Dr. Rita R. Colwell
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
The Annual Meeting of the American
Society of Plant Physiologists
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
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
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
Suffice it to say, the revolution is well underway,
and it is up to all of us to make to work for science
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
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
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
I like the concept that one nanometer -- or one billionth
of a meter -- is a magical point on the dimensional
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
Nanoscale science and engineering will underpin innovation
in areas from information and medicine to manufacturing
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
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
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
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
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.