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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
BEST (Building Engineering and Science Talent) Leadership Dinner
Washington, D.C.

March 11, 2002

I am very pleased to be here tonight. Spring came early this year. The generosity and commitment on the part of eight Federal agencies to contribute funds for an initiative called BEST (Building Engineering and Science Talent) are as beautiful as jonquils and tulips! BEST is the reason we are here.

This audience is filled with the longtime supporters of expanding the science and engineering workforce so that it looks like America. What I am emphatic in saying is that this is the right thing to do! And your hard work has now brought a lot more "true believers" to the fold.

I'll confess ... I am tenacious ... no surprise there . but tenacious about solving these workforce problems. The long-recognized and stubborn problem of too few women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in our science and engineering talent pool threatens the future of our nation.

I know I am preaching to the choir on this issue tonight. All of you are equally concerned, outspoken, and proactive in addressing the workforce imbalance. But now we have committed resources to transform that zeal to action.

Special mention and credit should go to Congresswoman Connie Morella for the work of her Congressional Commission on this issue. The Commission's final recommendations provided a roadmap for tackling the issue.

Their report, Land of Plenty: Diversity as America's Competitive Edge in Science, Engineering, and Technology, is a primer on the problem. It issued a clarion call, a warning. It reminded us that although we're making some strides toward including everyone in the general workforce, we still have far to go.

However, the nation's demographics make it abundantly clear that we're more diverse as a nation and will move steadily in the direction of that kind of diversity in our science and engineering workforce.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects, for the decade 1998 -- 2008, that the general labor force growth rates of minorities will more than triple the overall growth rate.

But, we're not making any progress in changing the composition of the science and engineering workforce. It looks the same as it has for generations.

A year ago this month, there was another warning. In the oft-quoted Hart-Rudman report, Road Map for National Security, we learned about how inadequacies in our research and education system imperil our national defense. I don't have to emphasize that this was written 6 months before 9/11.

I suspect that language would be even stronger if written today. We need the talent of every worker in order to keep us safe, competitive, and prosperous.

At no time in our history have we been more aware that every citizen must "count" for opportunities and must be "counted" for contributions to our society's well being. Today, and for the far future, the well being of individuals and of the nation will depend on knowledge and skills in science, engineering, and technology. How well we prepare our human resource in these areas will determine how well we are prepared as a nation in this new century.

This is evident to all of us here today. Nevertheless, it helps to hear it from the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. In a speech last year at this time, Alan Greenspan issued this warning at the annual meeting of the National Governor's Conference. "If we are to remain preeminent in transforming knowledge into economic value, the U.S. system of higher education must remain the world's leader in generating scientific and technological breakthroughs and in preparing workers to meet the evolving demands for skilled workers."

Greenspan is undoubtedly a cheerleader for BEST!

Our collective goal in the BEST project is both specific and overarching. We want to improve opportunities for those who have been locked out of careers in science and engineering - women, minorities, and persons with disabilities. This objective is specific to individuals and their personal goals.

The overarching objective is one vital to our nation's safety and prosperity. It is our collective necessity to encourage, educate, and enlist as many citizens as possible into the jobs and professions that drive the new knowledge economy. These jobs will need to be filled by people trained in every aspect of science, engineering, and technology.

Not everyone aspires to a graduate degree in science and engineering. There are many millions of technical jobs that require only certification. We recognize that no industry or institution can function today without such specialists. We would come to a screeching halt without the technical specialists who keep things moving fast.

Contemporary society is increasingly rooted in science and technology. We need many more scientists and engineers to continue that momentum. And our daily existence is ever more dependent on science and technology. These trends mandate that our general workforce must be educated, trained, and capable to run this complex societal engine.

And, our science and engineering workforce must continue to grow too. That growth will only come from expanding the pool of science and engineering talent. That expansion must come from The Land of Plenty, our mostly untapped potential of underrepresented minorities and women -- America's "ace in the hole" or "competitive edge" for the 21st century. By the year 2050, the Census Bureau projects, that the terms minority and majority will be almost meaningless.

This poses a formidable challenge, but one we can meet. The general workforce already reflects more gender equality, and racial and cultural diversity than ever before. We still have a long way to go but we are reaching out and cashing in on the talents and skills of many more of our citizens.

But the science and engineering workforce does not show that same trend toward a more balanced representation. Science and engineering may be the frontier of human progress, but its current explorers only skim the surface of the nation's deep pool of diverse strength.

We also know that the ratio of science and engineering degrees to the college-age population in European and Asian countries is higher than in the United States.

We know that industry spends billions of dollars each year on training, and industry is ready to collaborate in the BEST initiative.

Lastly, we know that although science is humanity's frontier, there are also new and burgeoning "frontiers within science." They are nothing short of exhilarating. At NSF we speak of them as nano, info, and bio, for nano-science and technology, information technology, and the biological sciences including genomics. These three areas alone will revolutionize society over the next twenty years. A nation that neglects training and education in these fields does so at its peril.

In nanotechnology alone, Japan and its Asian Pacific partners are investing $900 million in nano R&D, compared to $600 million by the U.S.

To compete with other nations we will need a broad expansion of our science and engineering talent. Anything less means being left behind. The purpose of the BEST initiative is to make sure that will not happen.

Congratulations to everyone involved in this project.



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