and the New Sociology of Science "
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
California Institute of Technology
Symposium on Information Technology
at the Turn of the Century:
A Computational Science Perspective
October 27, 1999
I am delighted to be here and honored to participate
with such a distinguished group of speakers. It's
always a treat to come to California, and to be among
Congratulations are in order for Caltech on two "observational
fronts" today. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave
Observatory, better known to all of us as LIGO, will
be officially dedicated on November 12.
As the lead institution in this partnership, I know
you are most proud, and probably relieved, to bring
this daunting project to fruition.
The National Science Foundation is celebrating with
you. LIGO will give us a whole new window on the universe.
At the opposite side of the observational spectrum,
you are celebrating the Nobel Prize for Caltech professor,
His extraordinary high-speed device that can even record
the movement of individual atoms provides a window
on another scale of our universe.
Congratulations to the new Nobelist and to all those
who participated in the long LIGO development process.
These are two successes worthy of popping champagne
Before beginning my symposium-related remarks, I want
to thank everyone in the science community for their
recent efforts on behalf of public investments in
science and engineering.
Your message was clear and effective, and the Congress
responded by funding the Foundation at just about
its budget request. The picture was not as rosy earlier
in the budget season.
Many in the community stepped forward to champion investments
in research and education. This is testament to the
power of convincing arguments. Thank you again.
All of this bodes well for our discussion today on
the future of information technologies. I have titled
my remarks, Information Technologies and the New
Sociology of Science.
Although I plan to talk about the larger definition
of a "new sociology of science," I feel compelled
to point out that some sociologies have not changed
I am the only woman on this panel today. Suffice it
to say there is still much unfinished work on that
This new sociology of science, in its broader scope,
is primarily the result of the current power and pervasiveness
of information technologies.
A little bit of history is worth repeating here --
a history that you know well but sometimes we do not
stop to appreciate.
The 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, the
private sector, and even State Governments 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. Some of the most pervasive and
profound benefits to society have come from this collaboration.
We can be rightfully proud and deeply satisfied.
As many of you know, NSF turns "50" in a few months.
We had a kick-off event just last week at the Foundation.
During our half-century anniversary-year, we plan
to celebrate and to highlight our many achievements
in science and engineering.
They are obviously the achievements of the science
and engineering community as well. Caltech has played
a consistently important role.
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,
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.
Our task is to recognize and nurture emerging fields,
and to support the work of those with the most insightful
reach. And, we prepare future generations of scientific
talent. Many of you in the audience are, or have been,
NSF partners. One of our most important roles is investing
in the best people. And I am here looking at you.
In marking our 50th anniversary, we are
celebrating vision and foresight. The recently retired
hockey-great, Wayne Gretzky, 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. We have a strong record
across all fields of science and engineering for choosing
to fund insightful proposals and visionary investigators.
Of all the federal R&D agencies, the NSF has the broadest
reach across the academic research community. As part
of celebrating this 50th anniversary, we
are portraying the sheer breadth of our reach over
time and across disciplines.
We are choosing to highlight some of our most far-reaching
investments. From literally thousands of discoveries
that the Foundation has funded over five decades,
we have chosen fifty.
You can breathe a sigh of relief; I will not review
all of them today, just a smattering. These speak
to the breath and diversity of our mission and may
surprise even the veteran scholars of research achievements.
Each of these 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.
- Today, Magnetic Resonance Imaging or MRI is one of
the most comprehensive medical diagnostic tools. NSF
supported research on the instrumentation that led
to the non-invasive MRI technology.
- 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 worldwide
regulation of CFC emissions.
- 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
particularly in the design of electronic circuits.
The key to success was actually in linking the academic
and industrial leaders in the field.
Any of you could probably write the "manifest" for
NSF support in computational science and information
networks. PITAC tapped the Foundation as the lead
agency for the new initiative in IT research.
It was our dogged history in support of "where the
field is going, not where it has been" that made us
the logical choice.
Your community has led that vision. Together with the
other PITAC federal partners. We will carry out the
vanguard vision in the PITAC recommendations. In describing
NSF's role and these few examples to you, I do not
mean this as just boasting, although I don't mind
boasting about the Foundation.
Rather, 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 nation's 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.
Your community has been a fundamental driver in making
IT the backbone of all research disciplines. This
extraordinary capability simultaneously gives us both
depth and breadth in a research problem.
My own research on the causes and cycles of cholera
could not have been possible without the broad reach
of computational tools and imaging technologies. They
have enabled the research community 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 the view
of ourselves in the universe took shape from that
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
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
One discipline becomes a metaphor for explaining another
discipline. We are finding that complexity eventually
brings us to the integration of things. We are discovering
the places where biology and physics explain each
other, where chemistry and geology intersect in the
clouds we see overhead.
Information technology has been the single most powerful
force for this new sociology of science. It is an
outreach, inclusive technology that long ago burst
the boundaries of computer science disciplines.
IT has the wingspan of a Condor, and we are designing
its glide path. With IT, we can invade the deepest
complexities and the broadest scope of a scientific
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.
I have seen this in my own research. I have studied
the infectious disease cholera for more than twenty-five
We found that the bacterium, Vibrio cholerae, is associated
with plankton in ponds, rivers, and coastal waters.
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 Bangladeshi
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
In this way of doing things, we find explanation and
elaboration of our own work in unrelated fields. This
growing commonality is like strangers finishing each
In the process, the old-style dogmatism of the disciplines
will be eclipsed by this comradeship beyond the disciplinary
And, down the road the reward system will bend and
follow this evolution into the "new sociology of science."
We are both watching and participating in the formation
of these new patterns and structures. At this point,
it is time to ask: 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."
We know that information technologies can alter the
very nature of knowledge and of learning at the furthest
One of our goals is to make terascale machines broadly
available to the academic community. That might be
the best news of all in the FY2000 appropriation.
The funding for terascale came through at the 11th
hour -- thanks in no small part to Bob Borchers at
We already have research agendas that will tax these
new capabilities. The Engineering Research Center
in Neuromorphic Systems Engineering, here at Caltech,
is a good example.
The goal here is nothing less than developing a technology
infrastructure for giving the machines of the next
century sight, taste, and smell.
The Center captures the "new sociology of science."
Bonds between disciplines eclipse old, and
seemingly artificial, boundaries. It fosters the most
complex integration of fields.
It is moving us toward machine mimicking of the very
sensitivities of human sensory perception. It's a
daunting challenge but I never have any doubts when
Caltech is in the lead.
At the other extreme, information technologies have
altered the nature of work in society. It will be
a challenge of another dimension to prepare a 21st
century workforce with the skills that are becoming
fundamental for all work.
There is a danger here; an IT skills gap in the workforce
could translate into an income gap. This, in turn,
can become economically damaging and socially disruptive.
We will need much more than "lip service" to prevent
this from happening. We will need more than educators
and school systems to keep us from that chasm, from
the "digital divide."
History will either record the IT revolution as one
of the most democratizing events of the 21st
century or as one of the most economically divisive.
We are right on the cusp of a choice.
The major economic trends all point to a knowledge
economy and IT, in all of its diverse forms, is the
NSF's George Strawn, whom many of you know, has phrased
the goal quite succinctly. He says, "We will always
need to move the technology down from higher education
to public education."
I say, we will need the IT research community's help
here. If we pay attention to both extremes, to bring
them together -- the high-end research and the broad-based
education and skills mission -- we will be able to
weave a seamless fabric of capability.
And so, the "new sociology of science" is not just
about complexity, crossing disciplines, climbing the
terascale ladder, and calculating even the most illusive
It is also about dissemination and democratization.
Whatever the 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. This too is about vision and foresight and
"where the puck is going." It will be part of NSF's
continuing commitment and responsibility.
In the spirit of that old and venerated bond between
the universities and the federal government, this
too is something we must do together.