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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
2003 Sigma Xi Initiation and Awards Banquet -- 75th Anniversary
University of Maryland Sigma Xi Chapter

May 6, 2003

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact
The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

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I'm pleased to be here to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the University of Maryland's Chapter of Sigma Xi.

I would like to thank Dr. Timothy Ng for inviting me to speak on this occasion.

As you probably are aware, I've served as Professor of Microbiology at the University of Maryland-College Park and founded the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute almost two decades ago.

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Here at the University of Maryland, we are proud of the 75-year anniversary of Sigma Xi. The Maryland chapter has honored, encouraged, and supported promising young researchers. These efforts have encompassed not just the science and engineering community but have reached the broader campus community.

There is no better time than the present to welcome our new Sigma Xi members and congratulate the winners of the Pelczar Award for Excellence. My congratulations. Indeed, there is much to celebrate.

As we highlight Sigma Xi's many contributions to Maryland, we are reminded of the organization's founding purpose and overarching goal. Sigma Xi was designed to reward excellence in scientific research and to encourage cooperation and companionship among scientists in all fields.

Sigma Xi has an important history of success, with 500 chapters and 75,000 members. The election of five women to full membership in 1888 offers a compelling example.

Times have changed. Now there are many more women members in Sigma Xi. The latest statistics from Science and Engineering Indicators also tell us that many women have joined the scientific ranks. I maintain that there's room for more and an even stronger need.

[slide: antihydrogen]
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Today's research frontiers in science and technology are expanding at a fantastic rate. The past year alone has seen developments so amazing that they seemed like science fiction only a few years ago.

For the first time, researchers have produced cold, slow-moving antimatter atoms and probed their properties.

[slide: extreme-ultraviolet light]
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Development of laser-like beam of extreme-ultraviolet light has enabled researchers to manipulate objects at the scale of nanometers - billionths of a meter.

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New observations from the South Pole show cosmic background radiation in unprecedented detail, giving us a better view of the beginnings of our universe.

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And we've gained new insights into genomics that are paving the way to improving food production and health around the world.

Our country's new priority on national security is also catalyzing changes for all of science.

[slide: John Marburger quote]
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Last month, the Nation's Science Advisor, John Marburger, spoke at the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Colloquium. His remarks focused on what he called, "a single important issue affecting the science and higher education communities" - the visa situation.

Marburger's remarks were in part, a response to the growing debate about the ability or inability "of foreign technical personnel, including students and scientists, to visit the United States for meetings, research collaborations, or educational pursuits."

He referenced the Chronicle of Higher Education, which highlighted the dilemma in its April edition, "Closing the Gates." An overarching paradox now exists for all of us. In our determination to protect the homeland, are we prohibiting free and open scientific inquiry and exchange of knowledge?

Tonight I want to speak directly to our role as scientists and engineers in the debate, and to the importance of our being active participants in the process to ensure the proper balance.

[slide: scale - scientific freedom & national security]
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As scientists, we are passionate guardians of the free exchange of scientific knowledge for the sake of enduring scientific progress. We are also citizens who work as scientists for the progress and endurance of the nation. These are not mutually exclusive roles or responsibilities.

In the 19 months since 9/11, political tectonics have moved us into a new era. For science and for the science community this has meant increased visibility as a frontline contributor and as a backstage concern.

The same knowledge that brings us economic prosperity and better health can also be twisted to ill intent. This is not a new story - in fact it is as old as humankind.

From the most primitive uses of fire to the most sophisticated manipulation at the nanoscale, knowledge has been neutral - neither good nor evil - human intent makes it one or the other. However, the potential for one or the other has increased with our accelerated ability to generate new knowledge.

[slide: Bertrand Russell quote]
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The 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote, "Almost everything that distinguishes the modern world from earlier centuries is attributable to science." This transformation is the result of centuries of free and open scientific inquiry and exchange of knowledge.

History is replete with examples of challenges to this freedom. In the long run these challenges have strengthened support for openness and made science a cornerstone of democracy and the wellspring of progress.

In this post-9/11 era, the balance between scientific openness and the high concerns about national security are at the forefront of debate in both the science community and the government institutions tasked with protecting the nation's security.

For the most part, this debate unfortunately is taking place within the confines of these two separate arenas. There may be active dialogue within each arena, but there is limited dialogue between the two.

The level of such debate predictably rises in times of heightened national security. This is as it should be.

We all agree that, for the most part, scientists need to be behind-the-scene players, curious and passionate questioners, if the work of science is to progress. In an increasingly public and connected world, however, our invisibility detracts from our credibility.

Sigma Xi has had a historical role in gathering the science community to address and debate issues affecting the science enterprise.

This is truly the moment for the science community to exercise its citizen responsibility as well as its scientific responsibility. My predecessor at NSF, Neal Lane, gave us the term "civic scientist" for our lexicon and the concept of a new and important role.

This is a critical opportunity for us to speak out in one voice beyond the confines and safety of our own community.

When the mutually agreed upon rules on scientific freedom are going to be changed, we should have an active role in educating the discussion and negotiating the changes.

If the science community sits as a participant at the decision-making table, it will exercise more than the role of concern for the health of science.

It will participate in an educational role that will necessarily be a two-way street.

Scientists can be informative on the accuracy of the scientific information being discussed, as well as on the weight of the risks. The expertise and concern of scientists for the nation's welfare will be conveyed in person instead of in abstract written statements.

In turn, they can become informed on, and better understand, the national security point of view. This does not mean that they will be privy to the highest national security secrets, but rather better informed on the risks and dangers from the national security perspective.

A unity of purpose, especially when national security is a major concern, requires that all the players have a voice at the table.

There have already been some cross-conversations between these sectors, but the academic community must be proactive in initiating an effort that represents a majority voice from the science ranks.

Why do I think that a comprehensive initiative on our part has added value?

For starters, it can reflect our collective interest and concern, not just as scientists but as citizens who are scientists.

If we are at the negotiating table, there is a better opportunity to promote the value of clear-cut definitions that come from common agreement. One of the worst possible scenarios would be a set of vague definitions that are open to diverse interpretations on both sides. How do you parse "sensitive but unclassified?"

The science community does not want to jeopardize national security any more than the security community wants to paralyze the most important driver of the nation's economy and its national defense. This seems then to be common territory for both sides of the debate to share.

In addition, there is, in fact, a strong case to be made for "national science security" as well as national defense security.

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The value of science in our society today is beyond calculation because it is so intricately and pervasively woven into the nation's fabric.

Think of information technology and its intricacy, as one example. A great deal of its value is dependent on the connections to, and the collaborations with the international science community.

If our nation's science and engineering becomes insular and severely protective, the international science enterprise will still be open, thus scientific availability will be like a half open spigot.

And it is useful to recognize that even if the global science spigot closed at this very moment, the science already out there is so vast and varied it would be the proverbial "closing of the barn door after the horses got out."

Another practical dilemma worth noting is that you can never close down conversations about science any more than you can about any other subject. Human instinct and nature requires connection and sharing, especially on subjects of common interest.

[slide: Economist magazine quote]
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In the Science and Technology section of the March 9, 2002 Economist magazine, there was a piece on scientific freedom and national security that made a plea for perspective, stating:

    "A sense of proportion is certainly needed...censoring the publication of research into aircraft technology would have stifled innovation without helping the people in the World Trade towers. Censoring biomedical research risks stifling medical progress - not least in countering the diseases that bioterrorism might unleash."

In weighing risks, we had better be prepared as a nation to sacrifice something for what we calculate will be our gain. And when we're talking about greater limits on scientific freedom, the gain had better be substantial enough to offset the magnitude of what we would lose.

This cannot be a decision made logically from only one point of view. The national security community cannot unilaterally calculate the losses from restricting scientific exchange anymore than the science community can unilaterally calculate the national security risks from scientific openness.

This will be an educational process on both sides. The process will be far better served if both sides sit at the same table.

We all know that perceptions and attitudes frequently influence legal and logical arguments. Reasonableness is best served when people and their points of view are at the table and not just present in a one-sided discussion.

We have it within our power and our best interest to insure that scientific freedom and national security do not become a devil's bargain. Rather they are the dual responsibility of two distinctly separate communities with different tasks in our society.

[slide: Dr. Colwell's quote]
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Each task is vitally important to the nation's long-term peace and prosperity. If we do not become active partners in crafting the policies that involve and affect our work, it will be done without our insight, reason, and wisdom. That does not seem to be the preferable choice for the continued health of science or the well being of society.

There is no question that we are at the moment of great change across the nation. The prospect of any change brings with it anxiety as our human nature expects loss to accompany change by default. However, change also brings with it opportunity. Nanotechnology, Information Technology, and Biotechnology offer examples of burgeoning fields in which the contributions to our greater good are unimaginable.

What I can imagine, however, is Sigma Xi leading the way as we explore these complex issues and the public's acceptance of what these technologies will soon offer. Change and advancement bring with them both new and complex issues that take all of our involvement.



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