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'New Age of Knowledge' Dawning
NSF Director Colwell Touts Science's Past, Future in Shannon Lecture

By Rich McManus

On the Front Page...

Dr. Rita Colwell, 11th director of the National Science Foundation, launched her James A. Shannon Lecture on Nov. 27 by reminding the audience in Masur Auditorium that former NIH director Shannon (1955-1968) was a major advisor to the government during World War II on the topic of tropical medicine — he was decorated after the war for leading efforts to combat malaria among troops in Asia and the Pacific — and emphasizing that post-Sept. 11 America is in equally perilous times demanding Shannon-esque scientific leadership that will both protect citizens and prevent the tools of terror from reaching U.S. targets.


"Science and technology won new status in American life after World War II," she said. Society learned that a "vibrant research enterprise could equally serve the nation's needs in peacetime...Today we are entering territory that's new and relatively unfamiliar. There are great opportunities, but also great danger...We face new times of crisis. September 11 has abruptly changed our national climate."

Dr. Rita Colwell (l) accepts lecture plaque from NIH acting director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein.

That war or its likelihood threaten many parts of the globe at a time of unparalleled human discovery — Colwell mentioned the Human Genome Project, advances in nanotechnology, and in high-speed computing as leading a cavalcade of achievements — only underscores the urgency she feels for both deeper scientific, and human, understanding. Such junctures of threat and promise led her to title her remarks, "Crossing Borders: Science, the Public and New Policies."

Basic research, she argues, "is the reason why the 21st century is so different from the way things were only 15 years ago...It is the driving force of our economy and the key to social stability. Your research has brought us this far," she said to an audience that included many alumni; the talk was sponsored by the NIH Alumni Association.

Echoing remarks made last spring by physicist Ahmed Zewail in an NIH Director's Lecture, Colwell noted that "the core physical sciences undergird all of the biological sciences," and that recent "very broad and deep discoveries" in those fields predict continued prosperity. "We are on the frontier where the living world meets the physical world, an era that will be at least as profound as the IT (information technology) revolution.

"New knowledge is the principal source of wealth creation, not manufacturing," she said. "It's the knowledge industry that's leading the way. Our nation's future prosperity depends on maintaining our momentum, now more than ever."

As examples of the new speed and depth with which research is conducted, she reported that NSF almost immediately provided funding for sequencing the genome of the anthrax strain used in recent bioterrorism incidents, and that her own research on cholera need not be hindered by her inability to be with her colleagues doing field work in Bangladesh; they are in constant touch via the Internet.

"We are standing at the threshold of new degrees of understanding of our planet and ourselves," she continued. Paraphrasing the poet Robert Frost's Mending Wall, she said, "Scientific enlightenment doesn't love a wall"; it tends to overcome impediments through ingenuity. As examples she cited the Internet, which in its early stage was known as NSFnet and had not yet evolved into a common communications tool. She said that computer modeling of routine protein-folding that takes place, in vivo, in only 20 milliseconds used to require 40 months of computer time, and now takes only a day as machines capable of completing 1 trillion operations per second are introduced. We are in the era of nano (billionth) and tera (trillion) in a century that will be marked by increasing complexity, she said.

We are just beginning to understand such complex phenomena as atmospheric modeling (to predict hurricanes), brain functions involved in cognition, and the structure of galaxies. "We are finding patterns that persist throughout living systems...The challenge is to be able to forecast the outcomes of complex interactions." Synthesis, the ability to find "a common groundwork of explanation," will improve our ability to make predictions and reduce uncertainties, she said.

Reporting on advances in her own field, Colwell said epidemics of cholera that occur "with depressing regularity in India in the spring and fall," have recently been tied to fluctuations in water temperature at the sea surface. "We're at the point where we can use satellites to predict epidemics."

Linking NSF's mission to NIH, Colwell emphasized that "biology, chemistry, physics, math, computer science and engineering — all of these have contributed to the growth of the biotechnology industry. We need to work even more closely with NIH in the future." She confided, "My laboratory has been funded by NIH; I think I'm the only NSF director that has been. I call that true partnership!"

Colwell explained that "scientific research and technological innovation drive one another," but warned that we must attend to the borderland where "social, political and economic realities interact with science." The natural sciences have been preeminent for a long time, she suggested; now it is time for the behavioral sciences to ascend. No less is at stake than national security, she cautioned; a recent national security report (the Hart-Rudman Commission) ranked loss of scientific leadership as second only to city invasion as a source of concern.

"We need to cross borders in a more literal sense," she said, calling for "more international collaboration...We need ideas from a broad range of specialties, and from more regions and cultures. It has never been more important to work together.

"The world of vast differences and distances is shrinking," she observed. "We are all becoming next door neighbors," especially with the advent of video teleconferencing and wireless communications. "Science and technology can help us solve problems that seem intractable now."

Colwell urged appropriators to stay the course in science funding. "We cannot waiver in investing in basic research, even as we divert resources to security needs," she said. "We've learned that tomorrow comes very quickly."

She finished her lecture with three recommendations: ensure that our science policies remain robust, and embrace interdisciplinary science — "That's where the action is, especially for the social sciences" — in an atmosphere of international collegiality; promote not only education worldwide, but also the "science of learning"; and increase public understanding of and support for science. "We ignore the steep learning curve that the public has at considerable risk," she said, citing the recent need for citizens to be educated that anthrax is not a communicable disease.

"As we become attuned to a new age of knowledge," she concluded, "we will be better prepared for the events that may befall us in the future."

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