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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Board Task Force on
International Issues in Science and Engineering

July 30, 1999

Good morning! I am very pleased that the National Science Board Task Force on International Issues in Science and Engineering is launching today a series of meetings to hear a range of perspectives on the subject of international science and technology.

The subject is ubiquitous, the issues are complex, and the stakeholders are diverse.

When I arrived at the Foundation a year ago, I indicated that international activities would be one of my highest priorities.

I am pleased that the Board has taken on this important subject. The findings and conclusions of the Task Force will provide useful guidance as we develop the new NSF strategic plan and the content and structure of future budgets.

I welcome the opportunity today to present you with some of my own thoughts and concerns on international science and engineering and the role of the Federal government. I would like to raise three questions with you:

  1. Given the inevitable and appropriate trend toward the globalization of science and engineering, what productive role can federal agencies play in facilitating that trend?

  2. Given the leadership role of the United States in the global scientific system, how should NSF help shape that system to make it compatible also with our overall national interest?

  3. Foreign policy today is a complex combination of political, commercial, social, scientific, and environmental issues. Science, engineering, and technology increasingly comprise the major component of management for global issues. Given the old and quite separated structures for foreign policy and science and technology policy in the Federal government, how do we bridge the boundaries between them to have seamless policies?

Global Science

It is useful, first, to comment on the term "global scientific system." It has long been said that science knows no national boundaries.

Indeed, an instructive example is that of the brilliant thirty-four year old Alexander von Humboldt (who, by the way was fluent in English, French and Spanish as well as his native German.) In 1804, Humboldt wrote to Thomas Jefferson a few days before visiting him at the White House: "I would love to talk to you about a subject that you have treated so ingeniously in your work on Virginia, the teeth of mammoth, which we, too, discovered in the Andes."

Two centuries later, the irrepressible urge to pursue scientific knowledge for knowledge's sake, continues to flourish among those for whom the pursuit of scientific enlightenment transcends political, cultural or language barriers.

It has been facilitated by two important developments.

One is that, as a direct result of the post World War II dominance of U.S. science, the English language has become the lingua franca of science. We fortunately do not all have to be brilliant linguists as von Humboldt was.

The other, of course, is the electronic connectivity of researchers and research institutions around the globe, which makes national boundaries absolutely transparent and communication virtually instantaneous.

International scientific organizations have also served to facilitate international discourse. In fact, scientists were among the pioneers of world-wide organizations when they established ICSU in the 1920s.

Today, of course, we have an enormous array of hundreds of international organizations in all fields of science and engineering.

Nevertheless, it is still a long way from a globally integrated scientific system being in place, particularly when it comes to international research collaboration--in contrast to the international exchange of scientific information.

Indeed, especially in the United States, collaborations occur much more frequently within national borders than across them.

There are, of course, geographic, cultural and linguistic reasons for this. But, it is also true that the structure of funding for science is essentially national in nature--especially when the source is governmental.

Even the great integrative experiment of the European Union shows the persistence of national funding structures.

However, there are well-recognized factors that stimulate international research cooperation. These include:

  1. The availability of rapid, high volume information transfer;

  2. The increasing number of countries with world-class research facilities because of deliberate action through long-term investment.

  3. The United States cannot afford to limit its interests when opportunities abound to access a much larger universe of researchers, ideas, facilities, and data through international cooperation.

  4. The growing sophistication of scientific instrumentation. This, coupled with increases in computational power, makes it possible to undertake unprecedented scientific challenges that require observational data on a regional and global scale.

  5. The enormous cost and complexity of large projects and facilities make sharing of costs, risks and expertise extremely attractive or, in some cases, essentially mandatory.

  6. The increasing expectation, not common in the past, that data gathered offshore should be collected and exploited jointly with researchers of the host country.

All of these factors contribute to the internationalization of science and engineering.

Facilitating international collaboration

What, then, is the essential role of government in facilitating globally integrated science?

In fundamental research and in areas where governments tend to be the primary sources of funding for research and research facilities, the support of large-scale international projects and internationally shared facilities demands cooperation among government agencies.

This includes:

  • Encouraging a global view among research communities;

  • Encouraging scientific communities to plan projects with an international dimension and facilitating international partnerships;

  • Coordinating funding among governments, so that each national research team and the individual scientists and engineers are able to participate in the collaboration.

Science and technology agencies already have experience in this, and use a variety of approaches. Good examples will emerge from the presentations.

Shaping the Global System

Expanding the number of countries contributing to the global scientific enterprise will help us achieve a globally integrated scientific system.

But we must focus on the evolving role of developing countries to achieve this goal.

Because successful models have been developed in East Asia and elsewhere during the past decade, there is growing recognition that the establishment of a strong scientific research and education infrastructure is an important path to economic development.

This approach to development coincides with the long-term scientific interests of the United States, as well as the political and economic interests inherent in successful development.

As the United States has already learned in the cases of Taiwan, Korea and other "graduates" of the development process, we stand to gain from a larger global pool of research, especially in fundamental research, and from the development of a scientific cadre that can serve as productive partners for US researchers.

Another benefit is having a contingent of scientists and engineers who can contribute their knowledge to public policy in their countries.

International development assistance agencies (such as USAID and the World Bank) have a strong interest in building up the scientific infrastructure of developing countries.

NSF and other science and technology agencies do not have the mandate or the resources, as USAID does, to support development assistance. However, science agencies, and the grant communities they support, embody a wealth of experience in building and managing a successful infrastructure.

Closer connections between the science agencies and development assistance organizations that draw on that expertise will enhance the effectiveness of the development process.

NSF has had experience "exporting the NSF model" to countries seeking to adopt or adapt a system of competitive merit-based support of research, especially academic research.

Countries that accomplish this are not only embarking on a path that has a greater probability of success in raising the quality of their science to world standards, but they are also creating institutional frameworks that can mesh more easily with our own and make international cooperation more effective.

Those efforts should be more systematically expanded.

Science and Foreign Policy

Finally, the relationship between science and foreign policy needs comment. For some years, the foreign policy agenda of the United States entailed what the Department of State calls "global issues".

These include such themes as securing a sustainable global environment, sustaining biodiversity, managing toxic waste, and reducing the threat of emerging infectious diseases.

These and other prime concerns, such as nuclear non-proliferation, reducing the threat of bioterrorism, arms-control treaty verification, nuclear reactor safety, and protecting intellectual property, are all imbedded in science and technology.

These policy pursuits cannot be fully effective if they are not based on expert scientific knowledge and advice.

In the decades of the Cold War, the connection between science and technology and national security issues became strong and institutionalized.

This is much less evident in the more recent foreign policy focus areas such as the environment and public health. We will hear from our witnesses that interactions between State and the science agencies are not as vigorous as they should be.

I hope the Task Force will consider approaches whereby federal science and technology agencies can make unique contributions to an effective foreign policy.

Questions for NSF

Having raised three broad questions at the outset, I would like to close with some questions for the consideration of the Task Force that focus more specifically on NSF.

  • What models might NSF adopt or expand on to build intergovernmental structures in order to facilitate the joint funding of international cooperation without creating self-perpetuating bureaucracies that lose their focus and purpose over time?

  • Can information technologies provide the means to establish flexible, ad hoc, results-oriented networks?

  • How can the NSF involve more of our younger scientists and engineers in international cooperative scientific research and education, both to their benefit and to the benefit of the country?

  • And, more generally, are our current modes of operation in international science and engineering effective in a post-Cold War world?

  • With respect to developing countries, should the NSF devote resources to establish and maintain, over time, partnerships with USAID (or its organizational successor), or with the World Bank and other intergovernmental assistance agencies, or even private Foundations (such as Kellogg or Macarthur) in order to make available US expertise on the development of a national research infrastructure based on the successful experience of the United States?

  • Should the NSF devote resources to establish and maintain, over time, partnerships with the Department of State in order to boost the scientific expertise underpinning the formulation and conduct of foreign policy?

These are complex questions; many of the answers would mark a departure from past NSF practice and could entail significant investment of financial and staff resources.

I look forward to the deliberations of the Task Force and, more immediately, to a day of informative and thought provoking presentations.



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