Balancing The Biocomplexity of the Planet's Living
Systems: A 21st Century Task for Science
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
American Institute of the Biological Sciences
August 2, 1998
Good evening. I am delighted to be here. There is an
old saying about how the best audiences are intelligent,
well informed and a little drunk. Since the reception
is after the speeches, we're batting two for three.
Not bad, right?
Although we are all members of a large and proud community
of researchers in the life sciences, I welcome you
today in a new capacity. As the still "wet behind
the ears" Director-designate of the National Science
Foundation, I am acutely aware that Neal Lane leaves
a legacy of vision and excellence.
These opening remarks are in part greeting and welcoming,
but my intent is also to challenge all of us in the
larger science community with a formidable task. I
will cut to the chase. For the 21st century, our goal
must be to understand, and learn to keep in balance,
the "biocomplexity" of all the Earth's ecosystems.
"Biocomplexity," what do I mean by that? It may not
be in our lexicon right now, but it is where we need
to go in our quest to understand the Earth's biosphere.
Let me start with a bit of historical perspective.
With the exception of the life sciences community,
this is the first time in human history that global
inhabitants are collectively beginning to recognize
that the environment needs protection from humankind.
For 6000 years, the pattern has been humans needing
protection from nature.
Of course, we are still vulnerable. Recent tornadoes,
tidal waves, and earthquakes remind us of that. Nevertheless,
the planet has become vulnerable to our human power
to inflict irreversible damage.
For hundreds of years people have, with abandon, depleted
forests and mineral resources, polluted the air, and
contaminated waterways. This trend has intensified
with a burgeoning world population, coupled with the
power of technology. It has escalated and accelerated
alteration of the environment in ways never before
The special emphasis of this meeting of AIBS is on
the ecosystem of Chesapeake Bay and it has a very
personal meaning for me since my husband and I are
racing sailors who have spent the last twenty-five
years sailing on the Bay. Jack and I just returned
from meetings in England, which we combined with a
visit to the Lake District, where the poet Samuel
Taylor Coleridge lived.
I am reminded of Coleridge's lines from his long poem,
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, those
lines that we all had to memorize in high school.
"Water, water everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere
Nor any drop to drink. ...
The very deep did rot."
To Coleridge, in his altered state of
the fantastical, this dire fate came about to avenge
the death of the albatross. One nevertheless has to
wonder about the insight and the imagination of Coleridge
writing at the end of the 18th century.
Here we are at the end of the 20th century, roughly
200 years later. And our "water, everywhere" has the
potential to become barren, useless, and even poisonous
to aquatic life and inhabitants of the land. Like
the ancient mariner and his crew, we would not be
innocent victims, but rather societal participants.
Much like the Chinese definition of "crisis," there
is both opportunity and responsibility for the science
community. This is where biocomplexity takes shape
as a research direction, as well as a key to social
understanding. To my mind, biocomplexity reaches beyond
biodiversity. When we speak of sustaining biodiversity,
we mean primarily maintaining the plant and animal
diversity of the planet, a very important goal.
On the other hand, the phrase "understanding biocomplexity"
speaks of a deeper concept. It is not enough to explore
and chronicle the enormous diversity of the world's
ecosystems. We must do that ...but also reach beyond,
to discover the complex chemical, biological, and
social interactions in our planet's systems. From
these subtle but very sophisticated interactions and
interrelationships, we can tease the principles of
I recognize that to many of you, this must sound like
a "coals to Newcastle" speech, a preaching to the
choir. Nevertheless, there is a purpose. This message
is one we have to take to the larger science community
and ultimately to the public.
On President's Clinton's recent trip to China he urged
the Chinese government and the Chinese people not
to make the same mistakes that other developing nations
have visited on themselves. He reminded them that
economic growth and environmental preservation are
not mutually exclusive. As all of you know, this is
a lesson we are still struggling to appreciate in
In my new job as NSF Director, I am learning new things
about biology from very unlikely sources. Congressman
George Brown of the House Science Committee, and a
longtime friend of science, made an astute observation
in the commencement address he delivered at UCLA in
1994. He said to the graduates:
"Not unlike the way diverse cells in multicellular
biological organisms signal their activity and thus
coordinate their behavior with unlike cells to ensure
the survival of the organism, we as citizens need
to do the same. We can learn our place and function
in the larger community only by signaling -- by explaining
For the science community this signaling is more than
just biochemical, it means reaching across disciplines.
It will take biologists, ecologists, physical scientists,
computer scientists, engineers, and surely those in
the behavioral sciences to understand the signals
The new challenges of understanding biocomplexity
will draw us together across diverse disciplines.
As we collaborate in an array of disciplines, our
work will connect and overlap. It will gain strength
and insight from that blending.
This means that as scientists we must get better at
signaling to each other. Only by doing this can we
develop a universal language that allows all of us
to communicate and develop an understanding of the
biocomplexity that defines life on this planet.
As scientists, we must also become more comfortable
with dialogue -- that's our signaling -- to the larger
public about the value and contributions of science
to society. That signaling requires astute listening
As biologists and ecologists, we are especially aware
that each species and organism has distinct characteristics
and capabilities. So too with our human species. Perhaps
our most distinct capability is to be able to plan
and construct a sustainable future for the benefit
of all species and ecosystems.
Despite this capability, just learning to decipher
the delicate interactions and balances of a complex
ecosystem like Chesapeake Bay is a significant challenge
-- at least as difficult as learning how to understand,
influence, and educate our own species. Survival,
let alone the capability to flourish, depends on our
ability to achieve what is a truly interdisciplinary
We should aspire to move from remediation to increasingly
predictive and more powerfully preventive capabilities.
The challenge is, at the same time, to be more focused,
yet more integrated in our research. No problems exist
in isolation, whether they are scientific, social,
or technical. More often, they are all three at once.
My own research on the ancient scourge, cholera, which
is still very much with us today, can provide an example.
It is now possible to utilize remote sensing and computer
processing to integrate ecological, epidemiological,
and remotely sensed spatial data to produce predictive
models of cholera outbreaks.
We can now predict conditions conducive to pandemics
of cholera in those parts of the world where the public
health infrastructure is inadequate or even lacking.
Populations can then be instructed on preventive public
health measures. This is a major step forward from
the old pattern of remedial action, that is, reacting
to major, devastating epidemics.
In the long run, our individual research knowledge
and understanding will not be sufficient for the larger
scale research programs. Our cooperative attitude
-- and our comprehensive vision -- will also be needed
to devise and implement strategies at the interdisciplinary
This sets a goal for all of us. Our new knowledge,
and our approach to solving problems must be collaborative.
This will move us toward sustaining all living systems,
ourselves included. We already have considerable evidence
to suggest that the human species often works in opposition
to its own long-term best interest.
The late-social philosopher, Lewis Mumford, wrote
"Western society has accepted as unquestionable a
technological imperative that is quite ...arbitrary
...Not merely the duty ...to create technological
novelties, but equally the duty to surrender to these
novelties unconditionally ...without respect to their
Mumford does not devalue science and technology here.
Instead he is critical of our lack of attention historically
to our values and our vision as a society. He was
telling us something worthy of our serious consideration.
His words should make us attentive not only to what
we are able to do but to ask ourselves if those things
we can do take us to where we need to go as a society
and a civilization.
Marshall McLuhan said more simplistically, "First
we shape our tools and then our tools shape us."
Today, we have sophisticated research methods and
tools, thanks to the work and the creativity of many
of you here. This capability, and our growing awareness
of the effect of human exploration and settlement
on the planet, will drive our new agenda for the 21st
The Chinese have an oft-quoted expression that is
both cautionary and opportunistic: "May you live in
interesting times." We surely are living in those
times. The expanding knowledge of our research base
holds the key. It will both caution us of the dangers
and allow us to take advantage of the opportunities
for positive change.
As I said earlier, we in the life sciences have been
aware of the issues and problems of the Earth's biosphere
for decades now. But it is not enough for us to just
be aware of the problems. We need to play an active
part in the solutions.
The solutions are not only scientific, but social
and political. They will require your active participation.
In the end, our task for science in the 21st century
will be to acknowledge that Coleridge was a good poet
but not a good prophet in his devastating scenario.
I am convinced we will meet the challenge.