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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"NSF's Investment in Converging Frontiers"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
American Chemical Society Presidential Symposium
Boston, Massachusetts

August 18, 2002

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 morning to all. I'm very pleased to be part of this presidential symposium to showcase multidisciplinary research and education. This theme reflects the broad and timely leadership perspective we expect of ACS and of President Eli Pierce.

Chemistry is a fundamental discipline that intersects with many other areas of science and engineering. At the National Science Foundation, our support structure for chemistry reflects those intersections. Our chemistry division actually accounts for only about half of our investment in chemistry research and education. Other support for chemistry comes through our materials, engineering, bioscience and geoscience areas, and from elsewhere.

Today I plan to survey the broad context surrounding the National Science Foundation's investments in interdisciplinary science and engineering. These investments have taken shape as Science and Technology Centers, Materials Research Centers, Integrative Graduate Education Research and Traineeships, and most recently as the priority areas that cross a number of disciplines. All these programs weave together research and education in a fundamental way.

[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.

When Istanbul's great cathedral, Hagia Sophia, was studied in the 1930s, it was discovered that almost every stone displayed the individual mark of its stonecutter.

The masons' individual inscriptions, and the magnificent edifices that resulted from individual efforts, 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 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.

[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.

These priorities 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.

Recently, NSF and the Department of Commerce issued a report on "Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance," which covers the integration of nano, bio, info and cogno.

As an interesting aside, I was reading an article on interdisciplinary research in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently, 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 that 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.

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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.

[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.

In the graph at 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 laboratory populations of an actual bacterium, E. coli. In vivo derives insight from in silico.

[Does Math Matter? poster]
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This poster suggests another NSF priority area, mathematics--truly a wellspring for all of science and engineering. The poster announced a public outreach event called "Does Math Matter?"; NSF's answer is 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.

[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.

[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.

[graphic: quark/cosmos connections]
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Areas of intersection emerge even in the most fundamental sciences. As this graphic represents, questions about the universe at the most massive and the most minute scales are fundamentally linked. There are "deep connections between quarks and the cosmos," as phrased in a recent report by the National Research Council.

These challenges at the junction of physics and astronomy require both telescopes and accelerators. The science spans several federal agencies, and calls for evolving new, coordinated 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. Also, many of these problems are global in scale, and require resources from many nations.

As interdisciplinarity burgeons, it poses strong implications for how universities educate students. After all, we're training the scientists for the ever-more cross-disciplinary world of 10 or 15 years from now.

We need to experiment with how best to conduct graduate education in such an environment. NSF's program for Integrative Graduate Education Research and Traineeships, begun in 1998, is one such attempt.

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.

At one IGERT site, Arizona State University, students from different disciplines gather in a common space furnished with computers and coffee and completely surrounded with whiteboards on the walls, which the students cover with writing and ideas.

At another IGERT site, UCLA, students doing both brain research and electrical engineering teach one another, in some cases doing this better than faculty do.

At the University of Washington IGERT site for astrobiology, students requested that all teachers of an interdisciplinary class attend every class--not just the ones in which they lecture. Now they participate in the discussion and learning as fully as the students.

Today we face the challenge of taking interdisciplinarity beyond being just 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 principal 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-Conventional boundaries are dissolving...]
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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're entering a new and challenging stage. We have been imagining and discussing interdisciplinary research and education long enough. Now it's time to get down to the hard work of changing institutional structures--at NSF and in the universities--to encourage the convergence of discovery.

Thank you.



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