Colwell AAU Speech

Dr. Rita Colwell, Director
National Science Foundation
Remarks on Federal Relations to the
Association of American Universities Council
February 3, 1999

Let me offer a special thanks to Nils Hasselmo and to George Leventhal for inviting me to meet with you today. This is both a great honor and a welcome opportunity.

I've been climbing up a steep learning curve since joining NSF six months ago. I don't know how many times I've had to ask Joel Widder to explain (once again) how the 302(b) process works. I'm not even sure he really knows, but he acts like he does.

One thing that all of us know for certain is that we will have to continue working together-as a community-to make the case for investments in our nation's future. I'll be looking to each and every one of you for advice, guidance, feedback, and support as the budget proceeds this year-and in future years.

I'd like to use my time today to share a few of the highlights from NSF's FY 2000 request-and do so in a way that puts the request in a larger, national context.

This is an excellent budget at the starting gate in what was (and remains) a very difficult budget environment. The overall budget picture can be murky, but it becomes clearer when we start at the top and drill down.

Domestic spending is the key for NSF and virtually all of non-defense R&D. It's not a pretty picture. The total for domestic discretionary in FY 2000 is some $28 billion lower than it was in FY 1999. That's a 13 percent cut-in budget authority. That's where we started with OMB. Fortunately, where we finished with OMB looks much better.

The Administration has produced a strong package of investments in research.

The bottom line for NSF is 6 percent above the FY 1999 level. Our support for research projects is up by 8 percent.

Taken all together, these increases-both for NSF and for research in general-provide one more reminder of the Administration's commitment to investing in fundamental research. They make for seven years in a row of supporting increases in research. It may not equal Cal Ripken's streak-but it's a solid record (and it's still going).

Before I turn to details of the budget, I'd like to say a few words about how NSF fits into the overall R&D environment of our country.

When we step back and examine the context for science and engineering in America, a number of trends emerge that deserve our attention.

A good place to start is with the National Science Board's biannual compilation of Science and Engineering Indicators. The Board put the situation into a nutshell. It wrote: "The nation's S&E enterprise is undergoing changes in structure and priorities as we prepare to enter the next century." This is borne out when we look at the national picture. R&D funding patterns have changed substantially.

The Council on Competitiveness took stock of the national R&D picture in the report, Going Global, it released last September, only a few months ago. The Council consists of CEOs, R&D managers, and top officials from over 120 leading corporations, universities, and government agencies. I know many of you and your colleagues take part in its deliberations. What they say is worth listening to. They came to a clear consensus on the need for increased public investment in fundamental research and education.

To quote: "For the past 50 years, most, if not all, of the technological advances have been directly linked to improvements in fundamental understanding. Investment in discovery research creates the seedcorn for future innovation. Government at all levels is the mainstay of the nation's investment in science and engineering research...."

The Council went on to add that: "Most [industrial] R&D managers are investing with an eye on the bottom line, but more than a handful wonder from where the next generation of breakthrough technologies will come." The Vice President addressed this point in his talk at the AAAS meeting late last month in California. He stressed that the government must support "the long-term investments that most companies can't afford to make."

Let me mention one other trend related to these long-term investments that is causing concern among many of us. NSF's Division of Science Resources Studies has taken a close look at 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.

The combination effect is just as significant. 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. I know that is not news to many of you, but it's taken more than a few people by surprise.

I'd be the first to tell you about the great things that are happening in biomedical fields. Some of that funding has gone to my own research. But, I also know that society cannot live by biomedical bread alone. This trend in fact concerns many in the medical sciences. Harold Varmus discussed it in the plenary address he delivered at the AAAS meeting one year ago in Philadelphia. Harold, much to his credit, took the bull by the horns and talked about the dependence of biology and medicine on other fields of science. In his words: "Most of the revolutionary changes that have occurred in biology and medicine are rooted in new methods. Those, in turn, are usually rooted in fundamental discoveries in many different fields." Harold then went on to cite laser surgery, CAT scans, fiber optic viewing, ECHO cardiography, and fetal sonograms as examples of these revolutionary advances.

This brings us to the FY 2000 request for NSF, and the need for increased investment in research and education. NSF is the fulcrum for all of science and engineering. NSF is the only agency whose mission covers research in all fields of science and engineering, as well as education at all levels-cradle to grave, practically speaking. We support the fundamental work that benefits the mission agencies right down the line. For this reason, it is important that we continue working together-as a community-to support investments that reach all fields and disciplines.

Let me turn now to the budget.... The bottom line for NSF is fast closing in on a $4 billion milestone. The FY 2000 request comes to $3.95 billion, which represents a 5.8 percent increase over the current level. This is an outstanding result given the constraints imposed by the spending caps. The Administration agreed with us when we said loudly and clearly that research investments deserve the highest priority...and the positive response we got is reflected in the 8 percent increase for research project support.

The headliner in this budget is the new initiative in information technology. The rationale is both obvious and clear. As Internet growth has gone through the roof, IT has become the essential fuel for the nation's economic engine. The numbers speak for themselves. The latest estimates show that the IT has generated one-third of the recent growth in the U.S. economy. It now accounts for 7.4 million jobs...and it pays wages that are 60 percent higher than the private sector average. The challenge now is to sustain this record of success, and there are worrisome signs that we might be resting on our laurels.

You may be familiar with the recent report by the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee-PITAC for short. PITAC concluded that federal support for long-term research on information technology has been "dangerously inadequate." In its words: "support in most critical areas has been flat or declining for nearly a decade, while the importance of IT to our economy has increased dramatically."

This has led to the government-wide initiative: Information Technology for the 21st Century-IT-squared as it's called. Across the government, IT-squared will total $366 million across six agencies. 60 percent of this will go to support university-based research. That's the real win-win for America. The academic research investment works double duty, as it armors and enables students with advanced IT skills.

NSF is the lead agency for IT-squared. This was recommended last fall by the PITAC, and we are glad to accept this responsibility. We'll be putting $146 million into our part of IT-squared, which will cover three sets of activities.

When people ask me, why should NSF and the United States invest in information technologies-and why now.-I say it is an absolute must. It's not a national initiative, it's a national imperative. It's a classic example of a long-term investment in fundamental research that works for the common good, in fact, the global good.

IT-squared represents an investment that will strengthen the entire research and education enterprise. It will deliver tools and capabilities that will benefit every field, every discipline, and every level of education. When we bring faster computers to weather forecasting, we save lives, we protect buildings and crops, and more - by getting better advance warning of El Niņo's, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other severe events. My own research on climate and infectious diseases (El Niņo and cholera) has made this dramatically clear to me. The possibilities are limitless. We tackle the toughest challenges in science and engineering, and we put high octane fuel in this great engine of job creation and growth.

This same sense of imperative comes through in a second initiative presented in the request. This one is in the area we call, biocomplexity.

A number of us have been developing this new approach to understanding our world over the past few months. The best part is that we are not alone. A recent Nature article noted that a number of leading U.S. universities are planning centers that link the physical and biological sciences.

As the director of the new center at Princeton, Shirley Tilghman, was quoted as saying, "Biology has thrived in the past 50 years by taking things apart and identifying their components." She and many of us think it's time now to study how things come together, and we'll be putting $50 million into the biocomplexity initiative.

One reason it's time to tackle this task is that we now have the ability, the technologies, to grasp the complexity of our environment. From computational algorithms to mathematical models, from remote sensing to new kinds of sensors, and of course to genome sequencing and the molecular basis of metabolism and heredity...the technologies have arrived, as have the opportunities in research.

Finally, education remains a priority, as it must. Last year we got the not-so-good-news about how our schools compare to other nation's. By 12th grade, our students are near the bottom. We can and must do better.

The request sustains our current base of innovative activities-and plants a few new seeds as well.

One of those promising seeds is the new Graduate Teaching Fellows program. The program may seem small at only $7.5 million, but it is an important beginning with a potential impact well beyond the dollars. It will broaden graduate education, and boost the science, engineering, and technology content in K through 12 classrooms.

I'll just mention a few other highlights before closing.

The Plant Genome Research Program will continue to increase. Its funding will increase by $5 million to a total of $55 million. This builds on an existing research base of $20 million-bringing the total investment to $75 million. This will provide the scientific underpinning in the future for improved nutritional content of our food and improved crops, both in quality and yields.

A new start in the budget is-the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation. We are providing $8 million in FY 2000 toward a total investment of $82 million over the next five years. This is modeled after the highly successful nanofabrication network that many of you know well. This will lead to a national, fully-interconnected network of major earthquake research facilities.

Finally, we will be continuing investments in a number of major infrastructure projects. One is the modernization of the South Pole Station, which remains on schedule and on budget.

Another key infrastructure project is the development of detectors for the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC represents fundamental research at its best. It will spin off as yet unknown benefits but clearly will help us understand the universe of which we are an important, even though humble, part.

That covers the basics of the budget. Let me conclude by adding that by its very nature, a budget for the first year of a new millennium takes on added significance. That applies doubly so to NSF. The year 2000 marks the 50th Anniversary of the National Science Foundation. Given the increase we have received in this very tight budget environment, it is clear that this is a "golden anniversary" investment.

This is also an appropriate time to step back and think about the long-term importance of investments in science and engineering. The year-by-year focus of the Federal budget process doesn't often foster long-term thinking. That makes it really hard to make a case for investment in our children's future, but now is the time to make that case with fierce intensity.

Consider this: one hundred years ago, one could say society was at a similar, and perhaps familiar turning point for science and technology:

When we look back 50 years, to the time when NSF was opening its doors...

Today, our world has been transformed by these discoveries. We are only beginning to understand the promises and the challenges brought by the revolutions in biotech and info tech. We are sequencing entire genomes, mapping the farthest reaches of the universe, and bringing advanced technology to virtually every home, office, and classroom. Rather than mark the culmination of our efforts, these achievements are a beginning...they will lead us to new frontiers - and to a new relationship between science, engineering, and society.

For this reason, it is appropriate to close with a quote from a recent work to guide us on our road to this new century.

Some of you may have read, "What Remains to be Discovered," by John Maddox, the former editor of Nature. It was published just last year. Maddox began his work by assessing the amazing pace of progress in science and technology during the nineteenth century. This provides an insightful bit of historical perspective. To use his words: "For science and technology, the nineteenth century was certainly the best there had ever been. Only now do we know it was merely a beginning."

Here at the end of the 20th century, we should be even more emphatic than John Maddox. What we have seen to date is more than merely a beginning. This is a dawning-a new era of exploration. We have the power and the responsibility to see that it brings a sustainable planet, an improved standard of living, a top-notch educational system, and a brighter future to all. This FY 2000 budget request is an excellent first step toward realizing these goals.

I look forward to working with all of you-as we make the case for these investments, and work to achieve the goals we share as a community and as a nation.


Your comments and suggestions are appreciated.

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