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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"NSF Policy Trends and Funding Opportunities"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
California State University Presidents' Retreat
Long Beach, CA

February 14, 2001

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact
The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

Good morning. Thank you, (Chancellor Reed), for your generous introduction. To take a page from the Cal State slogan, it's good to be here to talk about how we can work together to fuel the "economic engine of California."

Let me specifically thank Bob Suzuki for the invitation to join you. We've tried each year since I arrived at NSF to find a time to meet as a group.

Bob's built our awareness about the many Cal State System contributions to both the region and nation. He conveys a powerful vision through his work on the NSB. And what he says matches the vision we're trying to instill in NSF's programs.

I should add it's always a pleasure to visit California on the brink of spring. It brings new warmth to this Valentines' Day. To some of us, Valentine's Day means flowers. To some of us, it means a nice dinner. I, personally, can't help but think about chocolates.

When people ask me about the on-going transition in Washington, I often feel like Forrest Gump when he said, "Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get."

We'll all be busy unraveling the consequences of this election for a long time to come. We expect elections to bring new styles of leaderships and to alter policies.

So today, I thought I'd start with a quick update of some newsworthy items in Washington-the latest buzz, so to speak.

Second, I'll mention our overview planning framework at NSF and how we are implementing the strategic plan. I'll include some specific activities we're highlighting as we approach the 2002 budget.

We'll see throughout how your work can feed right into our overall effort.

To be blunt, your reach-in terms of reaching a diverse student population and in terms of your reach into the instructional workforce-is an invaluable asset. It's invaluable to California, to NSF, and to the nation.

So, what's new in Washington? One important-but under-reported-change is the new chair of the House Science Committee.

Congressman Boehlert, the new chair, is from upstate New York and he's a long-time friend of NSF. He gave his first major speech as chair two weeks ago, and he laid out a promising agenda.

He highlighted education as the most pressing dilemma for the U.S.

Many of you will recognize his concerns:

  • U.S. students lagging behind their peers in other nations,
  • a predominance of foreign students in our graduate programs,
  • an increase in H-1 B visas to meet workforce needs,
  • and the underrepresentation of women and minorities in science and mathematics.

The second newsworthy item is a very recent report-just two weeks old in fact. It addresses a somewhat unwieldy topic: National Security in the 21st Century.

It's the work of a commission led by former Senators Warren Rudman and Gary Hart.

I don't normally talk about National Security reports. But this one is different, and it's different for one reason. It makes five recommendations for creating what it calls a new strategic environment for the US in the next 25 years.

The second recommendation is what's important to all of us. It reads: "Recapitalizing America's strength in science and education."

The report uses clear and lively language to make its points. Here's a quote you may have seen in the newspapers

"Second only to a weapon of mass destruction detonating in an American City, we can think of nothing more dangerous than a failure to manage properly science, technology, and education for the common good over the next quarter century."

While the opening allusion may be disturbing, the words are nonetheless inspiring to all of us who have devoted our careers to advancing science and engineering for the common good.

More and more people are finally realizing that our work belongs at the top of the national agenda.

The third bit of newsworthy information from Washington is the budget process. It's been even more mysterious than in previous years.

In two weeks, the President will present his State of the Union address. It will include the broad outline of his spending plan. This won't include any budget details-just targets for major categories of revenue and spending.

The budget details will be released April 3, which is about two months later than most years. We're all working to see that research and education remain a priority.

This brings me to part 2 of my talk: how we are approaching the budget development process.

Don't be embarrassed it you haven't read our strategic plan. It didn't make any best seller's lists. It is none-the-less the starting point for our priority setting process.

Let me show just a few overheads to illustrate.

It begins with a clear and simple vision: "Enabling the nation's future through discovery, learning, and innovation."

Not long ago, you would likely not have seen the word innovation in a vision statement for NSF. Now it's there-side-by-side with learning and discovery.

We pursue this vision through three goals: people, ideas, and tools. They are the stock in which NSF invests.

Although we speak of them separately, they are, in fact, inseparable. They form the core of our strategic plan.

Through peer review, we choose the most capable people with the most insightful ideas.

About twenty percent of total NSF spending goes directly toward supporting a diverse, internationally competitive workforce for science, engineering, and a well-prepared citizenry.

The total investment in people is actually much larger-because of the students supported through work on research grants. The word diversity is front and center in the people goal.

Over 50% of NSF investment portfolio comes under the idea goal.

We provide the opportunity to advance a field in a new direction, accelerate its pace and, increasingly, help it build a bridge to another field.

We continually help break new ground through the research and education we support, but we can't let the new knowledge lie fallow. That's why the word connections is central to this goal.

Of course, none of this can be done without state-of-the-art tools. In this case-tools mean not only instruments, equipment, and laboratory facilities-but also overarching infrastructures such as networks and centers. These tools open up new vistas and frontiers for learning and discovery.

Integrating research and education is one of our highest priorities. We estimate broadly that nearly 200,000 people participate directly in NSF programs and activities each year.

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

How do we identify these people? The peer review process is the chief mechanism.

We call upon over 50,000 scientists, engineers, and educators to make many of our funding decisions.

These grant reviewers, who are working pro bono, are the heart of our merit review system. They constitute the voice of our science and education community.

The NSF criteria for merit review are concise, but also far-reaching.

  1. What is the intellectual merit of the proposed activity?
  2. What are the broader impacts of the proposed activity?

The first asks about the quality of the idea, the qualifications of the research team, and the capability of the organization.

The second covers how well the activity correlates with education and learning, societal benefit, and how it will impact our infrastructure.

This second criterion addresses our mandate to work in the national interest, and to broaden participation.

NSF is committed to enhancing diversity in the S&E workforce, and we know that this is one area where all of us can work together more effectively.

To satisfy both criteria, NSF's budget portfolio must be large and diverse-addressing all fields and activities of science and engineering while catalyzing promising opportunities in education.

Our investments range from single investigators to large multi-purpose research centers.

Like any sound investor, we adhere to the practice of maintaining a balanced portfolio to maximize our returns.

So in implementing our budget, we have two major integrative strategies: Strengthening core activities and supporting major initiatives. Let's start with the investment in the core disciplines that we see here.

Funding core activities keeps all of science and engineering disciplines strong. We fund those with the most creative and innovative ideas.

And, in turn, these ideas lead to new and emerging fields. A strong and vital investment in the core disciplines generates new ideas and human resources.

Under this core investment, we want to provide incentives for young people to pursue S&E careers.

We are currently studying how best to increase annual stipends in our flagship graduate education programs, GK-12, GRF, and IGERT.

Currently, the annual stipend for graduate students in science and engineering is less than half the average wage of bachelor's degree recipients.

A graduate student with children could well find him or herself below the poverty level.

We also need to strengthen support for formal and informal science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education at all levels-pre K-12, undergraduate, graduate, professional development, and public science literacy projects. We call this the "K to Gray" approach.

Another key area is preparing the instructional workforce, including new activities to provide teachers and faculty with solid grounding in IT for use in the classroom.

At present, NSF's investments for science and mathematics education represent only 2 percent of the overall federal investment for education.

Sad to say that 2% accounts for almost one-third of the total federal funding for math and science education. That's too little for such a big responsibility!

On the other side of the coin, we need to pursue research at the frontiers of discovery where the promise of return is high.

We'll continue investments in the areas of emerging opportunity that you all know: Biocomplexity in the Environment, Information Technology Research, Nanoscale Science and Engineering, and the 21st Century Workforce.

In addition, this year, we'll launch a Mathematics Initiative, which is long overdue. Prioritized investments in mathematics education will be necessary to reverse a substantial drop in upper level math majors, a decline of 23 percent from 1992 to 1999.

We will also emphasize training for a mathematically literate workforce to bolster fragile U.S. leadership.

As you all know, progress in mathematics is essential to every branch of science and engineering. Here, my hat is off to you.

I know your campuses have taken up the challenge of improving undergraduate mathematics and it shows with a decreased need for remedial math education.

The 21st Century Workforce initiative remains the centerpiece of NSF's Workforce. We're hoping to establish a new mechanism to integrate both multidisciplinary research on learning and research on IT-enabled learning tools.

Looking further down the road to 2003, we know research in the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences is ready for a major boost.

Research in cognitive neuroscience, learning environments, and human and computer interactions will advance understanding of how students learn, frame questions, solve problems, and employ skills to derive answers.

The increasing scientific and technological nature of civilization had been an undisputed force that we must work together to understand.

This speaks to the larger challenge we face. At the beginning of the 20th Century, 83% of Americans held jobs that involved working with things.

We were farmers, craftspeople, and laborers. Now, professional and technical workers in the service sector dominate the workforce.

This shift to knowledge and technological work has important implications for the role of education in society.

We know that technologies bring rapid change, and the need for continual training and retraining is ever increasing.

Knowledge has become the currency of everyday life. The coming years will be anything but business as usual for basic science and engineering research and for our educational system.

This point again brings me back to the box of chocolates. My daughters-I would never incriminate myself-always like to choose one and take a sampling bite. (I'm sure none of you have done this.)

If they don't like one, they'll put it back and choose another. And yet still another.

It can be likened to today's college graduate that can expect to change careers four-to-seven times before retirement.

We know that technology has created this dynamic. And we know that our universities are reinventing themselves for a seamless system of learning over a lifetime.

All of these changes-the changing face of education, the pace of technological change, the glimmerings of public dissatisfaction with new technologies, the remaking of the world economy-raise challenges for the next fifty years and beyond.

An investment in basic science and engineering research and education is paramount.

Let's look at NSF's efforts in a larger context for perspective. Today, we are looking at a total U.S. economy in the order of $10.4 trillion, yet the Federal government spends barely $20 billion on basic research.

Using these numbers as a guide, we see that basic research efforts constitute only two tenths of one percent of the overall economy. That is what we are devoting to our future.

The numbers are equally disconcerting in context of the federal budget. Out of the $1.9 trillion federal government budget, basic research constitutes 1.1% of the total budget.

Where does NSF fit into all of this? In the larger context of federal support, NSF is a small player-accounting for only 3.5% of total federal investment in research and development.

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

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

But that investment strategy will continue to work only if we maintain a healthy foundation of basic science and engineering research and education from which the life sciences can draw. One last chart to illustrate that thought. [NIH and NSF research obligation]

This shows some major disciplines, and where their federal funding comes from.

While NIH is concentrating on the life 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 small percentage of the federal portfolio is a necessary synergist.

But with the meager amount of federal investment, enormous pressures tug at the NSF purse strings.

We are forced to make tough decisions, with the inevitable result that people and discoveries are lost in the process.

Currently, we are only able to fund approximately one third of the proposals we receive. Thirteen percent of the remainder are rated excellent or very good, but must be denied due to budgetary constraints. I'm confident that as a community we can continue to address this and other pressing issues.

You may have heard that last year NSF received the largest budget increase in its history--13.6%. That's a great start toward doubling the NSF budget, but it's only one step.

As Will Rogers said, "Even if you're on the right track, you'll get run over if you sit there." The coming years will be anything but business as usual for all of us.

I'll stop on that note and open the floor for discussion. This is clearly an occasion for lively exchange.



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