"Science and Policy: New Perspectives For an Era of
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Keynote Address to the Association
for Women in Science 30th Anniversary Leadership Conference
October 19, 2001
Thank you, Dr. Linda Mantel, for the kind introduction.
I am pleased to speak with you about science and policy.
Today, the words of Charles Dickens reverberate through
the centuries... "it was the best of times, it was
the worst of times." Our country in its entirety has
never been wealthier.and our country has never been
so terror-stricken. within our own borders.by foreign
agents of rouge destruction. Women in America are,
at once, most fortunate, and.marginalized. More than
ever, we need to have dialogues about the future of
science in America and the role of the science community
in determining that future.and the role of women,
all women, in shaping that future.
First, allow me to acknowledge, with gratitude and
pride, AWIS for the extraordinary leadership you provide.
Remarkably, AWIS genuinely empowers women in society,
through its advocacy--advocacy that is, as appropriate,
open and confident, and quietly clandestine.
To each of you here today who has traveled from a distance,
there's an old saying: leadership is the only boat
that doesn't return to port during a storm. Your decisions
to travel to DC personalize the indomitable spirit
of women.and throughout history it has been the same.
Right now, Washington is frenetic and confusing on
good days. I won't even begin to list the adjectives
used to describe the other days.
The aftermath of September 11 events instilled in me
a renewed, almost belligerent sense of pride in being
an American, a mother, a scientist working for the
common good, and--although psychologically in denial
when I say the word--a bureaucrat.
With the nearly total lack of civil rights of women
under the Taliban regime painfully center stage in
the news, I recognize and understand the need to serve
as a role model for millions of women and girls around
the globe who have not been afforded even the tiniest
opportunity. We all know all to well the list of barriers:
race, poverty, religion, ethnicity, and sexism.
Many of us have lived this list by example. Let me
share a few of mine. Three phrases have resonated
strongest with me throughout my career.
The first I heard in high school when I was taking
chemistry and asked my chemistry teacher, Mr. Preston,
for a recommendation for college applications and,
when I told Mr. Preston that I intended to be a chemist...he
told me bluntly to forget it, I'd never make it in
chemistry. Women couldn't do chemistry, didn't have
the necessary rigor and intelligence (of course, he
neglected the fact that I had straight A's in his
The second, I heard a few years later when applying
for graduate school. My department chair informed
me that the department didn't waste fellowships on
The third, I received in a letter after my husband
and I had both applied for and received post-docs
from the National Research Council. Shortly following
the award letter, I received a second letter telling
me that their anti-nepotism rules precluded offering
fellowships to husbands and wives. I could have lab
space and access to the storeroom for supplies but
no postdoctoral fellowship--that is, no salary.
How times have changed! Today, we wouldn't hear any
of these expressions outright. To me, they now symbolize
the achievements we should celebrate, although I'm
very aware of the challenges we must chart. Charting
our future is often helped by a clear picture of the
This is also true of science policy in the broader
sense. Our goals and values as a scientific and engineering
community have always existed in the larger context
of our societal needs. The success of our nation's
science and engineering enterprise has always been
inextricably tied to our larger vision as a nation.
Interest and support for science in America dates back
to the beginning of the Republic. George Washington
once said, "There is nothing which can better deserve
our patronage than the promotion of science and literature.
Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of
Jefferson was passionate on the subject. He is on record
arguing that federal tax revenues be allocated to
the improvement of roads, canals, rivers, education,
and other great foundations of prosperity and union.
And, he did just that.
He commissioned the "Corps of Discovery," headed by
Lewis and Clark, to bring back data on the geography
of the western half of the American continent. That
was a large science project. I thought counting 186,000
fruit flies for my master's research was a challenge;
they charted 3,700 miles of unexplored territory.
President Theodore Roosevelt later conserved many of
the treasures found during this journey by establishing
our National Park Service. The Antiquities Act of
1906 carries on to protect and preserve our nation's
national treasures based on language that reads "objects
We later saw a major mobilization of science and increased
funding for science and technology in World War II.
For example, the American university of today is probably
more a product of America's reaction to World War
II than any other single influence.
The GI Bill produced a completely new pattern of university
attendance, for men, at least. Millions of young men--impressed
by the role that science and engineering played in
winning the war--flocked to campuses.
Simultaneously, Vannevar Bush's seminal report, Science:
The Endless Frontier, influenced our nation's
post-war situation. In his report, Bush carefully
articulated a national role for science and engineering
and a Federal responsibility to support that role.
From that point on, his report influenced the blueprint
for American higher education and the role of the
Federal government in the U.S. science and engineering
The next watershed moment to influence science policy
was the 1957 launch of the Soviet Sputnik. The panic
created by that October surprise rippled through the
nation and left a deep imprint. The response was an
increase in federal funding for science and engineering
research all across the country.
In those "good old days"--from the end of World War
II until the end of communism--the relationship between
science and society was clear and secure. The primary
focus of the American Dream during the Cold War was
preserving our freedom while securing our safety from
With the generous funding of science, many other advances
and benefits fed our national and personal dreams.
Improved health, safer work environments, and a higher
standard of living became possible.
The impact of the disappearance of the Soviet military
threat, although unquestionably welcome, created another
turning point for America. The era of East-West rivalry
was eclipsed with an emerging era of globalization.
Global communications and transportation have transformed
the entire world into a single village. Global economic
competitiveness quickly became our rationale for both
the public and private support of research.
Fundamental changes, like the end of the Cold War and
the rise of global economic competition, are often
hard to internalize and understand. We were just beginning
to grasp the rearrangement of the economic and political
"deck chairs" created by the end of that forty-year
period when tragedy struck our homeland.
We have now launched into a new war against terrorism,
complete with its own chaotic and confusing dynamics.
Our nation's science policy will once again be framed
by the larger context in which it exists. We see clear
needs for science, engineering, and technology to
protect and prevent.
This new period of angst CAN BE the "era of foresight"
in science. Today, we have sophisticated research
methods and tools and a bank of knowledge unimagined
even twenty years ago. Many of you have been active
participants in that progress.
Our new research vistas are provided by an array of
cutting-edge technologies. Marshall McLuhan, the renowned
author of The Medium is the Massage, said it
quite succinctly, "First we shape our tools and then
our tools shape us."
We live in exciting times for science and for our society.
The expanding knowledge of our research-base and our
sophisticated tools empower us to perform the extraordinary.
Foremost among them are information technology, genomics,
and nanotechnology. They herald new ways to pose and
answer questions. When can now frame research questions
to anticipate rather than remediate.
We already see manifestations. Sequencing the human
genome opens up a whole new world of biomedical research
and potential new miracles of diagnostics, prevention,
and treatment. Cures for infectious diseases will
be read from the genetic blueprint of the causal organism.
At a scale even smaller than genes--the Lilliputian
level of the nanoscale--we are now arranging atoms
and molecules to mimic nature's creations.
One nanometer--one billionth of a meter--is a magical
point on the dimensional scale. Nanostructures are
at the confluence of the smallest of human-made devices
and the large molecules of living systems. Red blood
cells, for instance, have diameters spanning thousands
Micro-electrical mechanical systems now approach this
same scale. We are at the point of connecting machines
to individual cells, increasing our digital storage
capabilities with nanolayers and dots, and building
lightweight, super-strength materials atom by atom.
We also recognize that nano will also have many applications
far beyond our current speculations.
In a completely different realm, information technologies
now allow us to predict the El Niņo and La Niņa weather
cycles up to nine months in advance. California now
prepares for the heavy rains while the sun is still
shining. We know that there is not a facet of any
research field that has not been enhanced and influenced
by information tools.
In fact, much of what we do today would be impossible
without the powerhouse capability of advanced computing.
We are now on the brink of terascale computing that
takes us three orders of magnitude beyond prevailing
In the past, our system architectures could only handle
hundreds of processors. Now, we work with systems
of thousands of processors. Shortly, we'll connect
millions of systems and billions of 'information appliances'
to the Internet.
Crossing that boundary of one trillion operations per
second launches us to new frontiers. Information technologies
will continue to power the new interdisciplinary science
and engineering train.
New science and discovery will also be about connections
and interrelationships. Our work must be rooted in
an ability to reveal the connections and interrelationships
in seemingly disparate areas and disciplines.
Our universal goal must be to understand the interdisciplinary
nature of the Earth's systems. I call this connectedness,
The science community's task will be to understand
these complexities and then learn to keep them in
healthy balance. For 6000 years, humans have needed
protection from nature.
Now, we realize that our planet has become vulnerable
to the irreversible damage humans cause.
This trend has intensified with a burgeoning world
population, coupled with the power of technology.
Our food production, safe water supply, and energy
resources rest heavily on our understanding of the
complex relationships within and among the Earth's
There is both opportunity and responsibility here for
the science community. This is where biocomplexity
takes shape as a research direction, as well as a
key to social understanding.
Congressman George Brown, a longtime friend of science,
made an astute observation about messages and communicating
in his 1994 commencement address at UCLA.
He said to the graduates:
"Not unlike the way diverse cells in multicellular
biological organisms signal their activity and
thus coordinate their behavior with unlike cells
to ensure the survival of the organism, we as
citizens need to do the same. We can learn our
place and function in the larger community only
by signaling--by explaining ourselves."
For the science community--this signaling is more than
just biochemical--it means reaching across disciplines.
As we collaborate in an array of disciplines, our work
will connect and overlap.
The challenge is, at the same time, to be more focused,
yet more integrated in all our research. No problems
exist in isolation, whether they are scientific, social,
Historically, in both science and engineering education,
we have focused on the particular, the specialized,
the minute and esoteric detail. It is true that this
detail is the core of being a technical professional.
But without a context, this sophisticated knowledge
serves neither the scientist nor society very well.
We do ourselves a national disservice when we educate
and train our scientists and engineers only in science
and technology. The world in which their work bears
fruit is a world of integration and overlapping consequences.
The recent anthrax cases remind us that social and
ethical questions may be more difficult to grapple
with than the scientific ones.
My work on cholera in developing countries has taught
me that solutions to problems must always be feasible
within the social, cultural, and economic framework
of the region. We can now predict conditions conducive
to pandemics of cholera in those parts of the world,
where the public health infrastructure is inadequate
or even lacking.
Remote sensing and computer processing now allow us
to integrate ecological, epidemiological, and remotely
sensed spatial data to produce predictive models of
cholera outbreaks. The convergence of data from several
disciplines powered a predictive strategy and a pragmatic
The public is now being instructed on preventive public
health measures. In Bangladesh, where cholera is common,
expensive filtration plants are neither practical
nor affordable. But the cloth to make Saris, the traditional
dress for women, is common and inexpensive.
We found that filtering water through 10 folds of Sari
cloth reduced the incidence of cholera dramatically.
It was a culturally acceptable practice that fit easily
in the social framework of family and community.
This is a major step forward from the old pattern of
remedial action, that is, reacting to major, devastating
epidemics. And, we couldn't do it without an interdisciplinary
approach that includes the social sciences.
As the world grows smaller and we are increasingly
called upon to assist and collaborate in places distant
and distinctly different, our inventiveness will be
challenged in new ways.
For the larger, sometimes global scale, research programs,
our individual research knowledge and understanding
will not be sufficient. To devise and implement strategies
at the interdisciplinary level will require our cooperative
attitude and our comprehensive vision.
This sets a goal for all of us. Today our choices have
few restraints, which makes our responsibility as
scientists and engineers far greater. We must decide
what we value and where we want to go.
Recently, we have all been reminded that the use or
misuse of technologies literally transforms a society.
From your work on advancing the status of women in
science and engineering around the world, you understand
that societal solutions are not only scientific, but
also social and political.
An important understanding to instill throughout our
educational system is that the success of modern scientists
and engineers is increasingly dependent on "continuing
education" or lifelong learning.
We should build this expectation in our students early
in their training. It should not come as a "mid-life
crisis" or "job-changing shock," but rather as the
routine professional progression of a fast-changing
and fascinating occupation.
This applies to ALL of the science and engineering
community, but as you know, one of the most tenacious
problems that we still confront is that "all" does
not include a very high percentage of women and minorities.
NSF has an important role to play in continuing to
unravel the configuration and causes of this paucity.
Far too many girls and women fail to even cross the
threshold into science and engineering. We know that
obstacles and cultural conditioning begin to appear
very early in life.
In a study of young children reported in the book Athena
Unbound, a four-year-old boy told researchers that
"...only boys should make science."
Part of the problem today lies in what I call the "valley
of death" in education: grades 4 through 8, when girls
are discouraged--in subtle and not-so-subtle ways--from
pursuing science and engineering.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows
a gender gap in science proficiency as early as age
9. The gap widens further through ages 13 and to age
17. There has been little change in this trend over
It is interesting that between ages 25 and 34, the
typical American female is more educated than her
male counterpart. Women now earn more than half of
all college degrees, and over half of those are in
the life sciences. Well over 40% of math and chemistry
bachelor's degrees also go to females.
But some developments are deeply disturbing. For example,
the percentage of women receiving bachelor's degrees
in computer science has been dropping since the mid-1980s.
We see a downward trend for both men and women--but
it's been more precipitous for women.
If we take a closer look at doctorates earned in the
United States by women, we see a divergence among
the disciplines. Women now earn around 40% of all
doctorates. However, this differs greatly by field.
In the life sciences, women earn over 40% of doctorates.
But in the physical sciences and mathematics, women
earn fewer than 20%. In engineering, they receive
a little over 10% of PhDs.
But, our problem is larger than the institutions of
higher learning. In more than 400 job categories in
our economy, women are found predominately in only
Women comprise less than a quarter of the total science
and engineering labor force. The S&E workforce looks
very exclusive. This is dangerous for the nation.
We need the talent of every worker in order to compete
NSF has taken several steps to reverse this trend.
We are, in essence, sealing the pipeline from beginning
to end. We have programs targeting girls starting
in their preschool days. We fund research to develop
computer software and games that encourage interactions
in science, math, and engineering.
With our new flagship program, ADVANCE, we'll award
more than 40 million dollars this year to spark system-wide
changes that foster a more positive climate for women
to pursue academic careers. NSF support for women
researchers has tripled over the past decade to approach
500 million dollars.
As the Foundation increases the momentum and size of
its programs to enable women and minorities, we will
make a concerted effort to seek input from the people--like
many of you--who have blazed new trails in science
and technology. Your feedback will be invaluable for
shaping new directions for our programs.
Today, I have offered several perspectives on science
policy issues confronting science and technology in
this period of uncertainty. Many more will surely
We should realize that our new tools offer the opportunity
to attack problems while framing our questions to
prevent those problems in the future.
We should instill the concept of lifelong learning
in students from their very first day of classes.
We should change the training of scientists and engineers
to reflect the interconnectedness and holism of the
society in which they must work and succeed. To that
end, continuing to prepare and promote women and minorities
throughout our S&E enterprise is paramount.
Now more than ever, preserving the health and adaptability
of America's science, engineering and education enterprise
is no trivial task.
The writer and social commentator, John Gardener, tells
us of the importance of leadership and leaders. He
says, "Leaders have a significant role in creating
the state of mind that is society."
There is much that women can teach science, the nation,
and our culture. It has to do first with thinking
of ourselves as leaders, and that can take us anywhere
we want to go.