"Crossing Borders: Science, the Public, and New Policies"
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
5th Annual Shannon Lecture
National Institutes of Health
November 27, 2001
Good afternoon to everyone. I'm delighted to be here
at the National Institutes of Health to present the
5th Annual Shannon Lecture.
As you all know, these lectures honor Dr. James A.
Shannon, who had a distinguished and varied career.
As Director of NIH, his contributions in shaping the
modern National Institutes of Health are now the stuff
But today, in our own immediate and changing times,
I'm reminded above all of his service during World
War II, as advisor on tropical disease to Secretary
of War, Henry L. Stimson. As malaria reached epidemic
proportions among American soldiers in Asia and the
Pacific, he led the research efforts to treat and
prevent this devastating disease. For his service
to the nation, he was awarded the Presidential Medal
for Merit, the highest award at the time for civilian
service in government.
In that time of peril, many of the nation's scientists,
engineers, and physicians brought their specialized
knowledge to the task at hand - winning the war. Science
and technology proved its worth in that endeavor,
and won a new status in American public life.
Postwar science policy was born from the significant
contribution science made in winning the war, and
from the recognition that a vibrant research enterprise
could equally serve the nation's needs in peacetime.
That vision established the foundations of our current
policy of public support for fundamental research.
This is an opportune time to share with you some perspectives
on science and science policy. I'll explore how science
is changing and the implications of these changes
I've chosen "Crossing Borders" as the theme for my
remarks. In many ways, we are entering territory that
is new and unfamiliar.
There are new borders in science itself, offering opportunities
and dangers. There are political and cultural borders
to cross as science must always fit the human framework
and philosophy of a culture.
There are disappearing borders as science and technology
advance toward the ultimate global language and economic
We will need bold and imaginative conjectures and innovative
policies to sustain progress and meet our new challenges.
Today, we face new times of crisis. The brutal and
tragic terrorist attacks of September 11th
abruptly changed our national circumstances. We are
now confronted by a war on terrorism, complete with
its own chaotic and confusing dynamics. Our nation's
science policy will be framed by the larger context
in which it exists. We see clear needs once again
for science, engineering, for medicine and technology,
to protect and prevent.
These new threats come at a time when science itself
is changing rapidly and profoundly. One glance at
the headlines on the news magazines this week will
remind us, in case we've forgotten, that we live in
an epoch of revolutionary scientific discoveries,
with the power to alter and change our lives and our
institutions in unprecedented ways.
It is only natural, at such times, to take stock of
our progress and to ask ourselves whether our vision
of science and the policies that support it have served
If we look at the past fifty years, I believe the answer
is a resounding "yes." During the Cold War, with its
demanding national security needs, peacetime science
progressed apace. The vision of scientific enlightenment
as a force for prosperity and human welfare never
Since the end of the Cold War, science and technology
have continued to serve the nation's needs. In fact,
they have flourished beyond what anyone might have
predicted. It is in large part due to fundamental
research that the world of the 21st century
is very different from the world of only 15 years
ago. We've witnessed an outpouring of new knowledge
and technological innovation that is unprecedented
Today, advances in science and engineering and technological
change are the driving forces of the economy and key
to social prosperity. Our new, knowledge-based economy
has already brought lasting changes with profound
implications for society.
All of you understand this, because you've contributed
to the extraordinary progress made in fighting disease.
Your research has brought us closer to even greater
advances in the years ahead, and your efforts are
needed now more than ever before.
At the same time, advances in physics, biology, chemistry
- the core physical sciences - undergird all of the
biomedical sciences on which we depend to understand
disease, find cures, develop vaccines, and initiate
The recent transformations brought about by new knowledge
have been broad and deep. Groundbreaking discoveries
have stimulated one of the most productive periods
of technological innovation in U.S. history.
The way we live, work, and educate our children have
all changed, in what seems the blink of an eye. New
knowledge is now the principal source of wealth creation
and new jobs in the U.S. and globally. Science and
technology have helped to spawn whole new industries
that keep the U.S. economy healthy and growing. The
information technology and biotechnology industries
are only two examples.
Public investments in fundamental research have contributed
significantly to these recent advances. I don't have
to tell this audience that the nation's future prosperity
depends on maintaining this momentum, particularly
in times of crisis.
We have an expanded knowledge base and a broader range
of technologies with which to respond to our increasing
security needs and the emerging challenges that biological
and chemical warfare present. When Anthrax appeared
in the mail, NSF could mobilize the scientific talent
and skills necessary to sequence the Anthrax genome
At the same time, our world is shrinking. National
economies are more tightly linked through burgeoning
trade, increasing cross-border investment, and a mobile
and global workforce. Powerful computers and high-speed
Internet have made communication with anyone, anywhere
in the world, nearly instantaneous.
This at once offers us new possibilities and reminds
us of increasing vulnerabilities. The greatest question
of our times may be how we can avoid the pitfalls,
and still grasp the opportunities that science holds
I believe a new age of discovery, learning, and innovation
has already dawned. We stand at the very threshold
of forming a new and deeper understanding of our planet
and ourselves. Our new tools - information technology,
nanotechnology, and genetics foremost among them -
are expanding our vision, from the minute to the global,
As we cross borders within science and by science,
I am reminded of the familiar poem "Mending Wall",
by the great American poet Robert Frost. He wrote:
"Something there is that doesn't love a wall."
In its broadest and deepest purport, scientific enlightenment
"doesn't love a wall." In this new age of exploration,
borders of all kinds are shifting and dissolving,
and walls are coming down. Let me explain.
21st-century science is marked by increasing
complexity. We can collect, store, and manipulate
vast quantities of data. We can share those data and
communicate new knowledge essentially instantaneously.
These capabilities open new doors for collaboration
that were unworkable only ten or fifteen years ago.
It was only ten years ago in 1991 that NSF opened
what was then called NSFNet for commercial use as
the Internet. The rest is history!
These tools are changing the very way we conduct research
and creating a new science of the 21st
century. When we dramatically advance the speed of
scientific research in any area, we give ourselves
the mechanism to reach a frontier much faster. Or,
better yet, to reach a new frontier that had been
unreachable, as well as unknowable.
Here is just one example. It can take just 20 milliseconds
for a nascent protein to fold into its functional
conformation. Until recently, it took 40 months
of computer time to simulate that folding. With new
terascale computer systems - operating at one trillion
operations per second - we have reduced that time
to one day. That's 1000 times faster.
Speed is only one dimension of the new tools. The capacity
to catalog enormous quantities of data - terabytes,
in fact - is just the flip side of being able to manipulate
I don't have to tell this audience what these features
mean for tapping our knowledge of the human genome!
The same is true of work on other genomes, which holds
so much promise to improve our understanding of basic
While information technology has empowered greater
speed and the acquisition and manipulation of huge
databases, nanoscale science and technology gives
us the capability to do things four magnitudes smaller.
Nanoscale takes us down to the scale of phenomena of
several billionths of a meter. This is the territory
where the living word meets the physical world. This
new frontier promises a revolution in 21st
century science and engineering at least as profound
as the one we have experienced with IT.
These powerful new tools - IT and nano - are only one
feature of 21st century science and engineering
research. Combined with major advances in mathematics
and analysis, they have opened up whole new territories
One of these is the investigation and understanding
of complex phenomena. If anything characterizes the
new frontiers of science, it is complexity.
A striking picture is beginning to emerge from the
burgeoning quantities of data available to us in many
fields. It portrays systems with a huge number of
interdependent and interacting variables. It highlights
the importance of dynamic and non-linear behavior,
and emerging structures. We are only just beginning
to understand the nature of this complexity and the
challenges and opportunities it presents to research.
These features appear in systems as diverse as the
atmosphere and the basic functions of the brain, including
cognition. They also appear when we investigate dependencies
within and between different systems at different
levels of organization. I've seen this in my own work
on cholera, which spans systems from genes to microorganisms
to humans, and from ocean circulation to epidemics.
I use the phrase "biocomplexity in the environment"
to refer to the dynamic web of often surprising interrelationships
that arise when living things at all levels-from molecular
structures to genes to organisms to ecosystems--interact
with their environment.
Studies of environments and ecosystems have begun to
document phenomena characterized by abrupt changes,
thresholds, and non-linear dynamics. In mathematical
terms, this is behavior that is "complex." Earthquakes
and the extinction of some species are examples.
We have also become aware of the extent to which humans
interact with and alter the environment. Changes in
land use have resulted in dramatic changes in landscapes,
water resources, and biodiversity. We understand now
that changes in global climate cannot be understood
without taking into account the effect that humans
have on the environment - the way our individual and
institutional actions interact with the atmosphere,
the oceans and terrestrial ecosystems.
Scientists have begun to tackle the intricacies of
interactions among biological, ecological, physical
and earth systems, and are now confronting the challenges
of forecasting outcomes of those interactions.
This points to another way that science is changing
in the 21st century. In many areas of research,
scientific progress requires the cross-fertilization
of ideas, models, and experimental platforms from
Modern biotechnology, for example, has developed with
contributions from a broad range of fields: biology,
chemistry, physics, mathematics, engineering, and
computer science. Nanoscale science and engineering
- one of the potentially revolutionary technologies
of the 21st century - calls upon an equally
diverse spectrum of knowledge.
We've profited mightily from past specialization in
the various disciplines, and we'll continue to reap
this harvest in the future. But the synthesis that
results from viewing phenomena across multiple scales
and from the perspective of many disciplines gives
us a powerful new capability. The robustness of our
science increases as we expand the territory covered
by a common groundwork of explanation.
Understanding interconnections can improve our ability
to predict over larger scales in space and
times, and different levels of organization. We can
anticipate a range of possibilities, and through foresight,
In a broader context, advances in science and engineering
knowledge are linked more intimately with innovation
than ever before. We now realize that scientific research
and technological innovation drive each other. The
idea of a straight line leading from basic research
to a new product or process no longer accurately describes
much of the research enterprise today. We are likelier
to encounter a complex network of discovery and innovation,
with multiple feedback loops.
In the larger sense, innovation depends upon a mutual,
synergistic set of interactions that includes not
only science, engineering and technology, but social,
political and economic interactions as well.
This points to another divide that we now have the
tools to bridge successfully -- the borderlands between
the natural sciences and the social, behavioral, and
cognitive sciences. Let me give you one important
Recent breakthroughs in the cognitive, behavioral and
neuro-sciences, combined with the powerful tools of
information technology, have created an emerging frontier
of knowledge that promises to advance dramatically
our understanding of the learning process. As we grasp
the nuances of human learning, we will be better able
to explore how educational institutions at all levels
foster or inhibit that process.
As we have come to understand the growing importance
of new knowledge to fostering economic and social
prosperity, nations worldwide are increasing their
investments in intellectual capital.
Without people with superb math and science
skills there will be no scientific and technological
workforce to maintain the steady progress and revolutionary
advances that have characterized our scientific progress
in the past. And yet we are only beginning to fathom
the science of learning.
Finally, we are crossing borders in a more literal
sense. Science is becoming a science of communication
and collaboration - especially international
collaboration. Increasing complexity, the need for
multidisciplinary approaches, and the global nature
of many research problems, require that we draw on
different perspectives to solve common problems.
We need ideas not only from a broad range of specialties,
but also from different geographic regions and from
all cultures. Building bridges across borders requires
the efforts of many people working together.
In theory, science has always been international. The
results of fundamental research - from the origins
of the universe to the fundamental properties of matter,
from the interaction of oceans and atmosphere to the
human genome - are open to all. In practice, the spread
of new knowledge and its applications has often been
glacially slow. Today, that pace is quickening. The
revolutionary new information and communications technologies
are turning theory into reality.
Many of our toughest challenges are inherently global.
We all have a stake in the results of research in
the areas of climate change, emerging diseases, biodiversity,
sustainable energy, and earthquake and storm research,
to name just a few.
International collaboration will not only speed us
along our path to knowledge. It will allow us to begin
unraveling the staggering complexity that pervades
Even our current confrontation with terrorism, although
it has affected the United States most directly, can
only be understood and resolved in an international
As we develop new ways to work across borders, we can
extend international cooperation to countries large
or small that are still struggling to develop a strong
science and engineering base.
We are only at the beginning of the great revolution
in information and communications technologies. We
know how to share information, but we are by
no means doing all we can to take advantage of the
power of computer and communications technologies
to foster international collaborative research. Distributed
data banks, shared computer and visualization facilities,
and other tools of the future will enable truly international
research. They will give the research community the
capability to call upon scientific and engineering
talent wherever it is located and whenever it is needed.
Just around the corner is a world linked by wireless
communications and in constant contact through video
teleconferencing. The world of vast distances and
differences is shrinking, and soon every part of the
globe will seem as close as our own back yard.
We need to keep our eyes on that future and plan now
for the time when we are all next door neighbors.
That will define science and engineering in a 21st
Whole new territories of knowledge are on the horizon,
with the promise of major advances just ahead. We
can begin to envision how new knowledge and technological
innovation can help us solve some of the seemingly
intractable problems that confront our nation and
the world. As we work across boundaries to open new
frontiers in science, we are also building bridges
between nations, and advancing global prosperity and
These goals, although we have not yet attained them,
are certainly attainable.
The prospect of progress is what has driven public
investment in science for half a century. Even as
we respond to the new terrorist threats fully and
completely, they cannot change the underlying momentum
of scientific enlightenment, with its promise of benefits
yet to come. And the enduring strength of science
can help us meet the challenges of the current crisis.
What conclusions can we draw about the robustness of
our science policy and its fitness to meet both long
tern and immediate needs? Public investments in science
since the close of World War II have paid off handsomely,
but can we do better?
As we look toward the future, three observations stand
out as worthy of our collective attention.
First, we must ensure that our science policies and
priorities remain congruent with the changing nature
of discovery as it opens new territories. That means
embracing complexity while pursuing greater levels
of integration across the full range of disciplines,
including the social sciences. It implies a stronger
emphasis on collaboration and international cooperation.
Second, science, like living creatures of all kinds,
cannot long survive without new generations of scientists.
Education, backed by the science of learning, is a
sine qua non of future vitality and progress.
Third, the science community has long reaped the rewards
of public confidence without paying the dues of ensuring
that the public understands the science enterprise
we conduct and they support. The primary responsibility
for this rests with the science community. We ignore
this steep learning curve at considerable risk.
Less than a month ago, the surprise emergence of Anthrax
in the mail set in motion a race for information.
Although Anthrax is not an everyday occurrence, there
were many, including public officials, who thought
it was contagious. Without correct information, we
breed chaos and hysteria - neither of which fosters
These are extraordinary challenges. But these are also
extraordinary times for science and technology.
Let me share with you in closing these words from the
Harvard entomologist and Pulitzer-prize winning author
Edward O. Wilson. Speaking of the unity of science
in his book, Consilience, he says:
"Most of the issues that vex humanity daily.... cannot
be solved without integrating knowledge from the natural
science with that of the social sciences and humanities.
Only fluency across the boundaries will provide a
clear view of the world as it really is, not as seen
through the lens of ideologies and religious dogmas
or commanded by myopic response to immediate needs."
I believe that as we become attuned to this new age
of discovery, we will continue to find that what strengthens
fundamental research in the long run, also strengthens
our capacity to respond rapidly and flexibly to unexpected
events that befall us.