"The National Science Foundation at 50"
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
New York Academy of Sciences
September 30, 1999
It is an honor to be here today to talk about the National
Science Foundation at its 50th anniversary. I should
also say that it is an honor to be the NSF Director
anytime, but especially at this celebratory moment
for the Foundation.
I am just back from New Zealand and the Presidential
State visit. I was there to serve as President Clinton's
guide for his stop-over at the International Antarctic
Center in Christchurch.
I also got to fly back on Air Force One with the President.
It's a 22+ hour flight, so there was plenty of time
for a few conversations with him and the White House
staff during the Christchurch visit and the flight
Needless to say, science and engineering were on my
mind. We've always known that the President appreciates
the importance of fundamental science and engineering
He showed great interest in the Antarctic and the polar
research program ..astronomy, biodiversity, and the
chlorofluorcarbon--ozone connection, as well as how
research is done in polar regions.
He, Chelsea, and Mrs. Rodham (his mother-in-law) were
fascinated by what they saw. The President talked
directly with researchers at our base at McMurdo,
in full view of Mount Erebus. He particularly liked
the warehouse where scientists are fitted for south
Sandy Berger was especially taken with the bright
red NSF parka. When we landed at Andrews Air Force
Base just after midnight, he was proudly attired in
the NSF logo'd, polar red jacket to greet the cameras.
One episode from the trip that I know made the news
back here was Gene Sperling's bungee jumping off the
bridge near Queenstown, New Zealand. The Washington
Post reporter covering the trip said Sperling
looked ashen as he jumped but gleeful that he survived.
Gene quipped that the stock market had ups and downs
that day--he wasn't sure if it went up when he jumped
and down when he survived.
All of the New Zealand events of two weeks ago bring
to mind what Chief of Staff John Podesta said in his
talk at the National Press Club earlier this month.
Our friends in high places have a clear understanding
of the importance of science and technology to the
continued expansion and prosperity of the economy.
These are very positive signals coming from the highest
levels of the Administration.
None of us here today ever doubted the connections
of research and development to economic success or
long-term societal benefit--which gives us all the
more reason for us to talk about NSF over the last
With total modesty, I can say that NSF's historical
contributions to our current societal advancement
and well-being are significant.
The entire Federal R&D enterprise has had long
and strong connections to our colleges and universities.
We have been partners in function and spirit for decades.
Today, federal agencies, academic institutions, and
the private sector routinely seek each other out for
We have learned the effectiveness of integrating our
diverse strengths. But the working relationship between
federal R&D institutions and the academic research
community is an older bond.
It has operated effectively since well before others
came into the fold.
In the Federal R&D structure, NSF is a unique agency.
We do not have a mission-oriented-research-objective
such as energy, oceans, biomedicine, agriculture,
Instead, we have the mission to support and fund the
underpinnings for all research disciplines, and the
connections between and among research disciplines.
We have a distinct set of responsibilities. It is our
job to keep all fields of science and engineering
focused on the furthest frontier, to recognize and
nurture emerging fields, to support the work of those
with the most insightful reach, and to prepare coming
generations of scientific talent.
In marking our 50th anniversary, we are celebrating
vision and foresight. Here in New York where hockey
is part of local lore and common parlance with the
Rangers, the Islanders, and the Devils, I think an
hockey analogy is appropriate.
The recently retired hockey-great, Wayne Gretzky (no
stranger to New Yorkers) used to say, "I skate to
where the puck is going, not to where it's been."
At NSF, we try to fund where the fields are going,
not to where they've been.
NSF has a strong record across all fields of science
and engineering for choosing to fund insightful proposals
and visionary investigators.
You have to have a lot of good ammunition to back-up
such bragging, and we do. At this anniversary, we
have chosen to tell the NSF story by assembling some
of our greatest hits.
We are selecting them from literally thousands of discoveries
that NSF has funded over five decades.
Each of those discoveries has made its mark in contributing
new light to an established field or moved us a step
closer to an emerging field.
What stands out most is their broad impact as catalysts
for moving our thinking and capability in a new direction.
I will not review all of them for you today but will
offer just a smattering. These may surprise even the
scholars of federal R&D achievements.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging or MRI is one of the most
comprehensive medical diagnostic tools. We didn't
invent MRI--but our ongoing support for instrumentation
advanced the development of MRI's and other imaging
NSF-funded research in atmospheric chemistry identified
ozone depletion over the Antarctic, or the "ozone
hole" as it has come to be known. In 1986, NSF researchers
established chlorofluorocarbons as the probable cause
of the Antarctic ozone hole. Since CFCs are used in
many commercial applications, this discovery has driven
a search for benign substitutes and also led to regulation
of CFC emissions.
It seems that none of us can remember an information
universe without Web Browsers like Netscape. The browser
made the World Wide Web. The first browser of note
was Mosaic, and it was developed by a student working
at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications
at the University of Illinois. This is one of NSF's
four original Supercomputing Centers.
In industry, the acronym CAD/CAM brings to mind the
best in design and manufacturing techniques. NSF-funded
research on solid modeling led to the widespread use
of Computer-Aided Design and Computer-Aided Manufacturing.
The keys to success were advances in the underlying
mathematics and in linking the academic and industrial
leaders in the field.
These examples provide just a glimpse at the discovery
whirlpool that NSF has kept in constant motion for
half a century. Describing them to you is not just
It is the strongest evidence of the value of the Federal
government's investment and involvement in research
The unique role of NSF is buttressed and enhanced by
the diversity of the other Federal R&D agencies
and the network of national laboratories.
Together, they represent a universe of discovery and
innovation that is the envy of the world. That success
has always hinged on the interrelationships and connections
between the federal R&D structure and our nation's
The universities are the linchpins in this complex
process. They are the consistent and cohesive element.
The Federal government should be an enabler.
In our research universities, we have masterfully integrated
research with the education and training of our next
generation of scientists and engineers.
This combination is unique to the American system and
has created a synergy throughout our national research
enterprise. The wisdom of this approach has been borne
out over time.
However, just as science and engineering have consistently
changed and enriched the world, the world of science
and engineering is also changing and being enriched
by what I would call a new sociology of science.
This recent change has been driven by many forces,
including the end of the Cold War and the subsequent
globalization of the world economy.
But information technologies have probably had the
most pervasive influence on what we are able to do
in science and engineering over the last two decades.
These technologies have become the new infrastructure
of science. They allow us to achieve simultaneously
both depth and breadth in a research problem.
They have enabled us to view and tackle the panorama
of a problem. They have provided an understanding
that is at the same time both unique and universal.
When humans viewed the Earth from space for the first
time, we could see our own blue planet from a perspective
never before seen. A fundamental revision of ourselves
in the universe took shape from that new angle.
We were no longer singularly omnipotent, but rather
fragile, small, and even vulnerable. The new tools
of science and engineering reveal depth, complexity,
vast distances, and unimagined connections.
These are the extraordinary computational and imaging
tools emerging from information technologies today.
But what does this have to do with changing the sociology
of science? With these new capabilities, we are discovering
that at the most intricate and intimate level of all
fields there is a connection, a powerful binding to
One discipline becomes a metaphor for explaining another
discipline. We are finding that complexity eventually
brings us to the integration of things.
We are finding the places where biology and physics
explain each other, where chemistry and geology intersect
in the clouds we see overhead. It's best captured
by a quote from John Muir--"When we try to pick out
anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything
else in the universe." Information technology has
been the single most powerful force for this new sociology
It has allowed us to invade the deepest complexities
and the broadest scope of a scientific question. We
find a kinship here through similarities in patterns
or behaviors in diverse fields.
This has helped create a change in the social dynamic
of science. Increasingly, researchers are engaged
in collaborations outside of their own disciplines.
They find explanation and elaboration of their own
work in unrelated fields. This growing commonality
is like strangers finishing each other's thoughts.
In the process, the old-style dogmatism of the disciplines
will be eclipsed by this comradeship beyond the disciplinary
I have seen this in my own research. I have studied
the infectious disease, cholera, for more then twenty-five
years. We found that the bacterium, Vibrio Cholerae,
is associated with plankton in rivers and ponds.
To reduce cholera in poverty--stricken countries, like
Bangladesh, filtering out the plankton should lessen,
if not curb the disease.
We determined that sari cloth would make an excellent,
affordable filter. However, it was necessary to determine
whether this would be culturally acceptable to the
A sociologist was added to our research team. The answer
was quickly shown to be affirmative. We now have a
team of sociologists working with us on this project,
as we implement the procedure.
This is just one way that we are both watching and
participating in the formation of this "new sociology
And so we come full circle to ask the fundamental questions:
where are the opportunities and what are the issues--for
all of higher education, and for the nation?
The opportunities lie in understanding the arc of change
and moving in that direction.
That means following Wayne Gretzy, "to where the puck
is going, not to where it's been." Information technologies
are altering the very nature of knowledge and of learning.
Those who successfully seize the opportunities will,
in essence, find productive and innovative ways to
harness IT's multifaceted capabilities.
For example, new combinations of universities, a triumviret,
one in Asia, one in Europe, and one in the U.S. may
set a new model for global science and engineering
This is already happening with some of our "virtual"
universities. Whatever the other opportunities turn
out to be, we must think of them not for the few but
for the many. Otherwise, they do not become opportunities
for the nation.
While the pervasiveness of information technologies
has enhanced our capabilities, it has also further
divided our society into haves and have-nots.
This brings me to the nation's most compelling issue
and to the second half of NSF's mission: science and
math--education--literacy--and workforce skills. Science
and technology are the propelling and sustaining forces
of our economy.
This will become increasingly true in the future. The
21st century workforce must be a science
and technology competent workforce at all levels.
In keeping with NSF's mission and the nation's current
and future needs, we have just launched a public-private
partnership--the largest of its kind--called Jumpstart
This is a national science and technology challenge
for students in grades K through 12.
Talk about innovative partnerships; this collaboration
includes the National Science Board, which is the
governing board of the NSF, PARADE and
react magazines, and the White House Millennium
Jumpstart 2000 invites all students to share their
hopes and concerns for our national and global future.
They are being asked to apply science and technology
to develop innovative approaches to these goals and
We want this to be a national effort. It aims to build
continuing involvement of our nation's youth in planetary
problem solving and prosperity. We are excited and
optimistic. We want to create a sea change in attitudes.
Here is a pivotal opportunity. Universities need to
play a leadership role in promoting the importance
of science and math literacy for the nation's population.
Every institution will approach this differently.
Many Federal agencies, national and state institutions,
public school systems, corporations, and non-profit
organizations are concerned about 21st
century workforce issues. Thus, they represent prospective
partners for innovative collaborations.
In science, we must think globally about our nation's
place and prosperity in the coming century. Academies
of Science have been leaders in new thinking, new
directions. Among those Academies, the New York Academy
of Sciences has a special place, a distinguished reputation.
On behalf of the National Science Foundation, I ask
you to use that expertise in helping the science community
move the nation to where the "puck is going." It's
worked for 50 years, and it should take us even farther
in the next 50.
I hope as a start, you will join in some of the activities
of the NSF 50 anniversary. Again, it is an honor to
be here. Thank you.