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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Talking Points: National Caucus of Biomedical Science Chairs
George Washington University
Arlington, Virginia

June 27, 2003

Thank you for the invitation to share some thoughts with you today. I am no stranger to your meetings; in fact, I was here last year at this time. My primary message is much the same.

The continued positive funding outlook for the National Science Foundation is in no small part due to the relentless support of the biomedical science community. I offer you my personal thanks and the gratitude of everyone at NSF.

The NSF community and the biomedical science community are, in many ways, partners.

Frequently, NSF researchers create a platform of knowledge in areas as diverse as optics or genomics from which biomedical scientists find insight and application for research initiatives that impact on medicine and health.

Advances in one field today often resonate in another. A new tool invented for a precise purpose may actually find service in many disciplines. In adaptive optics, for example, a striking consilience of astronomy with vision science was found. The biological and physical sciences cross-fertilize in unexpected ways.

Together our two communities can unlock knowledge that eventually leads to illness prevention, disease cures and the promotion of better health solutions for the nation's future.

As you know, NSF's mission is two-fold -- discovery and education. To provide a picture of NSF's reach and influence, I offer a few examples:

NSF supports most of the key aspects of biological science. We support 90% of long-term ecological research; 95% of systematic biology--which is the study of biodiversity; and 75% of evolutionary physiology.

We also support roughly two-thirds of environmental biology, 60% of microbial biology, and over half of plant biology. This is all fundamental research and it clearly indicates the connections and synergy between our two communities.

Let me now turn to the special investments NSF is making in six multidisciplinary research areas. All six of these areas have tremendous potential for biomedical benefits. They are: information technology research, nanoscale science and engineering, biocomplexity, mathematics, human and social dynamics, and 21st century workforce.

As a tool for scientific discovery, information technology has transformed the very conduct of research--helping us to handle the quantity as well as complexity of data. It enables new collaborations around the globe and lets us visualize in stunning new ways. The IT effort is supported by a number of government agencies and led by NSF.

Next is a priority area focused on a vastly different dimension-the scale of one-billionth of a meter. The promise of nanoscience spans the inorganic and living realms--this will be of great portent for biomedicine. Progress in many disciplines of science and engineering converges here, the point at which the worlds of the living and non-living meet.

The National Science Foundation leads the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a coalition of organizations from government, academe and the private sector. Our investment includes investigating the societal and educational implications of this new frontier.

Biocomplexity is the next priority area. This focus is inspired by the complex behavior of ecosystems--they do not respond linearly to environmental change. Understanding demands observing at multiple scales, from the nano to the global. Making the connections across those scales is a formidable challenge. With the perspective of biocomplexity, disciplinary worlds intersect to form fuller, more nuanced viewpoints.

Mathematics is another priority area, truly a wellspring for all of science and engineering. It is a springboard for advances across the board. I know I do not have to emphasize how progress in biomedicine rests increasingly upon advances in mathematics.

A good example is the fractal, the famous illustration of how inner principles of mathematics enable the modeling of many natural structures. Our math investment goes to fundamental research as well as to interdisciplinary research linked to mathematics, to modeling complex, non-linear systems and to critical investments in math education.

We have just launched our final two priority areas. Both focus on people.

Our human and social dynamics effort will investigate the impacts of change on our lives. It will create new technology tools for social scientists. This research will improve our understanding of large-scale change, such as globalization, and of how people make decisions and take risks.

And, our workforce investment emphasizes broadening the participation of US students in science and engineering, including women and other underrepresented groups of our population.

In addition to these priority areas, NSF has anchored its thinking by some big picture guideposts.

Let me briefly mention the area of bioscience, which is related to our common interests. Bioscience has evolved to become the locus of convergence for many disciplines, drawing in such disparate threads as the physical sciences, information technology, and the social sciences.

In fact, much of the excitement of discovery today ignites at the interfaces of disciplines.

Some convergence zones are especially rich. Where mathematics and computing meet biology, they serve as biology's new microscope, illuminating otherwise invisible entities.

Math and computing shed light on bioscience problems that are too big (the biosphere), too slow (evolution), too remote in time (early extinctions), too complex (the brain), or exceed our capabilities in other ways.

The National Science Foundation has recognized the catalytic effects mathematics and information technology have across science and engineering, and is making special investments in these fields.

Much of modern science has followed a reductionist approach. We have sought understanding by taking things apart, and this has been a dominant trend in medicine and health as in many disciplines. This approach has given us the lion's share of scientific knowledge to date. Now we're ready for a new perspective that integrates across disciplines and scales. I hope this is as exciting to all of you as it is to us at NSF.

Let me suggest in closing that the continued partnership of our communities is fruitful for our work and of incalculable benefit to the nation.

Scientific knowledge is the engine that will drive progress in the 21st century. Our collective task is to move steadily forward, building on each other's insights and discoveries to improve all life on the planet.



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