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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"The National Science Foundation at 50"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
New York Academy of Sciences

September 30, 1999

It is an honor to be here today to talk about the National Science Foundation at its 50th anniversary. I should also say that it is an honor to be the NSF Director anytime, but especially at this celebratory moment for the Foundation.

I am just back from New Zealand and the Presidential State visit. I was there to serve as President Clinton's guide for his stop-over at the International Antarctic Center in Christchurch.

I also got to fly back on Air Force One with the President. It's a 22+ hour flight, so there was plenty of time for a few conversations with him and the White House staff during the Christchurch visit and the flight home.

Needless to say, science and engineering were on my mind. We've always known that the President appreciates the importance of fundamental science and engineering to society.

He showed great interest in the Antarctic and the polar research program ..astronomy, biodiversity, and the chlorofluorcarbon--ozone connection, as well as how research is done in polar regions.

He, Chelsea, and Mrs. Rodham (his mother-in-law) were fascinated by what they saw. The President talked directly with researchers at our base at McMurdo, in full view of Mount Erebus. He particularly liked the warehouse where scientists are fitted for south pole research.

Sandy Berger was especially taken with the bright red NSF parka. When we landed at Andrews Air Force Base just after midnight, he was proudly attired in the NSF logo'd, polar red jacket to greet the cameras.

One episode from the trip that I know made the news back here was Gene Sperling's bungee jumping off the bridge near Queenstown, New Zealand. The Washington Post reporter covering the trip said Sperling looked ashen as he jumped but gleeful that he survived.

Gene quipped that the stock market had ups and downs that day--he wasn't sure if it went up when he jumped and down when he survived.

All of the New Zealand events of two weeks ago bring to mind what Chief of Staff John Podesta said in his talk at the National Press Club earlier this month.

Our friends in high places have a clear understanding of the importance of science and technology to the continued expansion and prosperity of the economy.

These are very positive signals coming from the highest levels of the Administration.

None of us here today ever doubted the connections of research and development to economic success or long-term societal benefit--which gives us all the more reason for us to talk about NSF over the last 50 years.

With total modesty, I can say that NSF's historical contributions to our current societal advancement and well-being are significant.

The entire Federal R&D enterprise has had long and strong connections to our colleges and universities. We have been partners in function and spirit for decades.

Today, federal agencies, academic institutions, and the private sector routinely seek each other out for multi-partner collaborations.

We have learned the effectiveness of integrating our diverse strengths. But the working relationship between federal R&D institutions and the academic research community is an older bond.

It has operated effectively since well before others came into the fold.

In the Federal R&D structure, NSF is a unique agency. We do not have a mission-oriented-research-objective such as energy, oceans, biomedicine, agriculture, or space.

Instead, we have the mission to support and fund the underpinnings for all research disciplines, and the connections between and among research disciplines.

We have a distinct set of responsibilities. It is our job to keep all fields of science and engineering focused on the furthest frontier, to recognize and nurture emerging fields, to support the work of those with the most insightful reach, and to prepare coming generations of scientific talent.

In marking our 50th anniversary, we are celebrating vision and foresight. Here in New York where hockey is part of local lore and common parlance with the Rangers, the Islanders, and the Devils, I think an hockey analogy is appropriate.

The recently retired hockey-great, Wayne Gretzky (no stranger to New Yorkers) used to say, "I skate to where the puck is going, not to where it's been."

At NSF, we try to fund where the fields are going, not to where they've been.

NSF has a strong record across all fields of science and engineering for choosing to fund insightful proposals and visionary investigators.

You have to have a lot of good ammunition to back-up such bragging, and we do. At this anniversary, we have chosen to tell the NSF story by assembling some of our greatest hits.

We are selecting them from literally thousands of discoveries that NSF has funded over five decades.

Each of those discoveries has made its mark in contributing new light to an established field or moved us a step closer to an emerging field.

What stands out most is their broad impact as catalysts for moving our thinking and capability in a new direction.

I will not review all of them for you today but will offer just a smattering. These may surprise even the scholars of federal R&D achievements.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging or MRI is one of the most comprehensive medical diagnostic tools. We didn't invent MRI--but our ongoing support for instrumentation advanced the development of MRI's and other imaging systems.

NSF-funded research in atmospheric chemistry identified ozone depletion over the Antarctic, or the "ozone hole" as it has come to be known. In 1986, NSF researchers established chlorofluorocarbons as the probable cause of the Antarctic ozone hole. Since CFCs are used in many commercial applications, this discovery has driven a search for benign substitutes and also led to regulation of CFC emissions.

It seems that none of us can remember an information universe without Web Browsers like Netscape. The browser made the World Wide Web. The first browser of note was Mosaic, and it was developed by a student working at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. This is one of NSF's four original Supercomputing Centers.

In industry, the acronym CAD/CAM brings to mind the best in design and manufacturing techniques. NSF-funded research on solid modeling led to the widespread use of Computer-Aided Design and Computer-Aided Manufacturing. The keys to success were advances in the underlying mathematics and in linking the academic and industrial leaders in the field.

These examples provide just a glimpse at the discovery whirlpool that NSF has kept in constant motion for half a century. Describing them to you is not just boasting.

It is the strongest evidence of the value of the Federal government's investment and involvement in research and development.

The unique role of NSF is buttressed and enhanced by the diversity of the other Federal R&D agencies and the network of national laboratories.

Together, they represent a universe of discovery and innovation that is the envy of the world. That success has always hinged on the interrelationships and connections between the federal R&D structure and our nation's universities.

The universities are the linchpins in this complex process. They are the consistent and cohesive element. The Federal government should be an enabler.

In our research universities, we have masterfully integrated research with the education and training of our next generation of scientists and engineers.

This combination is unique to the American system and has created a synergy throughout our national research enterprise. The wisdom of this approach has been borne out over time.

However, just as science and engineering have consistently changed and enriched the world, the world of science and engineering is also changing and being enriched by what I would call a new sociology of science.

This recent change has been driven by many forces, including the end of the Cold War and the subsequent globalization of the world economy.

But information technologies have probably had the most pervasive influence on what we are able to do in science and engineering over the last two decades.

These technologies have become the new infrastructure of science. They allow us to achieve simultaneously both depth and breadth in a research problem.

They have enabled us to view and tackle the panorama of a problem. They have provided an understanding that is at the same time both unique and universal.

When humans viewed the Earth from space for the first time, we could see our own blue planet from a perspective never before seen. A fundamental revision of ourselves in the universe took shape from that new angle.

We were no longer singularly omnipotent, but rather fragile, small, and even vulnerable. The new tools of science and engineering reveal depth, complexity, vast distances, and unimagined connections.

These are the extraordinary computational and imaging tools emerging from information technologies today. But what does this have to do with changing the sociology of science? With these new capabilities, we are discovering that at the most intricate and intimate level of all fields there is a connection, a powerful binding to each other.

One discipline becomes a metaphor for explaining another discipline. We are finding that complexity eventually brings us to the integration of things.

We are finding the places where biology and physics explain each other, where chemistry and geology intersect in the clouds we see overhead. It's best captured by a quote from John Muir--"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." Information technology has been the single most powerful force for this new sociology of science.

It has allowed us to invade the deepest complexities and the broadest scope of a scientific question. We find a kinship here through similarities in patterns or behaviors in diverse fields.

This has helped create a change in the social dynamic of science. Increasingly, researchers are engaged in collaborations outside of their own disciplines.

They find explanation and elaboration of their own work in unrelated fields. This growing commonality is like strangers finishing each other's thoughts.

In the process, the old-style dogmatism of the disciplines will be eclipsed by this comradeship beyond the disciplinary walls.

I have seen this in my own research. I have studied the infectious disease, cholera, for more then twenty-five years. We found that the bacterium, Vibrio Cholerae, is associated with plankton in rivers and ponds.

To reduce cholera in poverty--stricken countries, like Bangladesh, filtering out the plankton should lessen, if not curb the disease.

We determined that sari cloth would make an excellent, affordable filter. However, it was necessary to determine whether this would be culturally acceptable to the Bangladeshi families.

A sociologist was added to our research team. The answer was quickly shown to be affirmative. We now have a team of sociologists working with us on this project, as we implement the procedure.

This is just one way that we are both watching and participating in the formation of this "new sociology of science."

And so we come full circle to ask the fundamental questions: where are the opportunities and what are the issues--for all of higher education, and for the nation?

The opportunities lie in understanding the arc of change and moving in that direction.

That means following Wayne Gretzy, "to where the puck is going, not to where it's been." Information technologies are altering the very nature of knowledge and of learning.

Those who successfully seize the opportunities will, in essence, find productive and innovative ways to harness IT's multifaceted capabilities.

For example, new combinations of universities, a triumviret, one in Asia, one in Europe, and one in the U.S. may set a new model for global science and engineering education.

This is already happening with some of our "virtual" universities. Whatever the other opportunities turn out to be, we must think of them not for the few but for the many. Otherwise, they do not become opportunities for the nation.

While the pervasiveness of information technologies has enhanced our capabilities, it has also further divided our society into haves and have-nots.

This brings me to the nation's most compelling issue and to the second half of NSF's mission: science and math--education--literacy--and workforce skills. Science and technology are the propelling and sustaining forces of our economy.

This will become increasingly true in the future. The 21st century workforce must be a science and technology competent workforce at all levels.

In keeping with NSF's mission and the nation's current and future needs, we have just launched a public-private partnership--the largest of its kind--called Jumpstart 2000.

This is a national science and technology challenge for students in grades K through 12.

Talk about innovative partnerships; this collaboration includes the National Science Board, which is the governing board of the NSF, PARADE and react magazines, and the White House Millennium Council.

Jumpstart 2000 invites all students to share their hopes and concerns for our national and global future. They are being asked to apply science and technology to develop innovative approaches to these goals and problems.

We want this to be a national effort. It aims to build continuing involvement of our nation's youth in planetary problem solving and prosperity. We are excited and optimistic. We want to create a sea change in attitudes.

Here is a pivotal opportunity. Universities need to play a leadership role in promoting the importance of science and math literacy for the nation's population. Every institution will approach this differently.

Many Federal agencies, national and state institutions, public school systems, corporations, and non-profit organizations are concerned about 21st century workforce issues. Thus, they represent prospective partners for innovative collaborations.

In science, we must think globally about our nation's place and prosperity in the coming century. Academies of Science have been leaders in new thinking, new directions. Among those Academies, the New York Academy of Sciences has a special place, a distinguished reputation.

On behalf of the National Science Foundation, I ask you to use that expertise in helping the science community move the nation to where the "puck is going." It's worked for 50 years, and it should take us even farther in the next 50.

I hope as a start, you will join in some of the activities of the NSF 50 anniversary. Again, it is an honor to be here. Thank you.



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