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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Crossing Borders: Science, the Public, and New Policies"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
5th Annual Shannon Lecture
National Institutes of Health

November 27, 2001

Good afternoon to everyone. I'm delighted to be here at the National Institutes of Health to present the 5th Annual Shannon Lecture.

As you all know, these lectures honor Dr. James A. Shannon, who had a distinguished and varied career. As Director of NIH, his contributions in shaping the modern National Institutes of Health are now the stuff of legends.

But today, in our own immediate and changing times, I'm reminded above all of his service during World War II, as advisor on tropical disease to Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson. As malaria reached epidemic proportions among American soldiers in Asia and the Pacific, he led the research efforts to treat and prevent this devastating disease. For his service to the nation, he was awarded the Presidential Medal for Merit, the highest award at the time for civilian service in government.

In that time of peril, many of the nation's scientists, engineers, and physicians brought their specialized knowledge to the task at hand - winning the war. Science and technology proved its worth in that endeavor, and won a new status in American public life.

Postwar science policy was born from the significant contribution science made in winning the war, and from the recognition that a vibrant research enterprise could equally serve the nation's needs in peacetime. That vision established the foundations of our current policy of public support for fundamental research.

This is an opportune time to share with you some perspectives on science and science policy. I'll explore how science is changing and the implications of these changes for policy.

I've chosen "Crossing Borders" as the theme for my remarks. In many ways, we are entering territory that is new and unfamiliar.

There are new borders in science itself, offering opportunities and dangers. There are political and cultural borders to cross as science must always fit the human framework and philosophy of a culture.

There are disappearing borders as science and technology advance toward the ultimate global language and economic force.

We will need bold and imaginative conjectures and innovative policies to sustain progress and meet our new challenges.

Today, we face new times of crisis. The brutal and tragic terrorist attacks of September 11th abruptly changed our national circumstances. We are now confronted by a war on terrorism, complete with its own chaotic and confusing dynamics. Our nation's science policy will be framed by the larger context in which it exists. We see clear needs once again for science, engineering, for medicine and technology, to protect and prevent.

These new threats come at a time when science itself is changing rapidly and profoundly. One glance at the headlines on the news magazines this week will remind us, in case we've forgotten, that we live in an epoch of revolutionary scientific discoveries, with the power to alter and change our lives and our institutions in unprecedented ways.

It is only natural, at such times, to take stock of our progress and to ask ourselves whether our vision of science and the policies that support it have served us well.

If we look at the past fifty years, I believe the answer is a resounding "yes." During the Cold War, with its demanding national security needs, peacetime science progressed apace. The vision of scientific enlightenment as a force for prosperity and human welfare never wavered.

Since the end of the Cold War, science and technology have continued to serve the nation's needs. In fact, they have flourished beyond what anyone might have predicted. It is in large part due to fundamental research that the world of the 21st century is very different from the world of only 15 years ago. We've witnessed an outpouring of new knowledge and technological innovation that is unprecedented in scope.

Today, advances in science and engineering and technological change are the driving forces of the economy and key to social prosperity. Our new, knowledge-based economy has already brought lasting changes with profound implications for society.

All of you understand this, because you've contributed to the extraordinary progress made in fighting disease. Your research has brought us closer to even greater advances in the years ahead, and your efforts are needed now more than ever before.

At the same time, advances in physics, biology, chemistry - the core physical sciences - undergird all of the biomedical sciences on which we depend to understand disease, find cures, develop vaccines, and initiate preventive strategies.

The recent transformations brought about by new knowledge have been broad and deep. Groundbreaking discoveries have stimulated one of the most productive periods of technological innovation in U.S. history.

The way we live, work, and educate our children have all changed, in what seems the blink of an eye. New knowledge is now the principal source of wealth creation and new jobs in the U.S. and globally. Science and technology have helped to spawn whole new industries that keep the U.S. economy healthy and growing. The information technology and biotechnology industries are only two examples.

Public investments in fundamental research have contributed significantly to these recent advances. I don't have to tell this audience that the nation's future prosperity depends on maintaining this momentum, particularly in times of crisis.

We have an expanded knowledge base and a broader range of technologies with which to respond to our increasing security needs and the emerging challenges that biological and chemical warfare present. When Anthrax appeared in the mail, NSF could mobilize the scientific talent and skills necessary to sequence the Anthrax genome almost immediately.

At the same time, our world is shrinking. National economies are more tightly linked through burgeoning trade, increasing cross-border investment, and a mobile and global workforce. Powerful computers and high-speed Internet have made communication with anyone, anywhere in the world, nearly instantaneous.

This at once offers us new possibilities and reminds us of increasing vulnerabilities. The greatest question of our times may be how we can avoid the pitfalls, and still grasp the opportunities that science holds out.

I believe a new age of discovery, learning, and innovation has already dawned. We stand at the very threshold of forming a new and deeper understanding of our planet and ourselves. Our new tools - information technology, nanotechnology, and genetics foremost among them - are expanding our vision, from the minute to the global, and beyond.

As we cross borders within science and by science, I am reminded of the familiar poem "Mending Wall", by the great American poet Robert Frost. He wrote: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall."

In its broadest and deepest purport, scientific enlightenment "doesn't love a wall." In this new age of exploration, borders of all kinds are shifting and dissolving, and walls are coming down. Let me explain.

21st-century science is marked by increasing complexity. We can collect, store, and manipulate vast quantities of data. We can share those data and communicate new knowledge essentially instantaneously. These capabilities open new doors for collaboration that were unworkable only ten or fifteen years ago.

It was only ten years ago in 1991 that NSF opened what was then called NSFNet for commercial use as the Internet. The rest is history!

These tools are changing the very way we conduct research and creating a new science of the 21st century. When we dramatically advance the speed of scientific research in any area, we give ourselves the mechanism to reach a frontier much faster. Or, better yet, to reach a new frontier that had been unreachable, as well as unknowable.

Here is just one example. It can take just 20 milliseconds for a nascent protein to fold into its functional conformation. Until recently, it took 40 months of computer time to simulate that folding. With new terascale computer systems - operating at one trillion operations per second - we have reduced that time to one day. That's 1000 times faster.

Speed is only one dimension of the new tools. The capacity to catalog enormous quantities of data - terabytes, in fact - is just the flip side of being able to manipulate the data.

I don't have to tell this audience what these features mean for tapping our knowledge of the human genome! The same is true of work on other genomes, which holds so much promise to improve our understanding of basic biological functions.

While information technology has empowered greater speed and the acquisition and manipulation of huge databases, nanoscale science and technology gives us the capability to do things four magnitudes smaller.

Nanoscale takes us down to the scale of phenomena of several billionths of a meter. This is the territory where the living word meets the physical world. This new frontier promises a revolution in 21st century science and engineering at least as profound as the one we have experienced with IT.

These powerful new tools - IT and nano - are only one feature of 21st century science and engineering research. Combined with major advances in mathematics and analysis, they have opened up whole new territories for exploration.

One of these is the investigation and understanding of complex phenomena. If anything characterizes the new frontiers of science, it is complexity.

A striking picture is beginning to emerge from the burgeoning quantities of data available to us in many fields. It portrays systems with a huge number of interdependent and interacting variables. It highlights the importance of dynamic and non-linear behavior, and emerging structures. We are only just beginning to understand the nature of this complexity and the challenges and opportunities it presents to research.

These features appear in systems as diverse as the atmosphere and the basic functions of the brain, including cognition. They also appear when we investigate dependencies within and between different systems at different levels of organization. I've seen this in my own work on cholera, which spans systems from genes to microorganisms to humans, and from ocean circulation to epidemics.

I use the phrase "biocomplexity in the environment" to refer to the dynamic web of often surprising interrelationships that arise when living things at all levels-from molecular structures to genes to organisms to ecosystems--interact with their environment.

Studies of environments and ecosystems have begun to document phenomena characterized by abrupt changes, thresholds, and non-linear dynamics. In mathematical terms, this is behavior that is "complex." Earthquakes and the extinction of some species are examples.

We have also become aware of the extent to which humans interact with and alter the environment. Changes in land use have resulted in dramatic changes in landscapes, water resources, and biodiversity. We understand now that changes in global climate cannot be understood without taking into account the effect that humans have on the environment - the way our individual and institutional actions interact with the atmosphere, the oceans and terrestrial ecosystems.

Scientists have begun to tackle the intricacies of interactions among biological, ecological, physical and earth systems, and are now confronting the challenges of forecasting outcomes of those interactions.

This points to another way that science is changing in the 21st century. In many areas of research, scientific progress requires the cross-fertilization of ideas, models, and experimental platforms from many disciplines.

Modern biotechnology, for example, has developed with contributions from a broad range of fields: biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering, and computer science. Nanoscale science and engineering - one of the potentially revolutionary technologies of the 21st century - calls upon an equally diverse spectrum of knowledge.

We've profited mightily from past specialization in the various disciplines, and we'll continue to reap this harvest in the future. But the synthesis that results from viewing phenomena across multiple scales and from the perspective of many disciplines gives us a powerful new capability. The robustness of our science increases as we expand the territory covered by a common groundwork of explanation.

Understanding interconnections can improve our ability to predict over larger scales in space and times, and different levels of organization. We can anticipate a range of possibilities, and through foresight, reduce uncertainties.

In a broader context, advances in science and engineering knowledge are linked more intimately with innovation than ever before. We now realize that scientific research and technological innovation drive each other. The idea of a straight line leading from basic research to a new product or process no longer accurately describes much of the research enterprise today. We are likelier to encounter a complex network of discovery and innovation, with multiple feedback loops.

In the larger sense, innovation depends upon a mutual, synergistic set of interactions that includes not only science, engineering and technology, but social, political and economic interactions as well.

This points to another divide that we now have the tools to bridge successfully -- the borderlands between the natural sciences and the social, behavioral, and cognitive sciences. Let me give you one important example.

Recent breakthroughs in the cognitive, behavioral and neuro-sciences, combined with the powerful tools of information technology, have created an emerging frontier of knowledge that promises to advance dramatically our understanding of the learning process. As we grasp the nuances of human learning, we will be better able to explore how educational institutions at all levels foster or inhibit that process.

As we have come to understand the growing importance of new knowledge to fostering economic and social prosperity, nations worldwide are increasing their investments in intellectual capital.

Without people with superb math and science skills there will be no scientific and technological workforce to maintain the steady progress and revolutionary advances that have characterized our scientific progress in the past. And yet we are only beginning to fathom the science of learning.

Finally, we are crossing borders in a more literal sense. Science is becoming a science of communication and collaboration - especially international collaboration. Increasing complexity, the need for multidisciplinary approaches, and the global nature of many research problems, require that we draw on different perspectives to solve common problems.

We need ideas not only from a broad range of specialties, but also from different geographic regions and from all cultures. Building bridges across borders requires the efforts of many people working together.

In theory, science has always been international. The results of fundamental research - from the origins of the universe to the fundamental properties of matter, from the interaction of oceans and atmosphere to the human genome - are open to all. In practice, the spread of new knowledge and its applications has often been glacially slow. Today, that pace is quickening. The revolutionary new information and communications technologies are turning theory into reality.

Many of our toughest challenges are inherently global. We all have a stake in the results of research in the areas of climate change, emerging diseases, biodiversity, sustainable energy, and earthquake and storm research, to name just a few.

International collaboration will not only speed us along our path to knowledge. It will allow us to begin unraveling the staggering complexity that pervades these phenomena.

Even our current confrontation with terrorism, although it has affected the United States most directly, can only be understood and resolved in an international context.

As we develop new ways to work across borders, we can extend international cooperation to countries large or small that are still struggling to develop a strong science and engineering base.

We are only at the beginning of the great revolution in information and communications technologies. We know how to share information, but we are by no means doing all we can to take advantage of the power of computer and communications technologies to foster international collaborative research. Distributed data banks, shared computer and visualization facilities, and other tools of the future will enable truly international research. They will give the research community the capability to call upon scientific and engineering talent wherever it is located and whenever it is needed.

Just around the corner is a world linked by wireless communications and in constant contact through video teleconferencing. The world of vast distances and differences is shrinking, and soon every part of the globe will seem as close as our own back yard.

We need to keep our eyes on that future and plan now for the time when we are all next door neighbors. That will define science and engineering in a 21st century society.

Whole new territories of knowledge are on the horizon, with the promise of major advances just ahead. We can begin to envision how new knowledge and technological innovation can help us solve some of the seemingly intractable problems that confront our nation and the world. As we work across boundaries to open new frontiers in science, we are also building bridges between nations, and advancing global prosperity and peace.

These goals, although we have not yet attained them, are certainly attainable.

The prospect of progress is what has driven public investment in science for half a century. Even as we respond to the new terrorist threats fully and completely, they cannot change the underlying momentum of scientific enlightenment, with its promise of benefits yet to come. And the enduring strength of science can help us meet the challenges of the current crisis.

What conclusions can we draw about the robustness of our science policy and its fitness to meet both long tern and immediate needs? Public investments in science since the close of World War II have paid off handsomely, but can we do better?

As we look toward the future, three observations stand out as worthy of our collective attention.

First, we must ensure that our science policies and priorities remain congruent with the changing nature of discovery as it opens new territories. That means embracing complexity while pursuing greater levels of integration across the full range of disciplines, including the social sciences. It implies a stronger emphasis on collaboration and international cooperation.

Second, science, like living creatures of all kinds, cannot long survive without new generations of scientists. Education, backed by the science of learning, is a sine qua non of future vitality and progress.

Third, the science community has long reaped the rewards of public confidence without paying the dues of ensuring that the public understands the science enterprise we conduct and they support. The primary responsibility for this rests with the science community. We ignore this steep learning curve at considerable risk.

Less than a month ago, the surprise emergence of Anthrax in the mail set in motion a race for information. Although Anthrax is not an everyday occurrence, there were many, including public officials, who thought it was contagious. Without correct information, we breed chaos and hysteria - neither of which fosters appropriate responses.

These are extraordinary challenges. But these are also extraordinary times for science and technology.

Let me share with you in closing these words from the Harvard entomologist and Pulitzer-prize winning author Edward O. Wilson. Speaking of the unity of science in his book, Consilience, he says:

"Most of the issues that vex humanity daily.... cannot be solved without integrating knowledge from the natural science with that of the social sciences and humanities. Only fluency across the boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is, not as seen through the lens of ideologies and religious dogmas or commanded by myopic response to immediate needs."

I believe that as we become attuned to this new age of discovery, we will continue to find that what strengthens fundamental research in the long run, also strengthens our capacity to respond rapidly and flexibly to unexpected events that befall us.



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