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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Converging Frontiers: Research and Education for the 21st Century"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Remarks in the Legislative Council Chamber - New Zealand "Beehive"
Wellington, New Zealand

February 24, 2003

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.

Prime Minister Clark, Minister Hodgson, Minister Sutton, Ambassador Swindells, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentleman: I am honored to speak to this distinguished gathering.

Having just traveled from my northern and very snowy Washington, D.C. winter to your southern summer, I can truly appreciate the famous New Zealand climate, and the equally famous Kiwi hospitality. It is my great good fortune to visit here once again.

This is a land of surpassing beauty, from the towering glaciers that crown your mountains, to the magnificent forests and abundant shores. And like my own, yours is a nation of many peoples, richer and stronger because of its diversity.

New Zealand is also a nation of significant accomplishment in science and technology. I am proud to recognize many New Zealanders as my colleagues and friends. The ties among New Zealand and U.S. scientists have always been congenial and productive. Our nations have enjoyed an equal measure of goodwill and cooperation.

Such enduring friendships and alliances are particularly important during times, such as these, which offer great challenge but also opportunity. Friendships and alliances are equally our harbors in rough seas and in fair weather.

This afternoon, it is my pleasure to share with you some perspectives from science and science policy.

[Title slide, backdrop with recent shot of aurora australis at South Pole Station]
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This wintertime image of the aurora australis, captured at the U.S. National Science Foundation's South Pole Station, represents our strategy to go to the ends of the earth, if necessary, to invest in the frontiers of discovery!

The goals of the National Science Foundation, the federal agency that I direct, are quite straightforward: to educate scientists and engineers who are the equals of any in the world, to advance fundamental research at the frontiers of knowledge, and to provide the tools to get the job done.

Today, these goals are shared by many nations as they aspire to improve the well being of their citizens and participate in the prosperity that new knowledge and technology promise.

I believe that science, hand in hand with wise policy, and in step with the society they both serve, are a potent force for progress - nationally and internationally. In recent years, advances in science and engineering have occurred at a pace and complexity we simply could not have imagined only a few years ago.

[Converging frontiers: interdisciplinary science; international collaboration; global solutions to global challenges]
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Three frontiers are converging to make the age we now live in ripe to advance common goals: new knowledge arising from the interface of scientific disciplines, the expansion of international scientific collaboration, and the increasing recognition that global challenges call for global solutions.

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 global community.

As research grows increasingly interdisciplinary, more scientific questions become global in scope. International collaboration is now essential for the advancement of knowledge.

Science and engineering have always flourished across national borders, but today's global scale of research is unprecedented. New Ideas and new discoveries emerge regularly around the world... and are transmitted instantaneously.

These are the themes I will explore with you today. They are three interwoven strands that characterize the converging frontiers of science in the 21st century.

I will begin with a brief journey to an unlikely destination: Antarctica. The National Science Foundation is the lead agency in the U.S. Antarctic Program, an effort that brings together scientists from across our nation to pursue research in Antarctica.

As many of you know, the majority of researchers participating in this program stop over in Christchurch, where they often spend time before journeying on to Antarctica.

After leaving Christchurch, they find themselves, some eight hours later, standing on the oldest ice on the planet on one of the coldest, windiest, driest, and scientifically productive continents in the world. With an absolute humidity lower than that of the Sahara desert -- no rain has fallen in 15 million years - it is almost entirely covered by ice averaging two miles thick.

Antarctica can claim 90 percent of the world's ice and 70 percent of all the world's fresh water. The mean annual temperature of its interior is 70 degrees below zero.

[Taking ice core samples]
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On the ice or aboard ships in frigid waters, researchers are studying Antarctic ice for clues to Earth's climate history. Ice core samples will help us better define what the human impacts on the climate of Antarctica and the rest of the earth have been over the past 200 years.

U.S. scientists and technicians are producing measurements showing that possible instabilities in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could release enough water to raise world sea levels more rapidly than at present. Some investigators speculate that if this ice sheet melted, sea levels could increase as much as 16 feet in only a few decades.

[DASI Telescope & John Carlstrom]
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Here you see DASI. That is not a nickname, but an acronym for Degree Angular Scale Interferometer. From their pristine South Pole vantage point, investigators are taking "snapshots" of the dawning of the universe, 15 billion years ago.

John Carlstrom and colleagues from the University of Chicago have produced significant confirmation of the "Big Bang" origin of the universe by measuring the cosmic microwave background produced just after the universe began. (That's John Carlstrom, dressed in cold weather gear, pointing to the DASI detector.)

Other researchers have discovered new species of animals in Antarctic waters, previously unknown to science, which thrive under environmental extremes not experienced anywhere else on the planet.

[Vostok virus montage]
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More surprisingly, viruses have recently been found deep within Antarctica's ice sheet. These images, from John Priscu of Montana State University, show viruses isolated from different depths in the ice beneath Vostok Station. The ice yielding the viruses ranges from 5000-240,000 years old.

The lower-left image is from the deepest ice that accreted from Lake Vostok water at a depth of 3655 meters. The 3-D drawing of Antarctic landscape levels offers microscopic views of the viruses found below the ice at different depths.

[Antarctic Circumpolar Current]
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NSF-supported researchers are also studying the mightiest of the ocean currents, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, seen here as it circles the continent. This current influences formation of cold, dense, nutrient-rich bottom water that extends throughout much of the world's oceans. It is a key to understanding change in world ocean circulation and its influence on global climate.

These examples barely scratch the surface of NSF's research activities "on the ice," and many other nations, including New Zealand, work in this forbidding landscape. But the ramifications of all this research extend far beyond Antarctica as we search for solutions to worldwide and regional problems.

[Ozone hole, NASA]
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Just as we have come to look upon Antarctica as an international scientific treasure, we have also learned to appreciate it as a bellwether for environmental change.

The ozone hole that now appears over the continent every year is a reminder that the cumulative effect of billions of individual human actions can have far-reaching, though unintentional, consequences.

[map of Antarctica with an inset of South Pole marker and international flags]
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Zooming in on the South Pole, we see the flags of the twelve nations that first agreed and were the original signatory nations to the Antarctic treaty to preserve Antarctica as a haven for scientific exploration rather than a target for exploitation. New Zealand and the United States, of course, are both represented. The copper pipe marks the exact spot of 90° S latitude determined each January using a satellite based Global Positioning System (GPS).

When the Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959, we could not have foreseen the significance of what this harsh continent could teach us about the world and ourselves. But as any scientist will attest, that is precisely the nature of fundamental research, and the source of its enduring challenge, excitement, and promise.

There can be little doubt that the vast Antarctic continent will provide us with surprises and useful knowledge for decades to come. This is a striking example of how the aims of science, international cooperation, and wise policy can converge to further common purposes.

The agreement among nations that gave us this 21st century gift was certainly prescient. Research in many fields is now demonstrating the extent to which our planet is characterized by overlapping and interconnected systems.

[Satellite view of dust storm off N. Africa]
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Here we see graphic evidence of the free flow of natural forces. A dust storm -- in this case, originating in West Africa -- surges out over the Atlantic Ocean. Charles Darwin himself, while sailing on the HMS Beagle off North Africa, noted heavy dust at sea.

Deep-sea sediments provide a record that tells us this dust transport in the Atlantic dates back many thousands of years.

The African dust carries with it billions of microorganisms -- many fungi, bacteria, and viruses, among them pathogens of both humans and plants, as well as organisms of benefit to agriculture and ecological systems. Research on dust transport of microorganisms is in its infancy, yet the phenomenon underscores the smallness of our world.

Where research meets the unknown, the ideas and technologies of life science, physical science, and information science are merging. Interdisciplinary research will drive the search to know and understand what the unknown is, today, and accelerate discovery tomorrow. We can now see connectedness in what were once considered discrete categories.

[South Pole auroral slide as backdrop; bullets with NSF priority areas listed]
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In the past few years the National Science Foundation 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 exemplify the power of working across disciplines, at the very frontiers of knowledge.

These areas of revolutionary potential are information technology, nanoscale science and technology, biocomplexity, and last, but not least, the convergence of neuroscience and the social and behavioral sciences that is opening new windows on human cognition. I call these "info, nano, bio, and cogno" for short!

Such convergent areas have been called the "power tools" of the next economy, and each promises to contribute greatly to our ability to meet human needs, and sustain a healthy environment.

As a tool for scientific discovery, information technology has proven as valuable as theory and experiment.

I borrow this image from Hans Moravec's 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!

[genome comparison slide]
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From the tiny genome of the first bacterium sequenced, Haemophilus influenzae, with 1.8 million base pairs, to the 3.12 billion that comprise the human genome was a leap of enormous magnitude.

Researchers from Celera Genomics, who helped sequence the human genome, estimate that assembly of the 3.12 billion base pairs of DNA required 500 million trillion sequence comparisons.

Completing the human genome project might have taken years to decades to accomplish without the terascale power of our newest computers and a battery of sophisticated computation tools. It's not surprising that this work is the result of international collaboration. The same is true of work on plant genomes, which holds so much promise to improve nutrition and health worldwide.

[Walrus visualization of global Internet connections.]
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Our new information and communications technologies have transformed the very conduct of research -- helping us to handle the complexity as well as the quantity of data, enabling new ways to collaborate around the globe, and letting us visualize in stunning new ways.

This image from Young Hyun of CAIDA, the Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis, is a visualization of global Internet "roundtrips". The tool, called "Walrus," is used for the interactive 3-D visualization of large, directed graphs in three-dimensional space. It is possible to display graphs with a million nodes or more. "Walrus" is one of many tools being developed to handle the complexity and quantity of data not available.

The information and communications technologies that are enabling discovery today have changed the very conduct of research. Three additional capabilities promise revolutions at least as profound.

[nanoscale collage]
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Nanoscale science and engineering work at a frontier of a vastly different dimension: one billionth of a meter. That's only slightly larger than the average atom.

Nanoscale science 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.

[carbon nanotube designed for solubility in water]
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Living cells have employed nanotechnology for billions of years. Here you see a carbon nanotube "designed" to dissolve in water. That also makes it soluble in the cytoplasm of cells.

The implications of nanotechnology for biology and medicine are staggering - from new drug delivery systems that target individual cells to the construction of tissue.

[Biocomplexity spiral]
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Information technology, nanotechnology and genomics are all converging to help us understand the complex interactions in biological systems, including human systems -- and the give-and-take with their physical environments. I call this interaction "biocomplexity in the environment."

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.

[Avian malaria]
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We can find an example of these surprising connections in research on malaria, a disease ripe for the perspective of biocomplexity. Forty years ago, we thought we had defeated human malaria.

Today, hundreds of millions of people are infected each year, and in Africa, two children die from malaria every minute. Among vector-borne diseases, malaria is one of the most sensitive to climate.

Models of avian malaria in Hawaii provide lessons for the more complex global issues of human malaria. Neither malaria nor mosquitoes are native to the Hawaiian Islands. Hawaii has lost about three-quarters of its bird species to extinction since humans arrived. Diseases like malaria are a major current threat to the rainforest birds.

As urbanization encroaches on the forest, mosquitoes gain habitat. Learning the complexities of scale and time, and of integrations among host, vector and environment, should lead to better models of malaria.

David Duffy of the University of Hawaii, leader of the team studying avian malaria, says, "There may be some interplay of malaria and host genetics with climate that we can exploit to save the last Hawaiian birds, while providing a paradigm to manage human malaria."

[NEON general]
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Such surprising connections are becoming almost commonplace. But we need a much richer understanding of how organisms react to environmental change. Today, we simply do not have the capability to answer ecological questions on a regional to continental scale, whether involving invasive species that threaten agriculture, the spread of disease, or agents of bioterrorism.

In this context, projects such as NEON--the planned U.S. National Ecological Observation Network--will be invaluable. This is a schematic portrayal of NEON, an array of sites across the U.S. furnished with the latest sensor technologies.

Such a site will measure dozens of variables in organisms and their physical surroundings. High-capacity computer lines would link all the sites, and the entire system would track environmental change from the microbiological to the global scales.

There is pressing need for deployment of such systems internationally. Many of these problems are global in scale, and will require observations from around the world.

[Ocean observatories]
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Eventually, such observatories must be extended to the oceans as well. This slide from John Delaney of the University of Washington shows one possible configuration.

As data from these observatories begins flowing in, new models and simulations can be constructed to describe the complex dynamics that link molecules to organisms to ecosystems, and relate these to environmental databases.

[how we learn -- brain image]
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I come now to the last, but by no means least, area of dynamic convergence - the study of human cognition, or simply, how we learn.

Research that spans disciplinary borders in the cognitive, behavioral, neuro, and social sciences is poised to launch a renaissance in the study of human thought and action. Of all topics of investigation, we perhaps know least about ourselves - how we learn, form intentions, make decisions, and take risks.

[3-D images of brain activation]
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Scientists at Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center have created a powerful new technology for viewing the brain at work.

Using high-speed networks to link an MRI scanner with a supercomputer, they've made it possible to convert scan data almost instantaneously into an animated 3-D image showing what parts of the brain "light up" during mental activity.

Here you see a snapshot of the three dimensional visualization that allows researchers to track in seconds what previously required a day or more to process.

Another illustration of this new research comes from an entirely different field -- economics. The Nobel Prize in economics was recently awarded to Daniel Kahneman - a psychologist - for his pioneering work across the borders of cognitive science and economics, and to Vernon Smith for introducing experimental methods in economic analysis.

Our understanding of the way we make the choices at the core of our consumer society is beginning to change as a result of this research.

[Young female student at work]
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There is another, long-term payoff from such research -- one that is urgent and compelling. New research on cognition will eventually enable us to design better learning environments.

Whether we are concerned about our requirements for world-class scientists and engineers, or a general workforce with the technical literacy needed in today's increasingly demanding workplace, education is the key.

It could well be our greatest challenge of the 21st century. The gap between knowledge "haves" and "have-nots" is already a source of poverty and conflict for millions on the planet.

As the pace of change accelerates and knowledge increases in scope and complexity, we need to research and rethink education from the ground up.

Our teachers' motto can no longer be, "a blackboard, a piece of chalk, and thou." This stale paradigm will not prepare our youngest citizens for the challenges of an increasingly complex world.

[Closing slide, montage]
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It is humbling to imagine that we could wholeheartedly embrace and run with the great tide of science in our age, yet founder on our simple neglect of learning. Surely meeting these educational imperatives requires a convergence of science and policy that is as timely and farseeing as the Antarctic Treaty was in its own day.

One of the most important contributions we can make - as scientists, as elected representatives, and as public servants--is providing our citizens with the knowledge and skills they need to make wise choices.

The legacy the next generation inherits from us will depend as surely on our ability to meet this challenge as it does on the scientific revolution we celebrate today.

Nothing we can do in the international science and policy communities could be more important than providing world class science and mathematics education for our youngsters, and opportunities for our young scientists and engineers to participate in international activities.

They need these opportunities to share perspectives and build friendships to ensure even greater international cooperation in the future.

I am confident that we can meet this challenge. We will need to focus on our converging frontiers -- working across disciplinary boundaries, strengthening our international collaborations, and focusing on education as a global solution to a global problem.

Our common pursuit of knowledge is a powerful tool for bringing people together to work toward the common goal of solving problems and building a world of peace and prosperity.

Thank you.



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