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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
1999 Northeastern Massachusetts Economic Summit
Haverhill, Massachusetts

June 28, 1999

Thank you, Senator Kennedy, for inviting me to join you today. It is an honor to be here, speaking among such distinguished guests.

It is also a special pleasure to be in Massachusetts. As you may have guessed from listening to me speak, I am a native of this area. I grew up just 20 miles south of here in the village of Beverly Cove.

This state is also significant to me as Director of the National Science Foundation. Massachusetts has a history of leading the way in the science and technology of this nation.

  • The first ship of the United States Navy set sail from my home town of Beverly--though Salem and Beverly have long disputed which was the birthplace of the U.S. Navy!

  • Historians point out that America's industrial revolution began in Lowell, with the first mechanized textile mills.

  • And today, Massachusetts leads the nation in the number of patents awarded per capita.

  • Massachusetts is home to hundreds of fast-growing, innovative small businesses. Massachusetts companies won more Small Business Innovation Research awards than any other state except California. Per capita, that was nearly four times the number as California.

  • And Massachusetts is famous the world over for its universities, colleges, and other educational and research institutions. Last year, researchers and educators in this state were awarded more than $230 million in grants from the agency that I direct, the National Science Foundation.

The National Science Foundation is the only agency of the government that is exclusively devoted to promoting research and education across the board in science and engineering. It was established by Congress just 50 years ago.

Today, I'd like to speak about the role of research and education in our economy and our quality of life: here in Massachusetts and across the nation, over the past 50 years and for the next 50 years.

When I come back to this area and stop by my home town, I can't help being struck by how much it's changed.

The four-room school house I went to had four teachers and a principal teaching kids in six grades. Now it's a subdivision of homes. The rock quarry where I used to find tadpoles is another subdivision.

New development has changed the landscape. Even more than that, economic transformation has changed people's lives.

My father made his living in the construction industry. When I was growing up, the biggest company in town was called United Shoe Machine. Everything was built around the concept of a main line manufacturing town.

Now the biggest employers in Beverly are in health care, scientific and technical instruments, and news and information services.

That's just a snapshot from one city in one state, but it reflects changes in the nature of work and the economy that are taking place across the nation.

Let me point out two important aspects of these changes:

  • First, we are more productive than ever before. In every hour of work, Americans produce twice as much as we did in 1960.

  • Second, our fastest-growing job categories are all in professions with significant educational requirements. We're moving into an economy based on knowledge and ideas.

Research and education have been a driving force behind our economic gains. They are the key to our continuing economic leadership in the future.

Robert Solow, an economist at M.I.T., won a Nobel Prize for his discovery that labor and capital account for only a small part of economic growth. The lion's share comes from technological change.

In other words, we're twice as productive as we were forty years ago because of the innovations and discoveries that we've made, in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology.

We're using our resources smarter than before. We're seeing the fruits of these discoveries in today's Internet and biotechnology companies, and in improved productivity in all forms of manufacturing and services.

We have these opportunities today because of research that we did years ago. We will have even more exciting opportunities in the future because of research that we're doing today:

  • Nanotechnology is allowing us to build machines so small that they are rapidly approaching the scale of human cells. Consider: a nanometer is to an inch what an inch is to 400 miles. We are on the verge of building machines on that scale.

  • The genomics revolution is enabling the study of whole genomes rather than single genes, giving us a perspective on living systems that we've never had before.

  • New devices based on quantum computing or DNA computing could make the information revolution of today look like a paltry beginning.

  • And, understanding of the social and cultural impacts of technological change could change the scope and manner in which new technologies are deployed.

My point is that the research investments that government agencies make across this state don't end with the university that receives a NSF grant, or the company that's won an ATP competition, or the small business with an SBIR award.

These investments are catalysts. They shape our economic future through new knowledge that pays for itself again and again and again.

Economic value comes from knowledge. And knowledge comes from people. So if there's one thing that's as important as research to our nation's economic future, it's education. The two go hand-in-hand.

We have a paradoxical situation in this country. We lead the world in innovation and discovery, but we're trailing our industrial competitors in science and math learning at the K-12 level.

As Director of NSF, I am committed to strengthening science and math education at all levels, and getting our scientists more involved in the education process.

In Massachusetts alone, we invested nearly $60 million this past year in education programs that run from K-12, to the university level and to continuous learning opportunities for adults.

At community colleges across the state, we are supporting innovative educational opportunities in telecommunications, biotechnology, and environmental technologies. These programs are enabling students of all ages to learn what they need to move ahead in their careers.

We support a collaboration of eight colleges in the Amherst area that are working together to improve teacher education.

We have initiated reform efforts, on a large scale, that have improved test scores and reduced disparities in achievement in some of our nation's largest urban school districts.

And we support a variety of innovative efforts to improve the quality of K-12 teaching materials, and to give students greater opportunities to engage in learning that is based on discovery.

I just got back from the dedication of a new optical-infrared telescope: the Gemini telescope in Hawaii.

It is an international effort that will allow scientists from around the world to get some of the sharpest views ever of the farthest reaches of our universe.

Because of the Internet, scientists around the world can share this magnificent facility.

That lowers the cost of astronomical observations, and enables more efficient use of resources and better communication of results.

Information technology is also building a bridge between scientists at work and future scientists in the classroom.

Using NSF's Hands-on Universe program and images downloaded from a telescope over the Internet, students at the Northfield Mt. Hermon School--about two hours west of here--discovered an asteroid earlier this year and co-authored a scientific paper.

These were high school students making real scientific discoveries because of the new technologies and educational opportunities that are available to them today.

That to me is an example of our system at its best. It is a forerunner of even more exciting opportunities that we will have in the future.

As I said earlier, NSF was established 50 years ago. We're very proud of what we have accomplished over our first half century--especially here in Massachusetts. All of us here today are collectively setting a course for the next 50 years and beyond.

Judging by the energy, commitment, and imagination I see here in this room, it's safe to say the best is yet to come--for Massachusetts and for the entire nation.



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