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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Turning the Clock Forward: Not Just Faster but Wiser"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
Association of American Publishers
Professional/Scholarly Publishers
Annual Meeting
Washington, DC

February 9, 1999

Good morning. I am especially pleased to be here today. Scientists are inextricably tied to publishers. Publish or perish is fundamental dogma in science.

Yet, it is not everyday that publishers and scientists share a conference forum, so I am delighted with your spirit of adventure.

I see this as an opportunity to develop an ongoing dialogue between the National Science Foundation and the Association of American Publishers.

I have titled my remarks, "Turning the Clock Forward: Not Just Faster But Wiser." It is inspired by an observation made by computer pioneer, Grace Hopper. I had the good fortune of knowing her. She was indeed a character.

She lived through and helped engender the evolution from primitive programming to modern data processing. She observed that, "Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, 'We've always done it this way.'" And then Hopper used to add, "That's why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise."

We may not like change, but it is a constant ingredient in our lives. At the end of this 20th century, the pace of change is in overdrive.

This is all the more reason to insure that the changes we make are wise and useful for our future.

In my remarks today, I will focus on four areas:

  1. the context in which your industry, and others, are evolving in this information era,

  2. how many of those same technologies are changing science, using my own research as example,

  3. how to develop added-value solutions, and

  4. an enormous challenge that publishers and scientists might address together.

We all know that the field of publishing is charting important new territories in the information era.

As scholarly and professional publishers, you are bringing the newest information in science, medicine, and other professions to your readers. Much of that material is now organized and published electronically.

The National Science Foundation funds research at the frontiers of information systems.

In addition, the Foundation has a longstanding program in Ethics and Values Studies which, in addition to other tasks, explores the impact of mainstream information technologies on the larger society.

You may be familiar with the recent report by the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee -- PITAC for short.

It notes that federal investments in advanced computing have yielded a spectacular return.

The report also warned that federal support for long-term research on information technology was "dangerously inadequate."

The Committee also designated NSF as lead agency for an increased federal role in computing research. We're committed to that leadership role and its responsibilities.

You and I, and our respective institutions, have many areas of common interest and concern, especially in information technology. We can learn a great deal from each other. I look forward to that exchange.

I should mention that I am not the only participant here today from the National Science Foundation. Dr. George Strawn, NSF's Director of the Division of Advanced Networking Infrastructure and Research, is also here.

He is working on the front-line of programs that will advance information frontiers, and he's a terrific fellow to engage in conversation.

I agree with the idea of your conference theme, "Inventing Our Future." That's exactly what you're doing.

We all sense the enormity of change that electronic, digital, and global are bringing to every facet of our national and personal existence. It's exciting but sometimes unsettling.

Eric Hoffer, migrant worker, social philosopher, and author of The Ordeal of Change, made an important observation about change. He said, "In times of change, the learners will inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves well equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."

Although Hoffer predated the term "life-long learning," he was right on the mark with the idea that it meant survival, especially in times of change.

Many of our concerns and interests as "learners" are related to the new electronic influence on the way we do business. Let me first say, we are not alone.

Every sector in our economy and our culture is confronting the pervasive impact of information technologies.

Publishing, however, is right at the center of the information revolution.

Your leadership is needed to insure that the changes we make provide added value to our scholarship, our professional expertise, and our quality of life.

That makes ours the generation of transition in publishing and the information age.

The decisions made over the next several years will have lasting impact on the future directions of scholarly publishing.

Recently, in my speeches and lectures, I have been talking about pivotal discoveries in science and technology--discoveries that changed the human landscape and the social fabric of our lives.

Electricity, the telephone, and the airplane are phenomena of modern times. Scholars of ancient history remind us how the wheel and the plow dramatically altered civilization. Now we have the Internet and genomics.

Pivotal technologies change the possibilities and the opportunities. They change the way we perceive our world, the nature of our work, the process of art, and the very pattern of our thinking.

Scientists and publishers alike recognize the dramatic influence of information technology on our work.

Some of the "impossible dreams" suddenly become doable--peering into the depths of matter and the distances of the universe, winding the threads from many disciplines into a new tapestry of understanding.

Excitement moves like an electric current through scientific meetings in every field--biology, economics, chemistry, and others.

Information systems have played an important role in my own research on the water-borne disease, cholera. Much of my research was done in Bangladesh, where cholera is common.

It is inconceivable now for me to imagine doing my research in the decades since my graduate student days without computers.

My work on environmental factors associated with cholera epidemics would be impossible without the power of computing.

My students and I have combined sophisticated information processing and rudimentary, community-adaptable techniques to address the cholera problem. In many ways, it's the epitome of high tech.

We use remote sensing and computer processing to integrate data from many disciplines: oceanography, epidemiology, ecology, microbiology, clinical medicine and more.

We are developing complex models to predict conditions conducive to cholera epidemics.

This is a proactive, not just reactive, approach to combat cholera. This strategy would be impossible without advances in information processing.

One of our most significant findings, however, is decidedly low tech. We found that filtering water through several folds of Sari cloth reduced the incidence of the cholera bacterium in the water dramatically.

Now we are testing this method to see whether it will reduce the incidence of cholera... as dramatically.

Filtering is a technique that fits easily into the social framework of family and village. The technique is simple. The result and the lesson are immediate and powerful.

For example, last year, I was visiting a rural village in Bangladesh with a camera crew from Maryland public television. They wanted to capture our research on film.

At a local pond, used to draw drinking water, a woman bent down and filled her clay bottle with water.

We then poured the water from the clay jar into a clear beaker and held it up to the sunlight. We could easily see the brown discoloration, microscopic larvae swimming in it.

Then I asked the woman to draw water again, this time holding layers of sari cloth over the mouth of the beaker. This time, when we held the beaker up to sunlight, the water was practically clear.

Minutes later, when the crew was filming to get some background footage, the woman stopped short at the request to drink some water from her clay bottle.

She explained through a translator that having just seen the results of filtering, she didn't want to drink unfiltered water anymore.

We had just witnessed, in the span of a few minutes, what might have taken a whole public health infrastructure a great deal of time and money to accomplish.

A lesson to be learned from this high-tech, low-tech combination is that each technique has an appropriate role. What we look for are valued-added solutions to problems.

In Bangladesh, it was important to adapt a solution that worked well in the economic, social, and cultural framework of the village life.

You might be wondering why I have brought you far-afield, all the way to Bangladesh. Where is the connection to scholarly publishing?

Information technologies have exploded the possibilities in scholarly publishing.

But as "learners," all of us understand that value-added means making a distinction between information dumping and knowledge producing.

It is the distinction between too many trees versus the concept of a forest. It even brings us back to the concept of filtering.

The philosopher-historians, Will and Ariel Durant, addressed the information overload concern many years earlier in the preface to their work, The Story of the Philosophers. They said, "Human knowledge had become unmanageably vast; every science had begotten a dozen more, each subtler than the rest...[what] if knowledge became too great for communication...."

A new role for publishers with the powerful tool of information technologies is to insure that "knowledge does not become too great for communication...."

We already know that in using the Web, scientists have cited information overload as their most pervasive problem. Publishers are in an important position to be part of the solution to this problem.

An article on science journals and the electronic medium appeared in the January 21 issue of Nature magazine. In it, Mike Stout of Oxford University Press said, "We are trying to get away from single journals and think more in terms of developing knowledge environments that integrate a number of relevant sources."

Stout talks about a mechanism that is not unlike the solution of Sari cloth in Bangladesh; it bends to the fundamental needs of the users by employing the very tools of their environment in a new way.

Out of massive information, you can help create knowledge as you develop collections.

Creating high quality collections will move us from the quagmire of "everything" to a higher plateau of meaning and usefulness. The trend toward knowledge environments moves in tandem with the blurring of boundaries in all fields of science.

As science becomes increasingly multidisciplinary, the concept of these knowledge environments creates a more flexible and accommodating resource.

And there is no question that science is moving steadily in the multidisciplinary direction, despite some departmental reluctance.

In fact, many of the breakthroughs in science are coming at the juncture of disciplines. The January 14th issue of Nature reported on the confluence of physics and biology. It stated, "What's new is that many physicists--not just a few isolated pioneer--are getting excited by the challenge of tackling important questions in biology, using the tools, both physical and mental, of physics."

The article went on to say, "In the United States, government and private funding agencies are also promoting the physics-biology agenda."

The new perspective of developing collections can both advance and be advanced by this trend of blurred boundaries in all the sciences.

Scholarly publishing is on the cusp of all these changes. You will, of necessity, develop innovations for better serving your customer-base.

That takes more than faster, better technology. Information systems don't care what passes through them. Technologists are not sufficiently informed to shape content on their own.

The added value will come from collaborations between technologists and disciplinary specialists. Publishers will be pivotal in creating these alliances and collaborations.

You will be the key to adding wiser to the faster, better equation. You can have enormous influence in "Inventing the Future," not just for your industry, but for a much broader segment of the global society.

Information systems are reshaping society, like electricity and the automobile did earlier.

But unlike many other technologies, information systems provide a powerful, direct route to new knowledge. On the one hand, that is filled with potential.

On the other hand, that means they will have far greater impact on the human landscape and the social fabric of society. They will change the possibilities and the opportunities.

This has serious implications for broadening the already wide gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" in the global society.

In the next half-century, the global population is projected to double. Global pressures, both human and environmental, could escalate dramatically.

There is an urgent need to create a pattern of sustainable development for the planet and its growing population.

Education and knowledge are key to achieving that goal. But it will not be education and knowledge of the "few." It will have to be education and knowledge for the "many."

Currently, one-third of the world's population is illiterate. If the population projections for the next fifty years are anywhere near correct, illiteracy could also increase dramatically.

But, information systems can change the possibilities and the opportunities. I am asking you how publishers and scientists might work together to expand the possibilities and the opportunities for world literacy.

I suspect the solution will be a creative combination of high tech and low tech. Advanced computing and household filtering worked in Bangladesh.

I do think that scientists and scholarly publishers might make a good combination to start that exploration.

You are among the most learned, but you are also "the learners" at the cutting edge of knowledge-generation.

If scientists and scholarly publishers are as passionate about knowledge and learning as I think we are, then there are many explorations and formidable challenges that we can tackle together.

I hope today marks the first of a continuing series of conversations between us.

Thank you.



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