Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Remarks at BEST (Building Engineering and Science
Talent) Kickoff Panel
Education Committee or Science Committee
U.S. House of Representatives
September 26, 2002
It is an honor to be part of today's panel on building
the U.S. science, engineering, and technology workforce
by fully developing the nation's diverse human resources.
I thank you for the opportunity to speak about this
issue, which has long been a concern of mine personally,
as well in my capacity as director of NSF.
I wish to acknowledge Congresswoman Connie Morella
for her groundbreaking work on the Congressional Commission
on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science,
Engineering, and Technology Development.
The Commission report of 2000, Land of Plenty,
was a wakeup call. It reminded us that although we're
making strides toward including everyone in the general
workforce, we still have far to go in making the S&T
workforce "look like America."
The problem of too few women, minorities, and persons
with disabilities in our science and engineering talent
pool threatens the future of our nation.
Shirley Jackson's new report, The Quiet Crisis:
Falling Short in Producing American Scientific and
Technical Talent, explores the interconnected
economic, demographic, social, and scientific realities
we must address.
The United States has become increasingly diverse in
recent decades and will move steadily in the direction
of greater diversity in the future.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects, for the decade
1998 - 2008, that the general labor force
growth rates of minorities will more than triple the
overall growth rate.
But, we're not making comparable progress in changing
the composition of the science and engineering workforce.
It looks the same as it has for generations.
We need the talent of every worker in order to keep
our nation competitive and prosperous now and in the
future. And in the post-9/11 world, we need to also
focus more of our talent on homeland security.
We live in a unique time in which every citizen must
"count" for opportunities and must be "counted" for
contributions to our society's well being. The well
being of individuals and of the nation will depend
on knowledge and skills in science, engineering, and
technology. How well we prepare our human resource
in these areas will determine how well we are prepared
as a nation in this new century.
Our collective goal in BEST is to improve opportunities
for those who have been locked out of careers in science
and engineering - women, minorities, and persons with
disabilities. This objective is specific to individuals
and their personal goals.
Meeting this need is also vital to our nation's safety
and prosperity. Our society must encourage, educate,
and enlist as many citizens as possible into the jobs
and professions that drive the knowledge economy.
These jobs will have to be filled by people trained
in every aspect of science, engineering, and technology.
As we educate our diverse workforce, we need graduates
in science and engineering and also to fill the millions
of technical jobs that require only certification.
No industry or institution can function today without
such specialists. Our productivity, our rate of innovation,
and our long-term economic momentum would be slowed
or even stopped without the technical specialists
who keep things moving fast.
Contemporary society is increasingly rooted in and
dependent on science and technology. We need many
more scientists and engineers to continue our momentum.
Our leaders AND our general workforce must
be educated, trained, and capable to run this complex
Our science and engineering workforce must grow at
a faster rate. That growth will only come from expanding
the pool of science and engineering talent - from
our mostly untapped potential of underrepresented
minorities and women.
By developing this overlooked resource, America can
maintain its competitive edge in the 21st
century. By the year 2050, the Census Bureau projects,
the terms minority and majority will be almost meaningless.
Our challenge is formidable, but one we can meet. The
general workforce already reflects more gender
equality, and racial and cultural diversity than ever
before. We still have a long way to go but we are
reaching out and cashing in on the talents and skills
of many more of our citizens.
Unfortunately, the science and engineering workforce
does not show that same trend toward a more balanced
representation. Science and engineering are the frontier
of human progress. We must look to the nation's richness
in diversity for our next generation of explorers.
We should do this for our citizens and for our country's
future. Our future economic strength will come almost
entirely from the technologies emerging from our laboratories
Technology is the single most important determining
factor in sustained economic growth, estimated to
account for as much as half the nation's growth over
the past 50 years.
Yet we also know that the ratio of science and engineering
degrees to the college-age population in European
and Asian countries is higher than in the United States.
We know, from a recent Commerce Department report,
that a projected 60 percent of the new jobs in 2020
will require skills possessed by only 22 percent of
today's workers. That's a sobering prospect!
We also know from the Labor Department that new jobs
requiring science, engineering, and technical training
are projected to increase by 21 percent by 2008.
The accelerated pace of change has advanced our world
more in the past century than in the previous hundred
centuries. It took 10,000 years to get from the dawn
of civilization to the airplane, but just 66 years
to get from powered flight to the moon landing.
The early 21st century will be an exciting
time for leading-edge science and technology research
and its translation to the marketplace in the form
of new products, processes, and services.
At NSF we often speak of this research in the "shorthand"
nano, info, and bio, for nano-science and technology,
information technology, and the biological sciences
including genomics. These three areas alone will revolutionize
society over the next twenty years.
And yet, as noted in The Quiet Crisis, the
source of U.S. innovative capacity and technological
ability is thinning. A quarter of today's S&T workforce
is more than 50 years old. Their research fueled the
economic boom of the 1990s. But as they retire, will
we be able to replace them?
We are not currently replacing our high-level scientific
and technical talent in sufficient numbers. We must
not continue to neglect this important training and
To compete with other nations we will need a broad
expansion of our science and engineering talent. Anything
less means being left behind. The purpose of the BEST
initiative is to make sure that will not happen.
I look forward to working with the Congress and with
my colleagues in industry, government, and in the
research and teaching community to reach this important
No one group or sector can do it alone. Collaboration
will be an important component for success. I look
forward to working with all of you.