"The New Sociology of Science"
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
State University of New York-Albany
April 17, 2000
Many thanks to President Hitchcock and the entire community
here at SUNY-Albany.
It's a great honor to receive this honorary degree,
and it truly makes me feel a part of this great community
you have created here.
I wish to share a few thoughts about the importance
of a working relationship between federal R&D
agencies and the academic research community.
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, our mission is to support and fund the underpinnings
for all research disciplines, and to strengthen 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 reaching out, and to prepare
the next generations of scientific talent.
In marking NSF's 50th anniversary, we are
celebrating vision and foresight. I know hockey is
part of local lore and common parlance in these parts,
so a hockey analogy is appropriate.
The recently retired hockey-great, Wayne Gretzky 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 proposals
and visionary investigators.
The unique role of NSF 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.
That success has always hinged on the
interrelationships and connections between the federal
R&D structure and our nation's universities.
The universities are the linchpins in this complex
process. They are the consistent and cohesive element.
The role of the Federal government is to be an enabler.
In our research universities, we have masterfully integrated
research with the education and training of our next
generation of scientists and engineers.
This combination is unique to the American system and
has created a synergy throughout our national research
enterprise. The wisdom of this approach has been borne
out over time.
However, just as science and engineering have consistently
changed and enriched the world, the world of science
and engineering is also changing and being enriched
by what I would call a new sociology of science.
This recent change has been driven by many forces,
including the end of the Cold War, and the subsequent
globalization of the world economy.
But information technologies have probably had the
most pervasive influence on what we are able to do
in science and engineering over the last two decades.
Information technologies have become the new infrastructure
of science. They allow us to achieve simultaneously
both depth and breadth in a research problem.
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 new tools of 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 have seen this in my own research. I have studied
the infectious disease, cholera, for more then twenty-five
We found that the bacterium, Vibrio Cholerae,
is associated with plankton in rivers and ponds.
To reduce cholera in poverty-stricken countries, like
Bangladesh, filtering out the plankton should lessen,
if not curb the disease.
We determined that sari cloth would make an excellent,
affordable filter. However, it was necessary to determine
whether this would be culturally acceptable to the
A sociologist was added to our research team. The answer
was quickly shown to be affirmative.
We now have a team of sociologists and extension agents
working with us on this project, as we implement the
This is just one example of the way that we are both
watching and participating in the formation of this
"new sociology of science."
And so we come full circle to ask the fundamental questions:
where are the opportunities and what are the issues-for
all of higher education, 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.
For example, new combinations of universities, a triumvirate,
one in Asia, one in Europe, and one in the U.S., may
set a new model for global science and engineering
This is already happening with some of our "virtual"
universities. Whatever the other opportunities turns
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.
This brings me to the nation's most compelling issue
and to the second half of NSF's mission: science and
math-education-literacy-and workforce skills. Science
and technology are the propelling and sustaining forces
of our economy.
This will become increasingly true in the future. The
21st century workforce must be a science
and technology competent workforce at all levels.
Here is a pivotal opportunity. Universities need to
play a leadership role in promoting the importance
of science and math literacy for the nation's population.
Every institution will approach this differently.
Many Federal agencies, national and state institutions,
public school systems, corporations, and non-profit
organizations are concerned about 21st
century workforce issues. Thus, they represent prospective
partners for innovative collaborations.
In science, we must think globally about our nation's
place and prosperity in the coming century.
On behalf of the National Science Foundation, I ask
you to use your expertise in helping our community
move the nation to where the "puck is going."
It's worked for 50 years, and it should take us even
farther in the next 50.
I thank all of you for joining in the celebration of
the NSF 50th anniversary.
Again, it is an honor to be here, and to accept this
honorary degree. My thanks to all of you.