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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"The National Science Foundation: Turning 50 at the Turn of the Century"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
92nd Street Y

January 24, 2000

I am honored by the invitation to speak in the "On the Brink" series here at the 92nd Street Y. I've always admired New Yorkers.

You are noted around the world for savvy, smarts, and sophistication. Given that reputation, I have come prepared for some challenging questions and insights from you. I look forward to a very active discussion.

I know that this event has been billed as a lecture, but lectures are not exactly my style. What I'd like to do is give you some context from my interests and perspective and then we can open things up for participation.

I'd like to talk about the National Science Foundation and the mission we fulfill. Science and technology open new directions and opportunities for all nations and for each of us as individuals.

Time Magazine's choice of Einstein as the Person of the Century pretty much validates that assertion.

This year, NSF turns 50, which means that we have turned half a century at the turn of the new Century. That seems to have a prophetic ring to it.

I was at first prepared to say that NSF is about "progress." Then I ran across a quote by the poet and commentator Ogden Nash. He said, "Progress may have been all right once but it has gone on too long."

I want to register my strong disagreement with Nash. Progress is the life-blood of civilization. If we did not advance we would eventually decline.

The very fabric and fiber of the human spirit is rooted in curiosity, questioning, and creating. We see this as most obvious in young children who are sponges for learning.

No parent can ever forget the feeling of both delight and vague humiliation in not being able to answer all of the "but why" responses to the careful answer we had just provided. Progress is always in fashion.

And with total modesty, I can say that NSF is about progress. In fact, it's in our mission statement.

We are one of the smaller federal government agencies, with an in-house staff of roughly 1300, primarily scientists and engineers.

Our reach and impact however stretch across the nation and around the globe.

We are not the only research and development agency in the federal government.

Besides NSF, the list includes NASA, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and parts of many other agencies such as the Department of Energy and the Department of Commerce.

In addition, there are hundreds of National Laboratories, large and small. Some are well known like Oak Ridge in Tennessee, Los Alamos in New Mexico, Argonne in Illinois, and Brookhaven on Long Island.

There are many more that are obscure to most of us. What they all have in common is a specific research mission.

This diverse Federal R&D enterprise has had long and strong connections to our nation's colleges and universities.

We have, in essence, been partners in function and spirit for decades.

Many of our oldest partners are right here on your turf-City College, Columbia, NYU, Hunter, Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn, Queens College, Stonybrook, Fordham, and the list goes on.

In the Federal R&D structure, NSF is a unique agency. We do not have a mission-oriented-research-objective such as energy, oceans, biomedicine, agriculture, or space.

Instead, we have the mission to support and fund the underpinnings for all research disciplines, and the connections between and among research disciplines.

We have a distinct set of responsibilities. It is our job to keep all fields of science and engineering focused on the furthest frontier, to recognize and nurture emerging fields, to support the work of those with the most insightful reach, and to prepare coming generations of scientific talent. A big and important job.

In marking our 50th anniversary, we are celebrating vision and foresight. Here in New York where hockey is part of local lore and common parlance with the Rangers and the Islanders, I think a hockey analogy is appropriate.

The recently retired hockey-great, Wayne Gretzky (no stranger to New Yorkers) used to say, "I skate to where the puck is going, not to where it's been."

At NSF, we try to fund where the fields are going, not where they've been.

NSF has a strong record across all fields of science and engineering for choosing to fund insightful ideas and visionary investigators.

You have to have a lot of good ammunition to back-up such bragging, and we do. At this anniversary, we have chosen to tell the NSF story by assembling some of our greatest hits.

We are selecting them from literally thousands of discoveries that NSF has funded over five decades.

Each of those discoveries has made its mark in contributing new light to an established field or moved us a step closer to an emerging field.

What stands out most is their broad impact as catalysts for moving our thinking and capability in a new direction.

Don't worry, I won't review all of them for you tonight but I will offer just a smattering. The breadth and diversity of these may surprise even the scholars of research achievements.

  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging or MRI is one of the most comprehensive medical diagnostic tools. We didn't invent MRI-but our ongoing support for scientific instrumentation advanced the development of MRI's and other imaging systems.

  • NSF-funded research in atmospheric chemistry identified ozone depletion over the Antarctic, or the "ozone hole" as it has come to be known. In 1986, NSF researchers established chlorofluorocarbons as the probable cause of the Antarctic ozone hole. Since CFCs are used in many commercial applications, this discovery has driven a search for benign substitutes and also led to regulation of CFC emissions.

  • It seems that none of us can remember an information universe without Web Browsers like Netscape. The browser made the World Wide Web. The first browser of note was Mosaic, and it was developed by a student working at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. This is one of NSF's four original Supercomputing Centers.

  • In industry, the acronym CAD/CAM brings to mind the best in design and manufacturing techniques. NSF-funded research on solid modeling led to the widespread use of Computer-Aided Design and Computer-Aided Manufacturing. The keys to success were advances in the underlying mathematics and in linking the academic and industrial leaders in the field.

Much of the seminal work in CAD/CAM took place just up the Hudson at RPI in Troy, NY. Good things can also happen upstate.

In case there are still some skeptics, NSF-supported researchers have collected 100 Nobel Prizes over the years. They have received recognition for work in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine, and economics.

This past year, Caltech chemist, Ahmed Zewail, won a Nobel Prize for his work in the transition states of chemical reactions.

Although Zewail's work does not have a familiar ring to us like MRI, CAD/CAM, Web Browser, or ozone hole, it was recognized because it enhances our understanding in a unique way.

Someday, the application of that work may carry a moniker as common as a household word.

These examples provide just a glimpse at the discovery whirlpool that NSF has kept in constant motion for half a century. Describing them to you is not just boasting.

It is the strongest evidence of the value of the Federal government's investment and involvement in research and development.

The unique role that NSF plays is buttressed and enhanced by the diversity of the other Federal R&D agencies, and the network of national laboratories.

Together they represent a universe of discovery and innovation that is the envy of the world. Former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, recently said as much in an interview.

In his words, "You cannot explain America's role in the 20th century without looking at the scale of knowledge that government [funded] research has created."

Just as science and engineering have consistently changed and enriched the world, the world of science and engineering is also changing. It is being enriched by what I would call a new sociology of science.

By that I mean, there are now new ways in which we can conduct science. The pool of participants and partners in science has widened and deepened.

And the cross-pollination of research disciplines has led to the blossoming of many new fields.

This recent change has been driven by many forces. The end of the Cold War has been a major factor, as has the subsequent globalization of the world economy.

These were political and economic shifts. They created greater flexibility and competition in the world system to which science contributes.

However information technologies were the technological catalyst for the most pervasive change in what we were able to do in science and engineering over the last two decades.

We all have our own personal uses for information technology. Some of us file our taxes electronically, we shop, and we log onto chat rooms. We assemble information for reports we write; we even get our jokes from the net.

But for tonight's discussion on science and society, one can safely say that information technologies have become the new infrastructure of science and engineering.

They allow researchers to achieve simultaneously both depth and breadth in a research problem.

It's about more than just computers and number crunching. It's DNA on a chip. It's sensors in highways. It's surgery with no incisions. It's drugs that control their doses. IT makes it all possible.

They have enabled us to view and tackle the panorama of a problem. They have provided an understanding that is at the same time both unique and universal.

When humans viewed the Earth from space for the first time, we could see our own blue planet from a perspective never before seen.

A fundamental revision of ourselves in the universe took shape from that new angle.

We were no longer singularly omnipotent, but rather fragile, small, and even vulnerable.

The newest discoveries in astronomy tell us even more about the scope of our smallness in relation to the vastness of the universe. We are not only one among diverse planets but we are one galaxy among multiple galaxies.

Some are now saying that we are one universe among many. This perspective has a way of diminishing one's arrogance.

The new tools that we have fashioned in science and engineering reveal depth, complexity, vast distances, and unimagined connections.

These are the extraordinary computational and imaging tools emerging from information technologies today.

But what does this have to do with changing the sociology of science?

With these new capabilities, we are discovering that at the most intricate and intimate level of all fields there is a connection, a powerful binding to each other.

One discipline becomes a metaphor for explaining another discipline. We are finding that complexity eventually brings us to the integration of things.

We are finding the places where biology and physics explain each other, where chemistry and geology intersect in the clouds we see overhead. It's best captured by a quote from John Muir-

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

Information technology has been the single most powerful force for this new sociology of science.

It has allowed us to invade the deepest complexities and the broadest scope of a scientific question. We find a kinship here through similarities in patterns or behaviors in diverse fields.

This has helped create a change in the social dynamic of science. Increasingly, researchers are engaged in collaborations outside of their own disciplines.

They find explanation and elaboration of their own work in unrelated fields. This growing commonality is like strangers finishing each other's thoughts.

In the process, the old-style dogmatism of the disciplines will be eclipsed by this comradeship beyond the disciplinary walls.

I see this in my own research. I have studied the infectious disease, cholera, for more than twenty-five years.

We discovered that the bacterium, Vibrio cholerae is associated with plankton found in virtually all rivers and ponds.

In poverty-stricken countries like Bangladesh purifying water by boiling it is just not an option. There simply isn't enough firewood to burn for the boiling process.

A less expensive option was filtering out the plankton to lessen, and possibly curb the disease.

We determined that sari cloth would make an excellent, affordable filter. However, it was critical to establish that this would be culturally acceptable to the Bangladeshi families.

A sociologist was added to our research team. The answer was quickly shown to be affirmative. We now have a team of sociologists working with us on this project, as we implement the procedure.

This is just one way that scientists are both watching and participating in the formation of this "new sociology of science."

And so we come full circle to ask the fundamental questions: where are the opportunities and what are the issues-for all of science and engineering, and for the nation?

The opportunities lie in understanding the arc of change and moving in that direction.

That means following Wayne Gretzy, "to where the puck is going, not to where it's been."

Information technologies are altering the very nature of knowledge and of learning.

Those who successfully seize the opportunities will, in essence, find productive and innovative ways to harness IT's multifaceted capabilities.

This IT revolution is not defined by, or confined to, our desktop computer or the bar codes on everything we buy.

We have had a 4-decade odyssey in miniaturization that has led to smaller and smaller chips, sensors, and circuits. Our ability to build and manipulate these tools has opened a universe of possibility.

Nanoscale tools and machines will make it possible to cross the human/machine border with growing ease.

Whatever the opportunities turn out to be, we must think of them not for the few but for the many. Otherwise, they do not become opportunities for the nation.

While the pervasiveness of information technologies has enhanced our capabilities, it has also further divided our society into haves and have-nots.

Without access to computers and the Internet, individuals, families, and communities are increasingly left behind.

You may have heard of the high technology analyst, Ester Dyson. She's often called the "doyen of the digital age."

She has a different, and I believe more useful, slant on the idea of digital divisions in our society and their cause.

In a recent interview on National Public Radio, she suggested that the Internet does not cause inequality any more than cars cause inequality.

Rather, education, or the lack thereof, is the root of inequality. With education, you can get a better job, afford a car, afford Internet access- it is more a matter of broadening your choices.

This brings me to the nation's most compelling issue and to the second half of NSF's mission: science and math-education-learning, literacy-and workforce skills.

NSF is as much about preparing a world-class workforce as it is about scientific discovery. We have always emphasized and supported science and mathematics education and teaching.

Now however, we are closing the circle in education and teaching by an increased focus on research into learning.

We all learn differently. Some of us seem to have tendencies toward visual learning. We are at ease with processing knowledge by seeing it on a page, observing it in real time, focusing on it through images, and even preparing our own pictures and portrayals.

Others seem to have a greater orientation for listening and learning. They can comfortably absorb ideas by hearing the human voice in lecture and discussion, or via audio recording. I myself learn from the sounds of a forest with birdcalls and insect buzz.

Musicians often have a high quotient for auditory learning. They say that Pavorotti likes to hear a work before he sings it. The notes on the page tell him very little.

We also know that our social and cultural environment influence the way we learn. Language, customs, and communication differ from family to family and nation to nation. All of these factors influence the way in which we learn.

In the quest to unravel the mysteries of learning, we see the confluence of diverse disciplines-biology, psychology, neuroscience, neurocognition, educational technology, and sociology.

The insights gained in one area are helping us explain the unanswered questions in another field.

The search into how we learn is fascinating and challenging. However, it is also pragmatic and imperative for the nation.

In a knowledge-based economy, it is crucial that we educate all students and workers on how to use new knowledge.

Without a comprehensive understanding about how learning occurs for different individuals, we will, by default, lose many valuable contributions from those who fall by the wayside.

No nation can afford such a waste of talent, and no learners should be neglected by our lack of understanding of learning differences.

A learner-centered environment should be central to all of our education goals. The question is not which approach is better but which approach is better for a particular learner at a particular time.

In recent years, advances in many fields have transformed research on learning and education into an emerging interdisciplinary "science of learning."

The effort to understand intelligence and learning, and their relationship to the human brain is a significant part of the learning enigma.

Right now, converging lines of research have begun to reveal how relatively simple forms of learning affect the brain's structure, activity, and organization. This holds true from infant development through adulthood.

Cognitive processes-such as reading a word or analyzing a visual scene-are beginning to be understood in terms of neural systems.

Such discoveries are framing our understanding of behavior and cognition. Increasingly, neuroscience investigations will shed light into the complexity of human learning. This will influence and improve the practice of education for children and adults.

In a society that is increasingly dependent on science and technology, the key to the way we internalize concepts in science and math will be crucial to the nation's success in the 21st century.

Although we have developed considerable insight into how children learn how to read, we know much less about what it takes to teach certain concepts in science and math.

And yet each day our lives are touched by concepts of science and math we cannot fathom.

As a society, we cannot afford to let genetics remain a meaningless mix of letters for most of us. We'll need a greater comfort level with different computing systems.

We will need to understand how diverse forms of environmental degradation impact our health.

Learning more about how we learn science and math concepts is not an esoteric quest but a practical goal for our society.

Our overarching national goal is to improve the standard of living and quality of life of all our citizens. To achieve that, we must help all citizens to contribute to the society's growth and prosperity.

The first step in that process is to discern and dissect how we learn. That is the only way to insure that we can help everyone to learn. Learning is not only key to participating in society, it is key to benefiting from society.

In an effort to hasten that process, NSF is part of a three-agency education initiative. The goal is to fund research that can identify strategies to improve the teaching and learning of reading, math, and science from kindergarten through grade 12.

The strategies will focus on the use of information and computer technologies in education. In October, we awarded the first series of research grants.

The majority of these studies include children from diverse racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds to ensure that the research will reflect the realities of our student population.

In the classroom of the future, computer-based technology could help teachers pinpoint student misconceptions. Technology could identify where in the teaching process the students became confused.

Computer programs could be designed to have students practice concepts that have proven to be stumbling blocks. There is great potential for technology to be a learning-tutor in the everyday classroom.

The word learning has new and important meaning in the term "lifelong learning." Many of us remember the time when education ended with a diploma or degree. Those were not the good old days, just the old days.

Today, we tell young people that they should be prepared to have five or six careers in a working lifetime.

We tell adults that continuous training and education are integral to keeping up with the accelerated pace of change in the workplace.

The need for lifelong learning and the growing availability of distance-education are creating productive unions to enhance workforce skills.

And we are now seeing evidence that lifelong learning is taking hold as a principle of contemporary work.

For example, from 1970 to 1997, part-time enrollment at universities increased 180 percent, while at the same time full time enrollment increased by 44 percent.

The increase was particularly significant for students over 24 years of age, as well as for women and members of minority groups.

At least 75 percent of all adults today plan to take a non-credit course in the next three years. These trends can only bode well for both individuals and for the nation.

As an informed electorate, many of you are already aware of these learning/education issues. You need to address them with community leaders, teachers and administrators, local universities, and policy makers.

Without your help and attention, we in science are powerless to make the societal changes that will benefit all learners in this new century.

New Yorkers have often paved the way for the nation. We at the National Science Foundation are counting on you to help keep science on the national agenda and the science of learning right near the top.

As NSF approaches the next 50 years, I would like to know what you want and expect from science and technology?

What issues fascinate you and which ones trouble you?

As I said in the beginning of my remarks, NSF is about progress. In the final analysis, of course, the decision of what constitutes progress is determined by an informed electorate.

I'm ready to talk. I hope you are. It has been an honor to share this evening with you.



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