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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Investing in Federal Science and Technology: Integrating our Research Portfolio"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
Senate Science and Technology Caucus

March 3, 1999

It is a great pleasure to join all of you, and I especially want to thank the Caucus for inviting me to participate in today's discussion.

When we talk about "Investing in Science and Technology: Integrating our Research Portfolio," we are talking about a topic that is nothing short of central to our economic health and well-being as a nation.

No less an authority than Federal Reserve Board Chairman, Alan Greenspan, made this clear in the speech he delivered two weeks ago before the American Council on Education.

He examined the increasingly important role of research and higher education in what he termed our "conceptual-based economy."

Value-added in today's economy flows from insights that reach across fields and bring together different perspectives. To use Dr. Greenspan's words, "Most great conceptual advances are interdisciplinary and involve synergies of different specialties."

Today more than ever, we need to pay close attention to the structure of the Federal research portfolio and assign highest priority to investments that reach all fields and disciplines.

For this reason, it is important to say a few words about the context for our discussion. NSF's Division of Science Resources Studies has recently completed an analysis of 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. I won't go into the details of the report here today, but I would like to highlight two key trends.

  • In 1970, the life sciences accounted for 29 percent of Federal research spending. By 1997, their share had risen to 43 percent.
  • 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.

We know that these trends reflect a number of factors.

For starters, the end of the Cold War brought an overdue assessment of weapons-related research, which is reflected in the declining share for the physical sciences and engineering. Over this same period, biomedical fields were advancing at an unprecedented pace--thanks to advances in biotechnology, genomics, molecular biology, and a host of other areas.

Now, as we look to the 21st Century, it would be a waste of our time to ask if we should turn back the clock and return to the priorities dictated by the Cold War.

Rather, we should be asking what kind of investments in science and technology will fuel growth in today's information-driven and conceptual-based economy.

The answer to this question is clear beyond any doubt in my mind, and it speaks directly to the purpose of our discussion today.

Our highest priority must be to develop an investment strategy that reaches all fields and disciplines. I have learned this time and again from my own research on climate and health.

The advances my colleagues and I have made all draw upon the state-of-the-art in satellite remote sensing and information processing--which in turn rely upon advances in the physical sciences and engineering.

Through his work with the Council on Competitiveness, my co-panelist George Milne has addressed this same point in the context of health care.

To quote from the Council's latest report: "Increasingly, innovation in health care is...linked to basic research in other fields, ranging from chemistry, physics, and engineering to computer and materials sciences."

This is why I often tell people that society cannot live by biomedical bread alone.

Before closing, let me just add that the issues we are discussing today are central to NSF's mission. The Foundation is the only Federal agency mandated to promote the health and vitality of research and education in science and engineering across all fields and disciplines.

The two highest priority investments in NSF's FY 2000 budget request both promote progress across our portfolio.

  • The first is IT2--also known as Information Technology for the 21st Century. It represents the leading edge of the information revolution, and it promises to develop capabilities that will advance research and education across all fields and disciplines.
  • The second major priority in the request is in the emerging area of biocomplexity. This aims to trace not only the biological interactions, but also the chemical, social, physical, and geological interactions in our planet's systems.

To close, I would like to say once again that over the past 25 years, we have seen a major realignment of the Federal research portfolio.

That makes this the ideal time to look ahead and align our investment priorities with the needs and opportunities of tomorrow's information economy.



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