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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Council of Scientific Society Presidents (CSSP)
American Chemical Society Building
Washington, DC

November 19, 2001

Good morning to all of you. I'm delighted to have this opportunity to join you, though I remain intrigued about what brings intelligent, productive and broad-minded people from the "real world" to the world "Inside the Beltway"! It certainly can't be for the purpose of expanding one's perspective, since it tends to go the other way around. Your experience, wisdom and research are required now more than ever in this critical period of our nation's history.

Perhaps Charles Dickens captured it best in that phrase we've heard quoted a lot these days, when he said, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Our country has never been wealthier or more productive, while at the same time stunned and stricken by the destruction and loss of life within our own borders. The September 11 events have made clear that these are very definitely, different times.

It is times like these that reinforce our need for dialogues about the future of science in America and the role of the science community in determining that future. That makes our discussion today about science policy in the next 25 years both timely and highly appropriate.

Historically, our goals and values as a scientific and engineering community have been framed within the larger context of societal needs. The success of our nation's science and engineering enterprise has always been inextricably tied to our larger vision as a nation.

Since World War II, science has played an increasing role in the nation's agenda. From 1945 through to the end of the Cold War, a primary focus of our national goals was preserving our freedom, while securing our safety from annihilation. Science and engineering research were integral to achieving those guarantees. And as our country experiences a new kind of war, our dependency on science and on the global leadership of our science and engineering enterprise proves even greater.

We have now been launched into a new war against terrorism, complete with its own chaotic and confusing dynamics. Our nation's science policy will once again be framed by the larger context in which it exists. This new period of angst can be the "era of foresight" in science. We see clear needs for science, engineering, and technology to, once again, protect society and prevent future problems. If we can predict, we frequently can prevent. Our accrued knowledge from decades of research can and should increasingly be directed toward prevention.

In an old Icelandic saga there is a description of the character Snorri. It was said of him that "He was the wisest man in Iceland without the gift of foresight." To me, this has always meant that Snorri had a great deal of knowledge but he didn't quite take his knowledge to the next step. He didn't use it to see implications, to anticipate the future. Without foresight, he could easily be caught by surprise, and obviously without a plan.

We need to develop a broader, more anticipatory perspective in our research. We need to increase our emphasis on envisioning future possibilities, good or ill, as a mechanism to predict. Undoubtedly, this will open new vistas in our exploration and discovery.

This must take place at the same time that the research community maintains a freedom and passion for new frontiers.

As all of you know so well, knowledge is our strongest insurance for preparedness. Without a combination of old and new knowledge, we cannot develop foresight. As we evolve increasingly into a knowledge-based society, our economic growth, our national security, and our social well-being will depend on the most advanced discoveries in every field. Knowledge is the bedrock.

Our ability to develop foresight gives us a kind of early warning system - a guard against unintended consequences.

China experienced devastating floods in 1998 that were partially attributed to intense over-logging. If applied, scientific knowledge could have accurately predicted the consequent flooding and devastation.

In contrast, California now prepares for the heavy rains while the sun is still shining, as information technologies allow us to predict the El Niño and La Niña weather cycles up to nine months in advance.

Clearly, science can be an effective predictor. To prevent, however, requires more. The research community needs to find more effective methods to use its capacity to predict real world consequences. Prediction and prevention go hand in glove. This is not always as easy as it sounds.

Let me offer an example from my experience researching cholera in Bangladesh. Satellite remote-sensing technology allowed us to predict incidents of cholera by scanning sea-surface temperatures. The rising temperatures would bring cholera epidemics. I also learned first hand that solutions or preventions to problems must always be feasible within the social, cultural, and economic framework.

In Bangladesh, where cholera is common, expensive water treatment plants are neither practical nor affordable. But the cloth to make Saris, the traditional dress for women, is common and inexpensive.

I found that filtering water through 10 folds of Sari cloth reduced the incidence of cholera dramatically because we had discovered the cholera bacteria were associated with zooplankton, which could easily be filtered out, taking the cholera bacteria stuck to and in the zooplankton with it. It was a culturally acceptable practice to filter drink, usually to remove flies! And, it fit easily in the social framework of family and community.

This is a major step forward from the old pattern of remedial action, that is, reacting to major, devastating epidemics. And, it could not have been done without an interdisciplinary approach that included the social sciences.

As the world grows smaller and we are increasingly called upon to assist and collaborate in places distant and distinctly different, our inventiveness will be challenged in new ways.

For the larger, sometimes global scale, research programs, our individual research knowledge and understanding will not be sufficient. To devise and implement strategies at the interdisciplinary level will require our cooperative attitude and our comprehensive vision.

The world has always been a delicate balance of many complex forces, not the least of which is humanity -- in all of its diversity of cultures, goals, and behaviors.

However, our future holds an abundance of new science and technology that will improve our ability to understand and address these differences and to better predict and facilitate future coherence in global society.

The expanding knowledge of our research-base and our sophisticated tools empower us to perform the extraordinary. Foremost among them are information technology, genomics, and nanotechnology. These innovations herald new ways to pose and answer questions. We can now précis research questions to anticipate rather than remediate.

We already see manifestations. Sequencing the human genome opened up an entirely new world of biomedical research and potential miracles of diagnostics, prevention, and treatment. Cures for infectious diseases will be read from the genetic blueprint of the causal organism.

As we use this genetic information to understand humans at their molecular and biochemical level, we must also be responsible to understand the interactions at social levels. When interpreting data gleaned from the human genome project, we must be careful to proceed in a manner consistent with human and ethical needs. DNA sequences should be used to help individuals, not cause potential harm.

In a world even smaller than genes-the Lilliputian level of the nanoscale-we are now arranging atoms and molecules to mimic nature's creations.

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. Red blood cells, for instance, have diameters spanning thousands of nanometers.

Micro-electrical mechanical systems now approach this same scale. We are at the point of connecting machines to individual cells, increasing our digital storage capabilities with nanolayers and dots, and building lightweight, super-strength materials atom by atom. We also recognize that nano will have many applications far beyond our current speculations.

Today, scientists predict that nanofabrication will have the capability to transform our world with even greater impact than information technologies have done. For example, silicon polymer nanowires may cheaply detect traces of TNT and picric acid in both water and air. These tiny wires, 2000 times thinner than a human hair, could be used to detect explosives in terrorist bombs and land mines.

In a completely different realm, information technologies touched and transformed almost every face of our lives, our work, and our economy. As a result of a new software program, RAMPART, developed after the Oklahoma City bombing, we can explore the future probability of events occurring and what the losses might be.

In fact, much of what we do today would be impossible without the powerhouse capability of advanced computing. We are now on the brink of terascale computing that takes us three orders of magnitude beyond prevailing computing capabilities.

In the past, our system architectures could only handle hundreds of processors. Now, we work with systems of thousands of processors. Shortly, we'll connect millions of systems and billions of 'information appliances' to the Internet.

Crossing that boundary of one trillion operations per second launches us to new frontiers. The list of dramatic changes and choices that science has triggered is so diverse it verges on the wondrous and the daunting. We generate data faster than we can interpret it, but it is the interpretation and its application to society that carries the value.

However, as we also know that our research always exists in a larger societal framework, it must include education. We do ourselves a national disservice when we educate and train our scientists and engineers only in science and technology. The world in which their work bears fruit is a world of integration and overlapping consequences. The recent anthrax cases remind us that social and ethical questions may be more difficult to grapple with than the scientific ones.

If we are to remain at the very frontier in science and engineering, the need for increased scientific and engineering knowledge is abundantly clear. To that end, education will be a critical driving force. The alternative to not being at the forefront of science and technology is the alternative of being left behind. Economic survival means being on the cutting edge of discovery and knowledge creation.

Within our own borders, this issue is critical to all of us because we need more people to turn new knowledge into innovation. We need the talent of every student and worker in order to compete and prosper.

Yet, degrees in engineering, physical sciences, and math and computer sciences are either static or declining in the U.S. Meanwhile, other nations are churning out degrees in all these fields.

A 24-year-old in Japan, for example, is three times more likely to hold a bachelor's degree in engineering than a 24-year-old in the U.S.

And graduate enrollment in S&E fields among U.S. students has continued to decline. From 1986 to 1997, bachelors degrees in Mathematics declined by approximately 30 percent (from 16,531 to 12,723). Since 1998, the number of doctoral degrees awarded in science and engineering dropped 5 percent.

We simply must produce more workers trained in science, math and engineering to meet the needs of today's science and technology-based society.

What should we be doing about this situation? We should begin tapping the full range of the nation's native born science and engineering talent. This includes everyone, especially women and underrepresented groups.

Our national need for scientists and engineers cannot possibly be fulfilled by the traditional white male population. We must focus on attracting women and our diverse minority population to these professions.

To prepare them for science and engineering careers, NSF programs are starting with early education, with the President's, No Child Left Behind, initiative.

We were pleased when President Bush charged the agency with leading the Math and Science Partnerships of his education initiative.

At the center of this Partnership plan is a $1 billion dollar investment to strengthen and reform K-12 science and math education. We are busy working on this initiative, which begins this fiscal year.

We're asking scientists, mathematicians, and engineers at universities and colleges to work with educators to achieve some very ambitious goals.

NSF will provide funds for states and local school districts to partner with institutions of higher education. The goal is to help ensure that all K-12 students are prepared to perform at high standards in science and math.

The partnerships program will strengthen a decade-long investment in math and science standards coupled with improved curricula, textbooks, and software. Other issues of concern and attention are the shortage of math and science teachers, and supporting present teachers through ongoing university-connected professional development.

But the program doesn't end there. We especially hope to fund model programs that are geared towards eliminating the performance-gap between majority and minority students, and develop research evidence on how to reach under-served schools and students in creative new ways.

The President's Partnership Initiative is only one element in NSF's integrated strategy to promote science, technology, engineering and math training to a broader constituency.

As we reflect on our knowledge-driven society, we all know that knowledge alone is not enough to make a better world. The Founding Fathers framed a set of primary values for our nation based on the independence of, and the respect for, individuals. Armed with these values, science becomes an important vehicle for human progress.

With these values to guide us, we have made appropriate choices for ourselves as a nation. But we are not alone in the world.

Let me share with you in closing comments that Congressman George Brown made in a 1993 at the National Research Council. We in the science community sorely miss his foresight and vision.

I bring his words to you because you are an international community of scholars and public policy experts. As always he left us with important ideas. In a speech titled A New Paradigm for Development: Building Dignity Instead of Dependence, he said,

"This work must begin first by viewing developing nations as partners instead of as step-children. .Of all the many ways in which we can cooperate for the global good, the case for science and technology cooperation with science-poorer nations is perhaps the most compelling. To do so, we must abandon the instinct to judge others by their past accomplishments or to judge our own accomplishments as the proper path for others.

We know that science and technology are an important force to help balance the world's inequities. The job of the science community, and our nation's leaders is to find a host of mechanisms to make use of the knowledge and benefits, working as partners."

I think that says it all. Thank you.



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