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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Welcoming Remarks
NSB Symposium on
Allocation of Federal Resources for Science & Technology

May 21, 2001

Good afternoon and welcome everyone. I would first like to recognize and to thank Dr. Eamon Kelly and my fellow National Science Board members for bringing us together to discuss this important issue. It's important not only to the long-term health of U.S. science and engineering, but also to the continued progress and prosperity of our entire nation.

It's also a great honor once again to welcome the former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, to the Foundation. I'm in no position to make any bets, but I would venture to say that he is probably the only member of Congress ever to have had the skull of a Tyrannosaurus Rex in his office on the Hill. Through his words and his actions, we see time and again that his commitment to progress through science and engineering runs deep and true.

He remains one of the most effective spokespersons for increased investment in science and engineering, and he fully recognizes the need to reshape the way R&D funds are allocated to meet the needs of the 21st Century. Newt, we appreciate your continued efforts and once again look forward to gaining the benefit of your insights.

Our agenda for today is as well crafted as it is ambitious. We'll be examining issues that are fundamental to policy-making and governance in any arena:

  • How do we best allocate precious resources?
  • Whose advice do we seek?
  • What data are most reliable?
  • How do we engage both decisions-makers and the general public in the process?

As I was thinking about these questions, I stumbled upon one on Albert Einstein's most famous statements. This one dates to 1931, before World War II and in the deepest days of the depression. Einstein gave an address at Caltech, and he said:

"Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest in all technical endeavors, concern for the great unsolved problems of the organization of labor, and the distribution of goods--in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing ... to mankind."

Seven decades later, we continue to draw upon Einstein's wisdom and strive toward this ideal.

Many of us in government, industry, and academe know that investments, public and private, in research and development have delivered impressive economic returns. We've always had a mix of anecdotes and analysis to make the case. Economists like Bob Solow and Ed Denison have helped us see the big picture, while we've collected the stories that make it visible--from the Internet to MRIs to Doppler radar. Those are all part of NSF's Nifty50.

Today, the analytic evidence is getting even stronger. We've seen the report showing that at least a third and possibly half of U.S. economic growth over the past 50 years can be attributed to the fruits of science and engineering. There is a growing body of work, and it highlights the importance of publicly-supported R&D to industries as diverse as agriculture, aeronautics, computers, biotechnology, and medical equipment.

But, the American taxpayer is the ultimate umpire for assessing how federal funds are spent. And what matters most is convincing those who pay our bills that our research efforts and goals are in line with societal needs and priorities.

More than ever before in history, advances in science, in engineering, in education, and in technological innovation are the key to our future. They're the best hope we have for raising people's prospects, for combating poverty, hunger, disease, and for sustaining a secure and healthy environment.

But they aren't the only variables in the equation. They don't add up to progress unless there's a policy environment that supports them--one that strengthens the nation's capacity to produce new knowledge and exploit its potential. We're here to help inform and shape that environment.

Setting the science and technology agenda requires thoughtful and balanced judgement about priorities. Finding the most effective means to turn priorities into realities requires the best thinking the research and education community has to offer.

We can't advance our agenda without strong public support. Translating the technical into the accessible, and promoting a deeper understanding of the importance of our work is central to NSF's mission. By its very nature, our peer-review process keeps us connected to the community, and it gives us insight into the most-recent directions and advances in laboratories, schools, and classrooms.

This past weekend, I had the privilege of participating in two commencement ceremonies. Dr. Wrighton hosted me at Washington University in St. Louis on Friday, and then on Sunday I was closer to home at George Washington University. Being on the stage with Tony Bennett, Herman Wouk, and Leonard Slatkin was daunting, but the rain was an equalizer! We all ducked for cover. The "Washington" theme is purely coincidental.

At both events, I told the graduates that what makes the world exciting is not what we know--but what we don't know. There are still worlds to be discovered, diseases to be cured, and countless other challenges.

That's why I'm especially thankful for this opportunity to discuss these issues. By addressing them as laid out in the report, we'll make progress toward ensuring that the U.S. advances the leading edge of learning and discovery.

We have our work cut out for us--perhaps now more than ever. Congressman Boehlert issued a clarion call to the research community at the AAAS Policy Colloquium at the beginning of the month. He warned that the community has talked itself into a blue funk.

He said, "The mood reminds me of the opening line of Woody Allen's essay, My Address to the Graduates. 'Today we are at a crossroads. One road leads to hopelessness and despair; the other, to total extinction. Let us pray we choose wisely.'"

With that, I'm happy to turn the podium back to discussants for today's symposium. Thank you for joining us here at NSF.



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