"Information Technology: Ariadne's Thread Through
the Science and Technology Labyrinth"
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Celebrating New Beginnings
October 28, 1999
Good morning, and thank you, Jill for your kind introduction.
It's always an honor to spend time with people who
care deeply about the future of education--and who
are actually shaping that future.
With your indulgence, I'm going to begin with a commercial,
but it's for a very good cause. Just last week,
we at the National Science Foundation unveiled our
poster. You see it here.
It marks the launch of NSF50, our celebration of the
Foundation's fiftieth anniversary.
This is a yearlong celebration with the theme, "Where
Discoveries Begin." It's more than an indulgence.
We're marking the occasion with a campaign to spread
the word about how NSF's work reaches our everyday
lives. We've got a great story to tell--and the Internet
is just one chapter.
We really do have something very immediate to celebrate.
I want to take a moment to say a word about the recent
If you haven't heard yet, I'm proud to say that NSF
received almost its full budget request--and President
Clinton has just signed the bill. I've got the pen
to prove it.
NSF received just under $4 billion, which translates
into a 7 percent increase. That's $240 million above
last year's level, and only $10 million below our
I'm sure many of you know that the numbers for information
technology research look very good. The bill provides
an increase of $90 million to our Computer and Information
Sciences Directorate--just about the level we asked
In addition, another $36 million went to our Major
Research Equipment account. That will support the
terascale computing system.
So overall you could say that we got an increase of
about $125 million for research and equipment in the
information technology category.
I know I owe a very special thanks to many of you and
to the community generally. You made your voices heard.
The Congress listened and worked with the Administration.
The end result is a win for science and for the nation.
All of this puts a positive spin on our discussion
today. I've titled my talk, "Information Technology:
Ariadne's Thread Through the Science and Technology
Labyrinth." There's a very good reason behind that
It's that I firmly believe that information technology
is absolutely vital to our future.
It can guide us to new frontiers in fundamental
research. It can draw different scientific
It can integrate research and education. Most
of all, it can link science and society in
ways we never imagined.
The role of IT, in fact, is analogous to the wonderful
thread of Greek mythology. You may recall the tale:
King Minos of Crete had built a massive labyrinth
to contain the horrible beast, the Minotaur.
Ariadne was the King's daughter, and she possessed
a magical device, a thread, which allowed her to navigate
the maze without mishap. She gave it to Theseus, the
young hero from Athens, to guide him safely through
In modern terms, we can follow this metaphorical thread
in two directions: back to the beginnings of the Internet
and forward to glimpse some revolutionary future scenarios.
On the way we can reflect upon three major guideposts.
I've mentioned the first: the unifying role
information technology plays for all research disciplines
Next, I'd like to address briefly how information technology
can revolutionize education--that is, if we
manage this momentous transformation with care and
Finally, I'd like to highlight the unfortunate situation
we know as the "digital divide." This is, of
course, the unequal access to information technology
in different sectors of our society.
All of these areas are connected. Progress will require
our combined abilities. We'll need to work together,
across government, universities, and the private sector,
to find the best path through the labyrinth.
We--that is, NSF, EDUCAUSE, and its predecessors--have
enjoyed a history of working together. We've often
followed your lead.
From the beginnings of the Internet, from the first
small campus networks, to the web that interlinked
higher education and became the Internet--EDUCAUSE
has played one of the starring roles.
Today, we continue to rely on your leadership and our
partnership with you. Together we're strengthening
the high-performance connections program--Internet
2 and the Next Generation Internet.
Now we are moving to terascale computing--a level of
speed and sophistication that was previously available
only in classified defense research.
On this note, let me turn to my theme of how the thread
of IT weaves together all of science and technology.
Some of you, along with me, may be dating yourselves
by being able to identify this rather large machine.
For the younger members of the audience, it's the IBM
650, which I used in my doctoral research. (By the
way, the very model of computer that I used has an
honored place in the Smithsonian Institution!)
My research was an early example--actually the first--of
using computers to classify marine bacteria. Early
on, computing became indispensable in my own research.
It allowed me to draw upon the insights of other disciplines,
whether through modeling, remote sensing, or linking
sociology and epidemiology.
So, we've come a long way since those bulky computers,
but we're now at another threshold.
We're poised for the beginning of a new campaign to
strengthen the fundamental thread, the very fiber
of information technology and its links to all fields.
Our new budget will help us launch this multi-year
No field of research will be left untouched by the
current explosion of information--and of information
technologies. Science used to be composed of two endeavors--theory
and experiment. Now it has a third component: computer
simulation, which links the other two.
In fact, scientific questions are growing more complex
and interconnected. We know that the greatest excitement
in research often occurs at the borders of disciplines,
where they interface with each other. Materials engineering
is one such example.
It's given us a blending of synthetic and biological
materials. We have artificial skin that is partly
biodegradable. It's already helping burn victims.
Another example: We're watching complexity theory from
mathematics being applied in biology and social science.
It's given us new insights into the schooling of fish
and the herding of animals. The patterns reveal the
secrets of sophisticated systems.
We're supporting a new research thrust at NSF called
"biocomplexity." To understand this characteristic
of our planet's systems, we must gather information
at scales ranging from the sub-atomic to the astronomical.
The solid foundation of information technology is fundamental
for these fields to fuse and to flower. We're already
watching discrete scientific cultures come together.
This way we can better reflect and probe the wholeness
of the world that we study.
We're watching it happen. Information technologies
help us to see across disciplines and collaborate
across the country. Shown here is an image of the
temperature and current variations in the Chesapeake
Researchers from Old Dominion University have linked
up with the National Computational Science Alliance
at the University of Illinois.
This virtual environment is constructed from actual
Chesapeake Bay data. Collaborators thousands of miles
apart can interact in this same virtual arena.
Another example is the SHEBA project. You may recall
that just two years ago this fall, a ship was frozen-in
to the Arctic Ocean and left to drift. It served as
a floating station for climate, ice, and ocean research.
The streams of data were regularly posted to the Net.
Most of the researchers, wherever in the world they
were, did not need to be at the North Pole themselves.
(I suspect they were grateful for that.)
Astronomy gives us a very striking example of the convergence
of research streams. Here is one of the early
images from the NSF-supported Gemini telescope in
Hawaii, showing a star-forming region.
Gemini is an earthbound instrument, but the clarity
of its images will surpass those from the Hubble Space
Telescope. These sorts of imaging technologies, which
let astronomers see through our blurry atmosphere,
are now being applied in vision research to study
the living retina.
Astronomy and physics are also in convergence. Michael
Turner, the noted astrophysicist from the University
of Chicago, lectured at NSF the other day.
He described the coming together of particle physics
and astrophysics--the extremes of scale in our study
of the universe.
In his words, "The deepest answers lie in the inner
space-outer space connection." He also noted the almost
unimaginable deluge of data that astronomers will
need to mine in order to find those answers.
Other examples are found in the biosciences. The
Economist recently proclaimed a "shotgun marriage"
between biology and IT--because "biology has...realized
that it is itself an information technology."
The data onslaught is also flooding the biosciences--and
it's just the beginning.
Here's a representation of the riches of information
pouring out of just one area: genomics. This is from
my own research on the cholera vibrio.
It's only been four years since we first mapped an
entire genome. Today, we know the entire genetic sequences
of 25 organisms. Twenty-four are microorganisms, and
the 25th is a nematode.
Many similar challenges in biology will only be conquered
in lockstep with advances in IT. We need this computing
power to put it all together--to process the volumes
of data, to visualize results, and to collaborate.
Here it's symbolically portrayed in a graphic by NPACI,
the National Partnership for Advanced Computational
Computational methods have cut across the old subdisciplines
of neuroscience, symbolized by this "cascade" of scales
found in the nervous system. Computers allow neurological
data to be linked across scales, from the molecular
level all the way up to the entire organism.
The ability to see, to sense, to visualize is one way
the thread of IT wraps around and draws the sciences
together--a wonderful capability of equal potential
benefit, in fact, to education.
Here researchers practice "teleimmersion," sharing
the same virtual reality across distances to study
the temporal bone of the ear.
Collaborations across distance--here using the famous
three-dimensional visualization facility called the
CAVE--can and should include students, giving them
access to the latest research.
This brings us to IT and education, the next guidepost
on our way through the maze. I know we share a vision
that IT might revolutionize the way we teach and the
way we learn.
In this simulation of an orbiting planet, students
can change the mass of the planet and watch the orbit
change. I hear it's just as exciting, fast-moving,
and interactive as playing a video game.
It's part of a project based at the University of Minnesota.
They specifically sought out kids from disadvantaged
areas to carry out the programming and provide technical
support to the teachers who used these materials in
There are success stories, but it's no secret we have
a great deal of ground to make up. I'd like to refer
to a book by Douglas Robertson called The New Renaissance,
which looks at the social revolution being caused
by the computer revolution.
The greatest challenge of our age, according to Robertson,
is to create a system of individualized and inspiring
education. He writes, "By far the worst failing of
our educational system is that it develops only an
insignificant fraction of the abilities of most individuals."
To inspire learning, we need to understand learning.
Until the learning process is better understood, it
will be difficult for teachers, parents, and the public
to make informed choices about the theory and practices
that could make K-12 education more effective for
Our universities and colleges need to form equal partnerships
with schools. At NSF we've begun graduate K-12 teaching
They link the graduate student, the teacher, and the
children. This is just one way to bridge the chasms
that divide our educational system.
We're expanding our emphasis on the science of learning,
building on recent advances in neuroscience, psychology,
and yes, computing.
This picture is from UCLA's Neuro Imaging Laboratory,
and it is what they call a brain template. It was
featured in the latest issue of Envision--the journal
produced by the PACI institutions.
Though still at the most fundamental stages, this work
may help show us which sections of the brain are active
when we are learning throughout our lives.
It gives us a way to get the "big picture"--of the
entire brain. We can begin to understand the brain
in all its complexity.
Let's follow the thread of information technology to
the final stop. Here we find ourselves on a precipice--looking
down into that yawning gap known as the digital divide.
We are all here today because we believe in the power
of information technology to bring about the most
democratic revolution in literacy and numeracy the
world has ever known.
We also know that if we're not careful, this same power
could be economically divisive.
We imagine universal connectedness, with talk of "tetherless
networks" that anyone could tap into anytime, anywhere.
But we could also broaden the gap between the information
rich and the information bereft.
In our own nation, sociologists have identified groups
whose access to telephones, computers, and the Internet
lag far behind the national averages.
These information gaps appear among nations as well.
Most of those who live in the Third World have never
used a telephone.
Our worldwide web is a thinly stretched one. Less than
two percent of the world is actually on the web. If
we subtract the United States and Canada, it's less
than one percent.
The report by the President's Information Technology
Advisory Committee (PITAC) spells out some of these
gaps. "For instance," says the committee, "whites
are more likely than African-Americans to have Internet
access" at home or work. "We expect there are similar
gaps with other minority groups, such as Hispanics
and Native Americans. Recent research...suggests that
the racial gap in Internet use is increasing."
The report further makes a key point: "The Internet
may provide equal opportunity and help level the playing
fields, but only for those with access."
In the depths of the labyrinth--even if we, unlike
Theseus--have yet to slay the ferocious Minotaur,
we've taken some promising steps toward the way out.
I'm very pleased today to be able to announce such
an innovative step, which will help to broaden participation
of educational institutions in the information technology
In fact, I am delighted to be able to announce support
for a very worthy project. This is an advanced networking
project with minority-serving institutions, and it's
being pursued in partnership with EDUCAUSE.
The program will embrace a number of institutions--historically
black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving
institutions, and tribal colleges.
Leaders at these institutions, with help from EDUCAUSE,
will improve networking--and, most importantly--enhance
the institutions' participation in the many opportunities
for education and research now emerging on the Internet.
My congratulations to all of these institutions and
to EDUCAUSE for this innovative approach!
I'll close now with a renewed celebration of the common
ground we share, and the common thread we follow.
Again, it will take all our participation--the federal
government, the universities, and the private sector--to
see our way through and to connect the thread of IT
throughout education and beyond to all of society.
Our future as a nation rests upon extending participation
in the best quality education and collaborative research
as fully as we can. We can only succeed by continuing
to work together. Thank you.