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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Society for Advancement of Chicanos and
Native Americans in Science (SACNAS)
Portland, Oregon

October 8, 1999

I am delighted to be here today, and I especially want to thank the conference schedulers for being so accommodating about the time-slot for my talk.

I've had an extraordinary visit to Oregon this week. I've been to the depths of the ocean in the ALVIN to see first-hand the thermal vents at Juan de Fuca Ridge and traveled to the crest of information technologies with a tour of Intel.

Yesterday, I visited Portland State for the NSF Grants Workshop. Last night, I had the opportunity to meet many of you and talk about careers in science and your goals and aspirations.

These discussions are most exciting and energizing for me. First, I always learn something new. And, second, I feel a strong sense of security that the next generation of researchers holds ever more promise for our future.

I come to the conference this morning filled with enthusiasm about what we can do together to lead the nation into a promising 21st century.

This year, NSF is celebrating its 50th anniversary. I would be honored to be the NSF Director at any time, but during this landmark year it is a distinct privilege.

I don't think it is an overstatement to say that the Foundation has helped our nation stay at the frontier across all scientific disciplines for five decades.

We look forward to the next five decades with excitement and a sense of adventure. In keeping with the spirit of new horizons and a better future, we at NSF depend heavily on our strong connections with you at SACNAS.

You help inform us of the changing environment and the evolving needs of students preparing for careers in science and engineering. We also depend on you to spread the word among your constituency about our initiatives and programs.

It stands to reason that we cannot maintain our position on the cusp of the future without you. You have the network and the know-how to get the word out.

In essence, all of you here today will be amongst those ones who contribute to advances in science, improvements in our nation, and benefits for the world community.

Without your participation and leadership, the future would lack the promise and potential we look forward to fulfilling. In order for us to attract first-rate candidates for NSF's Graduate Fellowships, we will not only depend heavily on your outreach but also on your feedback from the community. We want to know the consensus and the concerns.

There is a powerful piece of Navajo wisdom that describes the philosophy that directs our work. It says, "When all peoples have the same story, then humans will cease to exist."

It is from the vast "pot pourri" of perspectives, insights, attitudes, and understandings that we come to the best decisions and wisest judgment in our society.

The outreach efforts on your part will insure NSF and the nation of having the important advantage of diversity in our talent pool. Diversity for our nation's science and engineering enterprise creates a fabric of strength.

In every recent economic study and report, human capital is identified as the key to overall success. In that light, NSF has made the "21st century workforce" a primary focus for our education initiatives.

We know that the nation's workforce-needs are changing rapidly and dramatically. Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, spoke of The Interaction of Education and Economic Change in a speech he gave in February at the American Council on Education. He said,

"The history of education in the United States traces a path heavily influenced by the need for a workforce with the skills required to interact productively with the evolving economic infrastructure ...America's reputation as the world's leader in higher education is grounded in the ability of ...versatile institutions, taken together, to serve the practical needs of the economy and, more significantly, to unleash the creative thinking that moves our society forward."

Let me repeat, "to unleash the creative thinking that moves our society forward." Our economy is increasingly based on advances in science and technology. That trend will not only continue, but escalate. You see evidence of this everywhere.

A recent change in the Washington, DC economy has driven that new reality home to everyone in the Washington metropolitan area.

In Washington, the federal government has been the largest employer for many years. But today, as we speak, technology services employ more people than the government.

The new owner of our hockey team made his money at AOL. Technology leaders are taking local governments to task for better roads and schools.

This is historic change. We all know that it is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of our very near future. We are literally living in a different landscape. I notice the changes most dramatically when I go back and visit my hometown of Beverly Cove, Massachusetts (next to Pride Crossing if that helps you recognize where it is). I can't help being struck by how much it's changed.

The four-room schoolhouse I went to is now a subdivision of homes. The rock quarry where I used to go to collect tadpoles is another subdivision.

While new development has changed the landscape, economic transformation has changed people's lives.

My father made his living in the construction industry. When I was growing up, the biggest company in town was called the United Shoe Machinery Corporation.

Everything was built around the concept of a main line manufacturing town. Now, the biggest employers in Beverly are in health care, scientific and technical instruments, and information services.

That's just a snapshot from one city in one state, but it reflects the changes in the nature of work and the economy that are taking place across the nation.

Let me point out two important aspects of these changes:

  • First, we are more productive than ever before. For every hour of work, we Americans produce twice as much as we did in 1960.

  • Second, our fastest-growing job categories are all in professions with significant educational requirements: areas like medical technologies, financial systems, and multimedia. Our compass heading is pointing directly to an economy based on knowledge and ideas.

Discovery and innovation have been a driving force behind our economic gains. They are the keys to our continuing economic leadership in the future.

Given these trends, a critical goal for NSF and for SACNAS is to expand the talent pool in science and technology.

In order to "jumpstart" that goal, NSF has just launched a new partnership called Jumpstart 2000, also known as your chance to build a better century.

It is a centerpiece of our NSF50 celebration and was announced in Parade Magazine three weeks ago Sunday.

This is a public-private partnership--the largest of its kind--that presents a science and technology challenge for students in all grades, K-12.

Jumpstart 2000 aims to teach all youngsters what research is about. You start by finding a problem--something that concerns you or your community.

It could be a health risk, a polluted stream, or suburban sprawl. Then, tell why the problem is important and how science and technology can help solve it.

Simply put, it asks kids to use science and technology to make their communities and the world a better place.

It represents a national effort to create a significant change in attitudes. We aim to build a continuing involvement of our nation's youth in real life problem solving--in situations that impact their lives.

Best of all, it gets young people engaged and promotes awareness of the problems that surround them. It sends the message that they can play an active role in the solutions.

I hope you will spread the word in your own communities because the contest has an additional impetus for minority youth populations.

We all know that the earlier we can ignite the interest of young people in science and mathematics the more likely they are to swim in those waters with a sense of familiarity, belonging, and confidence.

I have made it my personal mission to reach across borders and boundaries to encourage the most diverse mix of talent to careers in science and engineering.

As Director of NSF, I have a major podium to highlight this goal. The same goal, I might add, that NSF has been committed to all along.

The demographics of our nation are changing dramatically, and by the year 2050, the Census Bureau projects that we will be a majority of minorities.

The 21st century workforce will, by virtue of our changing population, be increasingly diverse.

This increasing diversity is an expanding opportunity for our nation. In fact, a recent issue of Fortune magazine had an article entitled, "Where Diversity Really Works, America's Best Companies for Minorities." The article tells us that, "companies that pursue diversity, outperform the S&P 500."

What better proof could we ask for. This tangible example captures the essence of what Federal Reserve Board Chairman, Alan Greenspan, meant when he spoke of "unleashing the creative thinking that moves our society forward."

Let me share with you a very different example from the spring 1999 issue of Winds of Change Magazine, the quarterly from the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.

One of the articles features three Native American beadworkers describing the mathematical and cultural insights they have gained through their craft and how they have applied those insights.

Shirley Reader, one of the three, is a student at Utah State University and will soon graduate and realize her dream of being a teacher. She explained,

"When you do loomwork, it is important to know that you always must string your loom so that you have an odd number of beads in each (horizontal) row. This is because the median (bead) acts as the center point. You use it to flip your pattern so that one side will mirror the other."

She goes on to say,

"We can use this idea with children learning math. How many times as a student did you hear your teachers tell you that what you do to one side of the equation, you must do to the other? This beadwork example makes this idea real for children. I tell my own children to think of the middle bead as an equal sign so that their patterns are symmetrical."

Each of you here today brings rich insight from your own cultural experience and perspective. America's science and engineering needs to be enriched by you and your special talents.

You will bring a creativity from the core of your diversity. We as a nation are grateful for the opportunity to tap that unique wellspring.



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