Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Board of Directors Meeting
October 12, 1999
Good afternoon. I am delighted to be here.
I have been asked to say a few words about how we [Research!America
and NSF] can work more closely together.
To do that, I find it best to start by talking about
why we should work together more closely: specifically,
why investments in NSF are vital to advance health
and healthcare broadly across our society.
As you may know, NSF is a unique agency in the Federal
R&D structure. Unlike other R&D agencies, we do not
have a mission-oriented research-objective like energy,
biomedicine, oceans, or space.
Instead, we have the mission to support and fund the
underpinnings for all research disciplines, and the
connections between and among disciplines. We're also
involved in education at all levels.
NSF has a strong record across all fields of science
and engineering. It's our job to fund insightful proposals
and visionary investigators. We're known for going
to extremes--literally. Our work in Antarctica has
been much in the news recently, and I just got back
from a dive off the coast of Oregon on the submersible,
That's where I got to see the extremophiles that live
near hydrothermal vents in the Pacific. We go to these
extremes for one purpose: to advance the frontiers
of science and engineering.
In turn, we know that findings from basic research
continually catalyze breakthroughs in biomedicine
They provide the spark! Thanks to basic science, major
threats to public health have been reduced, quality
of life has improved, and life expectancy has continued
A classic example of the intersection of basic scientific
research and modern medicine is Magnetic Resonance
Imaging, or MRI. MRI evolved from physics, math, and
We now see three-dimensional images of the body at
a level of detail not possible with any other imaging
NSF's support for laboratory instrumentation led to
many of the advances.
Other medical advances similarly trace their roots
to fundamental physics: X-rays, CAT scans, laser surgery,
and fetal sonograms. Materials science is helping
develop new joints, heart valves, and dental implants.
Advances in chemistry and computer modeling are speeding
up drug development and making new drugs more effective
with fewer adverse side effects.
Basic biology and molecular science has even allowed
us to identify and analyze disease molecules. Drugs
can then be created to bind to disease molecules,
atom to atom.
The pattern I am illustrating is now evident. Many
of the associated advances in healthcare are the result
of earlier investments in a broad range of basic science.
Perhaps NIH Director Harold Varmus said it best in
his plenary address at AAAS in 1998:
"Most of the revolutionary changes that have occurred
in biology and medicine are rooted in new methods.
Those, in turn, are usually rooted in fundamental
discoveries in many different fields."
He then went on to cite laser surgery, CAT scans, fiber
optic viewing, ECHO cardiography, and fetal sonograms
as examples of these revolutionary advances.
Harold doesn't like it when I say society cannot live
by biomedical bread alone, but he knows what I mean.
We are all going to miss Harold for the perspective
he brought to NIH.
Let me shift gears to highlight a highly promising
partnership between engineering and medicine that
is occurring just up the road in Baltimore.
One year ago, Johns Hopkins University entered into
a unique agreement with MIT, Carnegie-Mellon University,
and their partnering clinical institutions.
Together, they launched the Engineering Research Center
in Computer-Integrated Surgical Systems and Technology.
NSF has invested $13 million over five years in this
Center. It is a prime example of collaborative, multi-disciplinary
teamwork and cutting-edge technology--directed at
real, practical problems.
The Center is the nation's first established to create
computer-linked surgical systems and medical robots.
It brings highly advanced information technology together
with surgical expertise--drawing upon computer scientists;
electrical, mechanical, and biomedical engineers;
as well as radiologists, neurosurgeons, urologists,
orthopedists, and ophthalmologists.
It aims to have the same revolutionary impact on medical
care as computer-integrated manufacturing systems
have had in industry.
Simply put, this endeavor could change how surgery
is performed. In the future, the surgeon will consult
a customized computer-generated model of the patient
before making a single incision.
The information from a model will diagnose the medical
condition, evaluate treatment options, and help rehearse
a personalized surgical plan.
This could result in surgery that is safer, more precise,
and less expensive; hence, speeding the patient recovery
period. It is no substitute for a surgeon's adaptability
and judgment. But, this computer-integrated surgery
will allow surgeons to plan and carry out procedures
more accurately and less invasively.
This example, like so many others, compels us to play
close attention to the current context for research
We know that our economy is the envy of the world.
The continued growth we are enjoying is being fueled
by advances in science and technology.
Over the past two decades, employment in science and
engineering fields has more than doubled and continues
to increase. High technology products have doubled
as a share of total U.S. trade. But, the federal investment
in R&D has fallen by one-third as a share of the GDP.
This concern was echoed to Congress in a letter spear-headed
by our good friend, Congressman Vern Ehlers. It got
nearly 80 co-signers from both parties.
The letter asked the House Appropriations Committee
to "reverse the funding cuts" for basic science and
technology research for FY2000.
It went on to acknowledge that Congress has the responsibility
to ensure the continuation of these prosperous times,
and the most sensible way to do this is to invest
in basic scientific research.
With the outcome of the budget process reaching a close,
we can safely say that we're on the way to funding
21st Century science and engineering. I thank everyone
in the community who stepped forward to champion federal
investments in research and education.
With this in mind, I would like to point out that NSF
is only a small piece, in total dollar terms, of total
Federal R&D. We account for under 4 percent of all
federal funds for R&D. However, that less-than-four-percent
accounts for 18 percent of all federally supported
And even more significant, that less-than-4-percent
accounts for 23 percent of federally supported fundamental
research performed at academic institutions.
When you look beyond biomedical support provided by
NIH, then NSF's share rises to nearly half of the
As you can see from the handout provided, NSF and NIH
play complementary roles.
This chart captures how our two agencies complement
each other by looking closely at one slice of the
Federal R&D pie: funding for basic research conducted
at colleges and universities.
NSF's role in the core disciplines is also clearly
illustrated by this chart. I should add that NSF delves
into these prominent research areas on a budget that
is only one-fourth that of NIH--which is growing at
only half the rate. That is food for thought.
The take-home message is that we need each other. NSF
rounds out the federal portfolio.
We're seeing more and more links, for example, between
the life sciences and the information sciences--such
as in genomics and bioinformatics.
That in itself underscores the need to boost investment
across all fields. It should now be obvious that NSF
is a vital component of the national R&D enterprise.
Many of the fundamental breakthroughs in basic science
come from this investment.
And, it's where our young people get to delve deeply
into work at the frontiers--frontiers laying the foundation
to breakthroughs in health and healthcare.
You may have seen the recent article in Science
that referred to the biomedical research enterprise
as a pyramid. Practicing physicians are at its apex,
and fundamental research provides the foundation.
We all know that a large building cannot be constructed
on a small foundation.
In this same way, the biomedical pyramid requires a
broad base in the fundamental sciences across all
fields and disciplines.
And we must remember, it took years for the Egyptians
to create their great pyramids.
We also need to be patient, for the journey from basic
research to medical breakthroughs often takes time.
In closing, let's work together to give this pyramid
a strong and broad base. The fundamental research
being done today will help us chart the destiny of
public health in the next century.
I look forward to our discussion, and I would like
to close with a question for all of us to ponder.
All of our polls show strong support for scientific
research in our society.
Yet, we are also seeing a number of warning signs at
the interface of science and society--concerns about
gene therapies, skepticism about core tenets like
evolution, and consumer rejection of genetically modified
products. Will these warning signs fade or are we
entering a new era of public skepticism?
That is a tough question. We know part of the answer
requires greater outreach and awareness. I look forward
to hearing from you on how we can do this together.