Dr. Rita R. Colwell
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
American Physical Society Centennial Symposium
March 21, 1999
Greetings to all of you, and thank you for inviting
me, a microbiologist, to join this diverse gathering
of physicists, in both the audience and also here
on the panel. I'm used to speaking to thousands of
microbiologists. It is a truly new experience to mingle
with thousands of physicists.
We are staking out more shared territory every day.
During my brief remarks this afternoon, I'd like to
touch upon our common destiny and several other themes
that I see charting the road ahead for NSF in the
Broadly speaking, I want to describe a scenario in
which interdisciplinary research and the core disciplines
are really two sides of the same coin.
Then I'll cite three areas we're emphasizing this year
at NSF, which illustrate that philosophy.
A common trait of physics and biology is that no one
has ever accused either field of modesty. Our ambitions
reach from understanding the birth of life to the
birth of the universe.
One of the APS press releases described the purview
of this meeting as "the universe from alpha to omega."
That tells us something about our modesty!
The wonderful inclusiveness of our gathering demonstrates
a trend in all of science, one we expect to intensify
in the next century.
That trend is the ever-deepening connections between
the disciplines, links that mirror the complexity
of our world and our universe. As John Muir wrote
early in our century, "When we try to pick out anything,
by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in
My own research career on climate and health bears
this out. As we've traced the ecology of those bacteria
that cause cholera, our discoveries have been predicated
Our progress would have been impossible without drawing
upon advances from the physical sciences and engineering--such
as remote sensing, physical oceanography, space science
and the power of computing.
The fertile juncture of biology and physics provides
a great case study of the richness that results from
exchanges across disciplinary boundaries. There's
a long history of physicists in biology--Leo Szilard,
Seymour Benzer, Salvatore Luria. They made enormous
contributions, and it continues today.
The imaging technologies of astronomy and physics have
numerous applications in the inner universe of medicine.
We've seen this in breast cancer detection, where a
doctor shares an astronomer's need to single out significant
spots against a cluttered background, separating the
signal from the noise.
We also see this in how Magnetic Resonance Imaging
technology emerged from chemistry, math, and physics.
Another example in the works is research on synthetic
macromolecules that may, one day, join biomembranes
to electronic circuits.
This could enable information exchange between living
cells and devices. We may soon be walking arrays of
embedded computers and circuitry, as we learn to extend
our lives from the biblical three-score-and-ten to
We can learn a tremendous amount from one another.
Biology has operated for much of our century by picking
There's a groundswell of opinion now that the time
is ripe to study how things come together.
The idea that this century--which many call the era
of physics--is giving way to a new century of biology,
misses the point.
That view is far too simplistic to capture what's actually
happening. A much fuller image is a convergence of
physics and biology.
We'll need, however, to transform the way we speak
to each other. Dan Kleppner said in Physics Today
last November that "physics will have increasingly
important things to say about biological processes,
but the language of that physics may turn out
to be different from the language we know."
I cannot agree more strongly. To travel freely among
disciplines, we can no longer afford the luxury of
speaking in the tongues of our individual fields.
We need to develop a common language--a "scientific
We must also be mindful that the excitement and foment
at the disciplinary boundaries is nourished by the
health of the core disciplines.
Yet, we know full well that we cannot predict where
the next breakthrough will take place. From Rutherford
to Einstein to Thomas J. Watson, the best minds show
that brilliance does not imply clairvoyance.
A case in point, is the biologist who won a Nobel in
1960, Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet. He said way back
in the late 1950's "Molecular biology is interesting,
but it will have no commercial value."
We have so many examples of core research begetting
Who in atomic physics, for instance, would have imagined
that atomic clocks would find a use in the Global
Positioning System, the satellite constellation that
lets us find our precise location anywhere on earth?
We can use GPS to track the drift of continents. (Well,
on a more mundane level, my husband Jack and I use
it to stay the course when we sail in regattas on
the Chesapeake Bay.)
In any case, we probably cannot even begin now to frame
the questions that will beguile science and engineering
in the next century.
My physicist colleagues point out that the Standard
Model of Particle Physics is certainly incomplete.
We do not understand what drives the expansion of
And we cannot reconcile the two signature theories
of physics--gravitational physics, and quantum mechanics.
There are so many other mysteries that we can only
begin to perceive--and many more we cannot even name.
NSF with its mission, along with our fellow government
agencies, are the guardians for long-term research
on these sorts of topics--the ones that individually
have no guaranteed pay-off.
We must assign top priority to investments that reach
all fields and all disciplines. Our long view is so
very important, as research horizons in industry,
by most assessments, are shrinking. Research horizons
of industry are now in the three-to-five year time
span, driven by quarterly dividend reports.
With this as a backdrop, we cast an analytic eye on
the structure of current federal funding.
Over the past quarter century or so, the mix of Federal
research funding has changed dramatically--primarily
through gains in biomedical fields and declines in
the physical sciences and engineering.
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-third.
Not least because of the interdependence of science,
engineering and our economy, these are disturbing
trends. The Economist magazine recently ran
a survey on innovation, which it termed "the industrial
religion of the late 20th century."
The survey reported some evidence that technology cycles
are speeding up--and the only way to keep up is to
keep all of science and engineering vigorous. As The
Economist said, "In real life, the innovation
process is a cat's cradle of interrelationships, a
network of feedback connections."
We're asking what kinds of investments will fuel growth
in today's information-driven and conceptual-based
This year at NSF, we've targeted several broad areas
for increased funding. We've placed high priority
on "IT2"--also known as Information Technology
for the 21st Century.
It represents the leading edge of the information revolution,
and it promises capabilities that will advance research
and education across the board.
Our initiative ties in with one of the "primary motifs"
of this meeting. I see that the APS program highlights
"the confinement of electrons and the implication
of this for the movement of information..."
Thus, there is nothing new about the strong links between
the progress of physics and information technology.
We know that the World Wide Web grew out of networking
by high-energy physicists at CERN in Europe. Physics
will play a key role in our new cross-agency initiative
Another high priority in our budget proposal is an
area I call biocomplexity.
This emerging approach will trace not only the biological
interactions but also the chemical, social, physical,
and geological interactions in our planet's systems.
The insights from physics will be integral here.
We have a third priority and that is science and math
education--actually a longstanding focus of NSF's
portfolio. For us, it's not Y2K stupid, it's K-12.
Integrating research and education has become something
of a mantra for us. Our obligation as scientists to
reach out to students and the public is underscored
by a question posed by a nameless but real national
legislator. As he said, "We've got enough quarks already.
What do we need another one for?"
That's actually a fair question that gets at the heart
of education in fundamental science. As the start
of an answer, we're proposing a new program to place
graduate students in K-12 classrooms.
In fact, I understand that some noteworthy physics
endeavors are already pioneering this kind of approach.
Quarks can help point us in the right direction. There's
a pre-college effort we support called "Quarknet"
that links researchers with students and teachers.
Students will use "live" data from Fermilab and the
Large Hadron Collider to participate in active scientific
projects. They'll be collaborating with other students
around the country and the world.
I've also been impressed by what I've heard about "ASPIRE."
It's an effort to get recent astrophysics discoveries
into everyday science lessons.
Teams of undergrads and grads go to K-12 classrooms,
and teachers come to the labs. The project uses interactive,
In one activity on the ASPIRE website, students can
hitch a virtual balloon ride with Victor Frances Hess
and plot the change in background radiation as they
rise through the sky. Sounds like the next best thing
to being there!
Our outreach and education can take many forms. Let
me recommend a visit to the NSF booth at this meeting.
It showcases NSF-supported achievements in physics.
You will see a working model of the optics of our Laser
Interferometer Gravity Wave Observatory, or LIGO,
as well as demonstrations of chaos, cosmic ray detection,
and a lot more.
These kinds of outreach projects help us spark careers
of the next generation of scientists and engineers,
increase public science literacy, and deepen understanding
of the science and engineering research that drives
our economy. But they're only a beginning. We have
recently learned that our universe is expanding at
an increasing rate.
To keep pace with this expansion, we need to accelerate
our pace of discovery, outreach beyond our science
and engineering communities, and support that makes
it all possible. I ask for your help on all of these
There is tremendous excitement in physics across the
spectrum, and I'd like to close by mentioning two
projects that exemplify our future directions.
The first is the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, discussed
by Alan Bromley in his talk prior to this session.
It is exemplary, not only in its position at a frontier
of physics, but also as a model for inter-agency and
In all these ways, it represents trends of the future.
As we look toward a new century and a new millennium,
we will also be inaugurating LIGO.
It is the largest venture NSF has ever undertaken.
This is truly a high-risk adventure: to attempt our
first direct observation of gravitational waves.
These projects--on-time and on-budget--show NSF's ability
and willingness to push the frontiers of the future.
We can, and do, manage science when the pricetag is
$200 million or more, just as effectively as the lone
investigator grant of $200,000.
Both are critical for future successes, not just in
science, engineering, and technology, but for the
health and vitality of our economy, our social system,
and our planet.
Let me close on the subject of LIGO. Building this
observatory is a fitting way to usher in the millennium--looking
for never-seen signals in uncharted skies.
If we find these ripples in the shape of space, no
doubt we will find--to paraphrase John Muir--that
they are somehow "hitched" to everything else.