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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Roundtable Discussion
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Washington, D.C.

October 30, 2003

Good morning. Thank you for inviting me to participate in the discussions of the Natural History Museum's 5-year strategic plan. I will comment on Strategic Partnerships in Science, however, I would also like to touch on the role of these partnerships in the broader scheme of science and society.

The National Museum of Natural History is an exceptional institution that has provided outstanding educational experiences to both the Washington area and to the Nation. The Museum's exhibits have been educational, inspirational, and enjoyable to many.

We all agree that museums play an important role in society. Their collections and exhibits document history and provide a knowledge-base upon which we can build new discoveries as well as a greater understanding of our world. We also agree that museums play an important role in science - through both their own research and through informal science programs that illuminate scientific issues for the public.

Today, we find ourselves caught up in tornados of change. New technologies and scientific discoveries present us with the constant challenge to learn more, to adapt, and to move forward.

The National Museum of Natural History has certainly taken steps to meet the challenges facing museums in the 21st century. Today's gathering clearly demonstrates that commitment. I commend you for taking the initiative to discuss a plan that will secure this Museum's place as an integral component of our diverse society. In looking toward the future, you serve as a model for museums everywhere.

All museums face a much more competitive environment today. Competition for audiences has heightened the use of high technology presentation. In what little leisure time people have, many choose to surf the Internet, watch one of hundreds of channels on digital cable television, or tinker with high-tech toys they can purchase easily online. To avoid fading into the background, all institutions - not only museums - need to devise new and creative ways to engage audiences. These dramatic developments have created challenges for all of us.

At the National Science Foundation we are constantly working to find new and innovative ways to engage and educate the public about science and engineering.

We have an Education and Human Resources Directorate (EHR) that focuses on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education at all levels - from K-12 to post doctoral and beyond. It runs the gamut of what we like to call, "K through Grey". More specific to museums, is our Informal Science Education Program (which falls under the EHR directorate). The ISE program promotes public interest, understanding, and engagement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics through voluntary, self-directed, and lifelong learning opportunities. ISE supports a variety of projects, including museum exhibits and educational programs. In fact, roughly one third (approximately $18 million) of all NSF Informal Science Education funding goes to museums.

It is important to note that while the NSF itself cannot participate in partnerships, we can encourage, support and facilitate such unions. Museums can potentially form partnerships with universities and academe, industry, corporations, libraries, public broadcasting companies, youth organizations and community groups. All of these groups could work with museums on creating exhibits and programs, which will draw audiences with interests spanning a broad spectrum of possibilities.

At the NSF, we understand the increasing importance of partnerships. Establishing partnerships and working in collaborative teams go a long way towards bringing scientific knowledge and information to the public. These carefully orchestrated connections enable the partners to work on projects that are too large or too expensive for one group to tackle on their own. And it allows each partner to do what it does best, but still remain a part of something much more diverse and comprehensive in scale.

We also know that establishing partnerships and collaborations can accelerate the pace of scientific discovery. That was clearly the case with the genome sequencing of Arabadopsis. The Arabadopsis project (sequencing the genome of the mustard plant) included the efforts of 8,000 scientists and 2,500 laboratories in the United States, the European Union and Japan.

On a different level, NSF funded projects titled "citizen science" partner scientists with the public. These projects consist of a number of collaborative bird watching teams, like Ebird and Project Pigeon Watch, and use modern day tools to disseminate science data quickly and on a vast scale.

The "citizen science" projects make-up "the world's largest research team," and include "citizen scientists" from around the globe. Citizens electronically transmit their bird-watching observations to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which then incorporates the information into their databases. The "citizen scientists" can effectively communicate their findings to scientists, other bird watchers, teachers and students, and benefit from the research conducted by the other members of this global research team.

At the National Science Foundation, we also see the benefits of forming partnerships and collaborating in the many NSF funded Centers, including the Engineering Research Centers, the Science and Technology Centers, the Math Centers and the Supercomputing Centers. These programs provide an integrated environment for academe and industry to focus on next-generation advances in complex engineered, math, and science systems. The Centers program is one of NSF's most highly recognized and successful programs.

Here is an example of what's possible when cross-disciplinary and collaborative partnerships are formed.

At one of the Engineering Research Centers, engineers from the Georgia Institute of Technology have teamed up with orthopedic surgeons from Emory University to develop a promising gene therapy. This technology will soon add significant mass or strength to bones. This research could benefit many of the 25 million Americans with Osteoporosis, for whom current medication and lifestyle changes only slow bone loss.

The possibilities and potential of partnerships is exponential.

Most recently, the National Science Foundation has supported a series of Science and Learning Centers, or SLCs, which connect psychologists and sociologists with neuroscientists, linguists, engineers, computer scientists, and others to uncover the mysteries of how the brain develops and functions in human beings.

Research that spans disciplinary borders in the cognitive, behavioral, neuro and social sciences is poised to launch a renaissance in the study of human thought and action. Of all the topics of our inquiry, we perhaps know the least about ourselves - how we learn, form intentions, make decisions and take risks.

We need to research and rethink education from the ground up. Our teacher's motto can no longer be, "a blackboard, a piece of chalk, and thou." This stale paradigm will not prepare our youngest citizens for the challenges of an increasingly complex world.

Museums can play an important role in this new education for the 21st century.

Programs such as the NSF funded Centers, the "citizen science" projects, and the Arabidopsis initiative, demonstrate that we should not hesitate to question our old paradigms. We need to devise fundamentally new arrangements that convert the old pipeline of learning into pathways of learning that are multiple, flexible and adaptable. I would think that museums have a great deal to teach us about different learning paths and environments.

It is of great concern to leaders in government, industry, and higher education that while discovery and the generation of knowledge escalates, the public falls further behind in its understanding of science and technology. This problem cuts two ways. In a world increasingly defined and driven by science, an uninformed public cannot perform the critical role that they play in decision-making as a knowledgeable electorate. In addition we face having an insufficiently trained 21st century workforce that not only lacks technical understanding but also the skills that a technologically sophisticated economy requires to advance and prosper.

As a Nation, we must recognize that we could founder and fall on our simple neglect of science education, both formal and informal. As we pursue a goal to improve science literacy as well as improve our methods of science teaching and learning, there are some issues that are clearly self-evident.

First, all students today need to know more science and mathematics than ever before. Science and engineering students must become adept in making connections across disciplines, not just in their own fields. As research becomes increasingly multidisciplinary, we must focus on ways to train the next generation of scientists and engineers so that they have the skills and capabilities necessary for the changing nature of science.

We need to prepare graduates to adapt to change and handle complexity. They must be literate across disciplinary boundaries not only as a skill for facing several iterations in their careers, but also as a way to develop the broader context for interdisciplinary work.

Science fluency will help all students prosper in the workplace. And beyond that, it will help them, as citizens, to make informed decisions in today's complex societies.

Second, every one of us will need to learn continuously throughout our lifetimes, updating our skills - and sometimes preparing for entirely new careers. Museums provide an excellent venue for an entire community's continuous learning.

Now more than ever before, we need citizens who can give balanced and thoughtful consideration to the consequences of deploying our new knowledge.

Museums play the unique role of acting as the bridge between the public and the scientists and engineers. They provide an educational venue accessible to everyone - and they provide an educational experience covering an amazing breadth of subject matter, from stem cell research to climate change. The education provided at museums can be continued education for adults, or the catalyst for a young person's interest in science.

The late Stephen J. Gould, one of the world's best-known evolutionary biologists, found his first spark of inspiration at a museum. Gould was fond of reminding people that his interest in science began with a trip to New York City's Museum of Natural History when he was 5 years old.

You are taking a great first step to ensure that museums continue to spark interest in more Stephen J. Goulds.

I believe the NSF can play a supportive role in your pursuit today to create the museums of the future. We continually encourage institutions such as your own to take the next step and explore the possibilities.

We have funded projects and exhibits across the country, many of which entail a multi-media, hands-on approach to science education and inspiration.

There is an increasing availability of research identifying the most effective forms of informal learning - we should learn from these findings how to formulate evidence-based exhibits. The better museums do their job, the better informed the public will be.

Both the NSF and museums have a responsibility to the public. Our educational and scientific contributions will hopefully generate new frontiers, new products, and new jobs. It is an enormous challenge to create an informed and science literate society, and to provide the public with constant sources of intellectual stimulation, life-long learning and an understanding of the world around us. Meetings such as this one today are integral to our progress, and I am pleased to see these steps taken.

Thank you.



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