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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Science As Patriotism"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Annual Meeting
Universities Research Association
Washington, D.C.

January 30, 2002

Thank you for the kind welcome. I am pleased to be invited back to the URA Annual Meeting. This meeting always precedes, by a few days, the release of the President's budget, and Washington policy circles are buzzing over numbers and rumors from OMB.

My Dad taught me that boasting was bad form. Well, when it comes to NSF, I can't resist telling you that OMB Director Daniels has been making special mention of the Foundation's effective financial management, including a speech at the National Press Club about a month ago. We are unabashedly proud but this will only spur us on to do even better.

All the government agencies are well aware by now that the Administration placed major emphasis on efficient operation, right across the federal government.

NSF's proven system of competitive grants through merit review has gotten favorable recognition, as well as our low overhead of operation.

Efficient program management challenges all of us and is clearly more important than ever in this new era of homeland security and extra burdens on our resources in the face of looming deficits.

September 11 has also brought a reassessment of both personal and institutional values and goals. That process has helped the nation recognize the important role that science and technology play in national security, prosperity, and future potential.

We are acutely aware of living in a society defined by, and dependent on, science and engineering.

Every discussion, whether it's about airline safety, emerging diseases, failure of communication links, bioterrorism directed at our food and drinking water, assessment of damaged infrastructure, the mind/body response to trauma, or a myriad of other concerns, depends on our scientific and technical knowledge.

During the unsettling period since September 11, most of us have discovered within ourselves a latent, but ferocious, patriotism.

After much reflection on what defines a patriot and what drives us toward our individual values and goals, I have titled my remarks today, Science As Patriotism. This is no doubt a rhetorical leap for some of us.

The Oxford dictionary describes a patriot as someone who defends and promotes his country's interests. The more traditional use of the word patriotism brings to mind people like Patrick Henry with his rallying call, "Give me liberty or give me death." As high school students we memorized Nathan Hale's passionate, "I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

In World War II, the foot soldiers and fighter pilots were patriots, but so was Rosie the Rivetter. Also in World War II, scientists were singled out for their critical contributions to winning the war. We are comfortable with patriots during a war. However, we do not understand their role very well in everyday life.

The firemen at Ground Zero, the Pentagon, and at the crash site in Pennsylvania suddenly became patriots and heroes. The fact is that they were patriots all the time but we didn't notice.

As the Director of NSF, I am experiencing my first role as a full-time public servant. I feel privileged to have the opportunity, buoyed by a sense of service, and very proud of every staff person at the Foundation.

You surely must be wondering where this talk is going. Well, by the middle of the 20th century, the philosopher Bertrand Russell had things pegged pretty accurately. He wrote, "Almost everything that distinguishes the modern world from earlier centuries is attributable to science." Few of us would dispute that.

Research funded by the federal government -- either in labs, facilities, or in our universities -- is surely to promote the interests of our nation, and humankind. So this is undoubtedly patriotic in nature.

Research conducted by industry might, at first blush, be considered as only profit-driven by the company or industry. But in the long run, that company or industry is building a stronger economy for America. You could argue that this is not their primary goal but rather a secondary goal.

Each sector, community, and individual has challenges and responsibilities related to the nation's interests. Surely the science community and individual researchers are included.

With the 2003 budget about to be unveiled, this is an appropriate time to explore some of those challenges and responsibilities.

Let's examine Bertrand Russell's thesis: science and engineering as a pervasive influence in modern societies. Accepting his premise, the challenges for science are broader and more inclusive than for other segments of society.

In the simplest case, societies advance on a three-pronged thrust -

  • security -- from both internal and external threats

  • the economy -- to produce goods and services for consumption, for marketing to others, and for improvement of overall quality of life, and

  • education -- to prepare our human resources to contribute, thrive, and add to the body of new knowledge.

Those three categories serve as a broad umbrella and science contributes, in major proportion, to all three.

Is this what I mean by, Science As Patriotism? Not entirely. The courage and patriotism of the firemen came from their engagement of self, their personal intervention on behalf of others. It is true that most of us do not choose such dangerous careers. However, there are always ways, within our own life's work, to engage on behalf of others.

I started to list ways in which scientists and engineers are able to do this. I should add that the definition of patriotism in this global 21st century should extend beyond serving the interests of our own nation alone. It should include improving the lot of all humankind to make the world a better place. When we do this, we insure that America can also be both more safe and more prosperous.

Let me begin with a challenge that is global. As a nation, we need to accept as permanent that America is an integral and pivotal member of the community of nations. What happens across an ocean -- whether extremist upheaval, disease epidemics, economic collapse, or environmental blight, these events threaten us all, either first hand or by reaction.

The lexicon for refugees continues to grow -- those who flee oppression, famine, epidemics, and environmental degradation. They remind us that all humankind is connected. Pull on one end of the thread in the global tapestry and you produce a tug along the entire length of the thread to its very end.

Evident is the increasing contribution of science to foreign relations. Since 9/11, many pundits, philosophers, and policymakers are questioning why some groups in other cultures and countries demonize us as a nation. That question may not have an answer for a long time. However, science can have a positive and primary role in improving our relationship with all nations.

The very nature of science bridges national boundaries. Researchers know the players and experts in their field, irrespective of country of origin, culture or language, in which they work. This international scientific bonding has accelerated with the information revolution.

That there is now a science advisor in the State Department is evidence of this realization. Norman Neuriter surely will help move our thinking toward other nations away from simply providing aid that leads to dependency, but instead to assistance that leads towards self-sufficiency.

Today, the identification of most societal problems and their solutions, requires scientific and engineering expertise.

Raising sustainable crops, purifying water for drinking, protecting a population from disease, educating women and children, training a workforce, building factories, roads, bridges, schools, hospitals -- these all require science and engineering.

America, as the citadel of the world's most comprehensive science enterprise, has much to offer as a partner. Let me emphasize the word partner here. In a partnership, each party makes a contribution, brings recognition and respect to the table.

The social philosopher and longshoreman, Eric Hoffer, commented on U.S. relationships with other nations in his 1950s work The Ordeal of Change.

He wrote,

"We cannot win over the [impoverished] by sharing our wealth with them. They feel our generosity as oppression....We must learn how to impart to them the technical, social, and political skills which would enable them to get bread, human dignity, freedom, and strength by their own efforts. My hunch is that we shall solve some of the critical problems which confront us, not only in our foreign relations, but also in our domestic affairs."

Many of you probably remember that the late-Congressman George Brown, a good friend of science, echoed these same sentiments.

With nations and continents bound together by instant communication and high-speed transport, we are a polyglot planet and we will need to think and act like planetary patriots.

Here at home, there are many ways in which scientists and engineers can use their knowledge to engage on behalf of others. I know you all have ideas of your own.

There are two areas of great concern to policymakers. They are the lack of knowledge on the part of the public about science and technology, and the poor comparative ranking of U.S. students in science and math.

There can be no more commendable mission performed by scientists on behalf of this nation than personally engaging in those two educational challenges.

The world has always been a delicate balance of many complex forces, not the least of which is humanity -- in all of its diversity of cultures, goals, and behaviors. Today, sophisticated knowledge, powerful tools, and high-speed transportation and communication amplify that complexity.

Increasingly, society requires citizens with technical expertise as communicators. In times of routine information dissemination, and most especially in times of emergencies, we have a responsibility. Scientists and engineers must be prepared for these new and more public roles. And it stands to reason that that preparation should become part of the routine training of our technical professionals.

You might believe that this training should be reserved only for those who seek public roles in science. That may have been the case 25 years ago, but not today.

There are stories everyday in the print and broadcast media that are science and technology based. The list is endless -- energy refineries, food processing plants, hazardous material transport, research laboratories, bacteria laden ventilation systems, landfill contamination, water supply problems, disease outbreaks, changing the math or science curriculum, and swiftly descending natural disasters.

Every one of these requires technical understanding and communication. During routine community decisions or during split-second crises, the public wants short, clear information and instructions. This was never more clear than on September 11, 2001.

The science community must work with the media on the newly emerging issues that affect us all. We ignore this steep learning curve of the public at considerable risk. We cannot protect ourselves if we do not understand the threats as well as the prevention.

Two weeks ago, Time Magazine ran a feature story on public health. It described successful detective work on a public health problem back in 1993, the time of the hantavirus outbreak. Dr. C.J. Peters was head of special pathogens at the CDC. He was appointed spokesperson to speak on the government's behalf. He says of that period, "We decided that I would speak for HHS because I was the one with the technical expertise."

The recent anthrax episode is a good example of how faulty information can create danger in and of itself. 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 appropriate responses.

Our success in educating the public and all of our leaders will be a formidable triumph of science as patriotism. It is our task, perhaps not ours alone, but we must lead. Situations like this, in public health and safety, will not diminish with time but rather increase.

Some might suggest that they didn't get a Ph.D. to be a community commentator. In the 21st century, this is a role and responsibility that falls to all of us. We have developed a society so exquisitely science-dependent that this task appears to have been designed by us, and for us.

Several other advantages accrue from this same educational effort on our part. It gives the nation a workforce educated and trained to compete in the increasingly competitive global marketplace. It promotes good judgment, as voters, on both issues and candidates. It serves as strong defense against delusions of safety as well as valid threats.

I cannot stress enough the primary importance of a scientifically literate citizenry. I cannot stress enough the responsibility of the science and engineering community to work to meet that goal.

What we need to do within science and engineering

We know that science brings fresh knowledge of our planet, and ourselves, thus what is newly possible. But, what do we need to do within science and engineering to be most effective in that journey?

Our community should be first-line responsive to the changing context of society. To do this, we will need to strengthen the links between the natural sciences and the social and behavioral sciences. Sept. 11 made that clear.

We have already seen the convergence of knowledge among the natural sciences in the expansion of interdisciplinary research. So too we must recognize that only the social and behavioral sciences can help us understand and anticipate the responses of the human universe.

As advances continue like a braid of skeins winding back and forth across each other they move us to new understanding. We recognize that many disciplines converge to unlock the complex operation of systems -- everything from climate patterns to terrorist movements.

Our accrued knowledge from decades of research support is already serving new objectives brought about by the events that began on September 11th. And the nation's science policy will continue to move in the direction of national necessity.

However, in the long sweep of civilization, we've utilized most of our science and engineering knowledge to remediate an existing problem or to address a current need.

We now recognize that we must draw on one of science's most potent capacities -- prediction. If we can predict, we frequently can prevent. The centuries of our accrued knowledge can and should increasingly be directed toward prevention.

NSF had a team of earthquake disaster specialists at "ground zero" within a few days of the attacks. They were there to assess the reasons for the Twin Tower's utter collapse to the ground.

As it turns out, it was not the impact of the crashes into the structures. Rather, it was the heat coming from the jet fuel melting the steel superstructure of the towers and their design that brought them down. This is new and important knowledge for future building materials, and to prevent or minimize loss in the future.

The national directive for "homeland security" will involve every sector of society, but especially the federal government.

We will need to develop a broader, more anticipatory perspective in our research. We will need to increase our emphasis on envisioning future possibilities, good or ill, as a mechanism to predict.

Undoubtedly, this will open new pathways in exploration and discovery -- at the same time that the research community maintains its freedom and passion to explore new frontiers, within the rigor of merit review. Our ability to use foresight gives us a kind of early warning system -- a guard against unintended consequences.

Over the past few years, NSF has been developing a program called NEON (National Ecological Network). It is distributed instrumentation of sensors that collect data from the entire ecological spectrum. The sensors will constantly monitor the environment, serving both short-term and long-term objectives.

From moment to moment, they will be an early warning system for biological or chemical threats, such as invasive disease and poisonous toxins. For the long run, they will develop the base-line data that determines the parameters of what is a healthy environment for an area. NEON is clearly a foresight project.

As scientists, we also know that current knowledge is never the final word on a subject or a security blanket for the future. It will help us in the present but in the words of Alfred North Whitehead "Knowledge doesn't keep any better than fish." Tomorrow, new more complete knowledge will always replace today's -- a process of constant renewal, at an ever-accelerating pace.

This makes an unshakable case for consistent research in all eras, at all times. It also means that we, as a community, face the challenge of aiding policymakers and the public to better understand the continuously evolving nature of scientific knowledge.

What will science need to produce most effectively for the nation and for humankind?

There are three primary components that will help determine the effectiveness of science in the future. They are stable funding, a balanced portfolio, and an expanding talented workforce.

If you examine the history of federal funding for research and development, you know that it looks like an erratic electrocardiograph. And yet, we know that a steadily advancing momentum of discovery depends on stable funding.

The throttle forward, throttle back approach to research funding is wasteful in terms of dollars spent, damaging to the thrust of scientific activity, and disillusioning to the pool of scientific and technical personnel.

Stable funding obviously does not exclude funding increases because the more we expect from science the more we have to provide for the expansions of its breadth and depth. This is self-evident.

The necessity for a balanced portfolio is less well understood. Today, the convergence of knowledge across disciplines requires that all disciplines are able to move forward at a healthy pace. If they don't, then it is very possible that a neglect of chemistry, for example, could in the long run inhibit future advances in biology.

We are also witnessing the proliferation of fields of research, an important indication of expansion in scientific understanding.

And advances in physics, biology, chemistry -- the core natural sciences -- undergird all of the biomedical sciences on which we depend to understand disease, find cures, develop vaccines, and initiate preventive strategies.

Thus, the case for a balanced portfolio is yet another self-evident premise for a viable science enterprise.

The scientific workforce issue is perhaps the most complicated of the three components and will require a lot of hands-on initiative on our part.

As scientists and engineers, your own background can likely attest to your excitement for science not beginning at age 18 or 20, but most typically at a very early age. This means that if we want more talent like all of you, we have to reach children to enhance that excitement when they're young... and develop the background for them to do science.

The future of our country depends on attracting more women and our diverse minority populations to science and engineering ... a profoundly significant challenge in our primary schools.

We must build our broader base of science talent from the very young, and scientists and engineers have to roll up their sleeves and get to work on this. We need to make a commitment to a home-grown science and engineering workforce that uses the diversity of our nation as the talent pool.

If the science community can be hands-on to inspire young people to a future in science, we would be performing one of the most enduring acts of patriotism for the nation.

The future of the United States promises to be spectacular, but there is a growing community of nations with equally capable workers. Globalization has proven this repeatedly in the last decade. There is a reservoir of talent in other cultures of which we know little. They too will join the ranks of our economic competitors.

The workforce issue will be the most formidable for us. Our engagement will determine its success.

In closing, I want to state recapitulate. We know that knowledge alone is not enough to make a better world. The Founding Fathers framed a set of primary values for our nation based on the independence of, and the respect for, individuals. Armed with these values, science and engineering become an important vehicle for human progress.

With these values to guide us, we can make appropriate choices as a nation.

Let us not fear the discoveries of science and remain committed to our values.

Historically, most admired about our national patriots was their courage to stand by their values. Science as patriotism depends on our active participation. What makes science patriotism is its scientists.



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