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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Remarks to American Meteorological Society
2003 Summer Policy Colloquium
Washington, D.C.

June 3, 2003

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact
The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

Greetings to all of you. I commend your courage in coming to visit Washington, the city where the sun hardly ever shines.

As climatologists and meteorologists, I hope you don't mind if I share the tale of the meteorologist who was waiting at the Pearly Gates for judgment, was it going to be heaven or hell. It was a very long line. He could see that some in the line were chosen to proceed through the gates of heaven; other unfortunates, however, were shuffling along in the other direction. Now, the meteorologist was observant-he quickly noted a small group of the unfortunates who were roped off to one side. Curious, he went up to them and asked why they had been singled out. "Oh," came the answer, "we're Washingtonians--these days, we're too wet to burn."

I certainly hope you can stay dry while you're here; I also hope that you may conclude after the policy colloquium that there really is a category of Washingtonians who pursue science policy as a worthy and lofty goal.

I've been asked to speak introspectively today--rather than giving an overview of the National Science Foundation, to convey my personal perspective on executive leadership. The reality is that I have never experienced some "Eureka!" moment of transition from research scientist to administrator, because I never really made that transformation from one to the other; for me, being a scientist in itself has also meant being a leader.

Looking back, I realize that it has been a progression, beginning with running a small laboratory that grew into a large one-in the 1970s my laboratory was populated with 25 or 30 students, technicians and post-docs, at the University of Maryland, all working in a lab with a budget equivalent to $2 million in today's figures. It was all cumulative training in managing resources and keeping accounts, with grants over the years from NSF, NIH, NOAA, EPA, DOE, NASA, FDA and the Navy, even some from private foundations. All of it brought valuable administrative experience-succeeding and being called upon to assume ever-more-responsible positions, from founding a Sea Grant college at the University of Maryland-College Park to eventually becoming academic vice president for an entire university system. Founding a biotechnology institute in Maryland also expanded my experience to include industry.

At the same time, active participation in scientific societies throughout my career has been a sort of career incubator, although I did not necessarily see it that way at the time. It was simply interesting and fun. Work on scientific society committees eventually poised me for further leadership roles, whether as president of the American Society of Microbiology or the American Association for the Advancement of Science or the International Union of Microbiological Societies.

Even today, there has been no clear break in the progression of my life from working scientist to administrator. In fact, since I've been director of NSF, I've been averaging about 17 scientific papers a year (of course, that work has to be done at night and on weekends). I've also continued to mentor graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and visiting foreign scientists.

Looking back, I've been involved with the Foundation one way or another over my entire professional life. Of course there was my experience as an NSF grantee, but over the years I also served on many panels and committees, from advising on science and engineering education in the 1970s to helping to decide who would get the next ship in the UNOLS fleet (that's the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System) to evaluating our infrastructure for supporting Antarctic science. The result is that I have gotten to know to know NSF very well from many angles, and becoming director really has been the career-crowning step.

What about some of the personal attributes that contribute to leadership? Whether in scientific research or administration, I believe that mental toughness, or perseverance in the face of obstacles, has been fundamental to success. I have said more than once that I believe I got my start in science out of sheer stubbornness-during an era when girls simply were not allowed to take physics. I recall that in high school my chemistry teacher told me I'd never make it in chemistry, because women could not. That angered me but also galvanized me. I had already begun to see science as both a way to understand the world and a way to make my way in the world. That duality still plays out today in both my research and administration activities.

Yet it's not only mental toughness--it's also flexibility, the versatility to seize an opportunity when offered. When I moved out to Washington State as a young wife with my husband, Jack (who is also a scientist), I was intent on going to medical school. I had already been accepted at several medical schools in the East, including Yale, but gave up those opportunities to be with my husband who had been accepted at the University of Washington Department of Chemistry. Then I discovered that the medical school at the University of Washington would admit students only from the Northwest. That door did close, but another opened--I took a fellowship to study microbial genetics. Then, I met a newly arrived faculty member, a Scotsman named John Liston, and ended up with a doctorate in oceanography--and became a pioneer in the nascent field of marine molecular microbiology.

Another critical attribute for scientific leadership, I believe, is actively tapping into the global network of science. As a researcher investigating the ties between climate and cholera, my career has connected me to colleagues around the world, from Europe to Bangladesh to Japan and beyond. Working collaboratively across the globe was critical to tracing the ecology of the cholera bacterium, showing that it lives naturally in the marine environment and that fluctuations in climate increase the incidence of cholera-fluctuations also linked to cholera epidemics, whether in Bangladesh or Peru.

This worldwide network of research--it exists, of course, in every field of science and engineering--is a tremendous resource for all of us. In fact, my work at NSF continues to span the globe; I spent a recent weekend at a G-8 meeting in London with science leaders from Europe, the next at a gathering of agricultural ministers from many nations. The international perspectives on science are essential; here is an area where U.S. leadership has much room for growth.

I find that I spend a great deal of my time as NSF director speaking to groups large and small, explaining what NSF does. I try to convey the excitement of discovery to a variety of audiences, and to explain how investing in fundamental research pays off in economic and educational terms for our nation, and, more recently, in national security. One take-home lesson is that making a concerted effort to hone one's communications skills--whether in dealing effectively with the media, or learning to speak more persuasively--has huge dividends.

My research career prepared me in another way to lead an institution of such great breadth as NSF. As a biologist I have always been intrigued by how it all comes together--fascinated by the mixture, by the froth that makes life bubble. Reductionist science, dissecting the world into the smallest parts, seemed to me like clear-cutting a forest in order to study one tiny seedling.

[First slide: Dr. Colwell with a group of villagers and fellow researchers in Bangladesh]
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I still work closely with a lab in Bangladesh and still have my lab in Maryland. This image depicts our trials in Bangladeshi villages of a simple filter to remove disease-causing cholera bacteria from drinking water. The filter is simply an old sari cloth. We have found out that cholera bacteria in the water, attached to plankton, are efficiently sieved out with this readily available material. My own research has ranged from testing such humble solutions to using sophisticated tools, and has touched upon a wide array of fields, from remote sensing to sociology to medicine, oceanography, genomics, mathematics and physics. It has combined the sophisticated with the basic.

[turbulence backdrop with the priority areas cited]
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In fact, much of the excitement of discovery today ignites at the interfaces of disciplines. As an oceanographer I draw a metaphor for this from the sea, where water masses of different temperatures converge; gyres form, polynyas appear, upwelling occurs, and nutrients collect at the interfaces.

Convergence zones in the ocean may shift, appear and disappear, but they are often where the nutrients concentrate and where the fish and seabirds up the food chain gather to feast. Just as enriched are the interfaces between physical science, engineering and biology, and now the social sciences: discovery foments in these "hyphenated" zones. We see a few of the converging areas listed here that NSF has chosen for special investment--biocomplexity, nanotechnology, information technology, mathematics, the 21st century workforce, and human and social dynamics. The convergence of disciplines holds a compelling lesson for science policy--that all of science and engineering, now so interdependent, must now advance as one enterprise.

[South Pole Station]
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As someone who loves every aspect of science, serving as director of the National Science Foundation has provided an exciting and very broad vantagepoint. It has literally taken me to the ends of the Earth. Here we see South Pole Station, on its way to being realized as a facility fit for 21st century science. You are no doubt aware that it hosts year-round measurements of weather and climate, but you may not know that it is a world-class astronomy observatory as well. Just one example is the array for neutrino astronomy, a cutting-edge field taking off using a detector buried in the ice at the South Pole. It has been of great personal satisfaction to preside over NSF while a new discipline is literally being launched.

[series of shots of sub surfacing]
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In the Arctic, where an ice-covered ocean covers the highest latitudes, access for science has been a challenge. I had the opportunity to ride aboard one of these Navy submarines employed for scientific cruises, a joint effort between NSF, the Navy and the Office of Naval Research. The subs have been able to explore parts of the Arctic where ships simply cannot go. This one is punching up through the sea ice from below. These subs have served as a unique research platform to explore the Arctic Ocean ice from beneath, as well as to chart the seafloor. Such cruises, along with U.S. Navy submarine data, show that ice in the central Arctic Ocean has thinned an average of 43% over the past 20 years. Congress actually held a field hearing in Alaska where I was summoned to testify about the importance of Arctic science.

[Dr. Colwell in Alvin/ undersea life]
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Quite a different experience, but just as awesome, was to descend in the scientific submarine, Alvin, off the coast of the Northwest U.S. This was a fantastic experience, gliding soundlessly along volcanic eruptions, amongst swarms of luminescent animals and strange communities of tubeworms and other sea creatures. However, human-piloted submarines are only one component as we look ahead to remote, multidisciplinary ocean observatories.

[Seafloor observatory]
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Seafloor observatories such as the one depicted here will employ new technical capabilities to detect and forecast environmental change. Instruments will be turned on and off remotely, and monitoring could trigger rapid deployment of a submersible in response to climate or geologic events. Even portable observatories will be employed, based around a system of large, instrumented buoys. They will collect important climate data in remote areas such as the Southern Ocean-exploring many issues related to climate. Again, it's been my own research experience that made clear to me the compelling need to instrument our environment to understand the complexity of how our planet operates.

[Internet and USA]
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Another priority at NSF has been imagining and creating the cyberinfrastructure that 21st century science and engineering require. This virtual frontier is one of the most exciting-again, I think back to using a computer at the beginning of my own career. (I used it to develop an identification system and a taxonomy of marine bacteria--it was an IBM 650, and one of that model is now in the Smithsonian Institution.) Certainly understanding the power of computing in my own research set the stage for my strong support for information technology during these years at NSF. Today we are taking steps toward a terascale facility that will demonstrate the first widely distributed grid-computing platform. This will be the most advanced computing facility available for all types of research in the United States--exceptional not just in computing power but also as an integrated facility, offering access to researchers across the country, merging of multiple data resources, and visualization capability.

[human face and ray coming out]
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Another frontier that has been extremely important at NSF is advancement of the mathematical sciences. Given that NSF supports all of science and engineering, and that mathematics is the ultimate cross-cutting discipline, vigorous support for mathematics is one of our most vital responsibilities. Again, my personal conviction about this truth in strongly rooted in my research experience. My background as a bioscientist who has worked on biological systems of great complexity brought a firsthand appreciation of the power of mathematics in discovery.

[Gemini North]
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NSF is dedicated to pushing the frontiers, and some of those frontiers extend beyond the bounds of our own planet. The dedication of the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii has been one of my most moving experiences as NSF director. The staff even set up the inauguration quite dramatically so that with a wave of the hand, the doors of the telescope dome slid open, with the background music of Handel's Messiah! Looking down on the clouds from the summit of Mauna Kea and up into the endless space of the universe, we celebrated the launch of a telescope whose images in the infrared will surpass those gathered from space. In many instances the Gemini telescopes outperform even the Hubble Space Telescope in both clarity and data collection.

[spiral galaxy]
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Not too long after that dedication, Gemini North captured this image of the "Perfect Spiral Galaxy," called such because of its nearly ideal form.

[Gemini South]
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Gemini, as its name denotes, is really two telescopes, and here is the partner observatory, located in Chile. The two telescopes, working together, constitute an astronomical partnership between north and south, among seven nations. Together they provide a sweeping and very sharp view of both northern and southern hemisphere skies. The project is a model for engaging our younger generation of scientists and engineers throughout the world to form closer bonds through research and education, something our world so desperately needs.

[running the race]
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In reality, of course, I do not spend my bulk of my time as director at the ends of the earth, but in interacting with people. I use this shot, from the recent Capital Challenge Race, in which a number of us from NSF competed, to depict another truth about leadership. Those who work at NSF continue to teach me many lessons about leadership, including the truth that the troops need to be with you, not behind or ahead.

Still, whether running a race or running NSF, leadership does require having a sense of direction, an intuitive sense of where the new developments will happen. Leadership, whether in science or administration, is really about nurturing the spark of discovery.

I wish you well in using your days in Washington to explore how the world of science policy connects to the world of scientific exploration. At least in my career, there's been a very happy convergence between them. Now I'd very much like to hear your questions and comments.



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