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


"Turning the Clock Forward"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
Director Designate
Computing Research Association Conference
Snowbird, Utah

July 27, 1998

(As delivered)

Good afternoon to all of you, and thank you, Ed for the kind introduction. It's nice to be introduced by someone from the University of Washington, my alma mater. I'm pleased to tell you that Ed Lazowska was selected to receive the 1998 University of Washington's Outstanding Public Service Award for, among other achievements, having helped the Seattle Public Schools develop technology standards, raise funds, and get more than one-third of the schools connected to the Internet. I would also like to thank Bill Aspray for his long-standing leadership of CRA. It is truly a pleasure to be with you today. Besides giving me the chance to escape Washington's murderous heat for such lovely surroundings, I'm genuinely delighted you've asked me to come to speak at this juncture. I'm really just beginning to get my feet wet as NSF director designate. I can assure you that I'm looking forward to "plunging in" completely to this exciting position.

This is my first speaking engagement wearing my new NSF hat, and deliberately so. It is both inspiring and appropriate that I have this chance to meet with such a distinguished group of leaders from the computer science and engineering community. I know a lot of you from other contexts and I look forward to getting to know and working with more of you.

In many ways, the history of computing is an astonishing and very modern tale. So much has been telescoped into such a short time, compared to the centuries of stately development that are typical of the more traditional and older sciences, like my own discipline of biology. Of course, biology's course is now inextricably woven together with the path of computer science. Both are transforming at the same dizzying pace. So often we hear terms like the "explosion" of the Internet, and we know that computing has changed virtually every facet of our lives. (As one bellwether of the times, even the venerable Mary Worth on the comics page has, however reluctantly, just gotten her own PC!)

When I think about the history of computing, I'm reminded of another woman, one with three dimensions instead of the two occupied by Mary Worth. I'm talking about that remarkable computing pioneer, the late Grace Hopper, whose career spanned much of the 20th century and who now lives on thanks to the CRA symposium series in her memory. My students and I had the good fortune of meeting Grace several years before her death. She was indeed a character. My students had one of the "Grace Hopper nanoseconds" pinned to the laboratory bulletin board. She lived through and helped move along the evolution from primitive programming to modern data processing.

Among her many accomplishments, we celebrate Grace Hopper for her vision that the development of high-level programming languages would open up the power of computing beyond the refined world of mathematicians. Not only that, she served as a messenger for technology transfer, the process that is now the darling of the business world, persuading business managers to use the new computer languages such as COBOL.

On the lighter side, Grace is also credited with having discovered-and captured-the first computer "bug." This was a moth that unluckily landed inside her computer and that she taped like a trophy into her computer logbook!

As I look back on my own beginnings as a researcher using computers, I can vividly relate to Grace's capture of that "bug" - the moth. In fact, I did my own Ph.D. thesis on another kind of "bug"-bacteria in marine animals-at the University of Washington. I wrote the "little bug program" for handling bacteriological data which we used to classify marine bacteria, especially those living in association with marine animals.

I wrote the program for the IBM 650 computer. We used it to handle what we thought was a large amount of data gathered for several hundred bacterial cultures. This was the first use of computers to classify marine bacteria, or, for that matter, any bacteria from the environment. Many other microbiologists have worked on the problem since then and taken it well beyond these rudimentary origins. In fact, computer identification of microorganisms is now standard in hospitals around the country. However, the coding scheme we developed for bacteriological data remains in use today. That IBM machine I used had been installed in the attic of the chemistry building, Old Bagley Hall at the U. of W., the only space available at the time... and we graduate students got to use it between the hours of two and four a.m. Some of you will remember that we actually had to wire the boards ourselves in those days and we wrote in machine language. That was a time when you did everything yourself - from collecting the data to running the computer. (And an IBM 650 is now on display at the Smithsonian!)

To recall Grace Hopper's words, "Life was simple before World War II. After that, we had systems." Well, my computer program, written in the sixties, is absolutely sophomoric by today's standards, even though it was a really big deal at the time. I still have two of the punch cards pasted between the pages of my thesis. Who knows, they may be valuable as a rare antique some day!

It is inconceivable now for me to imagine doing my research in the decades since my graduate student days without computers. My work on environmental factors associated with cholera epidemics would be impossible without the power of computing. My students and I use remote sensing and computer processing to integrate data from many disciplines: oceanography, epidemiology, ecology, microbiology, clinical medicine-the list goes on. We are currently developing models to enable prediction of conditions conducive to cholera epidemics...that is, to allow proactive, not just reactive, measures against cholera-a possibility that could never be hoped for without the advances in information processing.

Well, I use this example to be instructive as to why computer science and engineering stands in singular stead today, as the science of creating, processing, and transforming information. It's truly breathtaking to note the speed with which ideas in computer science spin out into the marketplace-without parallel, if you'll pardon the expression. This translation happens in perhaps a third or a quarter of the time the process takes in most other disciplines. Computer scientists-you--are a powerful economic force.

There is a rather complicated graphic from a National Research Council report on high performance computing that helps to visualize how government-sponsored R&D stimulates commercial innovation.

I've heard this figure called "the tire-track graphic" for its intersecting patterns. But it actually illustrates its point quite effectively. It shows how technologies such as networking, workstations, and parallel computing developed. The process was anything but linear. They evolved through repeated exchanges of ideas and people, through synergy, among industry, universities, and government. And several of these "tire tracks" mark the pathways to billion-dollar industries.

A good example of that is the development of Mosaic. It got its start at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, the NSF-supported center at the University of Illinois. Netscape Communications soon followed, and gave us a really good example of how research can produce unexpected outcomes in the marketplace with great rapidity.

The information sciences also stand out in their role as the mortar, the cementing material for the entire edifice of modern science. NSF, of course, supports computer science as a fundamental field, along with the other basic disciplines.

At the same time, its integrative capability is enormously invigorating. I see possibilities for flagship projects at NSF that similarly draw upon many disciplines. We can expect these to ignite the public imagination, advance our knowledge about the world, and bring societal benefits. Computing and communications will have a highly central role in this vision.

NSF has named its current broad effort to derive knowledge from access to information KDI, for Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence. As you know, this effort spans all of the Foundation's directorates. Its aim is to create networked systems that can make all kinds of knowledge available to anyone at any time. This is not only an ambitious objective-it could even be considered somewhat utopian, not to say perhaps even rather overwhelming.

Here I'm reminded of science writer K.C. Cole's observation in her book, The Universe and the Teacup [quote]: "...with the explosion of information reverberating in our brains, it becomes harder and harder to hear the clear ring of truth through the competing facts and philosophies".

Later in the book, she observes that "nature bestows her blessings buried in mountains of garbage. Well, NSF's intent is to develop more effective ways to create and organize information to glean useful knowledge-extracting the blessings, or the wisdom, if you will, from the rubbish.

In my on-going crash course on NSF, I've already learned about ways that these ideas are taking shape. Our Partnerships for Advanced Computational Infrastructure-better known as PACI-are a key part of this. The goal is to make high-end computing available for all fields of science, and to ensure broader access to this capability across the nation. Also exciting is the vBNS-the backbone network that already links some 55 or so universities with very high-performance connections. And we expect this number to triple. Underlying all of this is ongoing support for fundamental research and education in computer science and engineering-the wellspring from which these applications flow.

These are all visionary efforts that will need sustained backing to succeed. We all need to work together for our common future, and I am optimistic about our near-term prospects as we wend through the budget labyrinth.

When President Clinton spoke to graduates at MIT in June, he pledged to propose "significant increases in computing and communications research." I'm sure you're aware that Neal Lane, now OSTP director-designate, has been charged with developing a plan for the President to review. And NSF will be helping to formulate this broad research initiative in information technology.

There isn't any doubt in my mind that we have a lot to celebrate in computer science and engineering, but we're confronting tough issues too. Juris, myself, and others at NSF look forward to gaining the benefit of your insights on these challenges.

All of us at NSF share your desire to strengthen the information technology workforce at all levels. We're facing some really disturbing trends here. We're puzzled, frankly, by the drop in the enrollment of women in computer science over the past five years or so.

Awareness of this gender gap in computing has even reached the level of Ann Landers. I guess that means it's REALLY serious! She recently ran a letter that enumerated reasons why men think computers should be referred to as female. One was that "Your smallest mistakes are stored in long-term memory for later retrieval." Well, women had their reasons, too, why computers should be referred to as male. One was: "Computers are supposed to help you solve problems, but half the time, they ARE the problem."

Lightness aside, we need to work on broadening the spectrum of people who are in the mainstream of the information revolution. In fact, the picture for minorities in computer science is even more dismal than for women. For example, the number of African-American Ph.Ds in computing has barely increased in recent decades. From zero or one doctorate per year from the seventies into the nineties, the number has gone up maybe to only four or five who graduate now. What does that say about the future, when the transformation in communications and computing, the very cutting-edge of science, has not yet swept major sectors of our population into the excitement?

The country vitally needs the talents of the groups underrepresented in the computing field. Just finding enough faculty to teach the burgeoning numbers in computer science courses is proving to be a challenge-as is filling entry-level positions for coders, web-designers, and so forth. Yesterday's Washington Post ran a story about "the new underclass" - created by importation of programmers and computer scientists from China, India, Latin America, and other countries to meet the needs of industry. These issues represent critical challenges. They call for creative solutions.

Even though we don't fully understand the reasons for these dilemmas, there are success stories out there worth noting. One NSF-supported mentoring program matches female undergraduates with faculty mentors. And from this, an amazing 90-95% of the students have gone on to graduate school.

There's a program at the San Diego Computer Center that's aimed at much earlier ages. The program gives computers to teenage girls, while mentors supervise their research assignments. The teenagers, in turn, teach younger girls in the fourth through sixth grades. The girls learn to network, to use the web, to use their computers on science projects. And if a girl finishes enough assignments, she gets to keep her computer. One girl's mother commented that "It's nice to have a program like this when a public school can't do it."

I've touched upon some issues that are pressing, even critical, for computer science and engineering, but also for all of science and engineering. I hope we can see them as challenges that we all face together employing fresh ideas.

I go back to the rough but honest wisdom of Grace Hopper, who said, "Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, 'We've always done it this way.'"

And Grace added, "I try to fight that. That's why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise."

Like Grace's clock, we need to turn some things around. Grace had the insight that computing had potential for commercial applications-it seems strange now that she was considered a prophet for having that vision. She also understood that computers could be accessible to everyone-despite the fact, as she said she was told, that computers didn't understand English.

Likewise, we also need to reach out with clarity, explain what we do to the public, talk to the media, try new approaches to achieve a more inclusive workforce. We at NSF need your help on all these fronts to get the message out about the importance of federal investments in research and education, and the extraordinarily rich returns they reap. CRA has done yeoman's service in helping to spread the word. Now I think we need to make this a grassroots effort.

I want to leave you with one final thought. Shortly I'll be flying home from these beautiful Wasatch Mountains to a very different geography, back to steamy Washington and the wide expanses of the Chesapeake Bay, where my husband and I have been sailing competitively as a team for a number of years. If I may be allowed, I'd like to use a nautical metaphor: I want you to know that I'm genuinely excited at taking the helm at NSF. But we sailors sometimes describe how the wind "clocks," or veers. Occasionally, it surprises us when it "backs" or shifts counterclockwise, sort of like Grace Hopper's contrary clock. We should embrace such new directions and make them work for us as we do in a regatta, to help us reach the finish line first. I'm very much looking forward to embarking on this voyage to the future with you.

Thank you very much.



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