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Remarks

Photo of Kathie L. Olsen
Credit: Sam Kittner/kittner.com

Dr. Kathie L. Olsen
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation
Biography

"The Power of Community"

Gulf Coast Post-Katrina Forum
Biloxi, MS

August 20, 2007

[Slide #1: Title Slide]
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Thank you, and warm greetings and best wishes to all of you.

I'm delighted to be here in Biloxi (first time!), with colleagues from Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi.

[Slide #2: Post-Katrina View]
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This image of Katrina is what we've been seeing for the past two years.

[Slide #3: Sunny View for Today]
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This is the image we need to keep fresh in our minds today: plenty of sunshine--no more clouds.

I know that the past two years haven't been easy for any of you. Each of you has suffered from Hurricane Katrina, many through personal losses, and others through disarray in your communities and institutions. And yet you are here today, ready to look ahead, toward a brighter future. Thank you so much for your dedication, your resilience, and your resolve!

I'm grateful to all of you, not only for your dedication, but for your commitment to one another and to the communities you serve. In Katrina's wake, many of you were academic first responders, taking in students, arranging housing, tuition and fellowships.

[Slide #4: National Science Foundation: Post-Katrina Activities]
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And at NSF, we tried to help as well. When we learned about the devastation and suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina, our first thought was to assure everyone that NSF would be supportive, flexible, and willing to provide assistance.

Shortly after the hurricane, we set up a telephone "hotline" for our stranded partners in science and engineering. We wanted to hear from all of our researchers, and let them know that NSF was prepared to do everything possible to be flexible and creative in accommodating their needs. At the time, we had about 725 awards distributed among 66 institutions in the region. There was a heap of work to be done, in very little time.

We offered automatic extensions for awards that were shortly due to expire. We helped faculty and students who temporarily changed institutions to transfer their awards.

NSF Director Arden Bement asked me to put together a working group of deputy assistant directors to uncover common needs, to find solutions, and to coordinate our response. We wanted to be sure that we were doing everything within our power to provide support. Eventually, we integrated those efforts with those of other agencies and coordinated with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Arden Bement, myself, and other senior management met with and/or visited the region on several occasions to learn first-hand how NSF could be helpful to those caught in the wake of Katrina.

We also used our SGER Program to get researchers immediately into the region, to understand the dynamics of the events--from Social science, to engineering to geosciences--and the results will be a focus of this talk.

[Slide #5: EPSCoR Program: Mississippi and Alabama]
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Since the three states were all members of our EPSCoR team, we turned to our NSF office to lead the way. And INDEED... In the immediate wake of the hurricane, the EPSCoR programs in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi stepped up as leaders in efforts to assess institutional needs and coordinate responses in the region.

NSF provided supplementary support for these activities and also to help the EPSCoR offices establish a clearinghouse for science and engineering students, post-docs, and faculty. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to those of you who took on this incredible task. Thank you for a superb job. [$200,000 awarded to each of the three programs.]

NSF also provided supplementary support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that took in science and engineering students from the region, when three HBCUs in the New Orleans area were forced to close temporarily.

In the two years since Hurricane Katrina struck, scientists and engineers have examined the full breadth of the storm's aftermath.

[Slide #6: RAINEX]
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To weather predictions...

Scientists from the RAINEX project flew into the edge of Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 27 and Aug. 28 to study its rainbands and the formation of its eyewall, taking simultaneous measurements from two aircraft as Katrina grew into Category 5 and bore down on the Gulf Coast.

[Slide #7: Wind Wave and Storm Surge Modeling]
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Some researchers arrived on the scene immediately to collect critical clues before they were lost to rescue and clean-up operations.

Other research took place in laboratories, where investigators plugged numbers into computer models.

[Slide #8: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles]
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Others designed and deployed unmanned aerial vehicles, like this helicopter, that can search inaccessible locations.

All these scientists and engineers sought to understand exactly how the destruction happened, if and when it could happen again, and especially, how to prevent such carnage in the future.

[Slide #9: Small Grants for Exploratory Research]
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NSF supported many of these studies under the Small Grants for Exploratory Research (SGER) program. SGER grants support untested and novel ideas, emerging research, and critical research questions that arise unexpectedly.

In the case of Hurricane Katrina, SGER grants allowed researchers to collect ephemeral data--data that must be gathered rapidly in the aftermath of disasters. Without a quick response, this valuable data would be lost forever.

These grants were made available primarily by two NSF Directorates, Engineering and Social and Behavioral Science, through the Human and Social Dynamics initiative. But other Directorates--including BIO, GEO and CISE--also participated. Let me give you some examples of the work we supported.

[Slide #10: Engineering SGER Grants]
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The scope of this research is impressive. Examples in engineering include: research on the decontamination of flood waters and assessment of hazards from exposure to bio-aerosols.

Research on infrastructure ranged from estimates of damage to underground urban systems and multi-story commercial structures, to assessments of damage to power and telecommunications systems.

[Slide #11: Social, Behavioral and Economic SGER Grants]
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The NSF SBE Directorate funded a broad range of SGER grants to explore the human and societal impacts of Katrina. SGER grants supported a broad range of research, including the impact of Katrina victims on school systems in Texas, and how displacement affected social networks after Katrina.

NSF also supported 25 rapid response teams from the National Hazards Center, at the University of Colorado at Boulder to assess a variety of impacts.

[Note on Image:] University of Colorado (UC) Sociologist Leslie Irvine holds a dog left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. Rescuers sheltered the dog and thousands of other animals at a staging area in Louisiana. Her research was funded partly by NSF through a Quick Response Grant from the National Hazards Research Center at UC-Boulder.

[Slide #12: Ecosystem Impacts]
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Natural disasters remind us that we humans and our infrastructure are part of larger ecosystems, and depend upon the many services they provide.

SGER grants funded research on native plants, crabs and fish, estuarine resources, and complex ecosystem interactions.

NSF also provided funds to the Earthquake Engineering Research Center at SUNY-Buffalo to send reconnaissance teams to study both structural damage and societal response in the aftermath of Katrina.

It may seem strange to turn to engineers with expertise in earthquakes, but the truth is that many disasters involve common features. Knowledge garnered from research on the aftermath of Katrina will, in turn, help victims of disasters around the world.

[Slide #13: Research Coordination]
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The idea for a Katrina Environmental Research and Restoration Network (KERRN) emerged from the Research Coordination Networks program sponsored by the NSF BIO Directorate. Researchers at Tulane University and Xavier University collaborated to create KERRN.

Using the network, scientists from a wide range of disciplines--including the social and behavioral sciences--can combine their efforts to synthesize a broader understanding of the environmental processes at work in the post-Katrina gulf coast region.

These insights can be used in future planning, mitigation, and restoration efforts. NSF used the SGER mechanism to jumpstart this effort.

[Slide #14: Cyberinfrastructure]
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By the way, this example demonstrates one of NSF's top priorities now and in coming years: the development of world-class cyberinfrastructure and the new research collaborations--international in scope--that it makes possible.

Using existing technologies, scientists and educators across the world, from Tulane to the University of Texas to Radboud University in the Netherlands, are now developing methods to address major environmental disasters.

The next generation of cyberinfrastructure will enhance KERRN's work and foster even broader collaborations around the world.

[Slide #15: The Power of Communities]
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If the disaster of Katrina demonstrates anything, it is the power of communities coming together to meet a challenge. That is the essence of community.

And the science, engineering and education community is an essential player. Without a comprehensive understanding of disasters, it is impossible to prepare for them.

Knowledge may help us determine how weather systems develop, help us estimate the path of a hurricane, recognize vulnerabilities, or even gauge how an individual's decisions--from a utility employee to a public official--can prevent risks that might affect an entire community.

With the right information, researchers, communities and planners can work together to craft an effective response for almost any conceivable crisis and learn how to confront future crises more effectively.

[Slide #16: The Challenge of Looking Forward]
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There are many challenges still to be met--including continued rebuilding and renewal across the region. Beyond that, there is the immense challenge of looking forward. Our nation is facing another challenge, one that is not as blatantly destructive as a hurricane, but can be just as insidious.

Our challenge is to retain U.S. leadership in science, engineering and technology. The nation's science and engineering workforce is threatened for a variety of reasons--retirement of the baby boomers, competition from foreign countries, and waning interest in science careers.

I don't need to spend time convincing you that this is a serious challenge with far-reaching consequences. You already know.

Those of you gathered here today, from the three Gulf States, and from farther afield, share in that challenge. I know you are all committed to creating a vibrant economy across the region, and throughout America. A flourishing research community and educational excellence are the new drivers to make that happen.

This Forum is a step in the right direction. You will explore possibilities for new partnerships, new endeavors and a brighter future.

[Slide #17: It's a Small World]
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Many of you have reached out to one another, both as those in need of help and as helpers. The coalitions and collaborations that have sprouted like flowers after rain are the foundation of something much larger. They can flourish and grow into a force for progress in science and engineering, in educational excellence, and in economic development and prosperity that stretches across the region--and, why not?--around the world.

I urge you to nurture your resilience and resolve. I encourage you to compete for research funding well beyond your immediate concerns, in every avenue of research opportunity. Look for new partners and new directions.

[Slide #18: University-Industry Opportunities]
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Here are some examples of NSF programs that support university-business partnerships.

These partnerships can nourish small businesses, and help train the science and engineering workforce of the future.

[Slide #19: Opportunities for Graduate Students]
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I hope you will encourage your graduate students to compete for one of these NSF fellowship programs.

[Slide #20: NSF Budget Priorities for FY 2008]
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I've already mentioned cyberinfrastructure as an NSF priority. Here are some other NSF budget priorities for FY 2008 that that you may want to consider.

[Slide #21: Investing in America's Future]
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For the longer term, you may want to take a look at NSF's new Strategic Plan. You'll find an exciting vision of what we believe the future holds for research and education.

Whether in the short or longer term, the bottom line is the same: compete, compete, compete! If you don't succeed the first time, try again!

Denise Barnes, a Program Officer with the NSF EPSCoR office and Rick McCourt, a Program Officer with the Division of Biological Infrastructure will be speaking during the Forum. Bob O'Conner, a Division Director in SBE, is also here. They will be able to give you good advice about opportunities at NSF.

[Slide #22: Coalition Efforts--Stay Together]
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I'm incredibly impressed with the coalition efforts that the three EPSCoR states--Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana--have already built--even if it took an event like Katrina to bring you together. STAY TOGETHER.

Across America, these are days of complex problems in search of sophisticated solutions. Communities--both local and regional, both real and virtual--are powerful forces for progress.

With resilience and resolve, I'm confident that you will aspire to world-class science, educational excellence, and a thriving economy. NSF is here to help you realize those aspirations.

 

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