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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Board of Directors Meeting
Washington, DC

October 12, 1999

Good afternoon. I am delighted to be here.

I have been asked to say a few words about how we [Research!America and NSF] can work more closely together.

To do that, I find it best to start by talking about why we should work together more closely: specifically, why investments in NSF are vital to advance health and healthcare broadly across our society.

As you may know, NSF is a unique agency in the Federal R&D structure. Unlike other R&D agencies, we do not have a mission-oriented research-objective like energy, biomedicine, oceans, or space.

Instead, we have the mission to support and fund the underpinnings for all research disciplines, and the connections between and among disciplines. We're also involved in education at all levels.

NSF has a strong record across all fields of science and engineering. It's our job to fund insightful proposals and visionary investigators. We're known for going to extremes--literally. Our work in Antarctica has been much in the news recently, and I just got back from a dive off the coast of Oregon on the submersible, The Alvin.

That's where I got to see the extremophiles that live near hydrothermal vents in the Pacific. We go to these extremes for one purpose: to advance the frontiers of science and engineering.

In turn, we know that findings from basic research continually catalyze breakthroughs in biomedicine and healthcare.

They provide the spark! Thanks to basic science, major threats to public health have been reduced, quality of life has improved, and life expectancy has continued to rise.

A classic example of the intersection of basic scientific research and modern medicine is Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI. MRI evolved from physics, math, and chemistry research.

We now see three-dimensional images of the body at a level of detail not possible with any other imaging technique.

NSF's support for laboratory instrumentation led to many of the advances.

Other medical advances similarly trace their roots to fundamental physics: X-rays, CAT scans, laser surgery, and fetal sonograms. Materials science is helping develop new joints, heart valves, and dental implants. Advances in chemistry and computer modeling are speeding up drug development and making new drugs more effective with fewer adverse side effects.

Basic biology and molecular science has even allowed us to identify and analyze disease molecules. Drugs can then be created to bind to disease molecules, atom to atom.

The pattern I am illustrating is now evident. Many of the associated advances in healthcare are the result of earlier investments in a broad range of basic science.

Perhaps NIH Director Harold Varmus said it best in his plenary address at AAAS in 1998:

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

Harold doesn't like it when I say society cannot live by biomedical bread alone, but he knows what I mean. We are all going to miss Harold for the perspective he brought to NIH.

Let me shift gears to highlight a highly promising partnership between engineering and medicine that is occurring just up the road in Baltimore.

One year ago, Johns Hopkins University entered into a unique agreement with MIT, Carnegie-Mellon University, and their partnering clinical institutions.

Together, they launched the Engineering Research Center in Computer-Integrated Surgical Systems and Technology.

NSF has invested $13 million over five years in this Center. It is a prime example of collaborative, multi-disciplinary teamwork and cutting-edge technology--directed at real, practical problems.

The Center is the nation's first established to create computer-linked surgical systems and medical robots. It brings highly advanced information technology together with surgical expertise--drawing upon computer scientists; electrical, mechanical, and biomedical engineers; as well as radiologists, neurosurgeons, urologists, orthopedists, and ophthalmologists.

It aims to have the same revolutionary impact on medical care as computer-integrated manufacturing systems have had in industry.

Simply put, this endeavor could change how surgery is performed. In the future, the surgeon will consult a customized computer-generated model of the patient before making a single incision.

The information from a model will diagnose the medical condition, evaluate treatment options, and help rehearse a personalized surgical plan.

This could result in surgery that is safer, more precise, and less expensive; hence, speeding the patient recovery period. It is no substitute for a surgeon's adaptability and judgment. But, this computer-integrated surgery will allow surgeons to plan and carry out procedures more accurately and less invasively.

This example, like so many others, compels us to play close attention to the current context for research in America.

We know that our economy is the envy of the world. The continued growth we are enjoying is being fueled by advances in science and technology.

Over the past two decades, employment in science and engineering fields has more than doubled and continues to increase. High technology products have doubled as a share of total U.S. trade. But, the federal investment in R&D has fallen by one-third as a share of the GDP.

This concern was echoed to Congress in a letter spear-headed by our good friend, Congressman Vern Ehlers. It got nearly 80 co-signers from both parties.

The letter asked the House Appropriations Committee to "reverse the funding cuts" for basic science and technology research for FY2000.

It went on to acknowledge that Congress has the responsibility to ensure the continuation of these prosperous times, and the most sensible way to do this is to invest in basic scientific research.

With the outcome of the budget process reaching a close, we can safely say that we're on the way to funding 21st Century science and engineering. I thank everyone in the community who stepped forward to champion federal investments in research and education.

With this in mind, I would like to point out that NSF is only a small piece, in total dollar terms, of total Federal R&D. We account for under 4 percent of all federal funds for R&D. However, that less-than-four-percent accounts for 18 percent of all federally supported fundamental research.

And even more significant, that less-than-4-percent accounts for 23 percent of federally supported fundamental research performed at academic institutions.

When you look beyond biomedical support provided by NIH, then NSF's share rises to nearly half of the total.

As you can see from the handout provided, NSF and NIH play complementary roles.

This chart captures how our two agencies complement each other by looking closely at one slice of the Federal R&D pie: funding for basic research conducted at colleges and universities.

NSF's role in the core disciplines is also clearly illustrated by this chart. I should add that NSF delves into these prominent research areas on a budget that is only one-fourth that of NIH--which is growing at only half the rate. That is food for thought.

The take-home message is that we need each other. NSF rounds out the federal portfolio.

We're seeing more and more links, for example, between the life sciences and the information sciences--such as in genomics and bioinformatics.

That in itself underscores the need to boost investment across all fields. It should now be obvious that NSF is a vital component of the national R&D enterprise. Many of the fundamental breakthroughs in basic science come from this investment.

And, it's where our young people get to delve deeply into work at the frontiers--frontiers laying the foundation to breakthroughs in health and healthcare.

You may have seen the recent article in Science that referred to the biomedical research enterprise as a pyramid. Practicing physicians are at its apex, and fundamental research provides the foundation. We all know that a large building cannot be constructed on a small foundation.

In this same way, the biomedical pyramid requires a broad base in the fundamental sciences across all fields and disciplines.

And we must remember, it took years for the Egyptians to create their great pyramids.

We also need to be patient, for the journey from basic research to medical breakthroughs often takes time.

In closing, let's work together to give this pyramid a strong and broad base. The fundamental research being done today will help us chart the destiny of public health in the next century.

I look forward to our discussion, and I would like to close with a question for all of us to ponder.

All of our polls show strong support for scientific research in our society.

Yet, we are also seeing a number of warning signs at the interface of science and society--concerns about gene therapies, skepticism about core tenets like evolution, and consumer rejection of genetically modified products. Will these warning signs fade or are we entering a new era of public skepticism?

That is a tough question. We know part of the answer requires greater outreach and awareness. I look forward to hearing from you on how we can do this together.



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