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A Scientific Mandate

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
  • Birthplace: Beverly, Mass.
  • Education: B.S., Bacteriology; M.S., Genetics,
    Purdue University; Ph.D., Oceanography,
    University of Washington
  • Previous position: President, University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, 1991-1998
  • Honors & Awards: The Medal of Distinction from
    Columbia University, the Gold Medal of Charles University, Prague, and the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Alumna Summa Laude Dignata from the University of Washington, Seattle. Colwell also has been awarded 26 honorary degrees from institutions of higher education, including her alma mater, Purdue University. She is an honorary member of the microbiological societies of the UK, France, Israel, Bangladesh and the United States. Colwell is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
A Scientific Mandate
Interview with Dr. Rita R. Colwell, Director of the National Science Foundation

Established by the U.S. Congress through the National Science Foundation Act of 1950 “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense,” NSF finds itself at the epicenter of unprecedented competition and demands as to how to carry out its mission. Attending to the realities of changing domestic demographics, globalization and national security while protecting traditional as well as emerging research grant recipients is a challenge — even for an agency with a $5 billion annual budget.
Dr. Rita R. Colwell, who became the 11th director of the National Science Foundation in 1998, recently spoke with Black Issues’ Editor in Chief Frank Matthews about these matters as well as about building a diverse work force, the grant-making process and the challenges facing minority-serving
institutions and community colleges.

BI: What is the biggest misconception about the National Science Foundation (NSF) and what it does?


RC: NSF is a “people agency” and that’s not understood. It’s viewed as a place where excellent science is done and funded. But it’s not understood yet that 200,000 people every year are funded by the National Science Foundation including 30,000 students and 70,000 teachers, faculty, etc. And that doesn’t even count the people who are reached by the IMAX films, the “Science Guy,” “Magic School Bus” and so forth. So the biggest misconception is not understanding that NSF is a very important people agency for the country, the source of scientists and engineers.

BI: You sit in what some would say is an enviable bully pulpit because of NSF’s mandate. But cutting through the bureaucracy and getting effective outcomes seems to be elusive. What does the agency need to do in order to get better outcomes, especially for African Americans and other underserved populations?


RC: We know pretty much what we need to do, and now we have to develop programs that result in the output that we need. For example, with respect to bringing women and minorities into science and engineering, we have the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Partnerships, which is a big success. Over 200,000 people have gone through this program and some 70,000 people have graduated. But we haven’t tracked where the graduates are. We haven’t tagged them, if you will, so that they will be entrained into graduate programs. So we need to integrate our programs vertically within NSF so that the very bright high school students are tagged and encouraged into the Louis Stokes programs, encouraged into the graduate fellowship programs, mentored into postdoctoral programs and careers. We also need to link our programs within NSF so that the efforts that are under way in the biology directorate for education and for minority participation are linked with the programs in the physics division and with the programs in the education directorate. So we need to tie these, stitch these together horizontally and vertically.

BI: In one of your recent speeches about gender inequity, you used the term, “reflecting pool theory,” which basically states that people imitate the people they see. One of the reasons women and minorities don’t see faculty that look like themselves is that students, for a number of very good reasons, go to work instead of graduate school after they get their undergraduate degrees. And as you know, they don’t come back to graduate school, especially in engineering and science-related disciplines.


RC: I think that what we’re doing at NSF in establishing the National Science Foundation Academy should be emulated in industry. We are the producers of very competent people. But we have not, until recently, developed a career path for our own people. So we’ve established an academy where you can take instruction in accounting, or instruction in using computers, or management — the skills that you need to run a program, to run a division, to run a directorate, and even perhaps to run an agency. So I think industry should develop career paths. The other suggestion that I would make or the other aspect of it is mentoring. Mentoring is absolutely critical. I don’t mean in just a general sense. I mean really sort of assigning someone to be a mentor.

BI: When I talk to the higher education community, the provosts are pulling out their hair because they say that the numbers (of minority faculty candidates) just aren’t there. So they can’t jump-start the reflecting pool theory because they don’t have the critical mass to begin with. What is NSF’s role in breaking them out of that cycle?


RC: We discovered a wonderful human resource and it’s called the community colleges. And that’s where minority students and women generally attend because generally they are from a lower economic bracket in larger numbers. We feel that we need to provide more funding for the community colleges to enhance the kind of science and engineering education they offer. We need to increase the number of fellowships and the size of fellowships so that they can financially make it through, so that then they can think about going to graduate school. If you’ve graduated, amassed a debt of tuition and living expenses that could be as high as $20,000 or $30,000, how can you go to graduate school? So we feel very strongly that we need to look at that resource because that’s where the bulk of Hispanics, African Americans, Native Americans, women are.

But we also have to encourage the higher education, the four-year colleges, the graduate schools to link with the community colleges and to look for the talent there because there are very bright students. After all, they’ve taken the initiative to go to college. They have overcome odds. They’ve worked. These are the kinds of people we want to get into graduate school.

BI: That’s one of the alternative strategies that would certainly be necessary if the court rules against the University of Michigan. How will a negative decision impact all of these wonderful initiatives, some of which are gender-based and race-based?


RC: Let me give you an example of how we’re succeeding without being at cross purposes legally. We find that of the 950 graduate research fellowships that we give, as we’ve increased the stipend, the number of students applying has increased, but we’ve made a major effort to provide the criteria that are not set-asides. And we are finding that about a third of our awardees are minorities. So we are making an effort for providing fellowship support, and we are finding that minority students are highly competitive. So if we can double the number of fellowships, we are going to level the number of minority students. And it is absolutely without any set-asides. The students are competing. The way we’ve arranged the criteria, the coaching that we’ve given to those who are on the selection panels: seek merit, seek promise, and carefully evaluate and fairly evaluate each applicant has worked out quite well.

BI: In terms of HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities), they have an enviable record in terms of producing people who eventually get graduate degrees. What can NSF do to enhance the role of HBCUs in terms of strengthening their capacity to do more than they’ve already done?


RC: We have to ensure that they have the environment, the facilities, the equipment and the inspired teachers so that the education is highly competitive and can entrain students into careers. I think that this can be done very effectively and we are very proud, in turn, of our record of support for Morehouse, Tuskegee and other historically Black institutions that have such a superb record in graduating truly contributing scholars, engineers and scientists.

BI: As it stands now, one of the things HBCUs have to do is partner (to receive NSF funding). What I hear from the HBCU community is that it’s not as easy as one would think. For example, it’s not so easy for Tuskegee to go down the road and partner with Auburn to get something research-based done.


RC: Well, let me tell you the secret. It’s not so easy for the University of Illinois to partner with Purdue, or for Purdue to partner with Wisconsin, or for Stanford to partner with Berkeley. So, it’s the nature of institutions, and I think it should be taken in that context because I think that’s really the case. It’s one of these things, if it’s not invented here at home in my little backyard then it’s not the same as what comes out of our backyard. So I think we have to look more toward the center, the cooperative research kinds of interactions that we’ve been developing — the engineering research centers, the science and technology centers and the science of learning centers, which we will be establishing. Because those kinds of interactions allow for the individual institution to show its mark, but at the same time to allow for the linkage. And I know from talking to presidents of HBCUs and talking to presidents of institutions that partner with them that there’s this kind of “well, it’s hard to do this.” Well, frankly it has nothing to do with the nature of the institutions, it’s the nature of the beast.

BI: Another war may be imminent, but there still seems to be this disconnect between national security and this swelling underclass of people, primarily comprised of African Americans and Hispanics. Getting these populations educated in representative numbers doesn’t seem to be a national priority. Shouldn’t it be NSF’s responsibility to scream a little louder?

RC: Well, let me tell you that there is an urgency. Over the last several decades there has been a reliance, I think I would call it an addiction, to foreign talent, and sort of ready-made Ph.D.s who come from countries who can ill-afford to lose those Ph.D.s. — countries like India, Pakistan, China. We now find with the closing and tightening of restrictions developing with respect to immigration and the closer surveillance of graduate students, that we will have to turn to American citizens, to native American citizens and the new immigrants who are citizens. We now have to pay very strong attention to a kind of realism that is setting in, to our own students, and this means young African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans and women.

BI: Do people really believe that because of the phenomenon of globalization that there really are no real domestic issues save security — that business and commerce is truly global, that’s why there is not the urgency?


RC: That’s all true, but you see, what is happening is that an aggressive stance is increasingly being taken by countries like China, India and Pakistan who have given so much of their native talent — to begin to recruit them back. So you can think of it sort of like the sloshing of water in a tank. Sort of a back and forth. We may be in the washing back, so to speak. So, yes, it is globalization that has taken place. But nevertheless, we have to remain competitive. And the environment globally has increasingly become more competitive.

BI: Can national and economic security coexist with globalization in cyberspace?


RC: That’s a major, major issue. And that’s an issue not just for national security, in terms of defense, but it’s a major issue for industry, it’s a major issue for us as individuals when you give your social security number or your credit card number to somebody who wants to sell you something. So it’s a very real, very immediate need. We’re doing a lot of research on cyber security, encryption, we are watching a cyberinfrastructure program for connectivity so that everyone, including scientists at Tuskegee or Harvard can tap into the high-performance computing centers located in San Diego, Illinois, Pittsburgh.

BI: If we go to war, how will that affect what you do at NSF?


RC: We’ve been essentially at war since Sept. 11, 2001. The first scientists and engineers to reach Ground Zero, most of those were National Science Foundation-funded scientists. The engineers, who were looking at the rubble, twisting the steel, changing the curve of the material, were NSF-funded engineers. They’ve developed a model of the event, they have made recommendations of new materials, and they have actually prepared a re-creation. We had social scientists analyzing the effect on the populace of the city. We had economists funded to begin to assess the economic disaster. When the anthrax situation burst open, it was NSF who funded the sequencing of the anthrax bacterium that was involved in the death of the reporter in Florida. So we have demonstrated that science and engineering and the National Science Foundation are, let’s say, front-line participants.

BI: How do you differentiate the problems that confront women in terms of access to science careers?

RC: In a word: children. That is, we don’t allow for the most important fact of all, our lives as human beings, namely the next generation and the raising of our children, to be a part of the work-force environment. We don’t make allowances for women who are brilliant, pursuing careers in science and engineering, to have enough time to have children and pursue their careers. It can be done. I have two children. Many of my fellow graduate students had to struggle. It helps when you have a spouse who is fully involved.

BI: In your grant-making process, do you consider these factors?


RC: Yes, we have a program called Advance. And Advance is for either men or women. So it’s not discriminatory. It’s for anybody who is very bright, a scientist or an engineer who has a spouse who has a position and they need to develop their career. So it provides for them to have salary, supplies, travel, technical help and overhead. It’s a bargain for universities. And that person can negotiate with the university.

BI: What are the big questions that are still unanswered for you at this point, and for the agency?


RC: How can we achieve, in the short time that we have, to build a work force that is truly diverse, that has equal opportunity, and attraction for the best and brightest so they become scientists and engineers of the future. Our country depends on knowledge. Our society depends on knowledge. The currency of the 21st century is knowledge. And we cannot have a period with those at the very top, knowledge rich, and a huge base knowledge bereft.

BI: The college presidents on President Bush’s Advisory Board on Historically Black Colleges and Universities proposed that HBCUs receive 10 percent of each (federal) department of agency’s total spending to higher education institutions. Do you support such a plan?


RC: I really believe strongly in the merit-based approach. I really instinctively recoil from what I call the peanut butter approach, spread it thinly and by some formula. I would rather see Tuskegee University and Morehouse become so good that they give Harvard a run for its money. That’s the future. That’s the future for everybody.

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