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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
The Annual Meeting of the American
Society of Plant Physiologists
Baltimore, MD

July 24, 1999

Thank you, Lou, for a warm and kind introduction. Seeing Lou brings back fond memories of my undergraduate days at Purdue.

Purdue really set me on my path into science. I like to tell people I was bitten by fruit flies at Purdue -- and I'm much better for it.

I worked in the "new" Lilly Science Building, which I re-visited recently and found it transformed into the Lilly "high rise" Science Building!

I'd also like to extend a much broader thank you to all of you for the opportunity to join you this evening.

It's always a special pleasure to come to Baltimore. I still maintain my laboratory here -- just a few blocks down at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, Center for Marine Biotechnology.

And, of course, I still root for the Orioles -- not that my cheers seem to helping much these days.

Tonight, I want to talk about a few areas where I know your cheers and your efforts can make a tremendous difference.

That is in shaping the policy agenda and the priorities for the National Science Foundation and for research and education generally.

As it happens, I'm your final public policy speaker for this millennium. Talk about a weighty honor!

It's interesting to contemplate that the only individual organisms still alive to have seen the dawning of the last millennium are plants.

There aren't many that have survived this long, but we know some have.

It is just one reminder of how much we can learn from the flora all around us. Maybe at the end of the next 1,000 years, we will be able to communicate with plants and .I can ask them what they thought of my talk!

Seriously, looking ahead, we cannot exaggerate the importance of your work as plant scientists in the next millennium. Last year, in an editorial in Science, Philip Abelson wrote, "Today, humans employ the capabilities of only a few plants. A major challenge is to explore the opportunities inherent in some of the hundreds of thousands of them."

He predicts, and I agree, that genomics -- in particular plant genomics -- will be the next great technological revolution.

It will bring changes comparable to the Industrial Revolution and to the computer-based revolution that grips us now.

We see this taking hold in many of the talks being presented here. I noticed one session on Functional Plant Genomics that features a number of NSF-supported researchers.

Suffice it to say, the revolution is well underway, and it is up to all of us to make to work for science and society.

As a community, we are ideally -- positioned to tackle the challenges ahead.

We've already seen this in such areas as the Plant Genome Initiative, in key education initiatives, in our shared concern for a diverse scientific workforce, and in the growing recognition for the importance of reaching across disciplines -- to name just a few examples.

A superb example of this is one of the mini-symposia next Wednesday morning on the topic of "Plant Research Benefiting Human Health".

All of these are areas where NSF and you as a society have much in common and lots to discuss.

While the focus of my talk tonight will be on new directions at the National Science Foundation, I don't intend this to be a one-way conversation.

I know we would agree in characterizing NSF's support as very significant for the plant sciences.

Many of us here this evening have been the recipients of NSF funding.

The other side of the coin is that your guidance and feedback are extremely important to us at the NSF.

That's why I intend to speak for only part of the allotted time, and then devote the remainder of the session to hearing from you and addressing your questions and concerns.

I'd like to set the scene with an observation that encapsulates how I view NSF's present and future -- a perspective that underlies our new directions. This is a quotation from John Muir, who wrote early in the century, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

This is a sweeping and integrated vision, and it has prefigured a powerful trend we see today -- the push toward interconnections between the many fields of science and engineering.

In fact, these linkages are one of the most striking and dynamic features of scientific progress today. We see great excitement at the boundaries of disciplines, always fueled by progress in the core fields.

This is central to NSF's overall investment strategy, and it drives the need for increased investment in research and education.

NSF is the fulcrum for all for science and engineering. We're the only agency whose mission covers research in all fields as well as education at all levels -- cradle to grave.

We support the fundamental work that benefits the other federal agencies right down the line. That's why we need to continue to support investments that reach all fields and all disciplines.

Let me turn to what this mean for NSF in immediate terms.

Our three investment priorities for this year's NSF budget reflect this embracing vision of science and engineering. I'd like to explore each of them a bit with you.

The first area is the study of biocomplexity. By now some to you may be familiar with this term but some may not. We're moving beyond the old approach of just cataloguing species, or looking at an eternity in isolation.

The living systems that sustain us all exhibit biocomplexity, which results in, "the whole being more than the sum of its parts."

I like to think of biocomplexity as the kind of concept that Ralph Waldo Emerson had in mind when he wrote that, "Certain ideas are in the air.This explains the curious contemporaneousness of inventions and discoveries."

Indeed, we are seeking new research approaches and new institutes springing up everywhere. They differ in details but share a focus on complexity.

Biocomplexity is that kind of compelling idea that has been percolating to the surface in many minds and many places.

Our focus at NSF is on the biocomplexity that arises from the interactions of living organisms with all facets of their external environment.

It's obvious that the plant sciences will play an integral role in these studies. Plants so fundamentally shape and are shaped by the environment.

Biocomplexity if often characterized by non-linear or chaotic behavior, so it is difficult to describe and study experimentally.

This has hampered our ability to understand and predict the behavior of many environmental systems.

Now, however -- thanks to new computational, observational, and analytical tools -- we're on the brink of a breakthrough.

As scientists and engineers from a broad spectrum of fields, we're poised to tackle the integrated research necessary to understand the biocomplexity of our environment.

NSF is proposing a comprehensive strategy to place the nation at the forefront of biocomplexity research. This year we're holding a competition of biocomplexity that focuses on understanding the role of microorganisms in structuring environmental systems.

The ecology of our planet is proving more diverse and complex than we ever expected.

We will deepen our understanding of the links and feedbacks between life forms deep in the Earth's crust and in the most extreme environments of our planet.

Our goal is to make more reliable predictions of the processes that shape our environment.

Next year, in fiscal year 2000, we plan to move a more ambitious phase.

If approved by Congress, NSF will sponsor $50-million focused initiative on biocomplexity that supports interdisciplinary research on non-linear dynamics, emergent phenomena, and how biological systems evolve and interact across the spans of time and space.

We expect the program to continue over five years. It's clear that the major environmental challenges that we face call for creative approaches that will emerge from these studies.

They must integrate information across temporal and spatial scales, embrace multiple levels of organization, and bridge disciplinary boundaries.

We expect all NSF directorates to participate in this initiative, an initiative that is key to maintaining a healthy and habitable planet.

These new and more sophisticated ways of thinking about our world both rest upon and are fed by information technology.

This is also the focus of NSF's second major budgetary initiative this year: Information Technology for the 21st Century, called IT-squared for short.

This is an interagency initiative. NSF has the lead role, and it responds to a presidential committee's finding that long-term research on information technology has been "dangerously inadequate."

IT squared for investment in several critical areas.

  • We need research aimed at understanding how human beings and computer systems interact.

  • We need larger, more secure information systems.

  • We also need much more research on how the computing revolution is transforming our society and our workforce.

  • And we also need to extend the frontier on the high-end computing necessary to attach a host of key science and engineering problems.

I do not need to tell this audience how advances in IT dovetail with progress in biology. As The Economist noted recently, ".many of the challenges in biology, from gene analysis to drug discovery, have actually become challenges in computing."

The article goes on to describe a, "desperate shortage of specialists capable of developing the computational tools that biologists need."

A pertinent example is the plant genome initiative -- which in itself has transformed the study of plant physiology.

This is the type of venture that makes a disparate group of researchers more than the sum of its parts.

It has spurred the plant sciences to assume their rightful place at the cutting edge of biology and has fostered the notion of nutritional genomics. This was featured in the July 16 Plant Biotechnology special section of Science magazine, and it will be the subject of the Tuesday morning symposium at these meetings.

This is also the sort of work that produces an avalanche of data -- the sort of massive information inundation that our physical scientist colleagues have been much more adept at handling. Here we need to change.

It has been predicted that in the future genetically altered plants will produce most of our food, fuel, industrial chemicals, and many phamaceuticals.

This is a prime example of why it is so essential for biologists to work with mathematicians and computer researchers. We need tools to mine the genomics data.

But, computing can help us expand our horizons even further -- to wonderful ways to visualize -- to develop what amounts to a virtual plant. [The best part being that it never needs watering.]

Advances in information technology are essential to bringing the disciplines together.

An excellent example of intersection is nanotechnology, which must supply must of the materials and technologies we need.

I like the concept that one nanometer -- or one billionth of a meter -- is a magical point on the dimensional scale.

Within two orders of magnitude on either side are the smallest of human-made devices, at the micro level, and the atoms and molecules of living systems at the atomic scale.

Nanoscale science and engineering will underpin innovation in areas from information and medicine to manufacturing and environment.

I'll move now to our third budget highlight for this coming year. It may be the biggest challenge of all -- educating our 21st century workforce.

You may not be aware that NSF invests about one-fifth of its budget in education at all levels. I know this priority resonates with many of the ongoing efforts here at ASPP.

I compliment all of you for the imaginative outreach you have brought to both formal and informal education.

And, I applaud your efforts to sponsor mini-symposia like the one being held here on examining the role researcher play in learning.

I'd just like to mention two examples.

  • First is the project at the Epcot Center, which demonstrating how basic research on plants is critical to feeding the world. That's clearly had a major impact.

  • Also, I've been impressed by your work on identifying the principles of plant biology. This has turned into an excellent means for linking K through 12 educational community with ongoing research activities. It's a great start.

I've seen time and again that plants are a great window into science for children and the public. I can't forget visiting a second-grade classroom in Philadelphia not too long ago.

I sat behind a desk built for a seven-year-old, and was sitting among kids who were wide-eyed as they engaged in discovery.

They were learning about biology of plants, and the teacher was doing much more than conveying raw facts. She was turning the kids into problem solvers.

I should add, as an aside, that I visited that classroom the day before the President announced my nomination as NSF Director.

That's why I tell people I got this job the day after I got out of 2nd grade.

It was an appropriate way to begin, because improving the math and science education in our schools is absolutely critical to our future.

We all know we face a troubling paradox. Some of you may know about the Third International Math and Science Study, better known as TIMSS.

It revealed a very disturbing fact. Our economy and society are on an unprecedented upward path in science and technology, yet our students simply aren't getting the education they need to succeed.

It will take many creative minds to turn this around. As an active researcher myself, I believe that no group should feel more responsibility for math and science in the classroom than scientists and engineers.

It's time for our universities to become an integral and accountable partner in national efforts to advance this educational priority.

We have maintained a vast chasm between our elementary science and math education, and our graduate education system -- all without rational foundation.

We must connect these systems. For this reason, I'm particularly excited about one of our education initiatives at NSF this year. That's our pilot program to place graduate teaching fellows in K through 12 classrooms.

Just last month I was able to speak to the panelists who are reviewing the proposals to that new program.

The commitment and enthusiasm of that group was electric! They were very excited about the program and the overwhelming response to it. Lots of proposals.yes, it is hard work to review and rank them.but they are full of good ideas.

We're expecting the new K through 12 fellows program to boost the content of elementary and secondary education and the quality of graduate and undergraduate education at the same time.

The program implicitly gives recognition to teaching in a scientific career. This is a great example of how we can encourage progress on integrating research and education.

Let me sum up by saying once again how much I appreciate the chance to share with you some of my excitement about new directions at NSF.

I know there is always some trepidation at taking risks, and I know the question on some minds will be: How can we afford all of this? The answer to that question is really: we can't afford not to do all of this.

I'm describing a scenario in which interdisciplinary research and the core disciplines are really two sides of the same coin.

Rather than being in any kind of opposition or competition, they exist in a kind of enriching interplay, each healthier in the presence of the other.

I'm very much aware that all of this adds up to a very ambitious agenda for science and technology, and I've concluded that we need to work to increase the funding for NSF.

That won't be easy. Congress is working with a very tight budget allocation for discretional spending.

Next week, we'll get our first signals on FY 2000. Hold your breath and keep your fingers crossed.

At NSF, we're now at just about $4 billion, but a much greater investment is needed.

This boost won't happen overnight, but I want to get us off the mark and on the way to a budget that reflects the importance of NSF's work to our economy and to our society.

We cannot even begin to do any of this without your help. I'm going to close my remarks here and ask for your questions and comments.

I hope I've given you a few things to think about -- and maybe a few things to cheer for, beyond the Orioles. Most of all, I look forward to hearing from you.



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