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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"NSF's Investment in Converging Frontiers"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Lecture: University of California-Santa Cruz

June 21, 2002

(as prepared for delivery)

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.

Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you, Marcy, for a lively introduction. I would like to take this opportunity to commend Marcy for sterling contributions to the National Science Foundation through her service on our National Science Board, especially for her work on Programs and Plans and the public communication of science.

Marcy's work in Washington at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has served our nation well. I note in particular her leadership role in the report, Science in the National Interest.

Wherever she goes, it's Marcy's leadership style--her ability to reach beyond her own discipline and represent science and engineering in totality--that makes her a very valuable resource, whether in Washington or here in the University of California system. MRC has more energy and stamina than I--and that's a statement-and-a-half!

Today I plan to survey the broad context surrounding the National Science Foundation's investments in interdisciplinary science and engineering--investments that have taken shape as Science and Technology Centers such as the Center for Adaptive Optics, Materials Research Centers, and most recently as the priority areas that cross a number of disciplines.

I'll begin by noting that our investments at the forefront of discovery have been grabbing headlines lately--in some unlikely quarters.

[The Onion: headline]
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I think it's telling that news of deep interdisciplinary laws has recently made it into the pages of the tongue-in-cheek newspaper called The Onion. You see the article here featuring "NSF's chairman"---I haven't met such an entity yet.

The chairman heralds a breakthrough discovery, saying "Science is really, really hard." He also announces a "newly discovered 'Law of Difficulty'"; this law "holds true for all branches of science, from astronomy to molecular biology to everything in between." I'll refer you to "The Onion" for further details.

[title slide: backdrop with recent shot of aurora australis at South Pole Station]
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This recent wintertime image of the aurora australis, captured at the South Pole Station, represents NSF's strategy to go to the ends of the earth, if necessary, to invest in the frontiers of discovery.

Like the lines of longitude converging at the poles of the Earth, many disciplines of science and engineering are converging in surprising ways to generate new knowledge needed for the increasingly complex challenges we face as a society.

[generic shot of medieval cathedral]
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I reach back to the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages as a metaphor for the trend toward integration sweeping all of science and engineering, to suggest how the individual investigator's passion becomes part of the greater vision.

It's commonly held that the craftsmen who built the cathedrals toiled in obscurity, content in their religious ardor to contribute to the transcendental goal of a monument to their faith. However, this turns out not to have been the case. According to Horace Freeland Judson, author of the book, The Search for Solutions, when preservationists began to study Istanbul's great cathedral (now mosque), Hagia Sophia, in the 1930s, "Virtually every stone was found to bear the chiseled mark of its original mason." Judson explained why this was done: "Masons marked their stones out of pride and to identify the proper destinations of each--and to make sure they got paid."

The stonemasons' practice, and the magnificent edifices that resulted from individual efforts contributing to the whole, suggest a metaphor for science today. As research reaches out to the frontiers of complexity, it increasingly requires collaboration across disciplines and across national boundaries.

Pitting the traditional disciplines against the paradigm of interdisciplinary research is a false dichotomy. The contributions of individual disciplines are the very foundation for a new and vibrant vision of interdisciplinary research.

It is also a pitfall to see investment in research as a zero-sum-game; that is, if some areas gain, others inevitably lose out. In fact, by choosing particularly vibrant areas of research that are inherently interdisciplinary, we are investing to accelerate progress across the board.

[adaptive optics; blue Neptunes and cones in the eye]
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In today's research climate, advances in one field frequently offer immediate implications for another. New tools can serve many disciplines, and even accelerate interdisciplinary work.

This afternoon we'll be celebrating an excellent example of unlikely scientific convergence--adaptive optics, a striking consilience of astronomy with vision science. I often cite adaptive optics, in fact, as I give talks around the country and abroad.

The technique sharpens astronomers' vision from ground-based observatories, as we see in these before-and-after pictures of Neptune. Also a tool for looking into the human eye, adaptive optics produced the first images--shown in red, green and blue--of cone arrangements in the living eye.

This convergence has also brought together young students from astronomy and vision science, who visit each others' laboratories and are enriching each others' perspectives at a formative time in their careers.

Fundamental research to create a clearer view of the universe has spawned a new technology for the study of the human eye that could potentially benefit everyone. That's what I'd call a great return on our investment!

[South Pole auroral slide as backdrop; bullets with NSF priority areas listed]
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In the past few years NSF has made it a deliberate part of our strategy to demarcate areas of converging discovery for special investment. We select these priority areas based on their exceptional promise to advance knowledge. They also exemplify the power of working across disciplines.

These areas are information technology, nanotechnology, biocomplexity, mathematics, and the study of how we learn. Such convergent areas have been called the "power tools" of the next economy.

As an interesting aside, I was reading an article on interdisciplinary research in the Chronicle of Higher Education the other day, and I was pleased to come across a quotation from a science policy expert at Pennsylvania State University, Irwin Feller.

He was quoted as saying, "'In some respects, the federal agencies are ahead of the universities'" in promoting interdisciplinary research, "and the universities are responding."

The Federal initiative in information technology--a joint effort among Federal agencies, which NSF leads--exemplifies targeted investment as a rising tide that lifts all boats. As a tool for scientific discovery, information technology has proven as valuable as theory and experiment.

IT has transformed the very conduct of research--helping us to handle the quantity as well as complexity of data, enabling new ways to collaborate around the globe, and letting us visualize in stunning new ways.

I borrow this image from Hans Moravec' book on robotics to demonstrate the breathtaking pace of growth in computing power. It depicts computing history, using millions of instructions per second--compared to the computing speed of various life-forms, from a bacterium up to a human.

We can see that computing speed now approaches that of a mouse. Not far off in the future, computers should reach a monkey's capacity, and then a human being's.

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We look beyond, to a grander scale--the TeraGrid, a distributed facility which will let computational resources be shared between widely separated groups.

This will be the most advanced computing facility available for all types of research in the United States--exceptional not just in computing power but also as an integrated facility, offering access to researchers across the country, merging of multiple data resources, and visualization capability.

It is a step toward the vision of a cyber-infrastructure that will give a broad range of disciplines access to high-performance computing.

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A frontier of a vastly different dimension is the nanoscale. At one billionth of a meter, that's only slightly larger than the average atom. Nanoscience is inherently interdisciplinary, and its promise spans the inorganic and living realms. Progress in many disciplines of science and engineering converges here, the point at which the worlds of the living and the non-living meet.

The National Science Foundation leads the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a "grand coalition" of organizations from government, academe, and the private sector.

This government partnership developed a vision for nanotechnology that has transformed the horizon of the entire field worldwide. Nanotech is already going commercial, employed in clothing, cosmetics, plastics and self-cleaning windows.

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Nanotech is also being harnessed for homeland security. Chemists at the University of California-San Diego have developed a silicon polymer "nanowire" that is extremely sensitive to explosive residues.

We see here a paper embedded with the nanowires; when a hand, brushed with explosive residue, touched the paper, the explosive was detected. The method might be used to detect land mines or in airport screening systems.

[biocomplexity image]
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Another priority area at NSF is biocomplexity. Information technology, nanotechnology and genomics are all helping us to understand the complex interactions in biological systems, including human systems--and the give-and-take with their physical environments.

We know that ecosystems do not respond linearly to environmental change. Understanding demands observing at multiple scales, from the nano to the global, and making the connections across those scales is a formidable challenge. With the perspective of biocomplexity, disciplinary worlds intersect to form fuller, more nuanced viewpoints.

[Richard Lenski: digital and bacterial evolution]
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As an example, the synthetic perspective of biocomplexity brings surprising insights into the process of evolution. Richard Lenski at Michigan State has joined forces with a computer scientist and a physicist to study how biological complexity evolves, using two kinds of organisms--bacterial and digital.

Lenski's E. coli cultures are the oldest of such laboratory experiments, spanning more than 20,000 generations. Here the two foreground graphs actually show the family tree of digital organisms--artificial life--evolving over time.

On the left, the digital organisms all compete for the same resource, so they do not diversify and the family tree does not branch out. On the right, the digital organisms compete for a number of different resources, and diversify.

In the background are round spots--actually laboratory populations of the bacterium E. coli, which also diversified over time when fed different resources. In vivo derives insight from in silico.

[Does Math Matter? poster]
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I use this poster to represent another NSF priority area, mathematics, truly a wellspring for all of science and engineering. The poster announced a panel discussion held jointly by NSF and Discover Magazine on Capitol Hill this month.

The theme was "Does Math Matter?"; NSF is answering with an emphatic "Yes." Mathematics is the ultimate cross-cutting discipline, the springboard for advances across the board.

[fractal image]
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Mathematics is both a powerful tool for insight and a common language for science. A good example, pictured here artistically, is the fractal, a famous illustration of how inner principles of mathematics enable us to model many natural structures.

[four hearts, from BIRS talk]
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Mathematics injects new power into medicine. Mathematics and complexity theory give insight into the human heart.

The top pictures are computer simulations of the electrical activity in a normal heart. Below are abnormal patterns, or fibrillation. Mathematicians are investigating why some patterns of electrical stimulus are better at eliminating fibrillation.

[woman's eye]
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Mathematics is also contributing in unexpected ways to homeland security. A technique called "inpainting," borrowed from classical fluid dynamics by Andrea Bertozzi at Duke University and colleagues, can sharpen an unclear image, such as this woman's eye. One can imagine how it might be applied in airport security or law enforcement.

Another example, described by mathematician Keith Devlin on National Public Radio the other day, is the use of Bayesian mathematics to create a software system used to rank sites according to potential terrorist risk.

Devlin said, "Interestingly enough, one of these systems that was developed over the last two or three years, when they tested in it early in the year 2000, the system said, 'You should put more defenses into the Pentagon, because the Pentagon is a much greater risk than you might think it would be.' And by golly, they were right." Mathematics' ability to help us deal with risk is only one area ripe for investment.

[how we learn--brain image]
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One more priority area--learning for the 21st century. Our leadership in the global economy requires a highly skilled and diverse workforce. Who will teach its future members? Teachers from the post-Sputnik era are now retiring, and while many current teachers are well-qualified, others lack the math and science background needed for their work.

We have created centers for comprehensive research on how we learn. Also, our Centers for Learning and Teaching will help encourage undergraduates to pursue research and teaching in science and math, and to create a new generation of teachers with fresh ideas and talents.

[social science collage image]
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As for the future, I'll suggest two more thematic areas--one under discussion as a potential priority area, and another that exemplifies the funding challenge of collaboration across disciplines supported among several federal agencies.

We are now discussing a priority area for the social and behavioral sciences that will explore human dynamics in a world of rapid change.

We are very interested in enriching the perspective of the social sciences and integrating it with the natural sciences.

Progress in social science, fed by discoveries in mathematics and information technology, promises to accelerate greatly in coming decades.

If there was any doubt, September 11 made abundantly clear the need for new understanding from the social and behavioral sciences. At the same time, investigations supported by NSF go beyond the immediate to seek deeper explanations.

  • Public opinion surveys right after Sept 11 assessed the temper of the country, an effort that needs to be sustained.
  • Our human cognition program supports work on the as-yet-undocumented "flashbulb memory"--examining whether memory may process traumatic events such as September 11 in some extraordinary way.
  • On quite another front, joint studies with our engineering directorate analyze how vulnerable systems may be to disruption, whether infrastructure--even a building, or social networks, or the economy.

[graphic: quark/cosmos connections]
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Areas of intersection abound even in the most fundamental sciences. Take "the deep connections between quarks and the cosmos," as phrased in a recent report by the National Research Council.

As this graphic represents, questions about the universe at the most massive and the most minute scales are fundamentally linked.

These challenges at the junction of physics and astronomy require both telescopes and accelerators. Such a scientific challenge, spanning several federal agencies, asks us to evolve new structures for investment.

[an image summary slide]
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From this survey of key emerging interdisciplinary areas--some well on the way to maturity and others just in gestation--commonalities are evident.

In each case, the health of the contributing disciplines is essential to nourishing cross-disciplinary work, yet the emerging area becomes more than the sum of its parts. All of these areas forge new ground in terms of complexity or scale. Some give birth to new scientific fields.

Then there is the need for international support--many of these problems are global in scale, and require resources from many nations.

Interdisciplinary research also has strong implications for how universities educate students. NSF's program for Integrative Graduate Education Research and Traineeships, begun in 1998, is one such experiment.

The aim is to train graduate students to do interdisciplinary research as partners with faculty. In an institutional sense, we're also interested in how the expansion of interdisciplinary research will affect how universities are structured.

Today we face the challenge of making interdisciplinarity more than a buzzword in science. How do we measure its success, how does it work, and how can we encourage it, in a world divided among disciplines?

NSF recently awarded a $235,000 grant for an intensive study of how interdisciplinary research is conducted. It will focus on eight environmental research centers.

As one of the principle investigators, Diana Rhoten, says, "People may come together in interdisciplinary centers but not actually be working together. We want to see what we can learn about how interdisciplinary work actually happens."

Thus far, standards by which disciplinary work is measured do not transfer well to the interdisciplinary realm. For example, Rhoten reports that many interdisciplinary researchers hope to contribute to solving societal problems. Many disciplinary researchers, by contrast, want to "do science for the sake of science."

"How do you measure the influence of interdisciplinary work on public policy?" Rhoten asks. "It's not a direct path." Furthermore, researchers are often not rewarded for "straying" beyond their own disciplines. Such work is often ambiguous, requires longer time-frames, and confronts significant cultural and linguistic barriers across disciplines.

[South Pole aurora background; words--Crossing the boundary between science and society...]
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Perhaps the boundary-crossing that presents the greatest challenge is the science-society divide. I'll comment just briefly on how I view the responsibility of scientists and engineers to advocate science and engineering in the broader realm of society.

Whether we look at the need for a scientific and technical workforce, or compare the performance of our K-12 students internationally, we see the opportunity for scientists and engineers to get involved in solving these problems that are a key part of our national security.

As the global economy creates opportunities for foreign students elsewhere, how will we fill the need for technical capability in our own economy?

On the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, U.S. 17-year-olds tended to score below the international average. Even the most advanced students performed poorly compared to those from other nations.

A recent survey showed that about two-thirds of college professors rated the basic math skills of freshmen and sophomores as only fair or poor. Employers made similar statements about recent job applicants.

Recalling the old saying, "All politics is local," I suggest that scientists and engineers--often invisible in their own communities--can become involved most effectively not on Capitol Hill but at the grassroots, on the school-boards and in the communities where the decisions are made about science and math education.

The 15,000 school boards across the United States exert a powerful influence on the local scene. They can determine what is taught and which textbooks or methods can be used. A scientist on a school board can advocate critical thinking, analytical skills, and the importance of challenging received wisdom.

I've already talked about the proportion of our teachers who are not certified to teach the science and math courses they have been asked to take on. While deserving respect for the tough jobs they perform, they could use a helping hand with ideas and with general understanding of subject matter.

Another opportunity is to help students who struggle with math or science, or to assist especially gifted students. A small corps of scientists in the community could become a tutoring resource for their local school.

I know that the Center for Adaptive Optics is reaching out to science teachers, students, and the local community in Maui, Hawaii, by sponsoring workshops on the science of learning, technical training for native Hawaiians and working with the local community college.

Industry is interested in participating in these partnerships, which will train our future workforce. Even now, graduate students from this Center teach summer courses for young children from groups underrepresented in science and engineering, using astronomy and vision science to spark their imaginations.

Whether communicating beyond the borders of science and engineering or surmounting our own disciplinary borders, NSF considers it critical to re-think old categories and traditional perspectives.

Conventional boundaries are dissolving, whether among disciplines, between science and engineering, or between fundamental research and its applications.

Where research meets the unknown, the ideas and technologies of life science, physical science and information science are merging. We need the most promising and ingenious insights from all of you who are on the frontiers of research and education. I'm very much looking forward to hearing some of those ideas and comments now.



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