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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


The Berries and the Branch

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
Symposium on Chemistry and the National Agenda: The Contribution of Research to the Nation
American Chemical Society
National Meeting

Sunday August 23, 1998

Thank you, Paul Barkan and Doug Raber for inviting me to share the limelight with such illustrious company. Feeling so young in my new job, it's a special honor to be so close to so much Nobel history.

It reminds me of an observation that should be ascribed to Yogi Berra, even though he didn't actually say it "Sometimes you have to look really close to get the big picture." It strikes me as a perception apropos of chemistry as a discipline.

Not to name names, but I understand one of our Nobelists cashed in on his fame to get up close and personal in quite a different way and at quite a different kind of award ceremony. I'm referring not to the Nobel but to the infamous "Ig Nobel Awards." Again, I won't betray his privacy, but I understand one of you was given away at the Ig Nobel Awards in a contest called "Win a Date with a Nobel Laureate." (Your secret is safe with me.)

I'm delighted to be up close and personal with all of you today, to hear your personal and professional stories, and to reflect on what they mean to our collective future as a nation. Looking closely, yet embracing the larger context -- in many ways chemistry embodies that dual perspective. It reaches from the molecular to the keenly practical. On the one hand, chemistry -- probably the oldest of the sciences -- has a venerable, worthy, and extremely utilitarian history as a very fundamental science. Yet, chemistry is so broad that it underpins virtually all other scientific disciplines.

We also know that interdisciplinary research will be increasingly important in the years ahead. The interface of biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and chemistry... and the social and behavioral sciences are where the excitement will be most intense. As history has shown us, the ground work will be set in chemistry.

As a microbiologist I know well the convergence of chemistry with my own discipline and also the intertwining of the practical with the most basic. The famous microbiologist, Louis Pasteur, was, in fact, a chemist by training. I've begun thinking very seriously about how chemical, biological, and social interactions between our planet's systems form a network of biocomplexity, an approach to understanding our world. Chemistry is key to this effort to understand and sustain our planet.

Although fundamental, chemistry is -- if I may use the term -- elementally down to earth. It is a superb example of Louis Pasteur's dictum that "There are science and the applications of science, bound together as the fruit to the tree which bears it."

The membership of this impressive society reflects Pasteur's link between the fruit and the tree, the berry and the branch. The fact that almost 60% of ACS's membership comes from industry allows for tremendous cross-fertilization, the natural form of technology transfer... in both directions.

The chemical industry in the U.S. -- worth $400 billion annually -- relies, directly and indirectly, on the brainpower and creativity of all gathered here and beyond, those in industry and academia and government.

These facts and figures illustrate the wonderful gradient of chemistry research. It asks not only: What is the fundamental structure and function of the molecule? But also: How can we use these resources to harvest these discoveries?

The yields from Nobel-caliber research rely on -- I hesitate to use the term in such company -- the organic connection between the commercial enterprise of chemistry and federal support for chemistry research. Americans have dominated the Nobel Prize in chemistry since World War II.

I am very pleased that NSF and our partner federal agencies have had a role in supporting all of these Nobelists' research. Sometimes we were clairvoyant enough to support you before your prize was bestowed. In other cases we were astute enough to make up for our lack of foresight with some support afterwards!

In any case, out of 38 Nobelists in chemistry, NSF supported 20 -- or more than half -- before their prizes. (You could say that gives us pretty good 50-50 hindsight.) The statistics for NSF support of physics and economics Nobelists are roughly similar.

All of you have had far-reaching impact on your respective sub-fields in terms of ideas. There are scores of students and post-docs you have reached, and later generations will continue to enjoy the impact and the benefits of your efforts.

This is living testimony to how the federal investment, in what may seem very esoteric research, actually replicates itself many-fold in diverse facets of our lives. The work commemorated by the Nobel Prizes has given us insight about the atmosphere surrounding the earth, assisted in developing environmentally friendly technologies, and enriched our lives in many other ways.

In closing, let me also commend the entire ACS for its dynamic programs to get out the message about the value of research to society. I hope that all of us -- and this is a special hope for the students here today so early on a Sunday morning -- will see it as an integral part of our professional careers to communicate to the public how chemistry and fundamental research touch our lives.

We are all anxious to hear your stories and to reflect on your achievements, in the context of how vital all of science is to our shared future. So let us begin.



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