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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Science in a Twenty-First Century World"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Address at the 54th Annual Meeting of the Board of Governors
Weizmann Institute of Science
Rehovot, Israel

November 11, 2002

Thank you for that gracious introduction, and good evening to all of you. I am delighted to be here at the famous Weizmann Institute of Science, which for decades has been highly praised for its leadership in scientific research. I am equally delighted to be back in Israel, a new country with a rich and ancient history.

President Chet, Mr. Ambassador, Board of Governors, Honored Guests, and especially my very good friend, Professor Katchalski-Katzir, thank you for this honorary degree and for the privilege of making a few comments.

The ties between Israeli and U.S. scientists and engineers have always been durable and productive. Our nations have enjoyed an equal measure of shared values for the democratic process for goodwill and for cooperation.

Such enduring friendships and alliances are particularly important during times of rapid change and altered circumstances. They are equally our harbors in rough seas and in fair weather.

For each nation, there is a list of historic moments that have come to be used as markers to measure a place in time. When we speak of ancient timeframes, we mark them first with BC or AD.

In the history of the United States, we speak of the Revolution, the Civil War, Pearl Harbor, Sputnik, the Kennedy assassination, and the Moonwalk. I'm certain that each of you could recite a litany of such telling moments in Israeli's history, including your Independence Day and the Six Day War.

September 11th 2001 is a new marker in our collective psyche and in our societies, not just in the U.S., but here, and in all the other nations around the world that suffered human losses that day.

The role of basic research in national security was never more clearly demonstrated than in the days and weeks immediately after September 11, 2001. National Science Foundation scientists and engineers were at Ground Zero within hours and days, deploying robots, assessing structural damage, determining economic losses, and addressing social consequences of that horrific event to the Nation. Following the anthrax terrorism, NSF again was responding to the Nation's need, with fundamental research proving both relevant and applicable. Thus, the research you do here is both highly relevant and very important.

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 in global history, the need for international scientific cooperation and understanding is greater than ever before. Our common pursuit of new knowledge is a powerful tool for bringing people together toward the common goal of solving problems and building a world of peace and prosperity.

It is abundantly clear that there is a powerful need today for increased scientific and engineering knowledge. In times such as these, we are acutely aware of living in a world defined by, and dependent on, science and technology.

This is one lesson we have learned in the U.S. Every discussion about airline safety, outbreaks of disease like the West Nile Virus, failure of communication links, contamination of food and drinking water, assessment of damaged infrastructure, and countless other concerns depends on 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, in which we are living. 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.

Modern biotechnology allows us to feed the world with improved nutrition but also allows terrorists to make more lethal bioweapons with greater ease.

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 behaviors.

Today, sophisticated knowledge, powerful tools, and high-speed transportation and communication amplify that complexity.

Our enterprise of scientists and engineers must be responsive to the changing context of our societies.

In the long sweep of civilization, science and engineering have had an ever-increasing influence on the life of society. We've used most of the knowledge gathered to remediate an existing problem or to address a current need.

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 toward prevention. We are all familiar with the saying - an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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.

As all of you know so well, knowledge is our strongest insurance for preparedness. Without new knowledge we cannot develop foresight.

Our ability to use foresight gives us a kind of early warning system - a guard against unintended consequences.

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.

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 much 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.

The world in which our work brings success is a world of integration and overlapping consequences.

The current developments in nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and the cognitive sciences clearly demonstrate this.

We've witnessed how information technology helps us cross boundaries, allowing us to collect and manipulate vast quantities of data, communicate new knowledge instantaneously, and facilitate connections. Information technologies have touched and transformed almost every facet of our lives, our work, and our economy.

Sequencing the human genome has opened up a whole new world of biomedical research and potential miracles of diagnostics, prevention, and treatment.

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.

And, at a scale even smaller than genes -- the Lilliputian level of the nanoscale -- we are now arranging atoms and molecules to build new materials, atom by atom.

The list of dramatic changes and choices that science has triggered is so diverse it verges on the marvelous. And, this only describes the present.

The future promises to be even more spectacular, as current research conducted here at the Institute clearly indicates.

Your work on the new formula that could improve rain prediction with the accuracy of exactly when and where it may fall, and the possibility of future nano computers operating within the human body, are truly exciting. Israeli scientists have garnered praise and respect throughout the world.

We also know that in addition to generating new knowledge, it is vital that laypeople around the world and leaders from every nation have a better working knowledge of the science and technology that define our very existence on the planet.

A citizenry literate about science and technology serves several goals. It gives the nation a workforce educated and trained to flourish in the increasingly demanding and 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 international science community to embrace that goal and strive to attain it.

As we reflect on our knowledge-driven societies, we all know that knowledge alone is not enough to make a better world. We require a set of primary values based on the independence of, and the respect for, individuals. Armed with these values, science becomes an important vehicle for human progress.

Those of us who live and work in societies that have already experienced the "knowledge revolution" must remember that we are not alone in this world.

International cooperation with "science-poor" nations may be the most compelling of the many ways in which we can promote international partnerships. In this way, science and technology can be an important force to help balance the world's inequities.

Today, in the United States, we are eager to engage our younger generation of scientists and engineers in forming closer bonds throughout the world via research and education.

We dare hope that international cooperation at its best will catalyze partnerships among nations, even into coming generations. More now than ever, we need such efforts that transcend national borders and cultural divides.

Now as keepers of a kind of Promethean fire we ponder the flame we guard, remembering that "Prometheus" literally means "fore-thought" -- thinking ahead.

Facing challenges on a global scale, we need that prescience - to move from reaction to prediction at the frontiers of complexity, and ultimately to prevention. With the rich legacy of knowledge to build upon, and the breathtaking promise of our science, I believe we will meet the challenge.

Again, it is a privilege to be here and an honor to receive this degree.

Thank you and Shalom.



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