 will total $366 million across six agencies. Sixty percent of this will go to support university-based research. That's the real win-win for America.

The academic research investment works double duty, as it armors and enables students with advanced IT skills.

NSF is the lead agency for IT2. This was recommended last fall by the PITAC, and we are glad to accept this responsibility.

We'll be putting $146 million into our part of IT2, which will cover three sets of activities.

- First is fundamental IT research - at $100 million. This will focus on a key assessment from PITAC's report.

For all of our ability to push the high-end in computing, no one really understands how all the pieces work together.

The need right now is to improve both reliability and performance. We can achieve this by understanding how systems interact and by gaining new knowledge of the working whole.

- The request also includes $36 million for a terascale computing system. This will serve computer scientists and the entire science and engineering community.

- Finally, we'll take advantage of the fact that NSF's portfolio includes both the information sciences and the social, behavioral, and economic sciences.

- There is $10 million for research on the societal, ethical, and workforce impacts of emerging technologies.

When people ask me, why should NSF and the United States invest in information technologies - and why now...I say it is an absolute must.

It's not a national initiative; it's a national imperative. It's a classic example of a long-term investment in fundamental research that works for the common good, in fact, for the global good.

IT2 represents an investment that will strengthen the entire research and education enterprise.

It will deliver tools and capabilities that will benefit every field, every discipline, and every level of education, and all kinds of engineering.

Engineering research and education will be an important participant and beneficiary of IT2.

I know I preach to the choir when I describe the relationship between science and engineering as being a tandem pair. The benefits of one are difficult to realize without the advantages of the other.

Just to cite one example - the Engineering Research Center at Johns Hopkins University is a good example of this.

The Computer Integrated Surgical Systems & Technology Center is advancing the surgeon/machine relationship through improved modeling and analysis, and software engineering.

Work in this area will bridge the perceptual with the physical to transcend human limitations in the operating room. It will avoid surgical errors and enable new ways to treat disease.

This ERC represents the true alliance and dependence of engineering and science.

Other areas I would like to tell you about: We are also starting a $50 million initiative on biocomplexity.

Biologists, like most researchers, have spent generations studying the components of systems in isolation.

Now it's time to begin understanding how the behavior of the whole can be very different from the sum of the parts.

Finally, education remains a priority, as it must. Last year we got the not-so-good-news about how our schools compare to other nation's.

By 12th grade, our students are near the bottom. We can and must do better.

The request sustains our current base of innovative activities - and plants a few new seeds as well.

One way we are hoping to jump-start the system is through a new Graduate Teaching Fellows program. The program may seem small at only $7.5 million, but its potential impact goes well beyond dollars.

It will broaden graduate education, and boost the content in K through 12 classrooms.

That's just one of many highlights from our education portfolio. We are also providing $13 million to develop the National Science, Mathematical, Engineering, and Technology Education Digital Library - NSDL for short.

This will serve as an important national resource for K through 12 and undergraduate education, by providing wide access to standards-based materials and learning tools.

The theme that, in many ways, defines NSF - Integration of Research and Education - continues to receive very high priority in the request. Our favorite, and familiar acronyms - IGERT, REU, CAREER - all receive strong increases.

As part of last year's immigration legislation, we began receiving $33 million from the processing fees for H1B Visas. This supports an array of scholarships and systemic projects for developing a technological workforce.

Just a few other highlights of our budget include:

The Plant Genome Research Program - which will increase by $5 million to $55 million. This builds on an existing research base of $20 million - bringing the total investment to $75 million.

A new start at NSF, which uses information technology as an anchor, is the NEES - the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation.

NSF is providing $8 million in FY 2000 toward a total investment of $82 million over the next five years.

This is modeled after the highly successful nanofabrication network that many of you know well. It will lead to a national, fully interconnected network of major earthquake research facilities.

Finally, we continue investments in a number of major infrastructure projects, including modernization of the South Pole Station and the detectors for the large Hadron Collider.

Before I turn the discussion over to you, let me just add that the year 2000 marks the 50th Anniversary of the National Science Foundation. 50 years is the "Golden Anniversary."

In this budget environment, it is very clear that the FY 2000 request should be seen by all as a golden anniversary investment - not just for the Foundation, but for all of science and engineering.

I'll close on a personal note. I came to NSF because I believe our nation is severely under-investing in fundamental research and education across all fields. The NSF budget is too small for the work that needs to be done.

We need to start thinking about doubling - and beyond. It makes no sense to double the NIH budget (as some advocate) without doubling NSF as well - given the dependence of biomedical fields on engineering and the physical sciences.

This budget - as good as it is in this budget environment - is only step one. Much more is needed as we look down the road.

If I had a clear plan or timetable for making this happen, I'd share it with you. The one thing I do know is that I'll need your support, your guidance, and your feedback this year and in subsequent years.

In an article he wrote for the Spring 1998 issue of The Bridge on bringing engineering education into the 21st century, Bill Wulf writes that, "Science is analytic - it strives to understand nature, and what is. Engineering is synthetic - it strives to create what can be."

I would argue that as scientists and engineers, as well as researchers and educators, together we have much work to do - to figure out what is, and what can be, to bring this country into the 21st century on solid and innovative footing.

Good luck tomorrow. And thank you for your attention today.



National Science Foundation
Office of Legislative and Public Affairs
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, Virginia 22230, USA
Tel: 703-292-8070
FIRS: 800-877-8339 | TDD: 703-292-5090

NSF Logo Graphic