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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
DC Science Writers Association

September 8, 1998

(As Delivered)

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 the ark.

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 science illiteracy.

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 circles.

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 month.

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 sides well.

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 crops and plants...Metallurgical skills..." Other examples come to mind, but you get the point.

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 it.

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.



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