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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology
Keynote Address

December 3, 2001

Good evening to all and thank you, Bob, for introducing me so gracefully. I am delighted to be able to address FASEB's federal funding conference this year.

This is the first opportunity we have had to meet in this format, and it's long overdue. You're a high-powered group--the core engine of FASEB'S efforts to support vital investments in science and engineering.

My first order of business tonight--one that I greatly welcome--is to express our gratitude for your generous efforts on behalf of the National Science Foundation over this budget year.

We know that your work has been a key ingredient in NSF's success this year. At a time when many agencies have not received increases, or have even fallen behind, NSF has fared well.

We find your perspectives extremely valuable and I am looking forward to hearing what's on your minds. In fact, I'm planning to speak for a few minutes, but then I'd like that to lead into a healthy discussion.

Most of us have seen a recent and much appreciated illustration of FASEB's dedication to NSF's welfare. I'm referring to Bob Rich's recent editorial in Chemical and Engineering News, which struck some very pertinent chords.

Bob writes that, "As a physician and a researcher, I am very cognizant of the medical benefits of the research sponsored by NSF."

He also says,

" medical researchers, we understand that our progress will be dependent on comparable advances in engineering and in the basic sciences of chemistry, physics, and mathematics. I am concerned that support for these sciences is not keeping pace."

From the NSF standpoint, these are heartening words. Thank you, Bob, and all of you at FASEB.

This editorial is an excellent example of the bridge-building among disciplines that will convey our message: Basic research is the wellspring of advances that nourish our economy and improve our health care.

I realize I'm preaching to the choir here, and can only ask you to continue the chorus--you're doing a wonderful job.

As we discuss the interconnections between disciplines, I'd like to mention a lecture I delivered recently in Amsterdam.

That talk actually had a linkage to the medical world. As it happened, my talk was called "The Anatomy Lesson"--the lecture was named after Rembrandt's famous painting which evokes the public "lessons" in anatomy during his time and later.

I found it encouraging that they invited me, a microbiologist who works on climate and cholera, to speak to an audience with a large clinical medicine component.

It's another sign of the convergence of basic research and medical spheres. In a very real way, the study of anatomy has expanded to link up with research on our environment.

It's no longer enough to seek understanding by dissecting an object into its smallest components; now we begin to chart the complexity that binds all of life and our world together.

Now, as we look ahead to the coming year, I would like to share some thoughts about our fundamentally changed--and still changing--world, and what that might mean for all of us in the science and engineering enterprise.

All of our disciplines are being transformed by the revolution in biology, which poses new and sometimes disturbing choices. Just a week ago, front-page headlines carried a claim that the first human embryos had been cloned--in Massachusetts, in fact. We must also contemplate another context, 9/11, which has heralded one of the most difficult periods in our country's history. I would like to spend some time on what the aftermath augurs for what we all do.

It bears repeating that both the war against terrorism and the troubled economy are the overriding concerns of the administration, and that these concerns are both pervasive and persistent.

Science, medicine and engineering have a great deal to offer our nation, both in talent and knowledge, during a time of great duress. The investments we have made over many decades, the broad expertise we have cultivated, comprise an immense resource for the country.

Previously obscure research areas find themselves in the limelight. Our work assumes a new importance and a new immediacy. So does our responsibility to explain what we do, and to offer our expertise to decision-makers.

Right after September 11, NSF issued a number of grants--ranging from studies of structural failure at the World Trade Center site, and deployment of search-robots there, to research on social responses to the attacks.

On another front, with NSF support, the Institute for Genomic Research is working on decoding the genomes of the anthrax bacilli, which can help in tracking the source of the anthrax.

Cleaning up the anthrax-contaminated buildings on Capitol Hill and elsewhere is another new experiment--one that also requires scientific expertise.

The current times challenge all of us in science and engineering to think about how we are being called to respond to national needs in a more direct way than perhaps ever before in our lives.

The president's science advisor, John Marburger, has said that the major challenge before him is to combat terrorism.

At the same time--as he recently told the American Geophysical Union's newspaper, Eos--the United States must retain its scientific leadership. "We can't just all rush to one side of the boat," Marburger said. "We must not permit these terrorist incidents to diminish the long-term strength of American science."

This is a time to think about homeland security in the broadest sense. I recently looked back at the report called "Roadmap for National Security," which was issued by a bipartisan Federal advisory committee called the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century. The leaders were former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman.

To quote the report,

"...the inadequacies of our systems of research and education pose a greater threat to U.S. national security over the next quarter century than any potential conventional war we might imagine."

More than ever, we must conceive of national security in this sweeping sense. Not only that, we need to be able to explain how science, engineering, and medicine are all essential to making our nation secure.

NSF's mission has always been highly relevant to the nation's future, and never more so than today.

National security means supporting the proper tools to advance research--from information technology to ecological assessment to genomics, and beyond. It also means cultivating a scientifically literate workforce that is versatile and able to respond to change.

We know that part of this literacy is mathematical, and NSF has placed emphasis on mathematics as a priority area. Mathematics has a vital and growing role not only in biology and medicine but in all of science and engineering.

To be sure, mathematics has a sorry image in the United States--adults fear it and children avoid it. Yet a quantitatively literate workforce is vital to our national health.

What is more, mathematics is a tool for encryption, for facial recognition, and a host of other areas that bear directly on our security. It's an integral part of NSF's mission to strengthen the mathematical underpinnings of the nation.

I think it is important, as well, to continue to stress that the missions of NSF and NIH are highly complementary. In some cases, we contribute to joint efforts. One example is our two agencies' program on the ecology of infectious diseases.

However, in other cases, NSF is almost the only federal entity to support some key aspects of biological science. We support 90% of long-term ecological research; 95% of systematic biology--which is the study of biodiversity; and 75% of evolutionary physiology.

A few more areas: we support almost two-thirds of environmental biology, 60% of microbial biology, and over half of plant biology.

This is all fundamental research. At first glance it may not seem applicable to national needs, but the reality is quite the reverse.

Understanding biodiversity, for example, not only gives us a context for dealing with invasive species, but could help us to detect and to deal with biological warfare. Let's take the case of the West Nile Virus and its spread in the United States. We've just completed our third summer of West Nile infections in humans in this country.

The virus has now spread from its initial entry into the New York City area in 1999 to many parts of the country, with attendant fatalities. Although the human deaths have not reached large numbers, we know that biological threats can sow widespread fear.

But molecular methods can help us with explanations. Using such methods to examine West Nile, we find that it looks most similar to a strain of the virus isolated in Israel, and was most likely introduced by a mosquito that hitchhiked on a plane flight.

Systematics--figuring out the relationships between organisms--helps us put the puzzle together.

Ecological research over the long-term is also critical to tracking how the environment changes over time. Such research could help to sort out human-caused change, even identify terror threats to our natural resources, such as water supplies. We need to know what is normal before we can track alteration and deduce the cause.

Again, a virus provides an example--a hantavirus. In 1993, young people began dying of a mysterious respiratory disease in a remote area of Arizona and New Mexico in the western United States.

The culprit turned out to be a previously unknown hantavirus, whose vector was a rodent. NSF-supported biologists, meanwhile, had been conducting longterm studies of rodents at a research site in the area.

They noted a large increase in the rodent populations there. Massive rains associated with an El Nino year had fed plant growth after years of drought. That meant more food for the mice, which carry the hantavirus. So it was the climate change that set off the disease outbreak.

Now that the connections between the virus, the mouse, and climate have been made, residents can be warned in critical years.

Within that context of long-term environmental observation, we have been discussing a network called "NEON." This is the National Ecological Observatory Network--an array of observatories across the country furnished with cutting-edge technologies.

The sites would be linked and the entire system would track environmental change from the molecular to the global scales. We can imagine how such a network could also serve to monitor various locations for disruptions by bioterrorism, thus contributing to national security in its broadest, most meaningful sense.

Many of you may know that NSF has supported studies of biocomplexity--the dynamic web of interactions among genes, organisms, and environments. It is difficult to think of another agency that could support such work, because only we house so many disciplines under one roof. I'll cite just one new study that brings together evolutionary biology and computer science to trace the emergence of biocomplexity.

Researchers are performing parallel experiments with two very different systems. One employs bacteria, and the other uses digital "organisms." The digital system uses computer models of entities that self-replicate, mutate and evolve novel sequences of instructions to solve problems. The virtual and living systems will produce insights about each other.

Here we see a classic example of how NSF's perspective on biology diverges from, yet complements, that of NIH.

NSF's work contributes across the board to the expanded concept of homeland security.

The mention of computer science brings to mind our research in cybersecurity--the security of computer systems.

In the realm of geoscience, we have been discussing a project called "Earthscope"--an array of seismic instruments that will ultimately help us to predict and mitigate natural hazards such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and landslides.

In the area of social science, we have been discussing an approach that would study how both technology and society advance through continual interactions.

Technological change is proceeding so rapidly that our institutions are challenged to keep pace. It's no stretch to imagine how such studies would also help us to understand and cope with the changes in our society after September 11.

In these troubled times, our country's enormous breadth and depth of knowledge, embodied in our scientific, engineering, medical, and education communities, is perhaps our most valuable asset.

Much of what we do already has some bearing on improving domestic security. All of our support goes to strengthening our science and engineering enterprise over the long-run--our ace-in-the-hole in the global arena.

We need to be able to articulate our case in those terms--to rise to the new challenge of our times.

I speak for all of us at NSF when I say that I look forward to working with you on these new challenges, and developing new ideas on how to meet fresh and urgent national needs. Now, more than ever, our close cooperation will be essential.

Once again, I thank FASEB--all of you--for your efforts on behalf of NSF. Now I look forward to hearing what's on your minds.



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