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NSF & Congress


Dr. Rita Colwell

Dr. Rita Colwell
National Science Foundation

Before the Before the Senate Appropriations Committee
Subcommittee on VA/HUD and Independent Agencies
May 4, 2000

Mr. Chairman, Senator Mikulski, members of the subcommittee, thank you for allowing me the opportunity to testify on NSF's budget request for Fiscal Year 2001. I want to begin by thanking you and the subcommittee for your consistent, bipartisan support for NSF's science and engineering activities.

The FY 2001 budget request for the National Science Foundation if enacted, would provide the largest dollar increase the Foundation has ever received. This investment will help set the stage for a new century of progress through learning and discovery.

For the coming fiscal year, the NSF requests $4.57 billion dollars. This represents a much needed increase - 17.3% overall -- over $675 million above the current level. This investment is part of the President's 21st Century Research Fund for America, and it is all about keeping the United States at the leading edge of learning and discovery.

The headliners in NSF's 2001 request are four focused, multidisciplinary initiatives. In fact, they are really national priorities: Information Technology Research, Biocomplexity, 21st Century Workforce and the emergent National Nanoscale Science and Engineering Initiative.

Each initiative integrates research across the disciplines of science, engineering and mathematics. Solving many of the challenges facing our society will require more than individual discoveries. It will require the integration of knowledge from all disciplines.

Biocomplexity - for example - seeks no less than a more complete understanding of our complex world and its interactions - physical, biological and social.

In describing these interactions, I am reminded of the words of the naturalist John Muir. He wrote:

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."

Up to now, we have sought understanding by taking things apart into their components. Now, at last, we begin to map out the interplay between the parts of complex systems.

One especially promising area in Biocomplexity is the study of the Earth's crust as a habitat for micro-organisms.

To illustrate this I would like take us on a very brief journey by video to the depths of the sea floor.

The footage we will see was taken with an IMAX camera from inside the submersible Alvin. NSF has long supported Alvin, and we also helped to support this filming.

Not yet seen by the public, this footage is part of a proposed film about deep-sea hydrothermal vents being produced by Stephen Low Productions in collaboration with the Rutgers Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

It was shot at a deep-sea vent called "9 Degrees North" in the Pacific Ocean south of Mexico. The film will bring the astonishing life of the vents to millions of people who will never be able to descend in a submarine.

We will see features called "black smokers"-the mineralized chimneys that tower above the communities of life at hydrothermal vents.

The mouths of the vents spew forth boiling water full of chemicals. Such conditions are obviously toxic to humans and to most other life-forms.

We first discovered these communities some two decades ago but we are only beginning to unlock their secrets. The list of described species inhabiting vents now tops 300. All living in the depths without photosynthesis.

Instead of using the sun's energy, they employ chemosynthesis to oxidize the hydrogen sulfide emerging from the vents.

[black smoker footage]

To me the black smokers we have just seen are not only metaphorical but literal wellsprings of discovery. There are even suggestions that these springs could have been the birthplace of all life on Earth.

Back at the Earth's surface, I'd like to move to another origin, the beginning of NSF. Fifty years ago this month - May 10th, 1950 to be exact - President Truman signed S. 247 - the act that established the NSF.

Our nation's commitment to science, engineering and education did not begin in 1950. This commitment can be seen from the very beginning of the nation. The motto on America's first coin for example - minted in 1792 - read: Liberty: Parent of Science and Industry.

That motto has just as much meaning today - in the 21st century - as it did in 1792, in an era before the advent of the steam engine. Individual scientists and engineers - supported by NSF and other federal agencies - are using their talent and their freedom to create, discover, and innovate.

Increasingly these scientists and engineers, and perhaps even more important their students - are also making the jump to the private sector.

This transfer to the private sector of people - first supported by NSF at universities - should be viewed as the ultimate success of technology transfer. These talented scientists and engineers are part of the new wave of entrepreneurs creating enormous wealth in areas like information technology, biotechnology, and now in nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology - Mr. Chairman - is a new, emerging field where scientists and engineers are beginning to manipulate matter at the atomic level. Taking a cue from biology, researchers across disciplines are beginning to create nanostructures smaller than human cells.

This "Lilliputian" technology has the potential to revolutionize nearly every facet of our economy and our lives. For example:

  • Researchers envision building electronic circuits from the bottom-up, starting at the molecular level. In the future researchers may be building molecular computers the size of a tear drop with the power of today's fastest supercomputers.

  • Combining microelectronics and neural research holds great promise for developing prosthetic devices for artificial limbs. Researchers are creating nanochips where nerve axons can regrow through the tiny grate in the center a silicon membrane. These chips then modify and distribute the nerve impulses, simulating the electrical activity of a normal nerve synapse.

  • Researchers are already developing micromachined needles with sharp tips of less than a micrometer across. Such tiny needle tips can pierce the skin easily and without pain-a novel new method of drug delivery.

There are many more innovations - most occurring in the past year or so. We are also already seeing a substantial amount of industry-university partnerships in nanoscale science and engineering. Industry, as well as other federal agencies like NASA, DoE and DoD will be looking to our universities for the scientists and engineers skilled in nanotechnology. That is why I cannot overstate the importance of NSF's investment in the education of future nanoscale scientists and engineers.

The transfer of scientists and engineers to the private sector can probably best be seen in the Information Technology sector. Everyday we read a news story touting the latest Internet whiz kid or biotechnology IPO. David Ignatius - in a recent column in the Washington Post - wrote about a 27-year old Stanford graduate student with a smart business plan and a hot Internet search engine with the strange name of Google.

The offbeat name is actually a reference to the complex math - actually a series of mathematical algorithms - that makes the search engine work. It involves over half a billion variables in its complex calculations. The mathematical term googol represents 10 to the 100th power.

Google the company is an excellent example of knowledge transfer from NSF investments in people. Both of the company's two founders were computer science grad students at Stanford who studied under an NSF-funded faculty member. One of the founders received an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Google's Vice President of Engineering is a computer science professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and recipient of a prestigious NSF CAREER award.

Google is a great example of how fundamental research in an area like mathematics acts as the lifeblood of the IT revolution. It also shows how the unparalleled innovation system in the U.S. can quickly exploit new ideas developed in university labs and bring them to market.

This example is really just the latest in a string of NSF successes. The underlying technology for nearly all major search engines found on the web today - including Lycos, Excite, Infoseek, Inktomi and specialized search engines like Congress's own THOMAS - all were begun created through NSF-funded research at universities.

This trend hasn't gone unnoticed by industry. Now leaders like Alfred Berkeley, the President of the NASDAQ Stock Market and CEO's like Norm Augustine of Lockheed talk about the importance of the NSF's investments in basic research. I've included as an attachment statements they made earlier this year on the importance of NSF's investments to industry. I've also attached the recent statement by the Council on Competitiveness, which was co-signed by CEO's and other industry executives.

Mr. Chairman, NSF has recently developed a strategic plan that reflect our role in the innovation process. The investments proposed in our FY 2001 budget were crafted to address three strategic goals for the Foundation. They are:

Ideas - This includes research at and across the frontier of science and engineering, and connections to its use in service of society.

People -- We've always said that every NSF dollar is an investment in people. We cover kindergarten to career development to continuous learning.

Tools -- These are the databases, the platforms, and the facilities that keep us at the leading edge. There are some new starts in here that I will highlight in a moment.

I've already mentioned the initiatives within the FY 2001 budget request. I would also like to note that nearly half our requested increase - $320 million -will support what we call the core activities. It will help us with our biggest challenge: to strengthen the core disciplines of science and engineering while moving forward in interdisciplinary areas.

NSF's investments in cutting-edge mathematics and statistics are a perfect example of how investing in core disciplines will sustain new fundamental discoveries and make interdisciplinary activities run on all cylinders.

The story of Google shows how mathematics has become increasingly important in ITR. We are also seeing impressive contributions to the new and emerging fields of bioinformatics and nano-scale manufacturing. The greatest insights into AIDS have come from mathematical models of disease.

Mr. Chairman, within our core activities, NSF support for plant genome research will increase by $22.5 million to total $102 million in FY 2001. This investment - long championed by you Mr. Chairman and this subcommittee - will help continue US world leadership in plant genomics.

Our investment in the EPSCoR program will increase slightly to $73 million in FY 2001. This includes funding from both the EHR and RRA accounts. NSF has long sought to enable EPSCoR researchers to participate more fully in NSF research activities. Consequently, up to $25 million will be made available from the NSF research account for co-funding.

Mr. Chairman, all of our advances in science and engineering depend upon a workforce that is literate in science and technology. When we talk about the equation for science and society, this is a critical part.

Our request for programs specifically addressing NSF's strategic goal of investing in People - spanning both the EHR and Research Accounts - will increase by 10.8% over FY 2000. Within this broader investment, our request for Education and Human Resources represents a 5.5% increase over the FY 2000 level.

Highlights include:

Funding for the Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12) program more than double to $28 million. The GK-12 program supports graduate and advanced undergraduate students in science, math and engineering to be content resources for K-12 teachers.

The request for the HBCU-Undergraduate Program (HBCU-UP) in FY 2001 is $11 million, an increase of $1.60 million or 17%. This reflects a contribution from NSF's research account of $3 million. The FY 2001 request for HBCU-UP will provide continuing support for 14 existing projects and support for up to 4 new awards in FY 2001.

The request for Advanced Technological Education Program (ATE) - NSF's flagship program for 2-year institutions and championed by the subcommittee - is $39 million, an increase of $10 million or over 33%. The ATE program seeks to strengthen the science and math preparation of students in technical fields. This will enable them to better compete in the high-performance workplace in areas such as Information Technology and Manufacturing.

Our nation is in the midst of one of the greatest eras of technological change in human history. In an economy driven by knowledge and ideas, how we prepare our workforce is paramount. NSF is committed to providing leadership in this critical area.

Finally, I mentioned earlier that we have two new starts in our investments in Tools.

One is NEON - the National Ecological Observatory Network: a pole-to-pole network - Arctic to Antarctic - with a state-of-the-art infrastructure of platforms and equipment to enable 21st Century science and engineering-based ecological and biocomplexity research. The MRE request for NEON is $12 million in FY 2001.

The other new start is EarthScope, which is an array of instruments that will allow scientists to observe earthquake and other earth processes like volcanic eruptions at much higher resolution. $17 million is requested for EarthScope in FY 2001.

Mr. Chairman, since its founding fifty years ago the National Science Foundation has been an important and vital catalyst for discovery and innovation. From the information technology revolution to the genomic revolution and everything in between - MRIs, lasers, the Internet, Doppler radar, and countless other innovations - NSF-supported fundamental research has advanced our society.

NSF's FY 2001 budget reflects the lessons of history. It focuses on national priorities, as it should. But it also recognizes that one of our highest national priorities must always be to stay at the leading-edge of science and engineering research and education across the board. Over half of the increased funding is just for that.

The entire NSF investment portfolio sets the stage for a 21st Century research and education enterprise that is focused on national priorities. Guiding all of these activities is the Foundation's longstanding commitment to merit-based investments in learning and discovery that adhere to the highest standards of excellence.

This request marks a significant step forward for U.S. science and engineering. The requested increase of over 17 percent provides a level of investment that is clearly in keeping with the wealth of opportunity that science and engineering provide society. It positions America to remain a world leader in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st Century.

Thank you.