Dr. Rita R. Colwell
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
National Science Board Task Force on
International Issues in Science and Engineering
July 30, 1999
Good morning! I am very pleased that the National Science
Board Task Force on International Issues in Science
and Engineering is launching today a series of meetings
to hear a range of perspectives on the subject of
international science and technology.
The subject is ubiquitous, the issues are complex,
and the stakeholders are diverse.
When I arrived at the Foundation a year ago, I indicated
that international activities would be one of my highest
I am pleased that the Board has taken on this important
subject. The findings and conclusions of the Task
Force will provide useful guidance as we develop the
new NSF strategic plan and the content and structure
of future budgets.
I welcome the opportunity today to present you with
some of my own thoughts and concerns on international
science and engineering and the role of the Federal
government. I would like to raise three questions
- Given the inevitable and appropriate trend toward
the globalization of science and engineering,
what productive role can federal agencies play
in facilitating that trend?
- Given the leadership role of the United States
in the global scientific system, how should NSF
help shape that system to make it compatible also
with our overall national interest?
- Foreign policy today is a complex combination
of political, commercial, social, scientific,
and environmental issues. Science, engineering,
and technology increasingly comprise the major
component of management for global issues. Given
the old and quite separated structures for foreign
policy and science and technology policy in the
Federal government, how do we bridge the boundaries
between them to have seamless policies?
It is useful, first, to comment on the term "global
scientific system." It has long been said that science
knows no national boundaries.
Indeed, an instructive example is that of the brilliant
thirty-four year old Alexander von Humboldt (who,
by the way was fluent in English, French and Spanish
as well as his native German.) In 1804, Humboldt wrote
to Thomas Jefferson a few days before visiting him
at the White House: "I would love to talk to you about
a subject that you have treated so ingeniously in
your work on Virginia, the teeth of mammoth, which
we, too, discovered in the Andes."
Two centuries later, the irrepressible urge to pursue
scientific knowledge for knowledge's sake, continues
to flourish among those for whom the pursuit of scientific
enlightenment transcends political, cultural or language
It has been facilitated by two important developments.
One is that, as a direct result of the post World War
II dominance of U.S. science, the English language
has become the lingua franca of science. We
fortunately do not all have to be brilliant linguists
as von Humboldt was.
The other, of course, is the electronic connectivity
of researchers and research institutions around the
globe, which makes national boundaries absolutely
transparent and communication virtually instantaneous.
International scientific organizations have also served
to facilitate international discourse. In fact, scientists
were among the pioneers of world-wide organizations
when they established ICSU in the 1920s.
Today, of course, we have an enormous array of hundreds
of international organizations in all fields of science
Nevertheless, it is still a long way from a globally
integrated scientific system being in place, particularly
when it comes to international research collaboration--in
contrast to the international exchange of scientific
Indeed, especially in the United States, collaborations
occur much more frequently within national borders
than across them.
There are, of course, geographic, cultural and linguistic
reasons for this. But, it is also true that the structure
of funding for science is essentially national in
nature--especially when the source is governmental.
Even the great integrative experiment of the European
Union shows the persistence of national funding structures.
However, there are well-recognized factors that stimulate
international research cooperation. These include:
- The availability of rapid, high volume information
- The increasing number of countries with world-class
research facilities because of deliberate action
through long-term investment.
- The United States cannot afford to limit its interests
when opportunities abound to access a much larger
universe of researchers, ideas, facilities, and
data through international cooperation.
- The growing sophistication of scientific instrumentation.
This, coupled with increases in computational
power, makes it possible to undertake unprecedented
scientific challenges that require observational
data on a regional and global scale.
- The enormous cost and complexity of large projects
and facilities make sharing of costs, risks and
expertise extremely attractive or, in some cases,
- The increasing expectation, not common in the
past, that data gathered offshore should be collected
and exploited jointly with researchers of the
All of these factors contribute to the internationalization
of science and engineering.
Facilitating international collaboration
What, then, is the essential role of government in
facilitating globally integrated science?
In fundamental research and in areas where governments
tend to be the primary sources of funding for research
and research facilities, the support of large-scale
international projects and internationally shared
facilities demands cooperation among government agencies.
- Encouraging a global view among research communities;
- Encouraging scientific communities to plan projects
with an international dimension and facilitating
- Coordinating funding among governments, so that
each national research team and the individual
scientists and engineers are able to participate
in the collaboration.
Science and technology agencies already have experience
in this, and use a variety of approaches. Good examples
will emerge from the presentations.
Shaping the Global System
Expanding the number of countries contributing to the
global scientific enterprise will help us achieve
a globally integrated scientific system.
But we must focus on the evolving role of developing
countries to achieve this goal.
Because successful models have been developed in East
Asia and elsewhere during the past decade, there is
growing recognition that the establishment of a strong
scientific research and education infrastructure is
an important path to economic development.
This approach to development coincides with the long-term
scientific interests of the United States, as well
as the political and economic interests inherent in
As the United States has already learned in the cases
of Taiwan, Korea and other "graduates" of the development
process, we stand to gain from a larger global pool
of research, especially in fundamental research, and
from the development of a scientific cadre that can
serve as productive partners for US researchers.
Another benefit is having a contingent of scientists
and engineers who can contribute their knowledge to
public policy in their countries.
International development assistance agencies (such
as USAID and the World Bank) have a strong interest
in building up the scientific infrastructure of developing
NSF and other science and technology agencies do not
have the mandate or the resources, as USAID does,
to support development assistance. However, science
agencies, and the grant communities they support,
embody a wealth of experience in building and managing
a successful infrastructure.
Closer connections between the science agencies and
development assistance organizations that draw on
that expertise will enhance the effectiveness of the
NSF has had experience "exporting the NSF model" to
countries seeking to adopt or adapt a system of competitive
merit-based support of research, especially academic
Countries that accomplish this are not only embarking
on a path that has a greater probability of success
in raising the quality of their science to world standards,
but they are also creating institutional frameworks
that can mesh more easily with our own and make international
cooperation more effective.
Those efforts should be more systematically expanded.
Science and Foreign Policy
Finally, the relationship between science and foreign
policy needs comment. For some years, the foreign
policy agenda of the United States entailed what the
Department of State calls "global issues".
These include such themes as securing a sustainable
global environment, sustaining biodiversity, managing
toxic waste, and reducing the threat of emerging infectious
These and other prime concerns, such as nuclear non-proliferation,
reducing the threat of bioterrorism, arms-control
treaty verification, nuclear reactor safety, and protecting
intellectual property, are all imbedded in science
These policy pursuits cannot be fully effective if
they are not based on expert scientific knowledge
In the decades of the Cold War, the connection between
science and technology and national security issues
became strong and institutionalized.
This is much less evident in the more recent foreign
policy focus areas such as the environment and public
health. We will hear from our witnesses that interactions
between State and the science agencies are not as
vigorous as they should be.
I hope the Task Force will consider approaches whereby
federal science and technology agencies can make unique
contributions to an effective foreign policy.
Questions for NSF
Having raised three broad questions at the outset,
I would like to close with some questions for the
consideration of the Task Force that focus more specifically
- What models might NSF adopt or expand on to build
intergovernmental structures in order to facilitate
the joint funding of international cooperation
without creating self-perpetuating bureaucracies
that lose their focus and purpose over time?
- Can information technologies provide the means
to establish flexible, ad hoc, results-oriented
- How can the NSF involve more of our younger scientists
and engineers in international cooperative scientific
research and education, both to their benefit
and to the benefit of the country?
- And, more generally, are our current modes of
operation in international science and engineering
effective in a post-Cold War world?
- With respect to developing countries, should the
NSF devote resources to establish and maintain,
over time, partnerships with USAID (or its organizational
successor), or with the World Bank and other intergovernmental
assistance agencies, or even private Foundations
(such as Kellogg or Macarthur) in order to make
available US expertise on the development of a
national research infrastructure based on the
successful experience of the United States?
- Should the NSF devote resources to establish and
maintain, over time, partnerships with the Department
of State in order to boost the scientific expertise
underpinning the formulation and conduct of foreign
These are complex questions; many of the answers would
mark a departure from past NSF practice and could
entail significant investment of financial and staff
I look forward to the deliberations of the Task Force
and, more immediately, to a day of informative and
thought provoking presentations.