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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Convergent Connections: IT Enabling the Future"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Carnegie Mellon University Workshop
"Information Technology and Sustainable Development"
The World Bank
Washington, D.C.

June 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.

Thank you for that kind introduction, Raj.1

Good morning to everyone - Under-Secretary General Desai,2 Ms. Jocelyne Albert,3 distinguished speakers, and guests.

It is a true pleasure for me to join Carnegie Mellon's first workshop on "Information Technology and Sustainable Development," and to be among my excellent colleagues here today.

Before beginning my remarks, I want to thank Dr. Reddy and Dr. Arunachalam for their hard work in organizing this workshop.

On behalf of the National Science Foundation, I also want to directly thank The World Bank and the United Nations for their co-sponsoring this effort with NSF.

[slide: title slide]
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I have titled my remarks "Convergent Connections: IT Enabling the Future."

Truly, future historians may well describe the 21st century as "the age of convergence."

[slide: converging science-brain collage]
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What has profoundly changed the nature of knowledge in our age is the convergent nature of science itself. Where research meets and explores the unknown, the ideas and technologies of information science, life science, and physical science are converging.

At those fields of intersection and exchange, interdisciplinary research is accelerating and deepening our knowledge. We can now see connectedness in what were once considered discrete elements and systems.

[slide: oceanic convergence zones]
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Much of the excitement of discovery today ignites at the interfaces between disciplines. As an oceanographer, I draw a metaphor for this from my own research.

In the sea, water-masses of different temperatures converge; gyres form, polynyas appear, upwelling occurs, and nutrients collect at the interfaces.

Convergence zones in the ocean may shift, appear and disappear, but they are often where the nutrients mass and where the fish and seabirds up the food chain concentrate to feast. Just so are the interfaces between physical science, engineering and biology, and now the social sciences: discovery foments in these "hyphenated" zones.

[slide: converging sciences analogy/NSF priorities]
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This workshop -- by virtue of its subject and those it has gathered -- is an excellent example of the converging connections that are essential -- to shared knowledge and progress, across all national borders and across the boundaries of all disciplines.

It represents an important opportunity for each of us -- as scientists, diplomats, educators, and policy thinkers -- to enlarge our vision for the mutual benefit of our communities and for our shared future.

Our subject today is -- by its very nature -- already a convergence: How will we focus the power of today's revolutionary tools, chief among them -- information technology -- to best meet the challenges of our global society and its future.

[slide: IT NSFnet]
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There is no doubt that IT holds enormous promise for society in general, as well as for science and engineering.

Our new information and communication technologies have transformed the very conduct of research.

[slide: engineers at computer]
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We are now in an era where advanced computational systems help researchers to make complex problems more tractable -- but more than that, they create unprecedented opportunities and make new kinds of science possible. One might even say, they create modern science, and will increasingly do so in the future.

IT is letting us visualize in stunning and novel ways.

[slide: Walrus]
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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.

IT is also helping us in sharing and mining enormous data sets, in novel collaborations, and in distributed research among research teams -- teams that would know little or nothing about each other were it not for the common ground created by the revolution in information technology.

[slide: TeraGrid ]
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These collaborations will only grow with the advent of "terascale" and GRID computing - with data moving at around 40 gigabytes per second.

[slide: IBM 650]
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I marvel at where we are when I think back to the old IBM 650 I used in the attic computer laboratory in the chemistry building at the University of Washington in the 1960's.

[slide: global connections]
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IT now underpins all of science and engineering, taking its place beside traditional experimentation and theory. I do not doubt that IT represents the most important new class of tools and services for carrying out S&E that we have ever before witnessed.

[slide: Bertrand Russell quote]
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The 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote, "Almost everything that distinguishes the modern world from earlier centuries is attributable to science."

[slide: frontiers driven by IT]
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Three frontiers, driven by a common engine -- IT -- 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.

[slide: Kofi Annan]
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UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has spoken out forcefully and intelligently on global challenges and their necessary global solutions. In his March 7 editorial in Science magazine, "A Challenge to the World's Scientists," he wrote:

[slide: Kofi Annan quote]
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"Recent advances in information technology, genetics, and biotechnology hold extraordinary prospects for individual well-being and that of humankind as a whole."

He goes on to say: "The scientific community's basic concern for human welfare makes it an indispensable partner. [to] help developing countries build up their capacity to participate effectively."

I couldn't agree more.

I believe that science, hand in hand, with wise policy, and in step with the society they both serve, is a potent force for progress - nationally and internationally.

[slide: title slide image]
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Information technology, in particular, is a tool for us to employ toward goals that help provide the world's population with: more and better nutrition; safe drinking water; medical solutions to both old and emerging diseases; a healthy environment; and education that will help each nation sustain its own population to meet these goals.

Although the goals are simple to articulate, they are difficult to achieve. To measure how difficult, we need only turn to Kofi Annan once again.

[slide: Kofi Annan quote]
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He reminds us that: "Ninety-five percent of the new science in the world is created in the countries comprising only one-fifth of the world's population. .It will require the commitment of scientists and scientific institutions throughout the world to change that portrait to bring the benefits of science to all."

[slide: cholera collage]
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Most of my research career was built on collaborative work with scientists in Bangladesh, a place that would be included in Kofi Annan's fraction of four-fifths of the world's population. We studied the scourge of cholera, an ancient and recurring terror. Some of you here today are familiar with its devastation.

[slide: satellite]
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Identifying the habitat and the cause of cholera required the most sophisticated tools, including satellite remote sensing and advanced computing.

[slide: cholera]
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However, understanding the science only takes you half way to the solution. I won't describe more than the barest details of my findings. Cholera is a water-borne disease that is contracted by contaminated drinking water. It emerges in seasonal cycles when the ocean temperature rises.

[slide: women filtering water]
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Obviously, a large water filtration plant was not an immediately available solution for the villages of Bangladesh. Working within the parameters of available resources, we settled on a simple and very effective water filtration mechanism.

[slide: sari cloth micrographs]
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We found that sari cloth, readily available even in the poorest household, can be folded four to eight times. This creates a 20-micron mesh filter, as we determined by electron microscopy.

[slide: sari cloth filtration chart]
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Here we see the results of testing sari cloth as a filter to remove plankton. Its use reduces the number of cholera cases by half or more, because the cholera bacteria are associated with zooplankton.

I recall hearing how we were solemnly told that men would never accept drinking water that had been filtered through the garment of a woman. This turned out not to be a problem - as it happened, men had already been using sari cloth routinely to strain flies from their beer.

[slide: title slide image]
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These details contain a lesson for scientists of any discipline working outside their own country. After the science is understood, the introduction of solutions requires working with researchers of the region to identify and develop culturally sensitive adaptations.

This is a point I think important to emphasize. With your permission, I will quote from a previous presentation I prepared in the fall of 1997 for the AAAS's International Office, after serving as President of that organization.

In that article calling for cooperation in "...International Action on Biodiversity Research.." I wrote:

"Finally, a perspective different from the historical is needed - that of aiding the development of science and technology in the Third World, in a word . capacity building. It is not enough to bring science, engineering, technology, and knowledge to developing countries. It is also important to focus on cooperation, interaction, intersegmental harmonization, and mutual capacity building."

A very recent example of this type of cooperation comes to mind.

[slide: SARS]
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Grid computing researchers around the Pacific Rim have mobilized to fight the SARS epidemic. They are helping to establish a cutting-edge communication grid among quarantined hospitals across Taiwan. In addition to linking the hospitals to each other, the grid connects doctors to global sources of health information.

[slide: PRAGMA]
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On May 15, in search of expertise for setting up Access Grid Sites, Taiwan's National Center for High-performance Computing sent a request to members of PRAGMA. PRAGMA stands for Pacific Rim Applications and Grid Middleware Assembly. Led by the NSF-funded San Diego Supercomputer Center at the University of California, San Diego, offers of assistance poured in from all PRAGMA sites within hours, including Argonne National Laboratory where the Access Grid was developed.

[slide: title slide image]
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Here was a case -- in the words of the NSF program manager, William Chang where "[our] support for the PRAGMA partnership has led, most importantly, to the development of strong human trust and a cooperative spirit."

Clearly, the Internet is enabling a new order of collaboration.

As I testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science Research Subcommittee just last week: "[NSF] will continue to seek to develop partnerships that bring to bear the resources of the development agencies for capacity building that will mobilize and support the best scientists and engineers in the U.S. and its international partners."

Today, we will deliberate how science, and particularly IT, can be marshaled in the service of society. In our discussions, let us recognize our collective good fortune to be living in a time when what we hope to do, we have the will and the tools to accomplish.

This workshop testifies to our will. Our tools are implements of convergence and connection. They intertwine the knowledge of diverse disciplines, and the researchers from far-flung places, and allow a laser-like focus on real world problems.

Convergent technologies will produce new, even more powerful tools. With the insights drawn from multidisciplinary research, and with a global perspective - for the first time we are launching on a course to chart the design of our biocomplex world, including the dynamics of disease and environment repair.

[slide: Cornelius Bernardus Van Neil quote]
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The microbiologist Cornelius Bernardus Van Neil, said, "In essence, science is a perpetual search for an intelligent and integrated comprehension of the world we live in."

I would add that here today, scientists, policy makers, diplomats, and administrators are reaching out to each other in convergent connections that will make the world a more sustainable home for all of us.

Thank you.

1 Dr. Raj Reddy, Herbert Simon University Professor, Carnegie Mellon University.
Return to speech.

2 Mr. Nitin Desai, Under-Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations, served as Secretary-General of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg, South Africa, 26 August - 4 September 2002.
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3 Ms. Jocelyne Albert, Senior Regional Coordinator, Environment Department, The World Bank.
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