Dr. Rita R. Colwell
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
DC Science Writers Association
September 8, 1998
Good evening, I am delighted to be here. I feel like
I've been transported to Missouri -- don't get me
wrong, you don't look like mules but
you have a kind of "show me" look about you! If I
knew better, I would really be intimidated. But that's
not my way of doing things. Meet 'em head on...that's
my style. I have great respect for the work you do
and look forward to many more of these connections
in my new job as NSF Director.
My husband Jack and I are racing sailors, Chesapeake
Bay Racers. We were out on the Bay this weekend. As
sailors, we are always conscious of the winds, or
the lack of wind, and there sure wasn't much wind
last Saturday, especially in the doldrums of late
Summer, so we are ready for wind shifts and new tacks
to take. No doubt, this experience is good for "reading
the winds" in this new job. Well, I hope these skills
will work for me at NSF.
There's an old saying: think ahead and be prepared.
Translation? -- it wasn't raining when Noah built
Being prepared, anticipating, foresight, pro-action
not re-action -- this is how I believe science should
move to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Today, the tools and methods of science, engineering,
and technology are very, very sophisticated. Our knowledge
(the data) is so comprehensive. We have the power
and capability to think with anticipation in a way
never before possible. In the past, much of our effort
relied on remediation...solving existing problems...working
on solutions after problems occurred.
Today we can foresee, even predict many of the problems
or challenges. This anticipatory capability is empowered
with our increasing cross-disciplinary understanding.
This is occurring throughout science, engineering,
and technology. Our broader grasp of these interconnections
provides tremendous advantage for preventive, not
remedial solutions. As this perspective increases,
our collective power to generate insight grows proportionately.
This evening, I want to talk briefly about three priorities:
first, science and math education; second, biocomplexity
-- a word perhaps alien to your lexicon but a concept
with which you will become familiar over the next
few years; third, information technology, the new
Age of Exploration.
To begin, the predictive approach is nowhere more
important than in anticipating the nation's educational
needs for the 21st century. As a society, we cannot
separate our goal to be a leading economic competitor
from our duty and responsibility to educate all youngsters.
This will be as clear a case of cause and effect as
any we could imagine. Educational excellence must
be understood as workforce superiority. The equation
is simple and direct. Unfortunately, the inverse will
also be true.
Every schoolchild must be educated for a productive
and contributory place in an advanced information
age. Y2K is a tough nut to crack. But K through 12
is the real challenge. As a start, we begin with the
assumption that all children can be educated in math
and science. This may sound so elementary as to be
downright silly! However, in some places, the educational
approach is to sift and sort students early-on. This
tells some students right at the starting gate that
they can't master science and math -- that we do not
expect them to succeed. This becomes a self-fulfilling
prophecy, damning to the student and destructive for
the country. We must believe in all children so that
they learn to believe in themselves. That does not
mean that everybody is going to be a Nobel Laureate
but it does mean that everyone can, and must succeed
and contribute to society.
Furthermore, we cannot expect the task of science
and math education to be the sole responsibility of
K through 12 teachers while scientists and graduate
students live only in their universities and laboratories.
There is no group of people who should feel more responsible
for science and math education in this nation than
our scientists and scientists-to-be.
America's continuing leadership will depend more on
the caliber of its human resource than on any other
resource. It will not be enough to have a top layer
of scientific elite, and another of mediocrity below.
And the situation is only worsened by widespread public
The Third International Mathematics and Science Study
(TIMSS) on the performance of U.S. 12th graders indicates
that the U.S has a long way to go to reach world leadership
in K through 12 math and science education.
In education, especially in science and math education,
there will be a ripple effect on work skills throughout
the 21st century. If we undermine or leave behind
a significant segment of the population, we write
a prescription to undermine all other national goals.
Second priority: "biocomplexity," what do I mean by
that term? The myriad forces of a burgeoning world
population, coupled with the power of technology,
have altered the global environment in ways never
before possible. Much like the Chinese definition
of "crisis," there is both opportunity and responsibility
here for the science community.
This is where the concept of biocomplexity takes shape
as a research direction, as well as a social understanding.
To my mind, biocomplexity reaches beyond biodiversity.
When we speak of sustaining biodiversity, we mean
primarily maintaining the plant and animal diversity
of the planet, a very important goal.
On the other hand, the phrase "understanding biocomplexity"
speaks of a deeper concept. It is not enough to explore
and chronicle the enormous diversity of the world's
ecosystems. We must do that...but also reach beyond,
to discover the complex chemical, biological, and
social interactions that comprise our planet's systems.
From these subtle but very sophisticated interrelationships,
we can tease out the fundamental principles of sustainability.
Our survival as a human species and the ecological
survival of the entire planet depend on our ability
to achieve what is a truly interdisciplinary task.
This is not the work of just the life sciences community;
they know it well. It must be of similar concern to
the larger science community and to the public. To
accomplish this, the science community needs to be
more comfortable with dialogue beyond its own inner
Communicating the value and contributions of science
to society will require engaging the larger public,
and becoming astute listeners. Many in the community
still do not see these tasks as their responsibility.
This is an attitude that must change.
The vast capabilities information technologies open
up to science, technology, and engineering become
the central tool for a new communication-imperative
between the public and those communities.
For example, a new pilot program has just begun through
the National Library of Medicine. The goal is to inform
consumers so that they are more knowledgeable and
empowered patients. Although MEDLINE has been operating
for 25 years to help inform health professionals,
no one thought about the health consumer till last
Another very different example is the Chesapeake Bay
Foundation. There is a diverse commercial economy
associated with the bay -- everything from food production,
to tourism, to transportation. The long-term viability
of that economy depends on understanding the Bay's
ecosystem and its vulnerability. The Foundation is
one mechanism to inform and educate the area's population.
University researchers are a major resource for data,
for analysis, AND for hands-on assistance. The public
could, and should, use this resource for local or
community benefit. Too often, in the past, universities
have been isolated from the very communities in which
they are located. Information systems are proving
an ideal mechanism to connect the two and serve both
For example, there's a program at UC San Diego, at
the San Diego Supercomputer Center, that gives computers
to teenage girls. Mentors supervise their research
assignments. The teenagers, in turn, teach younger
girls in the fourth through sixth grades. The girls
learn to network, to use the web, to use their computers
on science projects. If a girl finishes enough assignments,
she gets to keep her computer.
This is a win/win situation. The girls learn the knowledge
and lessons of research. They will take those skills
into the workforce either in science or in something
else of their choosing. The University has just increased
its chances for more women in future science and engineering
programs, undergraduate and graduate.
The virtual explosion in diverse information systems
probably much more closely represents a new "Age of
Exploration." In the 15th and 16th centuries, when
powerful nations funded voyages to circumnavigate
the globe, they were looking for new trade routes
and the wealth that trade would bring. At the same
time, they were also mapping the shape and size of
the world and discovering who inhabited it. Only seafaring
vessels plowing the oceans could unlock that knowledge,
could bring that home, and empower those nations.
The historian, Paul Kennedy, describes this era in
The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.
He says, "Spanish galleons, plying along the Western
coast, linked up with vessels from the Philippines,
bearing Chinese silks in exchange for Peruvian silver....What
had started as a number of separate expansions was
steadily turning into an interlocking whole..."
Kennedy tells us of far flung cultures learning about
each other and developing a respect for each others'
skills and a passion for each others' wares. But he
also describes a powerful adjunct to seafaring initiatives.
He speaks of "the parallel upward spiral in knowledge--in
science and technology. ...Improved cartography, navigational
tables, new instruments like the telescope...better
methods of shipbuilding...new crops and plants...Metallurgical
skills..." Other examples come to mind, but you get
Today, computational power, instant communication,
vast databases, and extensive analytical capability
have brought us to yet another age of circumnavigation.
However, now we can explore the universe with powerful
tools that unlock knowledge from the subatomic to
the super-celestial level.
Like the sailing ships that were catalysts for advances
in science and technology, our compact and complex
information vessels are triggering explorations of
a magnitude not even imagined thirty years ago.
The Interim Report from the President's Information
Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) recommends funding
virtual centers for "Expedition into the 21st Century."
Sounds like we're reading from an ancient text, doesn't
The first age of exploration spanned approximately
two centuries. By comparison, our new era is in its
infancy. Yet, our tools, our massive data gathering
skills, our capacity for comprehensive analysis allowed
us recently to make a powerful prediction. While the
sun was still shining in California, researchers predicted
one result of El Nino would be mudslides from extraordinary
amounts of rainfall. In fact, these predictions were
made months before by scientists. And their consistent
monitoring of Pacific Ocean temperatures detected
a dramatic rise in sea surface temperature.
U.S. News & World Report characterized
it this way, "The dogged toilers in the vineyard of
data collection rarely get much credit, but here is
a case where they deserve their due."
I think what we have to recognize about information
systems is that some of their contributions will be
like the seafaring ships transporting huge quantities
of commodities from distant places. Other contributions
from information science and technology will be to
create whole new disciplines and fields of knowledge,
to trigger new industries, and to find new worlds,
literally and figuratively.
The NSF is poised to lead those diverse expeditions.
It's an exciting time to be the new Director of NSF.
I know you live by asking tough questions. You're
probably impatient to begin. Let me stop here, then.