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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
CRA-sponsored Computing Leadership Summit
The leaders of ACM, IEEE Computer Society, SIAM, AAAI, USENIX, and CRA

February 11, 2002

Good morning. I'm genuinely delighted to be here today. Not because I pretend to a sophisticated knowledge of advanced computational systems.

In fact, until a few years ago, I wouldn't have known "vector" and "scalar" from Laurel & Hardy. (Barnes & Noble.) And my experience with "massively parallel" architectures was in trying to deal with the House and the Senate at the same time.

No, the reason I'm happy to be here is that I believe we share a common vision for the future of 21st century science.

We are now in an era where advanced computational systems assist researchers and make complex problems more tractable -- but more than that, they create unprecedented opportunities and make new kinds of science possible. One might even say, they create modern science, as we know it today and see in the future.

This is increasingly true in visualization, in sharing and mining of enormous data sets, in novel collaborations, and in distributed research among research teams that knew little or nothing about each other were it not for the common ground afforded by revolutionary technology.astronomers and sociologists, for example.

These interactions will grow with the advent of "terascale" and GRID computing -- with data moving at around 40 gigabytes per second, hundreds of thousands of times faster than it did even 15 years ago -- and its inevitable expansion throughout the United States and the world. I marvel at where we are when I think back to that little old IBM 650 in the renovated attic computer laboratory in the chemistry building at the University of Washington in the 1960's.

Jim Foley has informed me that the objective of this Summit is "to explore how the CRA member associations can work together on issues that are of common concern to the field of computing and to learn more about policy issues that affect them."

He also asked me to speak about "the current and future status of information technology research and development at NSF, and NSF's participation in the overall federal IT R&D effort."

There cannot be any doubt in anybody's mind that IT holds enormous promise for S&E, as well as for society at large. It will have profound effects on the sociology of science.not to mention the social, behavioral and economic sciences themselves.

Remote access to vast data sets, the ability to form truly global collaborations of researchers, and the elimination of barriers between disciplines will empower the smaller, less-well-endowed institutions, boost innovation and allow extraordinary partnerships in which separate teams can combine resources and parcel out parts of a problem too large for any single entity to solve alone.

But this promise will not be reached quickly without an expanded program of fundamental, long-term IT research. NSF has taken on an expanded role in this important arena.

NSF's total budget has doubled since 1990 (a rate of growth that, in my view, is too slow). In contrast, the CISE budget has just about doubled since 1999, barely 2 years. As I'm sure you know, I'm working hard to double NSF's current budget (Newt Gingrich says it should be tripled!) and CISE must participate fully in future budget increases.

IT underpins all of S&E, in what might be called computational S&E, taking its place right beside traditional experimentation and theory. Whether or not that turns out to be the most appropriate description of its importance, I do not doubt that IT underlies the most important new class of tools and services for carrying out S&E that we have ever witnessed before.

All of science and engineering is in the process of incorporating IT tools and concepts. But IT is far from a finished structure: that is why progress in S&E is, to a very real extent, gated by progress in IT R&D.

That's why I'm committed to supporting continued increases for NSF's IT R&D activities. And I must say that I'm delighted that "CRA's own" Peter Freeman has agreed to come to NSF to lead these activities. Peter will be joining us on May 6 and I'm confident he will bring vision and energy to take us on the next leap into the future.

Let me speak briefly about some of NSF's current IT R&D activities.

As I'm sure everyone of you is aware that NSF embarked, in fiscal year 2000, on an NSF-wide research priority that we called "Information Technology Research" (ITR). Under the leadership of the CISE directorate, this important priority area has stimulated single investigator research and started a major effort in multi-investigator research involving computer scientists and other scientists and engineers.

Moreover, a major supercomputing acquisition called "terascale computing facilities" was launched. An award to the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center in 2000. The Center has successfully installed a 6-teraflop peak performance system.

More recently, an award was made to the University of Illinois and the University of California at San Diego for a "distributed terascale facility" called TeraGrid. The TeraGrid is currently under construction. We anticipate it will come into service next year.

Future NSF opportunities for IT R&D

The ITR initiative is a five-year program and we are currently in its fourth year. We are gathering input research priorities for follow-on programs. Clearly, cybersecurity will play a big role in that future, as will other advanced uses of IT for homeland defense.

Congress is aware of those issues, and is already responding. Last week, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 3394, the Cyber Security Research and Development Act, by an overwhelming margin of 400 to 12.

This bill, introduced by Science Committee chairman Sherwood Boehlert, authorizes $880 million over five years for research into computer security, funded through the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Action is expected soon in the Senate, and related bills are moving in both houses.

In addition, sensor systems for bioterrorism threats, smart materials in buildings and elsewhere, and data mining of huge data sets all require additional research before they can be put into service for defense of our country.

In a discussion with me recently, a noted computer scientist suggested that "we need a major initiative to redesign the computer, with security as a design component rather than a later add-on".

And at a conference last month on post-Moore's law computing, another noted computer scientist referred to needed advances in high-end computing by saying that "we don't need to reinvent the transistor [yet]; we need to reinvent the computer." Perhaps these research dimensions will be added to PITAC's call for research in programming, scalable information systems, high-end computing, and the socio-economic consequences of the IT revolution.

In addition to interdisciplinary research involving computer scientists, the development of advanced IT tools and services for the conduct of science and engineering is of increasing importance.

We have chartered a special advisory committee on "cyberinfrastructure" chaired by Dan Atkins of the University of Michigan to advise us on coming opportunities in this area.

This activity must be led by CISE researchers working in conjunction with researchers from all S&E disciplines. We anticipate that it will generalize on the advanced computing and networking infrastructure programs that have been part of CISE since its beginnings in the mid-80s.

NSF's role in the federal IT R&D effort

NSF continues to lead the interagency IT R&D effort by chairing the interagency committee, co-chairing virtually all of its subcommittees, and hosting the National Coordinating Office, which provides support for both interagency activities and the PITAC. Because of its broad charter, NSF is the only federal agency that is active in all areas of IT research and education. We expect that our leadership will continue in this area.

Although this conference is focused on R&D for the advance of information research, systems, and technologies, we must also view your work in the larger context of all science and engineering.

In my remaining time, I want to explore what I believe to be issues that we must address within science, and issues external to science that need to be tackled to make science more effective.

First, 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. The terrorist's attacks make that all too apparent.

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. Work in IT will contribute heavily to our success.

Undoubtedly, the emphasis on prediction and prevention 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.

Second, 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.

I hope and trust that you will be among the leaders in bringing about some of these changes. As IT leaders and specialists, you are the scholars and practitioners in a new, very powerful discipline. All of science is now dependent on your science. We will need your collaboration for our future success.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you. I would be glad to try to answer any questions and would be pleased to hear your comments regarding future research directions.



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