Skip To Content Skip To Left Navigation
NSF Logo Search GraphicGuide To Programs GraphicImage Library GraphicSite Map GraphicHelp GraphicPrivacy Policy Graphic
OLPA Header Graphic

Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"The New Sociology of Science"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
State University of New York-Albany

April 17, 2000

Many thanks to President Hitchcock and the entire community here at SUNY-Albany.

It's a great honor to receive this honorary degree, and it truly makes me feel a part of this great community you have created here.

I wish to share a few thoughts about the importance of a working relationship between federal R&D agencies and the academic research community.

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, our mission is to support and fund the underpinnings for all research disciplines, and to strengthen 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 reaching out, and to prepare the next generations of scientific talent.

In marking NSF's 50th anniversary, we are celebrating vision and foresight. I know hockey is part of local lore and common parlance in these parts, so a hockey analogy is appropriate.

The recently retired hockey-great, Wayne Gretzky 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 proposals and visionary investigators.

The unique role of NSF 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.

That success has always hinged on the interrelationships and connections between the federal R&D structure and our nation's universities.

The universities are the linchpins in this complex process. They are the consistent and cohesive element. The role of the Federal government is to be an enabler.

In our research universities, we have masterfully integrated research with the education and training of our next generation of scientists and engineers.

This combination is unique to the American system and has created a synergy throughout our national research enterprise. The wisdom of this approach has been borne out over time.

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

This recent change has been driven by many forces, including the end of the Cold War, and the subsequent globalization of the world economy.

But information technologies have probably had the most pervasive influence on what we are able to do in science and engineering over the last two decades.

Information technologies have become the new infrastructure of science. They allow us to achieve simultaneously both depth and breadth in a research problem.

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 new tools of 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 have seen this in my own research. I have studied the infectious disease, cholera, for more then twenty-five years.

We found that the bacterium, Vibrio Cholerae, is associated with plankton in rivers and ponds.

To reduce cholera in poverty-stricken countries, like Bangladesh, filtering out the plankton should lessen, if not curb the disease.

We determined that sari cloth would make an excellent, affordable filter. However, it was necessary to determine whether 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 and extension agents working with us on this project, as we implement the procedure.

This is just one example of the way that we 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 higher education, 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.

For example, new combinations of universities, a triumvirate, one in Asia, one in Europe, and one in the U.S., may set a new model for global science and engineering education.

This is already happening with some of our "virtual" universities. Whatever the other opportunities turns 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.

This brings me to the nation's most compelling issue and to the second half of NSF's mission: science and math-education-literacy-and workforce skills. Science and technology are the propelling and sustaining forces of our economy.

This will become increasingly true in the future. The 21st century workforce must be a science and technology competent workforce at all levels.

Here is a pivotal opportunity. Universities need to play a leadership role in promoting the importance of science and math literacy for the nation's population. Every institution will approach this differently.

Many Federal agencies, national and state institutions, public school systems, corporations, and non-profit organizations are concerned about 21st century workforce issues. Thus, they represent prospective partners for innovative collaborations.

In science, we must think globally about our nation's place and prosperity in the coming century.

On behalf of the National Science Foundation, I ask you to use your expertise in helping our community move the nation to where the "puck is going."

It's worked for 50 years, and it should take us even farther in the next 50.

I thank all of you for joining in the celebration of the NSF 50th anniversary.

Again, it is an honor to be here, and to accept this honorary degree. My thanks to all of you.



National Science Foundation
Office of Legislative and Public Affairs
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, Virginia 22230, USA
Tel: 703-292-8070
FIRS: 800-877-8339 | TDD: 703-292-5090

NSF Logo Graphic