Skip To Content Skip To Left Navigation
NSF Logo Search GraphicGuide To Programs GraphicImage Library GraphicSite Map GraphicHelp GraphicPrivacy Policy Graphic
OLPA Header Graphic

Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Remarks at the Fourth Annual Texas Higher Education Summit

Washington, D.C.

March 26, 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.

Good morning to all, and thank you, Senator Hutchison, for bringing us together. We are delighted that you have joined the VA/HUD Senate Appropriations Committee.

In accordance with your comments, Senator, let me add that it has been estimated that forty percent of high school students graduating today do not have the math needed to qualify as an apprentice carpenter. Clearly we have a problem of crisis proportions to deal with.

I'm very pleased to address representatives from the leading educational institutions in Texas, and to share with you the National Science Foundation's priorities and vision for the future.

[title slide]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

They say that everything is big in Texas, and that certainly holds true for science and engineering. As an example, one of your researchers, Dr. Skip Fletcher of Texas A&M University, was honored recently by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

He was presented the AAAS Award for International Cooperation "for his exemplary efforts to promote science and engineering advances across international boundaries, through international collaborations involving nearly every continent on earth." That's very impressive!

But Dr. Fletcher is not a lonely figure doing big research in Texas. A recent RAND report indicated that Texas is the fourth largest recipient of federal higher education research funds. Last year Texas universities received approximately 140 million dollars from the National Science Foundation. Texas universities are leaders in research and education, and we hope that your institutions will continue to play a significant role in our scientific enterprise.

The National Science Foundation has a long history of funding traditional disciplinary research, which the leaders of the individual directorates here today will discuss with you.

What I shall describe are NSF'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 priority areas that cross a number of disciplines. All of these programs weave together research and education in a fundamental way, creating the kind of integrated scientific enterprises we believe are critical for the future.

["Conventional boundaries are dissolving"]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

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.

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 trap-to-avoid 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.

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.

[NSF Budget Priority Areas, 2003 and 2004 Requests]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

As you can see from this slide, these priorities are information technology, nanotechnology, biocomplexity, mathematics, human and social dynamics, and building a workforce for the 21st century.

Such convergent areas have been called the "power tools" of the next economy. NSF is asking for significant increases in funding for these initiatives in our 2004 budget, and there are many opportunities for all of the universities in Texas to get involved.

Science policy expert Irwin Feller at Penn State University has said, "In some respects, the federal agencies are ahead of the universities'" in promoting interdisciplinary research, "and the universities are responding." Texas research is already crossing boundaries, but we encourage you to take even greater steps in our new programs.

[Teragrid illustration]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

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.

A powerful 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.

We look beyond, to a grander scale. The TeraGrid, illustrated in this slide, is a distributed facility that will let computational resources be shared among 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.

In Texas, you are already starting these kinds of integrated facilities and have a proven track record in high performance computing. We have just put out a new solicitation for extensions to the Teragrid, and we would like to have your institutions become a part of this effort.

[Nanotechnology images]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

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.

Of course, Texas is already a big player when it comes to the smallest scales. The NSF-funded Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University is an obvious and highly respected nanoscale science and engineering center.

However, many other universities are also blazing trails through NSF's Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Team grants and Nanoscale Exploratory Research funds.

By making nanoscale science and engineering a priority, Texas is ensuring that its citizens will benefit from the nanotechnology revolution. We encourage your institutions to expand their existing programs and start new programs in the nano-realm.

(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Another priority area at NSF is biocomplexity. The combination of 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.

Some of your universities have already been awarded grants for new biocomplexity initiatives. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin are studying chloroplast genomics to unravel the mysteries of land plant origins, while at Texas A&M cross-disciplinary collaborations have been built among ecologists, mathematicians, and engineers to improve simulations of natural systems.

And the Institute of Applied Sciences at the University of North Texas received an award just last fall to study the interplay of human actions and forest dynamics. There is plenty of opportunity for collaboration with these existing programs as well as for new initiatives.

["Does Math Matter?"]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

NSF is also increasing its emphasis on mathematics --truly a wellspring for all of science and engineering. Mathematics is the ultimate cross-cutting discipline, the springboard for advances across the spectrum. It is both a powerful tool for insight and a common language for science. Mathematics is also contributing in unexpected ways to homeland security.

We propose to invest $90 million in focused research in the mathematical sciences and statistics to advance multidisciplinary science and engineering. This investment will improve our ability to handle the massive data sets produced by today's sensors and observation systems, and to model and manage uncertainty.

Texas researchers are already an integral part of focused research groups in the mathematical sciences, and we hope you will take advantage of this priority area.

[Human and Social Dynamics]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

Building on previous investments in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, NSF is also launching a Human and Social Dynamics priority area.

An investment of $24 million will fund research and new techniques to deepen our understanding of the impacts of change on our lives and on our institutions. The request will help us build the large-scale databases and refined research methods needed for major progress in the social sciences.

Research will improve our understanding of how people make decisions, take risks, and deal with uncertainty. We will also support studies of large-scale change, such as globalization, the evolution of society and its interaction with the environment, and the implications of culture for conflict and assimilation.

[Workforce for the 21st Century]
(Use "back" to return to the text.)

One more priority area—the workforce for the 21st century. Former Governor Mark White showed great foresight in 1985 when he wrote, "The oil and gas of the Texas future is the well-educated mind." The success of the nation is going to depend on our fully developing our human resources by encouraging all students to participate in math and science.

We need to improve science education at all levels, from "K through gray" as some like to say, by building stronger links among universities, school districts, non-profit organizations, and industry.

To improve teacher training and curricula, 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.

Texas institutions are already deeply involved in our education programs. NSF has a long history of funding systemic education reform in Texas, and the University of Texas at El Paso, Stephen F. Austin State University, and Delmar College and Texas A&M, Kingsville are now a part of the "next-generation" Math and Science Partnership Program.

One of our new Centers for Learning and Teaching is located at Texas A&M University and focuses on the role of information technology in teaching and learning science and mathematics.

In a state as diverse as Texas, ensuring the participation of minority students in science and engineering fields is critical to a healthy future.

Our Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Program, or LSAMP, and Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate, or AGEP, are designed to create a path for numbers of underrepresented minorities to enter science and engineering research.

Many Texas institutions are participating in the LSAMP program, and Rice University's AGEP program is a model for attracting minority scholars. Still, we encourage all the universities here to become even more involved with school districts and community colleges to increase participation of all groups in science and engineering.

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 research and education.

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.



National Science Foundation
Office of Legislative and Public Affairs
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, Virginia 22230, USA
Tel: 703-292-8070
FIRS: 800-877-8339 | TDD: 703-292-5090

NSF Logo Graphic