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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Information Technologies
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 friends.

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, Ahmed Zewail.

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 corks!

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 much.

I am the only woman on this panel today. Suffice it to say there is still much unfinished work on that front.

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, 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.

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 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 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 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.

I have seen this in my own research. I have studied the infectious disease cholera for more than twenty-five years.

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 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."

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 other's thoughts.

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

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 extremes.

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 NSF.

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 knowledge machinery.

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 concepts.

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.



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