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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Looking to 2001 and Beyond"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
University Research Association, Inc.

January 27, 2000

I last met with you as a group nearly a year ago, and I am delighted to be here once again.

As recently as yesterday morning, I was worried the weather would keep us apart.

You might recall that when we last met, it was just after the release of the President's budget for the current fiscal year. On this occasion, I find myself in a slightly different situation. I am speaking to you 11 days before the budget is to be released.

That isn't all. I'm sure you are aware that this evening the President delivers his State of the Union address to Congress. Now I've learned enough in my year or so at the Foundation that you don't get out ahead of your boss or Congress.

Thus, in any other year, I wouldn't be able to say much about the main subject on our minds: the funding outlook. But, the President made it easier for all of us last Friday when he announced the major initiative for research and development.

It provides a real shot in the arm for the R in R&D, and most importantly, for the work of the Foundation.

I've always said that my biggest challenge as NSF Director is to strengthen the core disciplines while moving forward in interdisciplinary areas. This budget meets that challenge. It does both, and does both well.

Let me briefly review the highlights of what the President is proposing.

  • It begins with a $3 billion increase in the 21st Century Research Fund. That's the bottom line for the core S&T programs across the government.

  • The centerpiece of this investment is a $675 million increase for NSF. That's not just the largest dollar increase in our history, it's actually double the largest increase ever proposed.

  • It's a jump of 17.3 percent.

  • This would put us around $4.6 billion, a pretty good number for our 50th anniversary.

Finally, and this for all of us in this room is probably the most significant news, nearly half of our increase will be money available for what we often call core activities.

Half of the increase, over $300 million, is not tied to any of the focused initiatives. That gives us the flexibility we've been seeking for years.

One commentator wrote that the budget news has put a new bounce in my step. To tell the truth that's an understatement. I've got more bounce than Michael Jordan right now.

Coming back down to Earth: we've all been around Washington long enough not to count any budget proposal as a slam-dunk. There's a lot of support for R&D on the Hill, and it remains strongly bipartisan, even in an election year. But, we will have to work together as never before to make this record increase a reality.

The starting point for making this happen is understanding why it happened. We need to step back and ask what factors led to this dramatic show of support for NSF and fundamental research? In other words, how did we do it?

The answer is still forming in my mind, but I see it as the result of two sets of forces.

  1. There were a number of forces that pushed things in the right direction: the strong economy, a growing awareness of funding trends, and finally, our rapid improvement as a community in explaining the benefits of fundamental research to society.

  2. Then, there were powerful pulls from emerging opportunities. They are what has captured everyone's imagination. I'll discuss them in a moment.

Without a doubt, one of the most powerful pushes came from the man who works just a few doors down: Alan Greenspan. When he said, "something special is happening in the U.S. economy" - and it's happening because of science and technology - people sat up and took notice.

That ended the argument over whether the information revolution was just a fad or was truly a fundamental restructuring.

That got the attention of people at higher pay grades, and it made it possible for the rest of us, working together, to be heard and to build awareness. All around Washington, people's eyes stopped glazing over when we presented our arguments. The key was that it was truly a team effort.

We could talk about the importance of engineering and the physical science to heath care, and people took notice. They know we've been saying that at NSF for years. This year, they started to hear about it from the head of Pfizer.

We could talk about the mix of public and private funding in our national portfolio and why it matters. Industry R&D may be growing at a record rate, but its dependence on public investments is growing even faster. We had the charts and graphs with patent data and other indicators to show this.

Even better was that we had CEOs lining up with you and your colleagues in academe through the Council on Competitiveness and other forums. Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue listened when we all spoke with one voice.

One final push came from the S&E community as a whole. We're finally learning how to make a consistent, unified case for investments in fundamental research and education.

We still have lots of work to do on this score, but we're getting there. It has been exciting to watch this take shape across our various communities, and I thank all of you for helping to make it happen.

This year, our combined efforts will be needed more than ever.

That brings me to the factors that pulled the debate forward. As, I said, the various pushes got everyone's attention. That's only half the battle. We also had to generate excitement about future investment opportunities.

I can't go into great detail on the budget and the various initiatives until all the documents are released on February 7. I, nevertheless, can give you a good sense of the overall framework plus a few highlights.

We can start with Information Technology Research. You know this as the initiative that grew out of the PITAC report. It's now underway, and the response has been overwhelming -- literally.

The first solicitation brought 2,400 pre-proposals. They came from all disciplines: not just computer scientists, but also mathematics, physics, psychology, the social sciences, educators, and even a number of artists as well.

That's the kind of creativity and imagination we were hoping to inspire, and that the nation needs. This highlights the overall goals we've outlined in the budget. They pose great research challenges. I'll mention just two examples.

In the past, our system architectures could handle hundreds of processors. Now, we are working with systems of 10,000 processors. We know, in a very short time, we'll be hooking millions of systems and billions of "information appliances" up to the Internet. We need new methods and theories to develop the architectures for scaling up to these levels.

Next, consider how we represent information. A visual bit is not the same as an audio bit or a textual bit. And, they all differ depending on the content and the context. We therefore need a new kind of information theory -- one that incorporates these different types of information.

Like the ITR initiative, the Biocomplexity in the Environment Initiative has gotten off to a great start. We've had special competitions in FY99 and 2000 that focused on bringing together interdiscplinary teams to model the complexity that arises from the interaction of biological, physical and social systems.

In FY2001, we be able to greatly enhance this framework. I'll just mention one area we see as especially promising:

  • We'll be expanding our knowledge of geomicrobiology: which means examining the Earth's crust as a microbial habitat. This research should lead to greater understanding of a range of phenomena, from the recovery of secondary oil supplies to the bioremediation of contaminated acquifers.

The key to all of this is reliance on cutting-edge capabilities: such as genomics, molecular sequencing, informatics, robotics, remote sensing, and advanced mathematics and modeling.

Next is Nanoscale Science and Engineering. This is NSF's contribution to the National Nanotechnology Initiative.

This effort is truly inspiring. One nanometer (one billionth of a meter) is a magical point on the dimensional scale. Nanostructures are at the confluence of the smallest of human-made devices and the large molecules of living systems.

  • Individual atoms are around a few angstroms in diameter -- a few tenths of a nanometer.

  • Ten shoulder-to-shoulder hydrogen atoms (blue balls) span 1 nanometer. DNA molecules are about 2.5 nanometers wide.

  • Biological cells, like red blood cells, have diameters in the range of thousands of nanometers. These are approaching the same scale as micro-electrical mechanical systems. This means we are now at the point of connecting machines to individual cells.

One priority area is biological nanotechnology -- a.k.a. natural nanotechnology.

Much of the photosynthesis that powers forests unfolds inside tiny cellular power houses called chloroplasts.

These contain nanoscale molecular machinery (including pigment molecules like chlorophyll) arranged inside stacked structures, called thylakoid disks, that convert light and carbon dioxide into bio-chemical energy.

Call it what you want -- that's a power supply.

We are already seeing the impact of these emerging capabilities and trends on the workplace.

According to a recent U.S. News cover story on jobs and job titles:

  • Today, if you're working in accounting - the odds are you'll have E-commerce in your title.

  • In agriculture - the hot career tracks are in bioinformatics.

  • If you're in telecommunications - you'll need to understand broadband architectures.

  • The construction industry is looking for smart home technicians.

The list goes on. What's clear is that emerging technologies aren't just for researchers anymore. They touch every sector and every institution.

This all speaks to the importance of NSF's investments in what we call the 21st Century Workforce.

We are emphasizing three areas:

  1. Number one is understanding the nature of learning. There is amazing work taking place here. It links the cognitive sciences and the information sciences.

  2. Then, we are connecting this to the development of the instructional workforce -- our teachers.

  3. Built into all of this will be activities that boost the participation of underrepresented minorities.

The goal is to get our entire society ready for the 21st century.

Right now, we're looking at a society of information haves and have-nots. That has to change -- if we are to survive....

I want to close with a few words about the Foundation's 50th Anniversary, because this budget proposal carries special significance in the context of NSF's history. It is a record setting increase. And, best of all, it is a budget that reflects the lessons of history.

It focuses on national priorities, as it must. But, this investment also recognizes that one of our highest national priorities must always be to stay at the leading-edge of science and engineering across the board. Over half of the increased funding is for just this purpose.

Whenever we tell the story of NSF, we continually cite the benefits of fundamental research. It's a familiar list: MRIs, lasers, the Internet, Doppler radar, and countless others.

These advances almost draw upon a multitude of disciplines. We know MRIs emerged from chemistry and physics, but we forget that they never would have become what they are without advanced mathematics. Doppler radar pushed the limits of atmospheric science, information science, and engineering - and opened new frontiers in each.

That's why we have made such a strong push to boost grant size and duration and bring on more young investigators. It's all about shoring up the base - and being true to our history.

We couldn't ask for a better way to mark NSF's 50th Anniversary. With all of you, working together, we can get NSF's second 50 years off to a great start.



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