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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"The Wellspring of Discovery"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
University of Washington

June 9, 2000

Greetings to everyone, and thank you for your introduction.

I will begin, as befits an anniversary celebration, with a look back in time.

As you know, the National Science Foundation is celebrating its 50th anniversary, and it is truly a pleasure to be commemorating that event together.

It's also an honor to be serving as NSF Director at this juncture.

We see here the poster created in honor of our anniversary. The half-century mark gives us the opportunity to reflect upon NSF's role as a generator of discoveries and provides inspiration to probe frontiers we can only begin to envision.

Fifty years ago, on January 4, 1950, President Harry S. Truman delivered his State of the Union message.

By the way, that speech is wonderful to read over again because it is full of the tenor of the times, conveying a sense of opportunity but also a recognition of being poised before a fateful choice. I would like to read you a short excerpt from that speech:

"The human race has reached a turning point," he said. "Man has opened the secrets of nature and mastered new powers. If he uses them wisely, he can reach new heights of civilization. If he uses them foolishly, they may destroy him...Government has the responsibility to see that our country maintains its position in the advance of science."

He then called for the creation of a "National Science Foundation."

That following May-on May 10, 1950-President Truman's train stopped in Pocatello, Idaho, and that was where he signed S-247-the act that created NSF.

By the way, we recently learned that the mayor of Pocatello officially named May 10, 2000, as "National Science Foundation Day." So, when you're in Pocatello, raise a toast to NSF!

NSF received its first real budget in 1952. Here we see grant "number one." The first NSF grant, for $10,300 over three years, went to Sidney Weinhouse at Philadelphia's Institute for Cancer Research.

Since then, besides the transition from a budget of three-and-a-half million dollars to one of almost $4 billion, we have seen major changes over these fifty years in how the federal government supports science and technology.

We've moved from a massive infusion into physics and engineering to a recognition that all disciplines must be nourished.

We have watched science and engineering become a truly global enterprise.

We have watched disciplinary boundaries established for convenience now receding in significance, with some perhaps disappearing altogether.

We are watching information technology drive our progress and accelerate the intersection of the disciplines.

I have come to view NSF not so much as a government agency but rather as a source of ideas and discovery, as a wellspring, if you will, of creativity.

Our role at NSF is not so much to sustain as to spark discovery.

The 50-year mark is an appropriate juncture at which to consider what impact NSF has had as a generator of discoveries. Let us begin by putting the agency in perspective.

Of the national research and development expenditures, the federal government accounts for barely one-fourth of the pie.

Furthermore, NSF is a small player here-accounting for only 3.5% of total federal investment in research and development.

It is a very important 3.5%, however, because it underwrites nearly one-quarter of all federal support for basic research at academic institutions.

We can look at one increasingly familiar measure of success: patent citations.

In archival journals, nearly two-thirds of the papers cited on patents were published by organizations primarily supported by public funding. The lion's share refer to articles originating in academe.

It's one measure of how publicly funded research produces the knowledge that spurs innovation.

We also see the heightened connections between university and industrial science.

Even as industry spends more on research, its dependence upon publicly funded research has grown even faster.

At the same time, we see that the National Institutes of Health receives over half of the federal academic research pie.

But that will continue to work only if we maintain a healthy foundation of basic science and engineering research from which the life sciences can draw.

One more chart: This one shows some major disciplines, and where their federal funding comes from.

While NIH is concentrating on the biomedical sciences and psychology, NSF is building up computer science, basic engineering, and the physical sciences.

In the non-medical areas of the life sciences, NSF provides the majority of federal support.

Our support is truly the wellspring into which other fields can tap.

With the worrisome slowdown in funding for mathematics and physical science, however, with the shares out of balance, we must ask whether it is possible to deplete pools of knowledge.

It is instructive to look at some of the discoveries we can trace back to NSF.

As the agency has grown, the rivulets flowing from the source of fundamental research have turned into rivers following unexpected courses.

We can trace the channels formed by ideas as they gathered enough momentum to carve pathways for new ways of thinking.

I would like to recount just a few of these stories, emphasizing at the same time that these are only examples drawn from a wealth of discoveries we could enumerate.

Internet: It's ironic that so few people realize that key advances in Internet technology were spurred by federally funded research.

What we know today as the Internet grew from predecessors in the 1980s and earlier, notably ARPANET and NSFNet.

The high-speed backbone called NSFNet was a research and education network, used to link our supercomputer centers to universities.

It helped to demonstrate the effectiveness of networking technology. Now, millions use the Internet daily.

During this same early period, scientists and students from NSF's supercomputer center at the University of Illinois developed the first Web browser, Mosaic.

That browser moved the Internet from the realm of esoteric university research to public communication and commerce.

PCR: We turn to the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park for another example of an unexpected outcome: the development of PCR, or the Polymerase Chain Reaction.

This technique, developed in the private sector, is used in molecular biology to clone a small fragment of DNA and produce multiple copies.

The technique we call DNA fingerprinting has wide application in genetic mapping, medicine, forensic science, and even tracking environmental pollution.

The polymerase used today was extracted from a heat-resistant bacterium. The organism was isolated from a Yellowstone hot spring, through NSF-funded research.

Thomas Brock of Indiana University found bacterium while working out of a trailer in the park.

Eye laser: Here's another serendipitous story. We see pictured here the standard procedure for cornea repair, the "flap and zap."

At the top, a mechanical blade cuts a flap of cornea. Then, an eximer laser removes tissue; at the bottom, the flap is replaced.

The problem is the coarseness of the initial cut. A solution was discovered entirely by accident.

In 1993, a student was conducting research at the University of Michigan on a femtosecond laser.

This laser emits light roughly a billion times faster than an electronic camera flash.

While the student was working, the ultrafast laser accidentally entered his eye, and he was rushed to the hospital.

The examining doctor was amazed to find a perfectly round laser burn-far more precise than the slower-pulse lasers the surgeons had been using. The examining physician said, "You're fine. But tell us about this laser!"

The use of the femtosecond laser is now in the clinical trial stage.

El Niņo: Sorting out the irregular oscillation of the atmospheric and ocean conditions that we call El Niņo is another success story.

In the early 20th century, British mathematician Gilbert Walker first noticed the link between atmospheric pressure in the eastern South Pacific and the Indian Ocean-with the failure of the monsoon rains in India.

But unraveling this puzzle required advances in technology-both in computing techniques and the gathering of massive observational data sets.

It also took the coming together of atmospheric and ocean scientists to reveal El Niņo's secret.

Today, we can warn the populations at risk in Indonesia, Ecuador, or California months in advance that droughts, rains, and other severe conditions are on the way.

Tracing the complexity of our world is a challenge. It's one of our achievements that is more diffuse, with pay-offs that we're just beginning to explore.

The prize, though, is nothing short of mapping the underlying order of the universe.

The herd of zebras here symbolizes this concept to me.

The perspective of complexity, with its mathematical underpinnings, helps us to see into both the physical and the living realms, and to probe their interconnections.

Complexity brings insight into many worlds, from artificial intelligence to economics, from ecology to materials science, and beyond.

It gives us a perspective spanning all fields and all scales-a richness across different orders of magnitude.

We now know that many systems, such as ecosystems, do not respond linearly to environmental change.

Up to now, we have sought understanding by taking things apart into their components.

Now, at last, we begin to map out the interplay between the parts of complex systems.

Even more important than the ideas and the technologies flowing from NSF's efforts are the individuals whose lives and education and work that we have enriched by our activities.

Here is one measure of return on our investment. In the last 25 years, we have funded 78 researchers who subsequently went on to win Nobel Prizes in their respective fields.

That number breaks down to 27 in physics, 22 in chemistry, 13 in physiology and medicine, and 16 in economics.

We can take a more comprehensive look at our impact. Today, we estimate broadly that nearly 200,000 people each year participate directly in NSF programs and activities.

That includes researchers, postdoctoral students, undergraduates, and K-12 students and teachers.

In another growing realm-that of informal science education-our support flows to much greater numbers of people.

Projects we support at museums, science centers, and planetaria touch about 50 million people.

The figure doubles to 100 million for the audiences of radio, television, and film programs on science.

Let's take just one example-the children's television series called "The Magic School Bus." In its heyday it was carried by 300 public television stations in the United States.

Over three million children watched the show weekly. It was the top-ranked series among young people.

It was such a success that it's now being picked up by commercial stations.

Some of our institutional approaches have had a very measurable impact on people. Our Engineering Research Centers-now 15 years old-span all areas of science and engineering. From the very start they promoted a new culture of integrated research and education.

Students have industrial mentors, while industry representatives work within the centers.

In fact, the ERCs are now recognized as the "flagship" of a new kind of engineering education.

The numbers of patents and inventions and spin-off firms are impressive. But we've also conducted a number of surveys of companies that partner with the centers.

We've asked them about the benefits they receive. Forty percent of the firms said that one of the most significant benefits was hiring students who gained experience at the center.

This finding speaks to a much larger result of basic research.

Employers say that center students understand industry better, get up to speed more quickly, communicate better, and are more adept at cross-disciplinary approaches.

Now comes the hard part. These successes give us an all-too-tempting invitation to rest on our laurels. Our surveys document strong interest by the public in science.

At the same time, we see skepticism, sometimes outright anxiety, about a host of areas-from genetically modified foods specifically to technology generally.

We see the popularity of programs such as the "X-Files" and the adherence to astrology.

Just as disturbing is the fact that many of those kids who climbed aboard the Magic School Bus before kindergarten have climbed off when they reach middle school.

All of these issues sketch the larger dimensions of the challenge we face. The coming years will be anything but business as usual.

The global economy is changing too rapidly for any of us to stand still. In this new economy, information has moved to center stage, and knowledge has become the currency of everyday life.

To date, we have managed quite comfortably by relying on imported talent.

As a firm believer in the internationalization of research, I have and will continue to voice my support for cooperative activities and exchanges of all kinds.

I nevertheless believe that we should also consider the words of Demetrious Papademetriou of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, he reminded us that our reliance on imported talent is at best a short-term strategy.

In his words, "...the rest of the developed world is waking up to the fact that America's cherry-picking of international tech talent amounts to an enormous competitive advantage."

He further points out that other nations now compete with us for top talent. We're also seeing the suppliers of this talent base making greater efforts to keep it close to home. This could spur us to changes that are long overdue.

For starters, we can begin to weave together the different levels of our educational systems.

I've heard this called the "K-through-Grey" approach. It supplants the antiquated notion that knowledge is gained in so many semesters-and that only after completing certain prerequisites are we pronounced to be educated.

What is called for is a system of never-ending, life-long learning that promotes versatility and flexibility.

It's tied to the notion that we need more than a highly trained workforce. We need a highly trainable workforce-and retrainable workforce.

A university or college graduate in 2000 can expect to change careers four-to-seven times before retirement.

We know that information technologies have created this dynamic. They also supply the tools and means to embrace it-as they bring resources for learning to anyone, anywhere.

We know our universities and other educational institutions face the challenge of reinventing themselves for a seamless system of learning over a lifetime, cradle to grave.

Many of us in the world of science and technology are coming to recognize an urgent responsibility to transform how our society thinks of science and mathematics.

In fact, the dismal regard with which many people view mathematics is a particular challenge to reverse. We want to change its reputation from an object of incomprehension and fear.

We want to inspire appreciation of its poetry and recognition of its utility in helping us to sort out the complexity of our world.

As K.C. Cole writes in her book, The Universe and the Teacup, "Mathematics seems to have the astonishing power to tell us how things work, why things are the way they are, and what the universe would tell us if we could only learn to listen."

These four beautiful scientific images, as well as the previous one, are the work of Felice Frankel, artist-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Clockwise, from the upper left, they are: vials of nanocrystals; patterns of bacterial colonies; a hologram of plastic; and a peeled polymer.

"Too often the visual beauty of science research seems to be kept secret," Frankel believes. "Scientists are trained to be suspicious of visually stunning displays...and thus remain largely unaware of the value of the visual poetry of their own work..."

Every discipline of science and engineering adds to the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of discovery. We see no limit to expanding our vision.

Indeed, we must broaden it, to a vision that pursues greater resources for all of science and engineering.

There's no limit to what we can do, working together, creating the linkages that will drive future discoveries.



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