"Investing in Federal Science and Technology: Integrating
our Research Portfolio"
Dr. Rita R. Colwell
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Senate Science and Technology Caucus
March 3, 1999
It is a great pleasure to join all of you, and I especially
want to thank the Caucus for inviting me to participate
in today's discussion.
When we talk about "Investing in Science and Technology:
Integrating our Research Portfolio," we are talking
about a topic that is nothing short of central to
our economic health and well-being as a nation.
No less an authority than Federal Reserve Board Chairman,
Alan Greenspan, made this clear in the speech he delivered
two weeks ago before the American Council on Education.
He examined the increasingly important role of research
and higher education in what he termed our "conceptual-based
Value-added in today's economy flows from insights
that reach across fields and bring together different
perspectives. To use Dr. Greenspan's words, "Most
great conceptual advances are interdisciplinary and
involve synergies of different specialties."
Today more than ever, we need to pay close attention
to the structure of the Federal research portfolio
and assign highest priority to investments that reach
all fields and disciplines.
For this reason, it is important to say a few words
about the context for our discussion. NSF's Division
of Science Resources Studies has recently completed
an analysis of the mix of Federal research funding
across different fields of science and engineering.
Over the past 25-plus years, the mix has changed significantly
and dramatically--primarily through gains in biomedical
fields and declines in the physical sciences and engineering.
I won't go into the details of the report here today,
but I would like to highlight two key trends.
- In 1970, the life sciences accounted for 29 percent
of Federal research spending. By 1997, their share
had risen to 43 percent.
- Engineering and the physical sciences--taken
together--accounted for 50 percent of federal
research spending in 1970. That's down to 33 percent
today--a drop from half of the total to just one
We know that these trends reflect a number of factors.
For starters, the end of the Cold War brought an overdue
assessment of weapons-related research, which is reflected
in the declining share for the physical sciences and
engineering. Over this same period, biomedical fields
were advancing at an unprecedented pace--thanks to
advances in biotechnology, genomics, molecular biology,
and a host of other areas.
Now, as we look to the 21st Century, it
would be a waste of our time to ask if we should turn
back the clock and return to the priorities dictated
by the Cold War.
Rather, we should be asking what kind of investments
in science and technology will fuel growth in today's
information-driven and conceptual-based economy.
The answer to this question is clear beyond any doubt
in my mind, and it speaks directly to the purpose
of our discussion today.
Our highest priority must be to develop an investment
strategy that reaches all fields and disciplines.
I have learned this time and again from my own research
on climate and health.
The advances my colleagues and I have made all draw
upon the state-of-the-art in satellite remote sensing
and information processing--which in turn rely upon
advances in the physical sciences and engineering.
Through his work with the Council on Competitiveness,
my co-panelist George Milne has addressed this same
point in the context of health care.
To quote from the Council's latest report: "Increasingly,
innovation in health care is...linked to basic research
in other fields, ranging from chemistry, physics,
and engineering to computer and materials sciences."
This is why I often tell people that society cannot
live by biomedical bread alone.
Before closing, let me just add that the issues we
are discussing today are central to NSF's mission.
The Foundation is the only Federal agency mandated
to promote the health and vitality of research and
education in science and engineering across all fields
The two highest priority investments in NSF's FY 2000
budget request both promote progress across our portfolio.
- The first is IT2--also known as Information
Technology for the 21st Century. It
represents the leading edge of the information
revolution, and it promises to develop capabilities
that will advance research and education across
all fields and disciplines.
- The second major priority in the request is in
the emerging area of biocomplexity. This aims
to trace not only the biological interactions,
but also the chemical, social, physical, and geological
interactions in our planet's systems.
To close, I would like to say once again that over
the past 25 years, we have seen a major realignment
of the Federal research portfolio.
That makes this the ideal time to look ahead and align
our investment priorities with the needs and opportunities
of tomorrow's information economy.