Dr. Rita R. Colwell
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
1999 Northeastern Massachusetts Economic Summit
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
- 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
- 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
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,
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
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
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
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