Dr. Rita R. Colwell
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
AAAS Science Policy Seminar Series
September 16, 1998
Good evening, I am delighted to be here. As many of
you know, I have a long association with AAAS, as
a past-President, collaborator, colleague, supporter
and friend of its activities. This, of course, is
my first time at an AAAS event as NSF Director. I
am pleased and proud to be here in this new capacity.
My husband Jack and I are racing sailors, Chesapeake
Bay Racers. As sailors, we are always conscious of
the winds, or the lack of wind, 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.
Now we can foresee, we can 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 is really a very exciting time. 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.
I feel very strongly that 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!
But, 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
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.
In fact, I would say that 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 really worsened
by widespread public science illiteracy.
The Third International Mathematics and Science Study
(TIMSS) on the performance of U.S. 12th graders indicates
that we have a long way to go, in the United States,
to reach world leadership in K through 12 math and
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.
Let me turn now briefly to "biocomplexity." What do
I mean by biocomplexity? 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 a responsibility and an opportunity
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/we 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 has to change.
The vast capabilities information technologies open
up to science, technology, and engineering become
the central tool for a new communication that is 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 until last
month. This is a very important message.
Another very different example is the Chesapeake Bay
Foundation. There is a diverse commercial economy
associated with the Chesapeake 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
I think university researchers should have a major
role in this. They 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.
They learn the 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, 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 could unlock
that knowledge, bring it 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, as we move into the 21st Century computational
power, instant communication, vast databases, and
extensive analytical capability have brought us to
yet another age of circumnavigation. 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, I think.
The first age of exploration spanned approximately
two centuries so we have quite a future ahead of us.
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. 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 the mud slides by scientists. Their
consistent monitoring of Pacific Ocean surface temperatures
detected a dramatic temperature rise, the alert signal
for their prediction.
I like the quote from U.S. News & World
Report. They 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." For once I'll agree with U.S.
News and World Report.
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, new 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.