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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
Tenth Anniversary of Coalition of EPSCoR States
Washington, DC

March 23, 1999

I am delighted to be here at the EPSCoR celebration. I think all of you know me as a friend.

I am a believer, advocate, supporter, promoter, and fan of EPSCoR. I want to salute all of you on this 10th anniversary of the Coalition of EPSCoR States.

The EPSCoR initiative is almost 20 years old in several states. Without dispute, EPSCoR has evolved into one of NSF's major and most successful investments. Most of the credit for that success belongs to you.

Tonight, I want to talk about EPSCoR, its vitality and success, and, its future.

Throughout history, civilizations have advanced on the backs of new ideas--unique concepts that have changed the social order of society in some way.

In America, federal government support of efforts to serve the "common good" has marked every era of our history.

We have consistently expanded opportunities to a broader base of participants, first, by opening the frontier and granting ownership to anyone willing to develop the land.

Milestones in education include land grant colleges and universities, higher education benefits for veterans, and head-start programs to ensure that all our youngsters are prepared to begin school.

We can proudly add EPSCoR to that list.

As we look back on those ideas and initiatives, it is hard to imagine opposition to any of those visionary choices. But at the time, some very smart and highly respected people dissented.

A classic example of just such a reaction occurred in 1848, at a crucial moment for a young nation. In a speech on the Senate floor, Daniel Webster railed against the acquisition of California and New Mexico.

He said, "I cannot conceive of anything more ridiculous, more absurd, and more affrontive to all sober judgment than the cry that we are profitting by the acquisition of New Mexico and California. I hold that they are not worth a dollar!"

EPSCoR is not so old that many of us here tonight cannot remember opposition to the idea. I would say that California, New Mexico, and EPSCoR have all proven themselves worthy of the investment.

Nevertheless, it is useful to set down for public record and historical value the reasons for its establishment.

The geneticist, Maxine Singer, said it succinctly in an interview with Bill Moyers several years ago. Singer reminded us, "On any day, if you look at the front page, half the stories usually have a technical or scientific component in them. A society that turns its back on science has to face decay and deterioration."

It is important to note that Singer speaks of the society "as a whole" and not some narrow and exclusive segment of society. EPSCoR, in many ways, represents the concept of the "society as a whole."

It is the expansion and enrichment of research in the same way that land grant colleges and the GI Bill of Rights represented the enrichment of higher education in America.

It was established to ensure that America was the beneficiary of its vast science and engineering talent and capability--a capability that resides in every corner of our nation.

It is based on the principle that no one region, no one group of institutions, and no special communities have a corner on the market of good and great ideas, smart people, or outstanding researchers.

Great ideas can come from just about anywhere. EPSCoR, as a concept, grew out of the recognition that inadequate infrastructure in some educational institutions and regions was due, in part, to a historical pattern of lack of federal funding.

It grew much bigger as EPSCoR institutions themselves devised unique models for partnerships and outreach that have much broader application.

Beyond these important understandings, EPSCoR was also an experiment in the way we think about research and development, as well as, research and education.

We know that good decisions about R&D investments have always been rooted in two basic principles, peer review and competition for funds. These principles underscore EPSCoR's work and have ensured its success.

In our system of higher education, research and education were designed to fit together and enhance each other.

But, over time, in some places, these two objectives became unhitched, to the detriment of both, I would say.

The principles that undergird EPSCoR represent a mid-course correction in our larger research system, a system that had begun to look like a pyramid, with a select few research-driven institutions at the pinnacle.

EPSCoR provided funds and opportunities to build research capability across a broader set of institutions. Through it, we have changed the shape of research in our higher education system.

From it, we have learned new ways to build stronger connections between research and education, to enrich and embolden each.

Your institutions and states have also developed innovative, even ingenious, ways to tie the fundamental research in your institutions to the economic and social needs of your state and regional populations.

In that respect, you serve as models to emulate for the broader community in higher education. Good ideas are always worth sharing.

But as we celebrate and congratulate ourselves on the vitality and success of EPSCoR, we must also remember that a successful concept is always an evolving concept.

In a dynamic society, rigidity is a sure sign of decline. We must not be like the cartoon character, Pogo, who said, "We is faced with insurmountable opportunities."

The future will always be different from the past. NSF and its constituents must work together to build on newly developed capabilities to take us to further frontiers.

  • How do we capitalize on the lessons and leadership many of your states and institutions have provided?

  • How do we use that knowledge to move us in new directions?

Information technologies (IT) have played a transforming role in every facet of our society. They have been especially significant for EPSCoR institutions.

IT access and capability have changed the definition of distant, remote, and isolated.

A new concept of distance and disconnection comes from being IT poor or deprived.

On the other hand, geographical remoteness disappears with hook-ups to sophisticated IT networks and systems.

With the creation of Partnerships for Advanced Computational Infrastructure (PACI), in October 1997, every EPSCoR state was guaranteed connection to the National Technology Grid of supercomputers.

This broad inclusion gave all 19 states access to:

  • large sophisticated supercomputers

  • computer codes, computational techniques, and the most advanced software

  • hundreds of highly skilled computing experts--our national computing talent pool.

PACI insures inclusion and access. With PACI connection, every EPSCoR state has been elevated to a new plateau.

The horizon is broader and the opportunities grander for the nation's entire science and engineering enterprise.

This is a good time to consider how the future will be different from the past. At NSF, we have put together a working group on innovation partnerships.

This is being done within the broader context of meeting the Foundation's goals under GPRA, the Government Performance and Results Act.

The effort has been spurred by agreement between the President and the governors to advance innovation collaborations between the states and the federal government.

This concept is rooted in the very skills and expertise developed by EPSCoR participants. All of you have a great deal to offer.

Collectively, the participants in EPSCoR, ANI (Advanced Networking Infrastructure), STTR (Small Business Technology Transfer Research), and other initiatives represent the memory bank of successful experience in moving discoveries into the service of society.

It may be that this nest of acronyms has become too crowded to manage individually.

It may be that they will have a new umbrella-name for a multifaceted group driven by the common objective of innovation partnerships.

In the past, EPSCoR has brought us skillful mechanisms to break down barriers, to unite opposing factions, to define research agendas that meet state and regional needs, and then, to address state officials with proposals that even a miser couldn't refuse.

If you can do all this, you are now ready to do much more. Let us plan that future together.



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