Dr. Rita Colwell
National Science Foundation

Keynote Address to the
Association for Women in Science 30th Anniversary Leadership Conference
Washington, D.C.
October 19, 2001

”Science and Policy: New Perspectives For an Era of Angst”

Thank you, Dr. Linda Mantel, for the kind introduction. I am pleased to speak with you about science and policy. Today, the words of Charles Dickens reverberate through the centuries... ”it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Our country in its entirety has never been wealthier…and our country has never been so terror-stricken… within our own borders…by foreign agents of rouge destruction. Women in America are, at once, most fortunate, and…marginalized. More than ever, we need to have dialogues about the future of science in America and the role of the science community in determining that future…and the role of women, all women, in shaping that future.

First, allow me to acknowledge, with gratitude and pride, AWIS for the extraordinary leadership you provide. Remarkably, AWIS genuinely empowers women in society, through its advocacy—advocacy that is, as appropriate, open and confident, and quietly clandestine.

To each of you here today who has traveled from a distance, there’s an old saying: leadership is the only boat that doesn’t return to port during a storm. Your decisions to travel to DC personalize the indomitable spirit of women…and throughout history it has been the same. Right now, Washington is frenetic and confusing on good days. I won’t even begin to list the adjectives used to describe the other days.

The aftermath of September 11 events instilled in me a renewed, almost belligerent sense of pride in being an American, a mother, a scientist working for the common good, and—although psychologically in denial when I say the word—a bureaucrat.

With the nearly total lack of civil rights of women under the Taliban regime painfully center stage in the news, I recognize and understand the need to serve as a role model for millions of women and girls around the globe who have not been afforded even the tiniest opportunity. We all know all to well the list of barriers: race, poverty, religion, ethnicity, and sexism.

Many of us have lived this list by example. Let me share a few of mine. Three phrases have resonated strongest with me throughout my career.

The first I heard in high school when I was taking chemistry and asked my chemistry teacher, Mr. Preston, for a recommendation for college applications and, when I told Mr. Preston that I intended to be a chemist...he told me bluntly to forget it, I’d never make it in chemistry. Women couldn’t do chemistry, didn’t have the necessary rigor and intelligence (of course, he neglected the fact that I had straight A’s in his course).

The second, I heard a few years later when applying for graduate school. My department chair informed me that the department didn’t waste fellowships on women.

The third, I received in a letter after my husband and I had both applied for and received post-docs from the National Research Council. Shortly following the award letter, I received a second letter telling me that their anti-nepotism rules precluded offering fellowships to husbands and wives. I could have lab space and access to the storeroom for supplies but no postdoctoral fellowship—that is, no salary.

How times have changed! Today, we wouldn’t hear any of these expressions outright. To me, they now symbolize the achievements we should celebrate, although I’m very aware of the challenges we must chart. Charting our future is often helped by a clear picture of the past.

This is also true of science policy in the broader sense. Our goals and values as a scientific and engineering community have always existed in the larger context of our societal needs. The success of our nation’s science and engineering enterprise has always been inextricably tied to our larger vision as a nation.

Interest and support for science in America dates back to the beginning of the Republic. George Washington once said, ”There is nothing which can better deserve our patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is in every country the surest basis of public happiness.”

Jefferson was passionate on the subject. He is on record arguing that federal tax revenues be allocated to the improvement of roads, canals, rivers, education, and other great foundations of prosperity and union. And, he did just that.

He commissioned the ”Corps of Discovery,” headed by Lewis and Clark, to bring back data on the geography of the western half of the American continent. That was a large science project. I thought counting 186,000 fruit flies for my master’s research was a challenge; they charted 3,700 miles of unexplored territory.

President Theodore Roosevelt later conserved many of the treasures found during this journey by establishing our National Park Service. The Antiquities Act of 1906 carries on to protect and preserve our nation’s national treasures based on language that reads ”objects of…scientific interest.”

We later saw a major mobilization of science and increased funding for science and technology in World War II. For example, the American university of today is probably more a product of America’s reaction to World War II than any other single influence.

The GI Bill produced a completely new pattern of university attendance, for men, at least. Millions of young men—impressed by the role that science and engineering played in winning the war—flocked to campuses.

Simultaneously, Vannevar Bush’s seminal report, Science: The Endless Frontier, influenced our nation’s post-war situation. In his report, Bush carefully articulated a national role for science and engineering and a Federal responsibility to support that role.

From that point on, his report influenced the blueprint for American higher education and the role of the Federal government in the U.S. science and engineering enterprise.

The next watershed moment to influence science policy was the 1957 launch of the Soviet Sputnik. The panic created by that October surprise rippled through the nation and left a deep imprint. The response was an increase in federal funding for science and engineering research all across the country.

In those ”good old days”—from the end of World War II until the end of communism—the relationship between science and society was clear and secure. The primary focus of the American Dream during the Cold War was preserving our freedom while securing our safety from annihilation.

With the generous funding of science, many other advances and benefits fed our national and personal dreams. Improved health, safer work environments, and a higher standard of living became possible.

The impact of the disappearance of the Soviet military threat, although unquestionably welcome, created another turning point for America. The era of East-West rivalry was eclipsed with an emerging era of globalization.

Global communications and transportation have transformed the entire world into a single village. Global economic competitiveness quickly became our rationale for both the public and private support of research.

Fundamental changes, like the end of the Cold War and the rise of global economic competition, are often hard to internalize and understand. We were just beginning to grasp the rearrangement of the economic and political ”deck chairs” created by the end of that forty-year period when tragedy struck our homeland.

We have now launched into a new war against terrorism, complete with its own chaotic and confusing dynamics. Our nation’s science policy will once again be framed by the larger context in which it exists. We see clear needs for science, engineering, and technology to protect and prevent.

This new period of angst CAN BE the ”era of foresight” in science. Today, we have sophisticated research methods and tools and a bank of knowledge unimagined even twenty years ago. Many of you have been active participants in that progress.

Our new research vistas are provided by an array of cutting-edge technologies. Marshall McLuhan, the renowned author of The Medium is the Massage, said it quite succinctly, ”First we shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”

We live in exciting times for science and for our society. The expanding knowledge of our research-base and our sophisticated tools empower us to perform the extraordinary. Foremost among them are information technology, genomics, and nanotechnology. They herald new ways to pose and answer questions. When can now frame research questions to anticipate rather than remediate.

We already see manifestations. Sequencing the human genome opens up a whole new world of biomedical research and potential new miracles of diagnostics, prevention, and treatment. Cures for infectious diseases will be read from the genetic blueprint of the causal organism.

At a scale even smaller than genes—the Lilliputian level of the nanoscale—we are now arranging atoms and molecules to mimic nature’s creations.

One nanometer—one billionth of a meter—is a magical point on the dimensional scale. Nanostructures are at the confluence of the smallest of human-made devices and the large molecules of living systems. Red blood cells, for instance, have diameters spanning thousands of nanometers.

Micro-electrical mechanical systems now approach this same scale. We are at the point of connecting machines to individual cells, increasing our digital storage capabilities with nanolayers and dots, and building lightweight, super-strength materials atom by atom. We also recognize that nano will also have many applications far beyond our current speculations.

In a completely different realm, information technologies now allow us to predict the El Niño and La Niña weather cycles up to nine months in advance. California now prepares for the heavy rains while the sun is still shining. We know that there is not a facet of any research field that has not been enhanced and influenced by information tools.

In fact, much of what we do today would be impossible without the powerhouse capability of advanced computing. We are now on the brink of terascale computing that takes us three orders of magnitude beyond prevailing computing capabilities.

In the past, our system architectures could only handle hundreds of processors. Now, we work with systems of thousands of processors. Shortly, we’ll connect millions of systems and billions of ‘information appliances’ to the Internet.

Crossing that boundary of one trillion operations per second launches us to new frontiers. Information technologies will continue to power the new interdisciplinary science and engineering train.

New science and discovery will also be about connections and interrelationships. Our work must be rooted in an ability to reveal the connections and interrelationships in seemingly disparate areas and disciplines.

Our universal goal must be to understand the interdisciplinary nature of the Earth’s systems. I call this connectedness, biocomplexity.

The science community’s task will be to understand these complexities and then learn to keep them in healthy balance. For 6000 years, humans have needed protection from nature.

Now, we realize that our planet has become vulnerable to the irreversible damage humans cause.

This trend has intensified with a burgeoning world population, coupled with the power of technology.

Our food production, safe water supply, and energy resources rest heavily on our understanding of the complex relationships within and among the Earth’s systems.

There is both opportunity and responsibility here for the science community. This is where biocomplexity takes shape as a research direction, as well as a key to social understanding.

Congressman George Brown, a longtime friend of science, made an astute observation about messages and communicating in his 1994 commencement address at UCLA.

He said to the graduates:

”Not unlike the way diverse cells in multicellular biological organisms signal their activity and thus coordinate their behavior with unlike cells to ensure the survival of the organism, we as citizens need to do the same. We can learn our place and function in the larger community only by signaling—by explaining ourselves.”

For the science community—this signaling is more than just biochemical—it means reaching across disciplines.

As we collaborate in an array of disciplines, our work will connect and overlap.

The challenge is, at the same time, to be more focused, yet more integrated in all our research. No problems exist in isolation, whether they are scientific, social, or technical.

Historically, in both science and engineering education, we have focused on the particular, the specialized, the minute and esoteric detail. It is true that this detail is the core of being a technical professional. But without a context, this sophisticated knowledge serves neither the scientist nor society very well.

We do ourselves a national disservice when we educate and train our scientists and engineers only in science and technology. The world in which their work bears fruit is a world of integration and overlapping consequences. The recent anthrax cases remind us that social and ethical questions may be more difficult to grapple with than the scientific ones.

My work on cholera in developing countries has taught me that solutions to problems must always be feasible within the social, cultural, and economic framework of the region. We can now predict conditions conducive to pandemics of cholera in those parts of the world, where the public health infrastructure is inadequate or even lacking.

Remote sensing and computer processing now allow us to integrate ecological, epidemiological, and remotely sensed spatial data to produce predictive models of cholera outbreaks. The convergence of data from several disciplines powered a predictive strategy and a pragmatic outcome.

The public is now being instructed on preventive public health measures. In Bangladesh, where cholera is common, expensive filtration plants are neither practical nor affordable. But the cloth to make Saris, the traditional dress for women, is common and inexpensive.

We found that filtering water through 10 folds of Sari cloth reduced the incidence of cholera dramatically. It was a culturally acceptable practice that fit easily in the social framework of family and community.

This is a major step forward from the old pattern of remedial action, that is, reacting to major, devastating epidemics. And, we couldn’t do it without an interdisciplinary approach that includes the social sciences.

As the world grows smaller and we are increasingly called upon to assist and collaborate in places distant and distinctly different, our inventiveness will be challenged in new ways.

For the larger, sometimes global scale, research programs, our individual research knowledge and understanding will not be sufficient. To devise and implement strategies at the interdisciplinary level will require our cooperative attitude and our comprehensive vision.

This sets a goal for all of us. Today our choices have few restraints, which makes our responsibility as scientists and engineers far greater. We must decide what we value and where we want to go.

Recently, we have all been reminded that the use or misuse of technologies literally transforms a society.

From your work on advancing the status of women in science and engineering around the world, you understand that societal solutions are not only scientific, but also social and political.

An important understanding to instill throughout our educational system is that the success of modern scientists and engineers is increasingly dependent on ”continuing education” or lifelong learning.

We should build this expectation in our students early in their training. It should not come as a ”mid-life crisis” or ”job-changing shock,” but rather as the routine professional progression of a fast-changing and fascinating occupation.

This applies to ALL of the science and engineering community, but as you know, one of the most tenacious problems that we still confront is that ”all” does not include a very high percentage of women and minorities. NSF has an important role to play in continuing to unravel the configuration and causes of this paucity.

Far too many girls and women fail to even cross the threshold into science and engineering. We know that obstacles and cultural conditioning begin to appear very early in life.

In a study of young children reported in the book Athena Unbound, a four-year-old boy told researchers that "...only boys should make science."

Part of the problem today lies in what I call the "valley of death" in education: grades 4 through 8, when girls are discouraged—in subtle and not-so-subtle ways—from pursuing science and engineering.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows a gender gap in science proficiency as early as age 9. The gap widens further through ages 13 and to age 17. There has been little change in this trend over two decades.

It is interesting that between ages 25 and 34, the typical American female is more educated than her male counterpart. Women now earn more than half of all college degrees, and over half of those are in the life sciences. Well over 40% of math and chemistry bachelor's degrees also go to females.

But some developments are deeply disturbing. For example, the percentage of women receiving bachelor's degrees in computer science has been dropping since the mid-1980s. We see a downward trend for both men and women—but it's been more precipitous for women.

If we take a closer look at doctorates earned in the United States by women, we see a divergence among the disciplines. Women now earn around 40% of all doctorates. However, this differs greatly by field.

In the life sciences, women earn over 40% of doctorates. But in the physical sciences and mathematics, women earn fewer than 20%. In engineering, they receive a little over 10% of PhDs.

But, our problem is larger than the institutions of higher learning. In more than 400 job categories in our economy, women are found predominately in only 20 categories.

Women comprise less than a quarter of the total science and engineering labor force. The S&E workforce looks very exclusive. This is dangerous for the nation. We need the talent of every worker in order to compete and prosper.

NSF has taken several steps to reverse this trend. We are, in essence, sealing the pipeline from beginning to end. We have programs targeting girls starting in their preschool days. We fund research to develop computer software and games that encourage interactions in science, math, and engineering.

With our new flagship program, ADVANCE, we’ll award more than 40 million dollars this year to spark system-wide changes that foster a more positive climate for women to pursue academic careers. NSF support for women researchers has tripled over the past decade to approach 500 million dollars.

As the Foundation increases the momentum and size of its programs to enable women and minorities, we will make a concerted effort to seek input from the people—like many of you—who have blazed new trails in science and technology. Your feedback will be invaluable for shaping new directions for our programs.

Today, I have offered several perspectives on science policy issues confronting science and technology in this period of uncertainty. Many more will surely emerge.

We should realize that our new tools offer the opportunity to attack problems while framing our questions to prevent those problems in the future.

We should instill the concept of lifelong learning in students from their very first day of classes.

We should change the training of scientists and engineers to reflect the interconnectedness and holism of the society in which they must work and succeed. To that end, continuing to prepare and promote women and minorities throughout our S&E enterprise is paramount.

Now more than ever, preserving the health and adaptability of America’s science, engineering and education enterprise is no trivial task.

The writer and social commentator, John Gardener, tells us of the importance of leadership and leaders. He says, ”Leaders have a significant role in creating the state of mind that is society.”

There is much that women can teach science, the nation, and our culture. It has to do first with thinking of ourselves as leaders, and that can take us anywhere we want to go.

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