"The National Science Foundation: Turning 50 at the
Turn of the Century"
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
92nd Street Y
January 24, 2000
I am honored by the invitation to speak in the "On
the Brink" series here at the 92nd
Street Y. I've always admired New Yorkers.
You are noted around the world for savvy, smarts, and
sophistication. Given that reputation, I have come
prepared for some challenging questions and insights
from you. I look forward to a very active discussion.
I know that this event has been billed as a lecture,
but lectures are not exactly my style. What I'd like
to do is give you some context from my interests and
perspective and then we can open things up for participation.
I'd like to talk about the National Science Foundation
and the mission we fulfill. Science and technology
open new directions and opportunities for all nations
and for each of us as individuals.
Time Magazine's choice of Einstein as the Person
of the Century pretty much validates that assertion.
This year, NSF turns 50, which means that we have turned
half a century at the turn of the new Century.
That seems to have a prophetic ring to it.
I was at first prepared to say that NSF is about "progress."
Then I ran across a quote by the poet and commentator
Ogden Nash. He said, "Progress may have been all right
once but it has gone on too long."
I want to register my strong disagreement with Nash.
Progress is the life-blood of civilization. If we
did not advance we would eventually decline.
The very fabric and fiber of the human spirit is rooted
in curiosity, questioning, and creating. We see this
as most obvious in young children who are sponges
No parent can ever forget the feeling of both delight
and vague humiliation in not being able to answer
all of the "but why" responses to the careful answer
we had just provided. Progress is always in fashion.
And with total modesty, I can say that NSF is about
progress. In fact, it's in our mission statement.
We are one of the smaller federal government agencies,
with an in-house staff of roughly 1300, primarily
scientists and engineers.
Our reach and impact however stretch across the nation
and around the globe.
We are not the only research and development agency
in the federal government.
Besides NSF, the list includes NASA, the National Institutes
of Health (NIH), the National Institute of Standards
and Technology (NIST), and parts of many other agencies
such as the Department of Energy and the Department
In addition, there are hundreds of National Laboratories,
large and small. Some are well known like Oak Ridge
in Tennessee, Los Alamos in New Mexico, Argonne in
Illinois, and Brookhaven on Long Island.
There are many more that are obscure to most of us.
What they all have in common is a specific research
This diverse Federal R&D enterprise has had long and
strong connections to our nation's colleges and universities.
We have, in essence, been partners in function and
spirit for decades.
Many of our oldest partners are right here on your
turf-City College, Columbia, NYU, Hunter, Polytechnic
Institute in Brooklyn, Queens College, Stonybrook,
Fordham, and the list goes on.
In the Federal R&D structure, NSF is a unique agency.
We do not have a mission-oriented-research-objective
such as energy, oceans, biomedicine, agriculture,
Instead, we have the mission to support and fund the
underpinnings for all research disciplines, and the
connections between and among research disciplines.
We have a distinct set of responsibilities. It is our
job to keep all fields of science and engineering
focused on the furthest frontier, to recognize and
nurture emerging fields, to support the work of those
with the most insightful reach, and to prepare coming
generations of scientific talent. A big and important
In marking our 50th anniversary, we are
celebrating vision and foresight. Here in New York
where hockey is part of local lore and common parlance
with the Rangers and the Islanders, I think a hockey
analogy is appropriate.
The recently retired hockey-great, Wayne Gretzky (no
stranger to New Yorkers) used to say, "I skate to
where the puck is going, not to where it's been."
At NSF, we try to fund where the fields are going,
not where they've been.
NSF has a strong record across all fields of science
and engineering for choosing to fund insightful ideas
and visionary investigators.
You have to have a lot of good ammunition to back-up
such bragging, and we do. At this anniversary, we
have chosen to tell the NSF story by assembling some
of our greatest hits.
We are selecting them from literally thousands of discoveries
that NSF has funded over five decades.
Each of those discoveries has made its mark in contributing
new light to an established field or moved us a step
closer to an emerging field.
What stands out most is their broad impact as catalysts
for moving our thinking and capability in a new direction.
Don't worry, I won't review all of them for you tonight
but I will offer just a smattering. The breadth and
diversity of these may surprise even the scholars
of research achievements.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging or MRI is one of the
most comprehensive medical diagnostic tools. We
didn't invent MRI-but our ongoing support for
scientific instrumentation advanced the development
of MRI's and other imaging systems.
- NSF-funded research in atmospheric chemistry identified
ozone depletion over the Antarctic, or the "ozone
hole" as it has come to be known. In 1986, NSF
researchers established chlorofluorocarbons as
the probable cause of the Antarctic ozone hole.
Since CFCs are used in many commercial applications,
this discovery has driven a search for benign
substitutes and also led to regulation of CFC
- It seems that none of us can remember an information
universe without Web Browsers like Netscape. The
browser made the World Wide Web. The first browser
of note was Mosaic, and it was developed by a
student working at the National Center for Supercomputing
Applications at the University of Illinois. This
is one of NSF's four original Supercomputing Centers.
- In industry, the acronym CAD/CAM brings to mind
the best in design and manufacturing techniques.
NSF-funded research on solid modeling led to the
widespread use of Computer-Aided Design and Computer-Aided
Manufacturing. The keys to success were advances
in the underlying mathematics and in linking the
academic and industrial leaders in the field.
Much of the seminal work in CAD/CAM took place just
up the Hudson at RPI in Troy, NY. Good things can
also happen upstate.
In case there are still some skeptics, NSF-supported
researchers have collected 100 Nobel Prizes over the
years. They have received recognition for work in
the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine,
This past year, Caltech chemist, Ahmed Zewail, won
a Nobel Prize for his work in the transition states
of chemical reactions.
Although Zewail's work does not have a familiar ring
to us like MRI, CAD/CAM, Web Browser, or ozone hole,
it was recognized because it enhances our understanding
in a unique way.
Someday, the application of that work may carry a moniker
as common as a household word.
These examples provide just a glimpse at the discovery
whirlpool that NSF has kept in constant motion for
half a century. Describing them to you is not just
It is the strongest evidence of the value of the Federal
government's investment and involvement in research
The unique role that NSF plays is buttressed and enhanced
by the diversity of the other Federal R&D agencies,
and the network of national laboratories.
Together they represent a universe of discovery and
innovation that is the envy of the world. Former House
Speaker, Newt Gingrich, recently said as much in an
In his words, "You cannot explain America's role in
the 20th century without looking at the
scale of knowledge that government [funded] research
Just as science and engineering have consistently changed
and enriched the world, the world of science and engineering
is also changing. It is being enriched by what I would
call a new sociology of science.
By that I mean, there are now new ways in which we
can conduct science. The pool of participants and
partners in science has widened and deepened.
And the cross-pollination of research disciplines has
led to the blossoming of many new fields.
This recent change has been driven by many forces.
The end of the Cold War has been a major factor, as
has the subsequent globalization of the world economy.
These were political and economic shifts. They created
greater flexibility and competition in the world system
to which science contributes.
However information technologies were the technological
catalyst for the most pervasive change in what we
were able to do in science and engineering over the
last two decades.
We all have our own personal uses for information technology.
Some of us file our taxes electronically, we shop,
and we log onto chat rooms. We assemble information
for reports we write; we even get our jokes from the
But for tonight's discussion on science and society,
one can safely say that information technologies have
become the new infrastructure of science and engineering.
They allow researchers to achieve simultaneously both
depth and breadth in a research problem.
It's about more than just computers and number crunching.
It's DNA on a chip. It's sensors in highways. It's
surgery with no incisions. It's drugs that control
their doses. IT makes it all possible.
They have enabled us to view and tackle the panorama
of a problem. They have provided an understanding
that is at the same time both unique and universal.
When humans viewed the Earth from space for the first
time, we could see our own blue planet from a perspective
never before seen.
A fundamental revision of ourselves in the universe
took shape from that new angle.
We were no longer singularly omnipotent, but rather
fragile, small, and even vulnerable.
The newest discoveries in astronomy tell us even more
about the scope of our smallness in relation to the
vastness of the universe. We are not only one among
diverse planets but we are one galaxy among multiple
Some are now saying that we are one universe among
many. This perspective has a way of diminishing one's
The new tools that we have fashioned in science and
engineering reveal depth, complexity, vast distances,
and unimagined connections.
These are the extraordinary computational and imaging
tools emerging from information technologies today.
But what does this have to do with changing the sociology
With these new capabilities, we are discovering that
at the most intricate and intimate level of all fields
there is a connection, a powerful binding to each
One discipline becomes a metaphor for explaining another
discipline. We are finding that complexity eventually
brings us to the integration of things.
We are finding the places where biology and physics
explain each other, where chemistry and geology intersect
in the clouds we see overhead. It's best captured
by a quote from John Muir-
"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we
find it hitched to everything else in the universe."
Information technology has been the single most powerful
force for this new sociology of science.
It has allowed us to invade the deepest complexities
and the broadest scope of a scientific question. We
find a kinship here through similarities in patterns
or behaviors in diverse fields.
This has helped create a change in the social dynamic
of science. Increasingly, researchers are engaged
in collaborations outside of their own disciplines.
They find explanation and elaboration of their own
work in unrelated fields. This growing commonality
is like strangers finishing each other's thoughts.
In the process, the old-style dogmatism of the disciplines
will be eclipsed by this comradeship beyond the disciplinary
I see this in my own research. I have studied the infectious
disease, cholera, for more than twenty-five years.
We discovered that the bacterium, Vibrio cholerae
is associated with plankton found in virtually all
rivers and ponds.
In poverty-stricken countries like Bangladesh purifying
water by boiling it is just not an option. There simply
isn't enough firewood to burn for the boiling process.
A less expensive option was filtering out the plankton
to lessen, and possibly curb the disease.
We determined that sari cloth would make an excellent,
affordable filter. However, it was critical to establish
that this would be culturally acceptable to the Bangladeshi
A sociologist was added to our research team. The answer
was quickly shown to be affirmative. We now have a
team of sociologists working with us on this project,
as we implement the procedure.
This is just one way that scientists are both watching
and participating in the formation of this "new sociology
And so we come full circle to ask the fundamental questions:
where are the opportunities and what are the issues-for
all of science and engineering, and for the nation?
The opportunities lie in understanding the arc of change
and moving in that direction.
That means following Wayne Gretzy, "to where the puck
is going, not to where it's been."
Information technologies are altering the very nature
of knowledge and of learning.
Those who successfully seize the opportunities will,
in essence, find productive and innovative ways to
harness IT's multifaceted capabilities.
This IT revolution is not defined by, or confined to,
our desktop computer or the bar codes on everything
We have had a 4-decade odyssey in miniaturization that
has led to smaller and smaller chips, sensors, and
circuits. Our ability to build and manipulate these
tools has opened a universe of possibility.
Nanoscale tools and machines will make it possible
to cross the human/machine border with growing ease.
Whatever the opportunities turn out to be, we must
think of them not for the few but for the many. Otherwise,
they do not become opportunities for the nation.
While the pervasiveness of information technologies
has enhanced our capabilities, it has also further
divided our society into haves and have-nots.
Without access to computers and the Internet, individuals,
families, and communities are increasingly left behind.
You may have heard of the high technology analyst,
Ester Dyson. She's often called the "doyen of the
She has a different, and I believe more useful, slant
on the idea of digital divisions in our society and
In a recent interview on National Public Radio, she
suggested that the Internet does not cause inequality
any more than cars cause inequality.
Rather, education, or the lack thereof, is the root
of inequality. With education, you can get a better
job, afford a car, afford Internet access- it is more
a matter of broadening your choices.
This brings me to the nation's most compelling issue
and to the second half of NSF's mission: science and
math-education-learning, literacy-and workforce skills.
NSF is as much about preparing a world-class workforce
as it is about scientific discovery. We have always
emphasized and supported science and mathematics education
Now however, we are closing the circle in education
and teaching by an increased focus on research into
We all learn differently. Some of us seem to have tendencies
toward visual learning. We are at ease with processing
knowledge by seeing it on a page, observing it in
real time, focusing on it through images, and even
preparing our own pictures and portrayals.
Others seem to have a greater orientation for listening
and learning. They can comfortably absorb ideas by
hearing the human voice in lecture and discussion,
or via audio recording. I myself learn from the sounds
of a forest with birdcalls and insect buzz.
Musicians often have a high quotient for auditory learning.
They say that Pavorotti likes to hear a work before
he sings it. The notes on the page tell him very little.
We also know that our social and cultural environment
influence the way we learn. Language, customs, and
communication differ from family to family and nation
to nation. All of these factors influence the way
in which we learn.
In the quest to unravel the mysteries of learning,
we see the confluence of diverse disciplines-biology,
psychology, neuroscience, neurocognition, educational
technology, and sociology.
The insights gained in one area are helping us explain
the unanswered questions in another field.
The search into how we learn is fascinating and challenging.
However, it is also pragmatic and imperative for the
In a knowledge-based economy, it is crucial that we
educate all students and workers on how to use
Without a comprehensive understanding about how learning
occurs for different individuals, we will, by default,
lose many valuable contributions from those who fall
by the wayside.
No nation can afford such a waste of talent, and no
learners should be neglected by our lack of understanding
of learning differences.
A learner-centered environment should be central to
all of our education goals. The question is not which
approach is better but which approach is better for
a particular learner at a particular time.
In recent years, advances in many fields have transformed
research on learning and education into an emerging
interdisciplinary "science of learning."
The effort to understand intelligence and learning,
and their relationship to the human brain is a significant
part of the learning enigma.
Right now, converging lines of research have begun
to reveal how relatively simple forms of learning
affect the brain's structure, activity, and organization.
This holds true from infant development through adulthood.
Cognitive processes-such as reading a word or analyzing
a visual scene-are beginning to be understood in terms
of neural systems.
Such discoveries are framing our understanding of behavior
and cognition. Increasingly, neuroscience investigations
will shed light into the complexity of human learning.
This will influence and improve the practice of education
for children and adults.
In a society that is increasingly dependent on science
and technology, the key to the way we internalize
concepts in science and math will be crucial to the
nation's success in the 21st century.
Although we have developed considerable insight into
how children learn how to read, we know much less
about what it takes to teach certain concepts in science
And yet each day our lives are touched by concepts
of science and math we cannot fathom.
As a society, we cannot afford to let genetics remain
a meaningless mix of letters for most of us. We'll
need a greater comfort level with different computing
We will need to understand how diverse forms of environmental
degradation impact our health.
Learning more about how we learn science and math concepts
is not an esoteric quest but a practical goal for
Our overarching national goal is to improve the standard
of living and quality of life of all our citizens.
To achieve that, we must help all citizens to contribute
to the society's growth and prosperity.
The first step in that process is to discern and dissect
how we learn. That is the only way to insure that
we can help everyone to learn. Learning is not only
key to participating in society, it is key to benefiting
In an effort to hasten that process, NSF is part of
a three-agency education initiative. The goal is to
fund research that can identify strategies to improve
the teaching and learning of reading, math, and science
from kindergarten through grade 12.
The strategies will focus on the use of information
and computer technologies in education. In October,
we awarded the first series of research grants.
The majority of these studies include children from
diverse racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds to
ensure that the research will reflect the realities
of our student population.
In the classroom of the future, computer-based technology
could help teachers pinpoint student misconceptions.
Technology could identify where in the teaching process
the students became confused.
Computer programs could be designed to have students
practice concepts that have proven to be stumbling
blocks. There is great potential for technology to
be a learning-tutor in the everyday classroom.
The word learning has new and important meaning in
the term "lifelong learning." Many of us remember
the time when education ended with a diploma or degree.
Those were not the good old days, just the old days.
Today, we tell young people that they should be prepared
to have five or six careers in a working lifetime.
We tell adults that continuous training and education
are integral to keeping up with the accelerated pace
of change in the workplace.
The need for lifelong learning and the growing availability
of distance-education are creating productive unions
to enhance workforce skills.
And we are now seeing evidence that lifelong learning
is taking hold as a principle of contemporary work.
For example, from 1970 to 1997, part-time enrollment
at universities increased 180 percent, while at the
same time full time enrollment increased by 44 percent.
The increase was particularly significant for students
over 24 years of age, as well as for women and members
of minority groups.
At least 75 percent of all adults today plan to take
a non-credit course in the next three years. These
trends can only bode well for both individuals and
for the nation.
As an informed electorate, many of you are already
aware of these learning/education issues. You need
to address them with community leaders, teachers and
administrators, local universities, and policy makers.
Without your help and attention, we in science are
powerless to make the societal changes that will benefit
all learners in this new century.
New Yorkers have often paved the way for the nation.
We at the National Science Foundation are counting
on you to help keep science on the national agenda
and the science of learning right near the top.
As NSF approaches the next 50 years, I would like to
know what you want and expect from science and technology?
What issues fascinate you and which ones trouble you?
As I said in the beginning of my remarks, NSF is about
progress. In the final analysis, of course, the decision
of what constitutes progress is determined by an informed
I'm ready to talk. I hope you are. It has been an honor
to share this evening with you.