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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Remarks at BEST (Building Engineering and Science Talent) Kickoff Panel
Education Committee or Science Committee
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C.

September 26, 2002

It is an honor to be part of today's panel on building the U.S. science, engineering, and technology workforce by fully developing the nation's diverse human resources.

I thank you for the opportunity to speak about this issue, which has long been a concern of mine personally, as well in my capacity as director of NSF.

I wish to acknowledge Congresswoman Connie Morella for her groundbreaking work on the Congressional Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development.

The Commission report of 2000, Land of Plenty, was a wakeup call. It reminded us that although we're making strides toward including everyone in the general workforce, we still have far to go in making the S&T workforce "look like America."

The problem of too few women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in our science and engineering talent pool threatens the future of our nation.

Shirley Jackson's new report, The Quiet Crisis: Falling Short in Producing American Scientific and Technical Talent, explores the interconnected economic, demographic, social, and scientific realities we must address.

The United States has become increasingly diverse in recent decades and will move steadily in the direction of greater diversity in the future.

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 comparable progress in changing the composition of the science and engineering workforce. It looks the same as it has for generations.

We need the talent of every worker in order to keep our nation competitive and prosperous now and in the future. And in the post-9/11 world, we need to also focus more of our talent on homeland security.

We live in a unique time in which every citizen must "count" for opportunities and must be "counted" for contributions to our society's well being. 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.

Our collective goal in BEST is 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.

Meeting this need is also vital to our nation's safety and prosperity. Our society must encourage, educate, and enlist as many citizens as possible into the jobs and professions that drive the knowledge economy. These jobs will have to be filled by people trained in every aspect of science, engineering, and technology.

As we educate our diverse workforce, we need graduates in science and engineering and also to fill the millions of technical jobs that require only certification. No industry or institution can function today without such specialists. Our productivity, our rate of innovation, and our long-term economic momentum would be slowed or even stopped without the technical specialists who keep things moving fast.

Contemporary society is increasingly rooted in and dependent on science and technology. We need many more scientists and engineers to continue our momentum. Our leaders AND our general workforce must be educated, trained, and capable to run this complex societal engine.

Our science and engineering workforce must grow at a faster rate. That growth will only come from expanding the pool of science and engineering talent - from our mostly untapped potential of underrepresented minorities and women.

By developing this overlooked resource, America can maintain its competitive edge in the 21st century. By the year 2050, the Census Bureau projects, the terms minority and majority will be almost meaningless.

Our challenge is formidable, 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.

Unfortunately, the science and engineering workforce does not show that same trend toward a more balanced representation. Science and engineering are the frontier of human progress. We must look to the nation's richness in diversity for our next generation of explorers.

We should do this for our citizens and for our country's future. Our future economic strength will come almost entirely from the technologies emerging from our laboratories today.

Technology is the single most important determining factor in sustained economic growth, estimated to account for as much as half the nation's growth over the past 50 years.

Yet 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, from a recent Commerce Department report, that a projected 60 percent of the new jobs in 2020 will require skills possessed by only 22 percent of today's workers. That's a sobering prospect!

We also know from the Labor Department that new jobs requiring science, engineering, and technical training are projected to increase by 21 percent by 2008.

The accelerated pace of change has advanced our world more in the past century than in the previous hundred centuries. It took 10,000 years to get from the dawn of civilization to the airplane, but just 66 years to get from powered flight to the moon landing.

The early 21st century will be an exciting time for leading-edge science and technology research and its translation to the marketplace in the form of new products, processes, and services.

At NSF we often speak of this research in the "shorthand" 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.

And yet, as noted in The Quiet Crisis, the source of U.S. innovative capacity and technological ability is thinning. A quarter of today's S&T workforce is more than 50 years old. Their research fueled the economic boom of the 1990s. But as they retire, will we be able to replace them?

We are not currently replacing our high-level scientific and technical talent in sufficient numbers. We must not continue to neglect this important training and education.

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.

I look forward to working with the Congress and with my colleagues in industry, government, and in the research and teaching community to reach this important objective.

No one group or sector can do it alone. Collaboration will be an important component for success. I look forward to working with all of you.

Thank you.



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