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


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
American Physical Society Centennial Symposium
Atlanta, GA

March 21, 1999

Greetings to all of you, and thank you for inviting me, a microbiologist, to join this diverse gathering of physicists, in both the audience and also here on the panel. I'm used to speaking to thousands of microbiologists. It is a truly new experience to mingle with thousands of physicists.

We are staking out more shared territory every day. During my brief remarks this afternoon, I'd like to touch upon our common destiny and several other themes that I see charting the road ahead for NSF in the new millennium.

Broadly speaking, I want to describe a scenario in which interdisciplinary research and the core disciplines are really two sides of the same coin.

Then I'll cite three areas we're emphasizing this year at NSF, which illustrate that philosophy.

A common trait of physics and biology is that no one has ever accused either field of modesty. Our ambitions reach from understanding the birth of life to the birth of the universe.

One of the APS press releases described the purview of this meeting as "the universe from alpha to omega." That tells us something about our modesty!

The wonderful inclusiveness of our gathering demonstrates a trend in all of science, one we expect to intensify in the next century.

That trend is the ever-deepening connections between the disciplines, links that mirror the complexity of our world and our universe. As John Muir wrote early in our century, "When we try to pick out anything, by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

My own research career on climate and health bears this out. As we've traced the ecology of those bacteria that cause cholera, our discoveries have been predicated upon linkages.

Our progress would have been impossible without drawing upon advances from the physical sciences and engineering--such as remote sensing, physical oceanography, space science and the power of computing.

The fertile juncture of biology and physics provides a great case study of the richness that results from exchanges across disciplinary boundaries. There's a long history of physicists in biology--Leo Szilard, Seymour Benzer, Salvatore Luria. They made enormous contributions, and it continues today.

The imaging technologies of astronomy and physics have numerous applications in the inner universe of medicine.

We've seen this in breast cancer detection, where a doctor shares an astronomer's need to single out significant spots against a cluttered background, separating the signal from the noise.

We also see this in how Magnetic Resonance Imaging technology emerged from chemistry, math, and physics.

Another example in the works is research on synthetic macromolecules that may, one day, join biomembranes to electronic circuits.

This could enable information exchange between living cells and devices. We may soon be walking arrays of embedded computers and circuitry, as we learn to extend our lives from the biblical three-score-and-ten to the six-score-and-twenty.

We can learn a tremendous amount from one another. Biology has operated for much of our century by picking things apart.

There's a groundswell of opinion now that the time is ripe to study how things come together.

The idea that this century--which many call the era of physics--is giving way to a new century of biology, misses the point.

That view is far too simplistic to capture what's actually happening. A much fuller image is a convergence of physics and biology.

We'll need, however, to transform the way we speak to each other. Dan Kleppner said in Physics Today last November that "physics will have increasingly important things to say about biological processes, but the language of that physics may turn out to be different from the language we know."

I cannot agree more strongly. To travel freely among disciplines, we can no longer afford the luxury of speaking in the tongues of our individual fields. We need to develop a common language--a "scientific Esperanto."

We must also be mindful that the excitement and foment at the disciplinary boundaries is nourished by the health of the core disciplines.

Yet, we know full well that we cannot predict where the next breakthrough will take place. From Rutherford to Einstein to Thomas J. Watson, the best minds show that brilliance does not imply clairvoyance.

A case in point, is the biologist who won a Nobel in 1960, Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet. He said way back in the late 1950's "Molecular biology is interesting, but it will have no commercial value."

We have so many examples of core research begetting serendipitous advances.

Who in atomic physics, for instance, would have imagined that atomic clocks would find a use in the Global Positioning System, the satellite constellation that lets us find our precise location anywhere on earth?

We can use GPS to track the drift of continents. (Well, on a more mundane level, my husband Jack and I use it to stay the course when we sail in regattas on the Chesapeake Bay.)

In any case, we probably cannot even begin now to frame the questions that will beguile science and engineering in the next century.

My physicist colleagues point out that the Standard Model of Particle Physics is certainly incomplete. We do not understand what drives the expansion of the universe.

And we cannot reconcile the two signature theories of physics--gravitational physics, and quantum mechanics. There are so many other mysteries that we can only begin to perceive--and many more we cannot even name.

NSF with its mission, along with our fellow government agencies, are the guardians for long-term research on these sorts of topics--the ones that individually have no guaranteed pay-off.

We must assign top priority to investments that reach all fields and all disciplines. Our long view is so very important, as research horizons in industry, by most assessments, are shrinking. Research horizons of industry are now in the three-to-five year time span, driven by quarterly dividend reports.

With this as a backdrop, we cast an analytic eye on the structure of current federal funding.

Over the past quarter century or so, the mix of Federal research funding has changed 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.

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.

Not least because of the interdependence of science, engineering and our economy, these are disturbing trends. The Economist magazine recently ran a survey on innovation, which it termed "the industrial religion of the late 20th century."

The survey reported some evidence that technology cycles are speeding up--and the only way to keep up is to keep all of science and engineering vigorous. As The Economist said, "In real life, the innovation process is a cat's cradle of interrelationships, a network of feedback connections."

We're asking what kinds of investments will fuel growth in today's information-driven and conceptual-based economy.

This year at NSF, we've targeted several broad areas for increased funding. We've placed high priority on "IT2"--also known as Information Technology for the 21st Century.

It represents the leading edge of the information revolution, and it promises capabilities that will advance research and education across the board.

Our initiative ties in with one of the "primary motifs" of this meeting. I see that the APS program highlights "the confinement of electrons and the implication of this for the movement of information..."

Thus, there is nothing new about the strong links between the progress of physics and information technology.

We know that the World Wide Web grew out of networking by high-energy physicists at CERN in Europe. Physics will play a key role in our new cross-agency initiative as well.

Another high priority in our budget proposal is an area I call biocomplexity.

This emerging approach will trace not only the biological interactions but also the chemical, social, physical, and geological interactions in our planet's systems. The insights from physics will be integral here.

We have a third priority and that is science and math education--actually a longstanding focus of NSF's portfolio. For us, it's not Y2K stupid, it's K-12.

Integrating research and education has become something of a mantra for us. Our obligation as scientists to reach out to students and the public is underscored by a question posed by a nameless but real national legislator. As he said, "We've got enough quarks already. What do we need another one for?"

That's actually a fair question that gets at the heart of education in fundamental science. As the start of an answer, we're proposing a new program to place graduate students in K-12 classrooms.

In fact, I understand that some noteworthy physics endeavors are already pioneering this kind of approach.

Quarks can help point us in the right direction. There's a pre-college effort we support called "Quarknet" that links researchers with students and teachers.

Students will use "live" data from Fermilab and the Large Hadron Collider to participate in active scientific projects. They'll be collaborating with other students around the country and the world.

I've also been impressed by what I've heard about "ASPIRE." It's an effort to get recent astrophysics discoveries into everyday science lessons.

Teams of undergrads and grads go to K-12 classrooms, and teachers come to the labs. The project uses interactive, web-based technology.

In one activity on the ASPIRE website, students can hitch a virtual balloon ride with Victor Frances Hess and plot the change in background radiation as they rise through the sky. Sounds like the next best thing to being there!

Our outreach and education can take many forms. Let me recommend a visit to the NSF booth at this meeting. It showcases NSF-supported achievements in physics.

You will see a working model of the optics of our Laser Interferometer Gravity Wave Observatory, or LIGO, as well as demonstrations of chaos, cosmic ray detection, and a lot more.

These kinds of outreach projects help us spark careers of the next generation of scientists and engineers, increase public science literacy, and deepen understanding of the science and engineering research that drives our economy. But they're only a beginning. We have recently learned that our universe is expanding at an increasing rate.

To keep pace with this expansion, we need to accelerate our pace of discovery, outreach beyond our science and engineering communities, and support that makes it all possible. I ask for your help on all of these priorities.

There is tremendous excitement in physics across the spectrum, and I'd like to close by mentioning two projects that exemplify our future directions.

The first is the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, discussed by Alan Bromley in his talk prior to this session. It is exemplary, not only in its position at a frontier of physics, but also as a model for inter-agency and international cooperation.

In all these ways, it represents trends of the future.

As we look toward a new century and a new millennium, we will also be inaugurating LIGO.

It is the largest venture NSF has ever undertaken. This is truly a high-risk adventure: to attempt our first direct observation of gravitational waves.

These projects--on-time and on-budget--show NSF's ability and willingness to push the frontiers of the future.

We can, and do, manage science when the pricetag is $200 million or more, just as effectively as the lone investigator grant of $200,000.

Both are critical for future successes, not just in science, engineering, and technology, but for the health and vitality of our economy, our social system, and our planet.

Let me close on the subject of LIGO. Building this observatory is a fitting way to usher in the millennium--looking for never-seen signals in uncharted skies.

If we find these ripples in the shape of space, no doubt we will find--to paraphrase John Muir--that they are somehow "hitched" to everything else.



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