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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
FY 2000 Budget Briefing

February 1, 1999

Greetings, good afternoon, and many thanks to all of you for joining us.

I guess the secret is out. We are pleased with the support we have received from the administration.

This is an excellent budget at the starting gate in what was (and remains) a very difficult budget environment.

It's worth noting right at the outset that caps on discretionary spending left very little room for expansion across the government.

Non-defense discretionary spending for FY 2000 is about $28 billion below the FY 1999 level. That's a 13 percent reduction.

Thus, a 6 percent increase for NSF is a true testament to the Administration's commitment to investing in fundamental research.

I am truly grateful for the support NSF received from OMB and OSTP throughout the budget process to date.

Before I turn to details of the budget, I'd like to say a few words about how the NSF fits into the overall R&D environment of our country.

When we step back and examine the context for science and engineering in America, a number of trends emerge, that deserve our attention. A plethora of reports and studies have been asking tough, "real life" questions:

  • Are we ready for the 21st Century?
  • Will the U.S. remain a leader in science and technology?
  • Are we headed in the right direction?

Based on current trends, these remain questions to ponder and to wrestle with.

Total National R&D

In the biannual compilation of Science and Engineering Indicators, the National Science Board put this quite succinctly. It wrote: "The nation's S&E enterprise is undergoing changes in structure and priorities as we prepare to enter the next century."

This is borne out when we look at the national picture. R&D funding patterns have changed substantially.

  • The good news is that total national R&D funding has never been higher. It now amounts to more than $200 billion.
  • The not-so-good-news is that the federal government has been steadily losing ground to industry as a source of R&D funds.
  • In 1997, the federal government provided 30 percent of all R&D funds in the US.
  • That's the lowest level since we started collecting the data!
  • A decade ago, the federal share was 46 percent.
  • Three decades ago, the federal share was 60 percent.

The Council on Competitiveness took stock of the national R&D picture in the Going Global report it released last September, only a few months ago.

The Council consists of CEOs, R&D managers, and top officials from over 120 leading corporations, universities, and government agencies.

What they say is worth listening to. They came to a clear consensus on the need for increased public investment in fundamental research and education.

To quote:

"For the past 50 years, most, if not all, of the technological advances have been directly linked to improvements in fundamental understanding. Investment in discovery research creates the seedcorn for future innovation. Government at all levels is the mainstay of the nation's investment in science and engineering research...."

The Council went on to add that:

"Most [industrial] R&D managers are investing with an eye on the bottom line, but more than a handful wonder from where the next generation of breakthrough technologies will come."

The Vice President addressed this point in his address at last week's AAAS meeting in California. He stressed that the government must support "the long-term investments that most companies can't afford to make."

Let me mention one other trend related to these long-term investments that is causing concern among many of us.

Field Shares

Our Division of Science Resources Studies has taken a close look at the mix of Federal research funding across different fields of science and engineering.

Over the past 25-plus years, the mix has changed significantly and dramatically -- primarily through gains in biomedical fields and declines in the physical sciences and engineering.

- In 1970, the life sciences accounted for 29 percent of Federal research spending. By 1997, their share had risen to 43 percent. Put another way, the share increased by half.

- Engineering, by contrast, saw its share decline by 12 percentage points over the same period, falling from 31 percent to 19 percent of the Federal research portfolio.

- The share going to the physical sciences dropped by more than five points -- from 19 percent to 14 percent of the total portfolio.

The combination effect is just as significant. Engineering and the physical sciences -- taken together -- accounted for 50 percent of federal research spending in 1970.

That's down to 33 percent today -- a drop from half of the total to just one third.

I'd be the first to tell you about the great things that are happening in biomedical fields. Some of that funding has gone to my own research.

But, I also know that society cannot live by biomedical bread alone.

This trend, in fact, concerns many in the medical sciences. Harold Varmus discussed it in the plenary address he delivered at the AAAS meeting one year ago in Philadelphia.

That's the meeting where I found out I was getting a new job.

Harold, much to his credit, took the bull by the horns and talked about the dependence of biology and medicine on other fields of science. In his words:

"Most of the revolutionary changes that have occurred in biology and medicine are rooted in new methods. Those, in turn, are usually rooted in fundamental discoveries in many different fields."

Harold then went on to cite laser surgery, CAT scans, fiber optic viewing, ECHOcardiography, and fetal sonograms as examples of these revolutionary advances.

Bottom Line

This brings us to why we are here today. NSF is the fulcrum for all of science and engineering. NSF is the only agency whose mission covers research in all fields of science and engineering, as well as education at all levels -- cradle to grave, practically speaking.

We support the fundamental work that benefits the work of the mission agencies down the line. For this reason, it is important that we continue working together -- as a community -- to support investments that reach all fields and disciplines.

Let me turn now to the budget...Our total funding is closing in on a $4 billion milestone. The FY 2000 request comes to $3.95 billion, which represents a 5.8 percent increase over the current level.

This is an outstanding result given the constraints imposed by the spending caps.

Funding by Appropriations

Let's look at the five appropriations accounts.

- Research and Related Activities increases by nearly 7 percent; a very important step up.

- Education and Human Resources increases by 3.2 percent. This will allow us to sustain our innovative base of activities and plant few new seeds, as well.

- There is a small change in the level for Major Research Equipment.

- And, the administrative accounts will receive modest, but critically valuable increases. These are the operating funds that make it possible for our workforce to deal with an ever-increasing workload, to do the job that makes NSF the superb agency that it is.

Key Program Functions

Another perspective on the budget can be obtained by looking at Key Program Functions.

The Administration agreed with us when we said loudly and clearly that research investments deserve the highest priority...and the positive response we got is reflected in the 8 percent increase for research project support.

The initiatives that I'll discuss in a moment are driving much of this increase, but they are by no means the entire story.

The budget, as requested, continues to place priority on our ongoing efforts to address grant size and duration, to put increased emphasis on funding rates for new investigators.

This is in the performance plan we developed under the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA).

IT and the Economy

As the Vice President announced at the AAAS meeting last week, the major new investment in this budget is in information technology.

The rationale is both obvious and clear. As Internet growth has gone through the roof, IT has become essential fuel for the nation's economic engine.

IT2 (Government Wide)

This has led to the government-wide initiative: Information Technology for the 21st Century - IT2 as it's called.

Across the government, IT2 will total $366 million across six agencies. Sixty percent of this will go to support university-based research. That's the real win-win for America.

The academic research investment works double duty, as it armors and enables students with advanced IT skills.


NSF is the lead agency for IT2. This was recommended last fall by the PITAC, and we are glad to accept this responsibility.

In keeping with the goals of the overall IT2 program, NSF will emphasize three sets of activities:

- First is fundamental IT research -- at $100 million. This will focus on a key assessment from PITAC's report. For all of our ability to push the high-end in computing, no one really understands how all the pieces work together.

- The need right now is to improve both reliability and performance, and we can achieve this by understanding how systems interact and gaining new knowledge of the working whole.

- The request also includes $36 million for a terascale computing system. This will serve the science and engineering community, including computer scientists.

- Finally, we'll take advantage of the fact that NSF's portfolio includes both the information sciences and the social, behavioral and economic sciences.

- There is $10 million for research on the societal, ethical, and workforce impacts of emerging technologies.

I should add that IT2 covers only a portion of NSF's overall investment in the larger realm of information technologies.

Support for all information technology efforts across the Foundation -- including IT2 and other information-based activities -- totals approximately $830 million -- nearly a billion dollars -- in the FY 2000 request.

When people ask me, why should NSF and the United States invest in information technologies -- and why now -- I say it is an absolute must.

It's not a national initiative; it's a national imperative. It's a classic example of a long-term investment in fundamental research that works for the common good, in fact, the global good.

For this reason, IT2 represents an investment that will strengthen the entire research and education enterprise.

It will deliver tools and capabilities that will benefit every field, every discipline, and every level of education.

When we connect classrooms to the Internet, students can participate in the discovery process -- like these young students at Northfield Mount Hermon Academy in Massachusetts.

They used the 'net to link to an NSF-supported observatory and discovered a previously unidentified asteroid in the Kuiper Belt.

When we bring faster computers to weather forecasting, we save lives, we protect buildings and crops, and more -- by getting better advance warning of El Niño's, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other severe events.

My own research on climate and infectious diseases (El Niņo and cholera) has made this dramatically clear to me.

The possibilities are limitless. We tackle the toughest challenges in science and engineering, and we put high-octane fuel in this great engine of job creation and growth.

Biocomplexity in the Environment

This same sense of imperative comes through in the second priority outlined in the request -- Biocomplexity in the Environment -- or BE as we call it.

A number of us have been developing this new approach to understanding our world over the past few months.

The best part is that we are not alone. A Nature article noted this month that a number of leading U.S. universities are planning centers that link the physical and biological sciences.

As the director of the new center at Princeton, Shirley Tilghman, was quoted as saying, "Biology has thrived in the past 50 years by taking things apart and identifying their components."

She and many of us think it's time now to study how things come together. That's why we are putting $50 million into this biocomplexity initiative, and we are increasing support for a number of related activities as well.

One reason it's time to tackle this task is that we now have the ability, the technologies, to grasp the complexity of our environment.

From computational algorithms to mathematical models, from remote sensing to new kinds of sensors, and of course to genome sequencing and the molecular basis of metabolism and heredity. The technologies have arrived, as have the opportunities in research.

Educating for the Future

Our third major priority for FY 2000 is education, reflected in our investments under the theme of Educating for the Future.

We are building a strong link between graduate education and K-12 teaching via a new graduate teaching fellows program.

It may seem small at only $7.5 million, but it is an important beginning potential impact well beyond the dollars. It will broaden graduate education, and boost the science, engineering, and technology content in K-12 classrooms.

We are also providing $13 million to develop the National Science, Mathematical, Engineering, and Technology Education Digital Library -- NSDL for short.

This will serve as an important national resource for K-12 and undergraduate education, by providing wide access to standards-based materials and learning tools.

The theme that, in many ways, defines NSF -- Integration of Research and Education -- continues to receive very high priority in the request. Our favorite...and familiar...acronyms -- IGERT, REU, CAREER -- all receive strong increases.

As part of last year's immigration legislation, approximately $33 million from the processing fees for H1-B Visas came to NSF.

We are using (well, I may add) to support an array of scholarships and systemic projects aimed at developing a technological workforce for the 21st century.

Other Highlights

I'll just mention a few other highlights before closing.

The Plant Genome Research Program will increase by $5 million to $55 million. This builds on an existing research base of $20 million -- bringing the total investment to $75 million.

This will provide the scientific underpinning in the future for improved nutritional content of our food and improved crops, both in quality and yields.

A new start is the NEES -- the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation. We are providing $8 million in FY 2000 toward a total investment of $82 million over the next five years.

This will lead to a national, fully interconnected network of major earthquake research facilities. Truly a fine example of basic research that will provide information to address a societal need.

Finally, we continue investments in a number of major infrastructure projects, including modernization of the South Pole Station and the detectors for the Large Hadron Collider.

Fundamental research that will spin-off as yet unknown benefits but clearly will help us understand the universe of which we are an important, even though humble, part.

By its very nature, a budget for the first year of a new millennium takes on added significance. That applies doubly so to NSF. The year 2000 marks the 50th Anniversary of the National Science Foundation.

Given the increase we have received in this very tight budget environment, it clear that this is a "golden anniversary" budget.

This is also an appropriate time to step back and think about the long-term importance of investments in science and engineering.

The budget process doesn't often allow long- term thinking. I am told that long-range planning in Washington means thinking about your next press conference.

That makes it really hard to make a case for investment in our children's future, but now is the time to make that case with fierce intensity.

Consider this: one hundred years ago, one could say society was at a similar, perhaps better phrased, a familiar turning point for science and technology:

- Mendel's work on heredity was being rediscovered.

- Marie Curie, Max Plank, and others were changing our understanding of matter and opening the door to quantum mechanics and following-up on Roentgen's discovery of X-rays.

- (Einstein, by contrast, was just beginning his career as a patent examiner.)

When we look back 50 years, to the time when NSF was opening its doors...

- Watson and Crick were discovering the structure of DNA was a double helix (using Rosalind Franklin's data, I may add).

- And, the team at Bell Labs was developing the first transistor.

Today, our world has been transformed by these discoveries. We are only beginning to understand the promises and the challenges brought by the revolutions in biotech and info tech.

We are sequencing entire genomes, mapping the farthest reaches of the universe, and bringing advanced technology to virtually every home, office, and classroom.

Rather than mark the culmination of our efforts, they are a beginning...these achievements will lead us to new frontiers -- and to a new relationship between science, engineering, and society.

For this reason, it is appropriate to close with a quote from a recent work to guide us on our road to this new century.

Some of you may have read, What Remains to be Discovered, by John Maddox, the former editor of Nature. It was published just last year.

Maddox began his work by assessing the amazing pace of progress in science and technology during the 19th century. This provides an insightful bit of historical perspective. To use his words: "For science and technology, the nineteenth century was certainly the best there had ever been. Only now do we know it was merely a beginning."

Here at the end of the 20th century, we should be even more emphatic than John Maddox. What we have seen to date is more than merely a beginning.

This is a dawning -- a new era of exploration. We have the power and the responsibility to see that it brings a sustainable planet, an improved standard of living, a top-notch educational system, and a brighter future to all.

This FY 2000 budget request is an excellent first step toward realizing these goals.

I look forward to working with all of you -- as we make the case for these investments, and work to achieve the goals we share as a community and as a nation.



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