"Science: Before and After September 11"
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Science and Technology Issues, Policies and Debates:
A Leadership Forum
June 19, 2002
I am delighted to be here as a speaker at the Brookings
Institution, whose objective is to serve as a bridge
between scholarship and public policy, a combination
more necessary now than ever before.
Brookings is known for its timely and insightful analysis
of current events, and for its independent voice on
major policy issues. It is especially important to
have such an institution during times of rapid change
and significantly altered circumstances for the nation.
It is my pleasure to share with all of you today some
perspectives from science and science policy. I've
titled my remarks, Science: Before and After September
There is only a short list of historic moments that
have come to be used as markers for us to measure
a place in time. When we speak of ancient timeframes,
we mark them first with BC or AD.
In our own history, we speak of the Revolution, the
Civil War, Pearl Harbor, Sputnik, the Kennedy assassination,
the Moonwalk, and now, September 11th. That day is
a new marker in our collective psyche and in our society.
There is a line I recollect from a poem that I read
long ago. It was, "There are no stars to hold this
time in place." I suspect most of us felt that way
as those unimaginable events unfolded.
At this time of uncertainty, the need of our society
for all of you is greater than ever before. Your experience,
wisdom, research, and measured debate can bring both
historical context and analytical order to precipitate
public discussion and, hopefully, understanding of
the complex issues.
It is abundantly clear that there is a concurrent need
for increased scientific and engineering knowledge.
In times such as these, we are acutely cognizant of
living in a society defined by, and dependent on,
science and technology.
Every discussion about airline safety, contamination
by disease, failure of communication links, poisoning
of food and drinking water, assessment of damaged
infrastructure, and countless other concerns depends
on our scientific and technical knowledge.
The mathematician-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead
said of science, "The aims of scientific thought are
to see the general in the particular and the eternal
in the transitory."
And so we must ask how science can elucidate these
times that we are living in. We know that science
brings fresh knowledge of ourselves and our planet
and, thus, what is newly possible. That, however,
is not enough.
Science and technology are neutral. They are neither
inherently good nor bad. What we choose to do with
the potential offered us by scientific knowledge is
another matter. We have seen that so clearly in the
last several weeks.
Modern biotechnology allows us to feed the world with
improved nutrition but also allows terrorists to make
more lethal bioweapons with greater ease. The same
fertilizers that make our agriculture more productive
were the mechanisms for destroying the Federal building
in Oklahoma City just a few years ago. Scientists
and non-scientists alike are all guardians over such
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
Today, sophisticated knowledge, powerful tools, and
high-speed transportation and communication amplify
For the past 50 years, the federal government has provided
continuous and growing support to develop the underlying
science, technology, and knowledge that helped us
build these capabilities. This began, in large part,
as a result of the significant role that science played
in winning World War II.
Since then, our enterprise of scientists and engineers
has been responsive to the changing context of society.
We will need to strengthen the links between physical
sciences and the social and behavioral sciences.
Our accrued knowledge from decades of research support
is already serving new objectives brought about by
the events that began on September 11th. The nation's
science policy will move in the direction of national
The late Congressman George Brown of California was
science's best friend and most constructive critic
in the Congress. In a 1994 speech at the National
Academy of Sciences, he said, "We must have . a research
system that arches and bends with society's goals."
The larger context determines the direction in which
this movement occurs. The research enterprise arches
and bends to national needs.
In hindsight, there was a certain stability in the
Cold War period - with its recognizable foes and unifying
ideals. The interval since the fall of the Berlin
Wall in 1989 has shown us the signs and signals of
past fragmentation, the rise of old hatreds, and the
burgeoning of new ones. In some sense, the fifty years
of the Cold War was an anomalous period in the larger
scope of human history.
In the long sweep of civilization, science and engineering
have had an ever-increasing influence in the life
of society. We've used most of the knowledge gathered
to remediate an existing problem or to address a current
We now recognize that we also must draw on one of science's
most potent capacities - prediction. If we can predict,
we frequently can prevent. The centuries of our accrued
knowledge can and should increasingly be directed
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 and the rigor of merit review.
As all of you know so well, knowledge is our strongest
insurance for preparedness. Without 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 use 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. Our
science knowledge could have accurately predicted
the consequent flooding and devastation.
Science can be an effective predictor. To prevent requires
more. The research community needs to find more effective
methods to use its capacity to predict to meet real
world needs through prevention.
Everyone in this room knows that by solving a problem
today we can easily sow the seeds of genuine dilemmas
for the next generation. History is replete with examples.
When foresight directs our actions and the use of
knowledge, we are a lot less likely to fix the present
at the cost of the future.
But we can never think of our current knowledge as
a security blanket for the future. It will help us
in the present but as Whitehead again instructs us,
"Knowledge doesn't keep any better than fish."
New, more complete knowledge replaces it - a process
of constant renewal and at an ever accelerating pace.
This makes an unshakable case for consistent research
in all eras, at all times.
Despite our vast knowledge base, we likely still know
very little of what there is to know. This should
prevent us from being arrogant about what we do know.
That doesn't always happen, however. In fact, we do
ourselves a national disservice when we educate and
train our scientists and engineers only in science
The world in which our work brings success is a world
of integration and overlapping consequences. Narrow
knowledge can become incorrect knowledge.
America has been fortunate to have leaders who understood
the value of ongoing support for research. They viewed
research as an investment, not an expense. Just as
a college education is an investment in an individual's
future, support for research is an investment in the
Advances in mathematics, 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
Information technologies have touched and transformed
almost every facet 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.
The brief 30-year history of genetics has brought us
from the exquisitely simple design of the double helix
to the most precise identification of any human being.
In criminal cases, the advent of DNA testing has frequently
proven the fallibility of eye-witness-accounts.
Another form of genetics mushroomed into a whole industrial
sector. Biotechnology has revolutionized agriculture
with pest resistant plants. It has produced highly
nutritious staple crops like golden rice, which provides
a nutritionally complete meal in one serving.
Marine biotechnology, a "slow developer" in biotechnology,
is just beginning to be stretched toward its potential.
The list of dramatic changes and choices that science
has triggered is so diverse it verges on the wondrous.
And, this only describes the present. The future promises
to be even more spectacular.
The alternative to not being at the forefront of science
and technology is the alternative of being left behind.
Being left behind is a real possibility, with an ever-growing
community of nations and their equally capable workers.
Globalization has proven repeatedly last decade that
this is a major challenge. There is a reservoir of
talent in other cultures of which we know little.
They too will join the ranks of competitors
In the 21st century, success will be determined increasingly
by science and technology. Clearly, economic survival
means being on the cutting edge of discovery and knowledge
Choosing otherwise is not frugal; it's just shortsighted.
September 11 has taught us that terrorists also utilize
sophisticated science and technology.
As we seek the greatest advantage from our research
enterprise we should never mistake science and technology
for a linear process.
Although science often leads to the development of
new technology, new technology just as frequently
enables science to explore new realms previously unreachable.
Science does not enter a tunnel and come out the other
end as technology. These two distinct forces historically
have functioned in complement. Their relationship
And the advances continue like a braid of skeins winding
back and forth across each other. This intertwining
of knowledge, ideas, if you will, and tools has moved
us to new understanding. We recognize that many disciplines
converge to unlock the complex operation of systems
- everything from climate patterns to terrorist movements.
The scanning/tunneling microscope and the atomic force
microscope enabled us to see the world at the molecular
and atomic level for the first time. Those new and
intensely powerful tools of the 1980s unlocked our
vision to the potential of the world at nanoscale.
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.
Just think of building new materials atom by atom.
We will be able to make a wish list of characteristics
to incorporate. Nano-structures are at the confluence
of the smallest of human-made devices and the large
molecules of living systems. With them, we will be
able to connect nanomachines to individual human cells
to target delivery of medicine. New Capacity tools
started us in this direction. They will enable scientists
and engineers to travel a path unknown, except to
science fiction writers.
In my own research on cholera, technology played a
crucial role. I could not have identified the cholera
bacterium as water-borne and tied cholera outbreaks
to the rise in sea-surface temperatures without satellite
remote-sensing technology to scan expanses of ocean
and the tools of molecular biology to scan the microscopic
I have done most of that research over the last 25
years in the developing world, primarily in Bangladesh.
There, deadly pandemics of cholera devastate villages
and traumatize urban areas. For Americans, news of
these dreaded scourges was sad statistics from far
away. But we have the capacity to predict and prevent
the major epidemics. But we in the developed world
cannot become smug.
Since September 11, deadly disease scenarios are no
longer implausible in our own backyard.
The World Health Organization estimates that nearly
13 million people died of infectious diseases in 1999.
Scourges that occur in some places because of poor
sanitation and few medicines we now know can occur
maliciously in any place. Science is our vehicle to
prevent, or if need be combat, these threats.
Shortly after the first Anthrax attack last September,
the National Science Foundation made an emergency
award of $200,000 to sequence the genetic makeup of
the Anthrax bacterium. Early in May of this year,
with the sequencing completed, investigators were
able to identify definitively the source of the strain
used in the Anthrax attacks as the Ames strain, and
apparently track it to Fort Detrick, Maryland and
from there to fourteen other labs.
Microbial genome sequencing is a valuable tool in defending
against bioterrorism and in understanding the variations
and relatedness of microbes in nature. This is a clear
example of fundamental research responding to national
need. Such rapid response would not have been possible,
however, without the 30 years of genetics research
that went before it.
This new era marked by the watershed events of 9/11
presents new directions for science and technology.
The phrase "homeland security" is now firmly incorporated
into our national lexicon, and every sector of society,
but especially the federal government, is in the business
The Anthrax attacks taught us another lesson. We saw
a glaring example of why it is so important to have
a public educated to the issues of science and technology.
The surprise emergence of Anthrax in the mail set
in motion a race for information.
It is vital that the public and all our leaders have
a better working knowledge of the science and technology
that defines our very existence. 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.
We have a new battle to fight and that is to prevent
man's deliberate turning back the clock of progress
in public health.
A citizenry literate about science and technology serves
several goals. It gives the nation a workforce educated
and trained to compete in the increasingly competitive
global marketplace. It promotes good judgment as voters
on both issues and candidates. It serves as strong
defense against delusions of safety as well as threats.
I cannot stress enough the primary importance of a
scientifically literate citizenry. I cannot stress
enough the responsibility of the science community
to help us meet that goal.
In multiple aspects, September 11 was a knife-sharp
awakening for the nation and its leaders. Not the
least of those surprises was how little the people
outside of the science community and those on the
periphery understand science and technology issues.
To a large extent, what we know and do not know as
citizens is dependent on the media. The public increasingly
relies on the mass communication of print and broadcast
The science community must work in conjunction with
the media to inform the general public on new issues
that affect us all. We ignore this steep learning
curve at considerable risk. We cannot protect ourselves
if we do not understand the threats as well as the
The National Science Foundation has made a scientifically
literate citizenry and workforce a major objective
in all of our programs. We begin with teacher preparation
and solid curricula for students in the K through
Today, knowledge of science and technology is necessary
for everyone, not just those who become scientists
and engineers. We know that there is an expanding
need for technically skilled workers whose final degree
may be a high school diploma or an associate's degree.
Even an automobile mechanic must deal with dozens
of computers under the hood of the newest model car.
In addition, our national need for scientists and engineers
cannot possibly be met by the traditional white male
population. We must focus on attracting women and
our diverse minority populations to these professions.
This poses a profoundly significant challenge that
must be met in our primary schools, building from
there to a broader base.
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
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 the words of George
Brown, again, because you are an international community
of scholars and public policy experts. 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.