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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Information Technology: Ariadne's Thread Through the Science and Technology Labyrinth"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Celebrating New Beginnings

October 28, 1999

Good morning, and thank you, Jill for your kind introduction.

It's always an honor to spend time with people who care deeply about the future of education--and who are actually shaping that future.

With your indulgence, I'm going to begin with a commercial, but it's for a very good cause. Just last week, we at the National Science Foundation unveiled our poster. You see it here.

It marks the launch of NSF50, our celebration of the Foundation's fiftieth anniversary.

This is a yearlong celebration with the theme, "Where Discoveries Begin." It's more than an indulgence.

We're marking the occasion with a campaign to spread the word about how NSF's work reaches our everyday lives. We've got a great story to tell--and the Internet is just one chapter.

We really do have something very immediate to celebrate. I want to take a moment to say a word about the recent Congressional appropriation.

If you haven't heard yet, I'm proud to say that NSF received almost its full budget request--and President Clinton has just signed the bill. I've got the pen to prove it.

NSF received just under $4 billion, which translates into a 7 percent increase. That's $240 million above last year's level, and only $10 million below our request.

I'm sure many of you know that the numbers for information technology research look very good. The bill provides an increase of $90 million to our Computer and Information Sciences Directorate--just about the level we asked for.

In addition, another $36 million went to our Major Research Equipment account. That will support the terascale computing system.

So overall you could say that we got an increase of about $125 million for research and equipment in the information technology category.

I know I owe a very special thanks to many of you and to the community generally. You made your voices heard. The Congress listened and worked with the Administration. The end result is a win for science and for the nation.

All of this puts a positive spin on our discussion today. I've titled my talk, "Information Technology: Ariadne's Thread Through the Science and Technology Labyrinth." There's a very good reason behind that title.

It's that I firmly believe that information technology is absolutely vital to our future.

It can guide us to new frontiers in fundamental research. It can draw different scientific disciplines together.

It can integrate research and education. Most of all, it can link science and society in ways we never imagined.

The role of IT, in fact, is analogous to the wonderful thread of Greek mythology. You may recall the tale: King Minos of Crete had built a massive labyrinth to contain the horrible beast, the Minotaur.

Ariadne was the King's daughter, and she possessed a magical device, a thread, which allowed her to navigate the maze without mishap. She gave it to Theseus, the young hero from Athens, to guide him safely through the labyrinth.

In modern terms, we can follow this metaphorical thread in two directions: back to the beginnings of the Internet and forward to glimpse some revolutionary future scenarios.

On the way we can reflect upon three major guideposts.

I've mentioned the first: the unifying role information technology plays for all research disciplines today.

Next, I'd like to address briefly how information technology can revolutionize education--that is, if we manage this momentous transformation with care and attention.

Finally, I'd like to highlight the unfortunate situation we know as the "digital divide." This is, of course, the unequal access to information technology in different sectors of our society.

All of these areas are connected. Progress will require our combined abilities. We'll need to work together, across government, universities, and the private sector, to find the best path through the labyrinth.

We--that is, NSF, EDUCAUSE, and its predecessors--have enjoyed a history of working together. We've often followed your lead.

From the beginnings of the Internet, from the first small campus networks, to the web that interlinked higher education and became the Internet--EDUCAUSE has played one of the starring roles.

Today, we continue to rely on your leadership and our partnership with you. Together we're strengthening the high-performance connections program--Internet 2 and the Next Generation Internet.

Now we are moving to terascale computing--a level of speed and sophistication that was previously available only in classified defense research.

On this note, let me turn to my theme of how the thread of IT weaves together all of science and technology.

Some of you, along with me, may be dating yourselves by being able to identify this rather large machine.

For the younger members of the audience, it's the IBM 650, which I used in my doctoral research. (By the way, the very model of computer that I used has an honored place in the Smithsonian Institution!)

My research was an early example--actually the first--of using computers to classify marine bacteria. Early on, computing became indispensable in my own research.

It allowed me to draw upon the insights of other disciplines, whether through modeling, remote sensing, or linking sociology and epidemiology.

So, we've come a long way since those bulky computers, but we're now at another threshold.

We're poised for the beginning of a new campaign to strengthen the fundamental thread, the very fiber of information technology and its links to all fields. Our new budget will help us launch this multi-year effort.

No field of research will be left untouched by the current explosion of information--and of information technologies. Science used to be composed of two endeavors--theory and experiment. Now it has a third component: computer simulation, which links the other two.

In fact, scientific questions are growing more complex and interconnected. We know that the greatest excitement in research often occurs at the borders of disciplines, where they interface with each other. Materials engineering is one such example.

It's given us a blending of synthetic and biological materials. We have artificial skin that is partly biodegradable. It's already helping burn victims.

Another example: We're watching complexity theory from mathematics being applied in biology and social science. It's given us new insights into the schooling of fish and the herding of animals. The patterns reveal the secrets of sophisticated systems.

We're supporting a new research thrust at NSF called "biocomplexity." To understand this characteristic of our planet's systems, we must gather information at scales ranging from the sub-atomic to the astronomical.

The solid foundation of information technology is fundamental for these fields to fuse and to flower. We're already watching discrete scientific cultures come together. This way we can better reflect and probe the wholeness of the world that we study.

We're watching it happen. Information technologies help us to see across disciplines and collaborate across the country. Shown here is an image of the temperature and current variations in the Chesapeake Bay.

Researchers from Old Dominion University have linked up with the National Computational Science Alliance at the University of Illinois.

This virtual environment is constructed from actual Chesapeake Bay data. Collaborators thousands of miles apart can interact in this same virtual arena.

Another example is the SHEBA project. You may recall that just two years ago this fall, a ship was frozen-in to the Arctic Ocean and left to drift. It served as a floating station for climate, ice, and ocean research.

The streams of data were regularly posted to the Net. Most of the researchers, wherever in the world they were, did not need to be at the North Pole themselves. (I suspect they were grateful for that.)

Astronomy gives us a very striking example of the convergence of research streams. Here is one of the early images from the NSF-supported Gemini telescope in Hawaii, showing a star-forming region.

Gemini is an earthbound instrument, but the clarity of its images will surpass those from the Hubble Space Telescope. These sorts of imaging technologies, which let astronomers see through our blurry atmosphere, are now being applied in vision research to study the living retina.

Astronomy and physics are also in convergence. Michael Turner, the noted astrophysicist from the University of Chicago, lectured at NSF the other day.

He described the coming together of particle physics and astrophysics--the extremes of scale in our study of the universe.

In his words, "The deepest answers lie in the inner space-outer space connection." He also noted the almost unimaginable deluge of data that astronomers will need to mine in order to find those answers.

Other examples are found in the biosciences. The Economist recently proclaimed a "shotgun marriage" between biology and IT--because "biology has...realized that it is itself an information technology."

The data onslaught is also flooding the biosciences--and it's just the beginning.

Here's a representation of the riches of information pouring out of just one area: genomics. This is from my own research on the cholera vibrio.

It's only been four years since we first mapped an entire genome. Today, we know the entire genetic sequences of 25 organisms. Twenty-four are microorganisms, and the 25th is a nematode.

Many similar challenges in biology will only be conquered in lockstep with advances in IT. We need this computing power to put it all together--to process the volumes of data, to visualize results, and to collaborate.

Here it's symbolically portrayed in a graphic by NPACI, the National Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure.

Computational methods have cut across the old subdisciplines of neuroscience, symbolized by this "cascade" of scales found in the nervous system. Computers allow neurological data to be linked across scales, from the molecular level all the way up to the entire organism.

The ability to see, to sense, to visualize is one way the thread of IT wraps around and draws the sciences together--a wonderful capability of equal potential benefit, in fact, to education.

Here researchers practice "teleimmersion," sharing the same virtual reality across distances to study the temporal bone of the ear.

Collaborations across distance--here using the famous three-dimensional visualization facility called the CAVE--can and should include students, giving them access to the latest research.

This brings us to IT and education, the next guidepost on our way through the maze. I know we share a vision that IT might revolutionize the way we teach and the way we learn.

In this simulation of an orbiting planet, students can change the mass of the planet and watch the orbit change. I hear it's just as exciting, fast-moving, and interactive as playing a video game.

It's part of a project based at the University of Minnesota. They specifically sought out kids from disadvantaged areas to carry out the programming and provide technical support to the teachers who used these materials in the classroom.

There are success stories, but it's no secret we have a great deal of ground to make up. I'd like to refer to a book by Douglas Robertson called The New Renaissance, which looks at the social revolution being caused by the computer revolution.

The greatest challenge of our age, according to Robertson, is to create a system of individualized and inspiring education. He writes, "By far the worst failing of our educational system is that it develops only an insignificant fraction of the abilities of most individuals."

To inspire learning, we need to understand learning. Until the learning process is better understood, it will be difficult for teachers, parents, and the public to make informed choices about the theory and practices that could make K-12 education more effective for all students.

Our universities and colleges need to form equal partnerships with schools. At NSF we've begun graduate K-12 teaching fellowships.

They link the graduate student, the teacher, and the children. This is just one way to bridge the chasms that divide our educational system.

We're expanding our emphasis on the science of learning, building on recent advances in neuroscience, psychology, and yes, computing.

This picture is from UCLA's Neuro Imaging Laboratory, and it is what they call a brain template. It was featured in the latest issue of Envision--the journal produced by the PACI institutions.

Though still at the most fundamental stages, this work may help show us which sections of the brain are active when we are learning throughout our lives.

It gives us a way to get the "big picture"--of the entire brain. We can begin to understand the brain in all its complexity.

Let's follow the thread of information technology to the final stop. Here we find ourselves on a precipice--looking down into that yawning gap known as the digital divide.

We are all here today because we believe in the power of information technology to bring about the most democratic revolution in literacy and numeracy the world has ever known.

We also know that if we're not careful, this same power could be economically divisive.

We imagine universal connectedness, with talk of "tetherless networks" that anyone could tap into anytime, anywhere.

But we could also broaden the gap between the information rich and the information bereft.

In our own nation, sociologists have identified groups whose access to telephones, computers, and the Internet lag far behind the national averages.

These information gaps appear among nations as well. Most of those who live in the Third World have never used a telephone.

Our worldwide web is a thinly stretched one. Less than two percent of the world is actually on the web. If we subtract the United States and Canada, it's less than one percent.

The report by the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) spells out some of these gaps. "For instance," says the committee, "whites are more likely than African-Americans to have Internet access" at home or work. "We expect there are similar gaps with other minority groups, such as Hispanics and Native Americans. Recent research...suggests that the racial gap in Internet use is increasing."

The report further makes a key point: "The Internet may provide equal opportunity and help level the playing fields, but only for those with access."

In the depths of the labyrinth--even if we, unlike Theseus--have yet to slay the ferocious Minotaur, we've taken some promising steps toward the way out.

I'm very pleased today to be able to announce such an innovative step, which will help to broaden participation of educational institutions in the information technology revolution.

In fact, I am delighted to be able to announce support for a very worthy project. This is an advanced networking project with minority-serving institutions, and it's being pursued in partnership with EDUCAUSE.

The program will embrace a number of institutions--historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges.

Leaders at these institutions, with help from EDUCAUSE, will improve networking--and, most importantly--enhance the institutions' participation in the many opportunities for education and research now emerging on the Internet.

My congratulations to all of these institutions and to EDUCAUSE for this innovative approach!

I'll close now with a renewed celebration of the common ground we share, and the common thread we follow.

Again, it will take all our participation--the federal government, the universities, and the private sector--to see our way through and to connect the thread of IT throughout education and beyond to all of society.

Our future as a nation rests upon extending participation in the best quality education and collaborative research as fully as we can. We can only succeed by continuing to work together. Thank you.



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