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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Balancing National Security and Open "Scientific Communication: Implications of September 11th for the Research University" Session: Defining Needed New Areas of Study and Research
National Academy of Sciences

December 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.

[Title slide]
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This meeting provides a very timely discussion for this is a time of choice. Dwight Eisenhower said, "The history of free men [ and women ] is never really written by chance but by choice--their choice."

Just over three months ago, many of us would not have chosen to address bioterrorism, yet we realize from the speakers before me that these new circumstances can present fresh choices, in many cases opportunities, for science and engineering.

"Nine-eleven" has heralded one of the most difficult periods in our country's history now and for the foreseeable future. It bears reminding ourselves that the investments we have made in fundamental science and engineering over many decades, the broad, national expertise we enjoy, comprise an immense resource for the country.

Within only a few days after September 11, the National Science Foundation issued a number of grants, ranging from studies of structural failure at the World Trade Center site, to research on social responses to the attacks. I would like to show a brief video of the WTC site that illustrates one immediate search and rescue effort. Let's watch the video.

[Image from video; video not available]
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[NEES earthquake network with inset photos]
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Technologies developed for natural disasters can also be used to mitigate disasters of malicious origin. Our National Network of Earthquake Engineering (NEES)--we see the network here--will enhance earthquake-engineering research and include a high-speed Internet grid to link the facilities.

Researchers will share and remotely operate equipment at more than twenty facilities, from shake tables and a tsunami wave basin to field stations. The research paradigm shifts from the current reliance on physical testing to integrated experimentation and simulation.

Just this week, researchers involved in earthquake engineering and social scientists supported by NSF met in New York City to discuss "learning from urban disasters." They are also meeting with New York City officials to explore opportunities for future research.

Engineers are analyzing whether earthquake-engineering methods can explain the types of damage to buildings at Ground Zero. Others are looking at how the underground infrastructure is reacting to this extreme event.

What we learn could help us increase the resilience of urban utility and transportation networks.

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Engineering is one side of the coin; understanding our earth's dynamics is the other. We have been discussing a project called "EarthScope," a partnership throughout the earth science community and beyond.

This array of seismic instruments will ultimately help us to predict and mitigate natural hazards such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and landslides.

One part of the project would thoroughly instrument the San Andreas Fault for monitoring over time. Another would construct a transportable array of 400 seismic instruments designed to gradually roll across the entire country over a decade, stopping at key sites from one-to-two years.

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We move to new discoveries and new needs in biology. Exactly a year ago yesterday, we announced the first completed sequence of a plant genome.

Arabidopsis, which we see here, is the equivalent of the laboratory mouse. It is a key to learning how all sorts of living organisms behave genetically, with widespread potential for agriculture, medicine and energy, and--of course--many homeland security concerns.

I should note that this plant's genome is entirely in the public domain. Our "2010 Project" seeks to determine the function of 25,000 Arabidopsis genes over the next decade.

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More in the genomics realm: Here we see the plant pathogen Agrobacterium tumefaciens, whose sequencing was announced yesterday and is featured on the cover of the December 14 issue of Science magazine.

Agrobacterium is a natural genetic engineer that transfers genes into plant cells. The genes induce plants to produce compounds useful to the bacteria.

The organism is used to create transgenic plants in universities and industry. In fact, the public and private sectors cooperated in its sequencing.

[plant pathogens collage]
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Fundamental research on the interactions between plants and microorganisms has broad implications for national security.

Here we see some plant pathogens that have wreaked havoc with crops in the past.

Among them are citrus canker, which required burning of citrus trees in the 1980s; aflatoxin in grain, which can cause human illness; and Karnal bunt, the wheat disease that has led 78 nations to restrict import of U.S. wheat.

Genome sequencing and other fundamental research will help us find new ways to fight plant pathogens. This will improve the security of agriculture, energy, and manufacturing. Providing food safety is another issue.

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Within the context of long-term environmental observation, NSF has been discussing a network called "NEON," shown here very schematically.

This is the planned National Ecological Observatory Network--an array of sites across the country furnished with cutting-edge sensor technologies. The graphic does not mean to suggest specific sites, but to give a sense of the overall scope of the network.

[Instrumenting the environment]
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Here's an imaginative concept of a NEON site fully instrumented (with apologies to Rousseau). We can see that such a site will be capable of measuring dozens of variables in organisms and their physical surroundings. I actually think of this as a biological "early warning system."

All the sites would be linked by high-capacity computer lines, and the entire system would track environmental change from the molecular to the global scales.

We can imagine how a network such as NEON could also serve to monitor various locations for disruptions by bioterrorism.

[NEON network overlaying PACI]
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I have paired the proposed NEON network with the already existing supercomputer network supported by NSF. Again, the idea is to convey how the two systems would interact, rather than depict specific NEON sites.

We can see how the system for gathering data on our environment will mesh naturally with our computing infrastructure, giving us state of the art information on an array of parameters--from DNA detection to flora and fauna--right at hand, across the nation. The network becomes multidisciplinary and multidimensional.

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Networks such as NEON require state-of-the-art sensors of every stripe. Here's an example--a sensor with nanoparticles made of gold, which can be used to detect DNA of anthrax and other biological warfare agents.

When the particles assemble on a sensor surface in the presence of a complementary DNA strand, they change color from red to blue--signaling the presence of a DNA target.

More broadly, NSF is conducting a workshop next month on state-of-the-art sensors for both biological and chemical species. A prime goal will be to identify projects that are ready for the product development stage.

[computer security threats: graph]
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My final thematic area is cyber-security, an issue of many dimensions. Here we see the growth in attacks on commercial computers. We need to keep in mind the estimate that no more than 10% of all attacks are detected.

NSF actually issued a "Trusted Computing" program announcement on September 6, 2001. We now know how prescient that was. But a great deal more is needed.

[array of facial types]
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Another example--we see a set of "standard" human faces used to extract patterns. The faces are used in biometrics, with wide application in computer security.

Another prime area of information technology security is the workforce. There are few researchers in computer and communications security based in universities.

One survey of 23 large U.S. institutions found that only 20 PhDs were awarded in computer security in the past three years. Computer security has generally been treated as an afterthought, and research is urgently needed into rethinking security for computing and communications from the ground up.

[NSF logo]
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I will conclude now by saying that there are many choices, really many complementary opportunities--across the disciplines. To echo Eisenhower, we can choose to make these investments instead of letting chance carry us along. Thank you.



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