"Science As Patriotism"
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Universities Research Association
January 30, 2002
Thank you for the kind welcome. I am pleased to be
invited back to the URA Annual Meeting. This meeting
always precedes, by a few days, the release of the
President's budget, and Washington policy circles
are buzzing over numbers and rumors from OMB.
My Dad taught me that boasting was bad form. Well,
when it comes to NSF, I can't resist telling you that
OMB Director Daniels has been making special mention
of the Foundation's effective financial management,
including a speech at the National Press Club about
a month ago. We are unabashedly proud but this will
only spur us on to do even better.
All the government agencies are well aware by now that
the Administration placed major emphasis on efficient
operation, right across the federal government.
NSF's proven system of competitive grants through merit
review has gotten favorable recognition, as well as
our low overhead of operation.
Efficient program management challenges all of us and
is clearly more important than ever in this new era
of homeland security and extra burdens on our resources
in the face of looming deficits.
September 11 has also brought a reassessment of both
personal and institutional values and goals. That
process has helped the nation recognize the important
role that science and technology play in national
security, prosperity, and future potential.
We are acutely aware of living in a society defined
by, and dependent on, science and engineering.
Every discussion, whether it's about airline safety,
emerging diseases, failure of communication links,
bioterrorism directed at our food and drinking water,
assessment of damaged infrastructure, the mind/body
response to trauma, or a myriad of other concerns,
depends on our scientific and technical knowledge.
During the unsettling period since September 11, most
of us have discovered within ourselves a latent, but
After much reflection on what defines a patriot and
what drives us toward our individual values and goals,
I have titled my remarks today, Science As Patriotism.
This is no doubt a rhetorical leap for some of us.
The Oxford dictionary describes a patriot as someone
who defends and promotes his country's interests.
The more traditional use of the word patriotism brings
to mind people like Patrick Henry with his rallying
call, "Give me liberty or give me death." As high
school students we memorized Nathan Hale's passionate,
"I regret that I have but one life to lose for my
In World War II, the foot soldiers and fighter pilots
were patriots, but so was Rosie the Rivetter. Also
in World War II, scientists were singled out for their
critical contributions to winning the war. We are
comfortable with patriots during a war. However, we
do not understand their role very well in everyday
The firemen at Ground Zero, the Pentagon, and at the
crash site in Pennsylvania suddenly became patriots
and heroes. The fact is that they were patriots all
the time but we didn't notice.
As the Director of NSF, I am experiencing my first
role as a full-time public servant. I feel privileged
to have the opportunity, buoyed by a sense of service,
and very proud of every staff person at the Foundation.
You surely must be wondering where this talk is going.
Well, by the middle of the 20th century,
the philosopher Bertrand Russell had things pegged
pretty accurately. He wrote, "Almost everything that
distinguishes the modern world from earlier centuries
is attributable to science." Few of us would dispute
Research funded by the federal government -- either
in labs, facilities, or in our universities -- is
surely to promote the interests of our nation, and
humankind. So this is undoubtedly patriotic in nature.
Research conducted by industry might, at first blush,
be considered as only profit-driven by the company
or industry. But in the long run, that company or
industry is building a stronger economy for America.
You could argue that this is not their primary goal
but rather a secondary goal.
Each sector, community, and individual has challenges
and responsibilities related to the nation's interests.
Surely the science community and individual researchers
With the 2003 budget about to be unveiled, this is
an appropriate time to explore some of those challenges
Let's examine Bertrand Russell's thesis: science and
engineering as a pervasive influence in modern societies.
Accepting his premise, the challenges for science
are broader and more inclusive than for other segments
In the simplest case, societies advance on a three-pronged
- security -- from both internal and external threats
- the economy -- to produce goods and services for
consumption, for marketing to others, and for
improvement of overall quality of life, and
- education -- to prepare our human resources to
contribute, thrive, and add to the body of new
Those three categories serve as a broad umbrella and
science contributes, in major proportion, to all three.
Is this what I mean by, Science As Patriotism?
Not entirely. The courage and patriotism of the firemen
came from their engagement of self, their personal
intervention on behalf of others. It is true that
most of us do not choose such dangerous careers. However,
there are always ways, within our own life's work,
to engage on behalf of others.
I started to list ways in which scientists and engineers
are able to do this. I should add that the definition
of patriotism in this global 21st century
should extend beyond serving the interests of our
own nation alone. It should include improving the
lot of all humankind to make the world a better place.
When we do this, we insure that America can also be
both more safe and more prosperous.
Let me begin with a challenge that is global. As a
nation, we need to accept as permanent that America
is an integral and pivotal member of the community
of nations. What happens across an ocean -- whether
extremist upheaval, disease epidemics, economic collapse,
or environmental blight, these events threaten us
all, either first hand or by reaction.
The lexicon for refugees continues to grow -- those
who flee oppression, famine, epidemics, and environmental
degradation. They remind us that all humankind is
connected. Pull on one end of the thread in the global
tapestry and you produce a tug along the entire length
of the thread to its very end.
Evident is the increasing contribution of science to
foreign relations. Since 9/11, many pundits, philosophers,
and policymakers are questioning why some groups in
other cultures and countries demonize us as a nation.
That question may not have an answer for a long time.
However, science can have a positive and primary role
in improving our relationship with all nations.
The very nature of science bridges national boundaries.
Researchers know the players and experts in their
field, irrespective of country of origin, culture
or language, in which they work. This international
scientific bonding has accelerated with the information
That there is now a science advisor in the State Department
is evidence of this realization. Norman Neuriter surely
will help move our thinking toward other nations away
from simply providing aid that leads to dependency,
but instead to assistance that leads towards self-sufficiency.
Today, the identification of most societal problems
and their solutions, requires scientific and engineering
Raising sustainable crops, purifying water for drinking,
protecting a population from disease, educating women
and children, training a workforce, building factories,
roads, bridges, schools, hospitals -- these all require
science and engineering.
America, as the citadel of the world's most comprehensive
science enterprise, has much to offer as a partner.
Let me emphasize the word partner here. In
a partnership, each party makes a contribution, brings
recognition and respect to the table.
The social philosopher and longshoreman, Eric Hoffer,
commented on U.S. relationships with other nations
in his 1950s work The Ordeal of Change.
"We cannot win over the [impoverished] by sharing
our wealth with them. They feel our generosity
as oppression....We must learn how to impart to
them the technical, social, and political skills
which would enable them to get bread, human dignity,
freedom, and strength by their own efforts. My
hunch is that we shall solve some of the critical
problems which confront us, not only in our foreign
relations, but also in our domestic affairs."
Many of you probably remember that the late-Congressman
George Brown, a good friend of science, echoed these
With nations and continents bound together by instant
communication and high-speed transport, we are a polyglot
planet and we will need to think and act like planetary
Here at home, there are many ways in which scientists
and engineers can use their knowledge to engage on
behalf of others. I know you all have ideas of your
There are two areas of great concern to policymakers.
They are the lack of knowledge on the part of the
public about science and technology, and the poor
comparative ranking of U.S. students in science and
There can be no more commendable mission performed
by scientists on behalf of this nation than personally
engaging in those two educational challenges.
The world has always been a delicate balance of many
complex forces, not the least of which is humanity
-- in all of its diversity of cultures, goals, and
behaviors. Today, sophisticated knowledge, powerful
tools, and high-speed transportation and communication
amplify that complexity.
Increasingly, society requires citizens with technical
expertise as communicators. In times of routine information
dissemination, and most especially in times of emergencies,
we have a responsibility. Scientists and engineers
must be prepared for these new and more public roles.
And it stands to reason that that preparation should
become part of the routine training of our technical
You might believe that this training should be reserved
only for those who seek public roles in science. That
may have been the case 25 years ago, but not today.
There are stories everyday in the print and broadcast
media that are science and technology based. The list
is endless -- energy refineries, food processing plants,
hazardous material transport, research laboratories,
bacteria laden ventilation systems, landfill contamination,
water supply problems, disease outbreaks, changing
the math or science curriculum, and swiftly descending
Every one of these requires technical understanding
and communication. During routine community decisions
or during split-second crises, the public wants short,
clear information and instructions. This was never
more clear than on September 11, 2001.
The science community must work with the media on the
newly emerging issues that affect us all. We ignore
this steep learning curve of the public at considerable
risk. We cannot protect ourselves if we do not understand
the threats as well as the prevention.
Two weeks ago, Time Magazine ran a feature story
on public health. It described successful detective
work on a public health problem back in 1993, the
time of the hantavirus outbreak. Dr. C.J. Peters was
head of special pathogens at the CDC. He was appointed
spokesperson to speak on the government's behalf.
He says of that period, "We decided that I would speak
for HHS because I was the one with the technical expertise."
The recent anthrax episode is a good example of how
faulty information can create danger in and of itself.
Although Anthrax is not an everyday occurrence, there
were many, including public officials, who thought
it was contagious. Without correct information, we
breed chaos and hysteria -- neither of which fosters
Our success in educating the public and all of our
leaders will be a formidable triumph of science
as patriotism. It is our task, perhaps not ours
alone, but we must lead. Situations like this, in
public health and safety, will not diminish with time
but rather increase.
Some might suggest that they didn't get a Ph.D. to
be a community commentator. In the 21st
century, this is a role and responsibility that falls
to all of us. We have developed a society so exquisitely
science-dependent that this task appears to have been
designed by us, and for us.
Several other advantages accrue from this same educational
effort on our part. It gives the nation a workforce
educated and trained to compete in the increasingly
competitive global marketplace. It promotes good judgment,
as voters, on both issues and candidates. It serves
as strong defense against delusions of safety as well
as valid threats.
I cannot stress enough the primary importance of a
scientifically literate citizenry. I cannot stress
enough the responsibility of the science and engineering
community to work to meet that goal.
What we need to do within science and engineering
We know that science brings fresh knowledge of our
planet, and ourselves, thus what is newly possible.
But, what do we need to do within science and engineering
to be most effective in that journey?
Our community should be first-line responsive to the
changing context of society. To do this, we will need
to strengthen the links between the natural sciences
and the social and behavioral sciences. Sept. 11 made
We have already seen the convergence of knowledge among
the natural sciences in the expansion of interdisciplinary
research. So too we must recognize that only the social
and behavioral sciences can help us understand and
anticipate the responses of the human universe.
As advances continue like a braid of skeins winding
back and forth across each other they move us to new
understanding. We recognize that many disciplines
converge to unlock the complex operation of systems
-- everything from climate patterns to terrorist movements.
Our accrued knowledge from decades of research support
is already serving new objectives brought about by
the events that began on September 11th.
And the nation's science policy will continue to move
in the direction of national necessity.
However, in the long sweep of civilization, we've utilized
most of our science and engineering knowledge to remediate
an existing problem or to address a current need.
We now recognize that we must draw on one of science's
most potent capacities -- prediction. If we can predict,
we frequently can prevent. The centuries of our accrued
knowledge can and should increasingly be directed
NSF had a team of earthquake disaster specialists at
"ground zero" within a few days of the attacks. They
were there to assess the reasons for the Twin Tower's
utter collapse to the ground.
As it turns out, it was not the impact of the crashes
into the structures. Rather, it was the heat coming
from the jet fuel melting the steel superstructure
of the towers and their design that brought them down.
This is new and important knowledge for future building
materials, and to prevent or minimize loss in the
The national directive for "homeland security" will
involve every sector of society, but especially the
We will need to develop a broader, more anticipatory
perspective in our research. We will need to increase
our emphasis on envisioning future possibilities,
good or ill, as a mechanism to predict.
Undoubtedly, this will open new pathways in exploration
and discovery -- at the same time that the research
community maintains its freedom and passion to explore
new frontiers, within the rigor of merit review. Our
ability to use foresight gives us a kind of early
warning system -- a guard against unintended consequences.
Over the past few years, NSF has been developing a
program called NEON (National Ecological Network).
It is distributed instrumentation of sensors that
collect data from the entire ecological spectrum.
The sensors will constantly monitor the environment,
serving both short-term and long-term objectives.
From moment to moment, they will be an early warning
system for biological or chemical threats, such as
invasive disease and poisonous toxins. For the long
run, they will develop the base-line data that determines
the parameters of what is a healthy environment for
an area. NEON is clearly a foresight project.
As scientists, we also know that current knowledge
is never the final word on a subject or a security
blanket for the future. It will help us in the present
but in the words of Alfred North Whitehead "Knowledge
doesn't keep any better than fish." Tomorrow, new
more complete knowledge will always replace today's
-- a process of constant renewal, at an ever-accelerating
This makes an unshakable case for consistent
research in all eras, at all times. It also means
that we, as a community, face the challenge of aiding
policymakers and the public to better understand the
continuously evolving nature of scientific knowledge.
What will science need to produce most effectively
for the nation and for humankind?
There are three primary components that will help determine
the effectiveness of science in the future. They are
stable funding, a balanced portfolio, and an expanding
If you examine the history of federal funding for research
and development, you know that it looks like an erratic
electrocardiograph. And yet, we know that a steadily
advancing momentum of discovery depends on stable
The throttle forward, throttle back approach to research
funding is wasteful in terms of dollars spent, damaging
to the thrust of scientific activity, and disillusioning
to the pool of scientific and technical personnel.
Stable funding obviously does not exclude funding increases
because the more we expect from science the more we
have to provide for the expansions of its breadth
and depth. This is self-evident.
The necessity for a balanced portfolio is less well
understood. Today, the convergence of knowledge across
disciplines requires that all disciplines are able
to move forward at a healthy pace. If they don't,
then it is very possible that a neglect of chemistry,
for example, could in the long run inhibit future
advances in biology.
We are also witnessing the proliferation of fields
of research, an important indication of expansion
in scientific understanding.
And advances in physics, biology, chemistry -- the
core natural sciences -- undergird all of the biomedical
sciences on which we depend to understand disease,
find cures, develop vaccines, and initiate preventive
Thus, the case for a balanced portfolio is yet another
self-evident premise for a viable science enterprise.
The scientific workforce issue is perhaps the most
complicated of the three components and will require
a lot of hands-on initiative on our part.
As scientists and engineers, your own background can
likely attest to your excitement for science not beginning
at age 18 or 20, but most typically at a very early
age. This means that if we want more talent like all
of you, we have to reach children to enhance that
excitement when they're young... and develop the background
for them to do science.
The future of our country depends on attracting more
women and our diverse minority populations to science
and engineering ... a profoundly significant challenge
in our primary schools.
We must build our broader base of science talent from
the very young, and scientists and engineers have
to roll up their sleeves and get to work on this.
We need to make a commitment to a home-grown science
and engineering workforce that uses the diversity
of our nation as the talent pool.
If the science community can be hands-on to inspire
young people to a future in science, we would be performing
one of the most enduring acts of patriotism for the
The future of the United States promises to be spectacular,
but there is a growing community of nations with equally
capable workers. Globalization has proven this repeatedly
in the last decade. There is a reservoir of talent
in other cultures of which we know little. They too
will join the ranks of our economic competitors.
The workforce issue will be the most formidable for
us. Our engagement will determine its success.
In closing, I want to state recapitulate. We know that
knowledge alone is not enough to make a better world.
The Founding Fathers framed a set of primary values
for our nation based on the independence of, and the
respect for, individuals. Armed with these values,
science and engineering become an important vehicle
for human progress.
With these values to guide us, we can make appropriate
choices as a nation.
Let us not fear the discoveries of science and remain
committed to our values.
Historically, most admired about our national patriots
was their courage to stand by their values. Science
as patriotism depends on our active participation.
What makes science patriotism is its scientists.