Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Society for Advancement of Chicanos and
Native Americans in Science (SACNAS)
October 8, 1999
I am delighted to be here today, and I especially want
to thank the conference schedulers for being so accommodating
about the time-slot for my talk.
I've had an extraordinary visit to Oregon this week.
I've been to the depths of the ocean in the ALVIN
to see first-hand the thermal vents at Juan de Fuca
Ridge and traveled to the crest of information technologies
with a tour of Intel.
Yesterday, I visited Portland State for the NSF Grants
Workshop. Last night, I had the opportunity to meet
many of you and talk about careers in science and
your goals and aspirations.
These discussions are most exciting and energizing
for me. First, I always learn something new. And,
second, I feel a strong sense of security that the
next generation of researchers holds ever more promise
for our future.
I come to the conference this morning filled with enthusiasm
about what we can do together to lead the nation into
a promising 21st century.
This year, NSF is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
I would be honored to be the NSF Director at any time,
but during this landmark year it is a distinct privilege.
I don't think it is an overstatement to say that the
Foundation has helped our nation stay at the frontier
across all scientific disciplines for five decades.
We look forward to the next five decades with excitement
and a sense of adventure. In keeping with the spirit
of new horizons and a better future, we at NSF depend
heavily on our strong connections with you at SACNAS.
You help inform us of the changing environment and
the evolving needs of students preparing for careers
in science and engineering. We also depend on you
to spread the word among your constituency about our
initiatives and programs.
It stands to reason that we cannot maintain our position
on the cusp of the future without you. You have the
network and the know-how to get the word out.
In essence, all of you here today will be amongst those
ones who contribute to advances in science, improvements
in our nation, and benefits for the world community.
Without your participation and leadership, the future
would lack the promise and potential we look forward
to fulfilling. In order for us to attract first-rate
candidates for NSF's Graduate Fellowships, we will
not only depend heavily on your outreach but also
on your feedback from the community. We want to know
the consensus and the concerns.
There is a powerful piece of Navajo wisdom that describes
the philosophy that directs our work. It says, "When
all peoples have the same story, then humans will
cease to exist."
It is from the vast "pot pourri" of perspectives, insights,
attitudes, and understandings that we come to the
best decisions and wisest judgment in our society.
The outreach efforts on your part will insure NSF and
the nation of having the important advantage of diversity
in our talent pool. Diversity for our nation's science
and engineering enterprise creates a fabric of strength.
In every recent economic study and report, human capital
is identified as the key to overall success. In that
light, NSF has made the "21st century workforce"
a primary focus for our education initiatives.
We know that the nation's workforce-needs are changing
rapidly and dramatically. Alan Greenspan, Chairman
of the Federal Reserve Board, spoke of The Interaction
of Education and Economic Change in a speech he
gave in February at the American Council on Education.
"The history of education in the United States
traces a path heavily influenced by the need for
a workforce with the skills required to interact
productively with the evolving economic infrastructure
...America's reputation as the world's leader
in higher education is grounded in the ability
of ...versatile institutions, taken together,
to serve the practical needs of the economy and,
more significantly, to unleash the creative thinking
that moves our society forward."
Let me repeat, "to unleash the creative thinking that
moves our society forward." Our economy is increasingly
based on advances in science and technology. That
trend will not only continue, but escalate. You see
evidence of this everywhere.
A recent change in the Washington, DC economy has driven
that new reality home to everyone in the Washington
In Washington, the federal government has been the
largest employer for many years. But today, as we
speak, technology services employ more people than
The new owner of our hockey team made his money at
AOL. Technology leaders are taking local governments
to task for better roads and schools.
This is historic change. We all know that it is just
the tip of the iceberg in terms of our very near future.
We are literally living in a different landscape.
I notice the changes most dramatically when I go back
and visit my hometown of Beverly Cove, Massachusetts
(next to Pride Crossing if that helps you recognize
where it is). I can't help being struck by how much
The four-room schoolhouse I went to is now a subdivision
of homes. The rock quarry where I used to go to collect
tadpoles is another subdivision.
While new development has changed the landscape, economic
transformation has changed people's lives.
My father made his living in the construction industry.
When I was growing up, the biggest company in town
was called the United Shoe Machinery Corporation.
Everything was built around the concept of a main line
manufacturing town. Now, the biggest employers in
Beverly are in health care, scientific and technical
instruments, and information services.
That's just a snapshot from one city in one state,
but it reflects the changes in the nature of work
and the economy that are taking place across the nation.
Let me point out two important aspects of these changes:
- First, we are more productive than ever before.
For every hour of work, we Americans produce twice
as much as we did in 1960.
- Second, our fastest-growing job categories are
all in professions with significant educational
requirements: areas like medical technologies,
financial systems, and multimedia. Our compass
heading is pointing directly to an economy based
on knowledge and ideas.
Discovery and innovation have been a driving force
behind our economic gains. They are the keys to our
continuing economic leadership in the future.
Given these trends, a critical goal for NSF and for
SACNAS is to expand the talent pool in science and
In order to "jumpstart" that goal, NSF has just launched
a new partnership called Jumpstart 2000, also
known as your chance to build a better century.
It is a centerpiece of our NSF50 celebration and was
announced in Parade Magazine three weeks ago
This is a public-private partnership--the largest of
its kind--that presents a science and technology challenge
for students in all grades, K-12.
Jumpstart 2000 aims to teach all youngsters what research
is about. You start by finding a problem--something
that concerns you or your community.
It could be a health risk, a polluted stream, or suburban
sprawl. Then, tell why the problem is important and
how science and technology can help solve it.
Simply put, it asks kids to use science and technology
to make their communities and the world a better place.
It represents a national effort to create a significant
change in attitudes. We aim to build a continuing
involvement of our nation's youth in real life problem
solving--in situations that impact their lives.
Best of all, it gets young people engaged and promotes
awareness of the problems that surround them. It sends
the message that they can play an active role in the
I hope you will spread the word in your own communities
because the contest has an additional impetus for
minority youth populations.
We all know that the earlier we can ignite the interest
of young people in science and mathematics the more
likely they are to swim in those waters with a sense
of familiarity, belonging, and confidence.
I have made it my personal mission to reach across
borders and boundaries to encourage the most diverse
mix of talent to careers in science and engineering.
As Director of NSF, I have a major podium to highlight
this goal. The same goal, I might add, that NSF has
been committed to all along.
The demographics of our nation are changing dramatically,
and by the year 2050, the Census Bureau projects that
we will be a majority of minorities.
The 21st century workforce will, by virtue
of our changing population, be increasingly diverse.
This increasing diversity is an expanding opportunity
for our nation. In fact, a recent issue of Fortune
magazine had an article entitled, "Where Diversity
Really Works, America's Best Companies for Minorities."
The article tells us that, "companies that pursue
diversity, outperform the S&P 500."
What better proof could we ask for. This tangible example
captures the essence of what Federal Reserve Board
Chairman, Alan Greenspan, meant when he spoke of "unleashing
the creative thinking that moves our society forward."
Let me share with you a very different example from
the spring 1999 issue of Winds of Change Magazine,
the quarterly from the American Indian Science and
One of the articles features three Native American
beadworkers describing the mathematical and cultural
insights they have gained through their craft and
how they have applied those insights.
Shirley Reader, one of the three, is a student at Utah
State University and will soon graduate and realize
her dream of being a teacher. She explained,
"When you do loomwork, it is important to know
that you always must string your loom so that
you have an odd number of beads in each (horizontal)
row. This is because the median (bead) acts as
the center point. You use it to flip your pattern
so that one side will mirror the other."
She goes on to say,
"We can use this idea with children learning math.
How many times as a student did you hear your
teachers tell you that what you do to one side
of the equation, you must do to the other? This
beadwork example makes this idea real for children.
I tell my own children to think of the middle
bead as an equal sign so that their patterns are
Each of you here today brings rich insight from your
own cultural experience and perspective. America's
science and engineering needs to be enriched by you
and your special talents.
You will bring a creativity from the core of your diversity.
We as a nation are grateful for the opportunity to
tap that unique wellspring.