Remembering and Responding to 9/11

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Publication date: 
8 September 2011

Less  than two months after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Rita  Colwell, then the Director of the National Science Foundation, delivered a  speech to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars entitled “Science:  Before and After September 11.”  Selections from Colwell’s remarks, taken from  an issue of FYI in December 2001, follow:

"It  is abundantly clear that there is a concurrent need for increased scientific  and engineering knowledge. In times such as these, we are acutely cognizant of  living in a society defined by, and dependent on, science and technology.

"Every  discussion about airline safety, contamination by disease, failure of  communication links, poisoning of food and drinking water, assessment of  damaged infrastructure, and countless other concerns depends on our scientific  and technical knowledge.

"The  mathematician-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said of science, 'The aims of  scientific thought are to see the general in the particular and the eternal in  the transitory.'

"And  so we must ask how science can elucidate these times. We know that science  brings fresh knowledge of ourselves and our planet, and thus what is newly  possible. That, however, is not enough."

"Today,  sophisticated knowledge, powerful tools, and high-speed transportation and  communication amplify that complexity.

"For  the past 50 years, the federal government has provided continuous and growing  support to develop the underlying science, technology, and knowledge that  helped us build these capabilities. This began, in large part, as a result of  the significant role that science played in winning World War II.

"Since  then, our enterprise of scientists and engineers has been responsive to the  changing context of society. We will need to strengthen the links between  physical sciences and the social and behavioral sciences.

"Our  accrued knowledge from decades of research-support is already serving new  objectives brought about by the events that began on September 11th. The  nation's science policy will move in the direction of national necessity.

"The  late Congressman George Brown of California [chairman of the House Science  Committee for many years] was science's best friend and most constructive  critic in the Congress. In a 1994 speech at the National Academy of Sciences,  he said, 'We must have ... a research system that arches and bends with  society's goals.' The larger context determines the direction in which this  movement occurs. The research enterprise arches and bends to national needs.

"In  hindsight, there was a certain stability in the Cold War period -- with its  recognizable foes and unifying ideals. The interval since the fall of the  Berlin Wall in 1989 has shown us the signs and signals of past fragmentation,  the rise of old hatreds, and the burgeoning of new ones. In some sense, the  fifty years of the Cold War was an anomalous period in the larger scope of  human history.

"In  that long sweep of civilization, science and engineering have had an  ever-increasing influence in the life of society. We've used most of that  knowledge to remediate an existing problem or to address a current need.

"We  now recognize that we also need to draw on one of science's most potent  capacities -- prediction. If we can predict, we frequently can prevent. The  centuries of our accrued knowledge can and should increasingly be directed  toward prevention."

"We  need to develop a broader, more anticipatory perspective in our research. We  need to increase our emphasis on envisioning future possibilities, good or ill,  as a mechanism to predict. Undoubtedly, this will open new vistas in our  exploration and discovery.

"This  must take place at the same time that the research community maintains a  freedom and passion for new frontiers and the rigor of merit review.

"As  all of you know so well, knowledge is our strongest insurance for preparedness.  Without new knowledge we cannot develop foresight. As we evolve increasingly  into a knowledge-based society, our economic growth, our national security, and  our social well being will depend on the most advanced discoveries in every  field. Knowledge is the bedrock.

"Our  ability to use foresight gives us a kind of early warning system -- a guard  against unintended consequences."

"Science  can be an effective predictor. To prevent requires more. The research community  needs to find more effective methods to use its capacity to predict to meet  real world needs through prevention.

"Everyone  in this room knows that by solving a present problem we can easily sow the  seeds of genuine dilemmas for the next generation. History is replete with  examples. When foresight directs our actions and the use of knowledge, we are a  lot less likely to fix the present at the cost of the future.

"But  we can never think of our current knowledge as a security blanket for the  future. It will help us in the present but as Whitehead again instructs us,  'Knowledge doesn't keep any better than fish.'

"New,  more complete knowledge replaces it - a process of constant renewal and at an  ever accelerating pace. This makes an unshakable case for consistent research  in all eras, at all times.

"Despite  our vast knowledge base, we likely still know very little of what there is to  know. This should prevent us from being arrogant about what we do know. That  doesn't always happen. In fact, we do ourselves a national disservice when we  educate and train our scientists and engineers only in science and technology.

"The  world in which our work bears fruit is a world of integration and overlapping  consequences. Narrow knowledge can become incorrect knowledge.

"America  has been fortunate to have leaders that understood the value of ongoing support  for research. They have viewed research as an investment, not an expense. Just  as a college education is an investment in an individual's future, support for  research is an investment in the nation's future.

"Advances  in physics, biology, chemistry - the core physical sciences - undergird all of  the biomedical sciences on which we depend to understand disease, find cures,  develop vaccines, and initiate preventive strategies."

"The  alternative to not being at the forefront of science and technology is the  alternative of being left behind. There is an ever-growing community of nations  with equally capable workers.

"Globalization  has proven this repeatedly in the last decade. There is a reservoir of talent  in other cultures of which we know little. They too will join the ranks of  competitors.

"In  the 21st century, success will be determined increasingly by science and  technology. Therefore, economic survival means being on the cutting edge of  discovery and knowledge creation.

"Choosing  otherwise is not frugal; it's just shortsighted. September 11 has taught us  that terrorists also utilize sophisticated science and technology."

"This  new era marked by the watershed events of 9/11 presents new directions for  science and technology. As we incorporate the phrase 'homeland security' into  our national lexicon, every sector of society, but especially the federal  government, will be in the business of preparedness.

"Less  than a month ago, we saw a glaring example of why it is so important to have a  public educated to the issues of science and technology. The surprise emergence  of Anthrax in the mail set in motion a race for information.

"It  is vital that the public and all our leaders have a better working knowledge of  the science and technology that defines our very existence. Although Anthrax is  not an everyday occurrence, there were many, including public officials, who  thought it was contagious.

"Without  correct information, we breed chaos and hysteria -- neither of which fosters  appropriate responses. We have a new battle to fight and that is to prevent  man's deliberate turning back the clock of progress in public health.

"A  citizenry literate about science and technology serves several goals. It gives  the nation a workforce educated and trained to compete in the increasingly  competitive global marketplace. It promotes good judgment as voters on both  issues and candidates. It serves as strong defense against delusions of safety  as well as threats. I cannot stress enough the primary importance of a  scientifically literate citizenry. I cannot stress enough the responsibility of  the science community to help us meet that goal.

"In  multiple aspects, September 11 was a knife-sharp awakening for the nation and  its leaders. Not the least of those surprises was how little people outside of  the science community and those on the periphery understand science and  technology issues.

"To  a large extent, what we know and do not know as citizens is dependent on the  media. The public increasingly relies on the mass communication of print and  broadcast information.

"The  science community must work in conjunction with the media to inform the general  public on new issues that affect us all. We ignore this steep learning curve at  considerable risk. We cannot protect ourselves if we do not understand the  threats as well as the prevention.

"The  National Science Foundation has made a scientifically literate citizenry and  workforce a central thrust in all of our programs. We begin with teacher  preparation and solid curricula for students in the K through 12 years.

"Today,  knowledge of science and technology is necessary for everyone, not just those  who become scientists and engineers. We know that there is an expanding need  for technically skilled workers whose final degree may be a high school diploma  or an associate's degree.

"In  addition, our national need for scientists and engineers cannot possibly be  fulfilled by the traditional white male population. We must focus on attracting  women and our diverse minority populations to these professions.

"This  poses a profoundly significant challenge that must be met in our primary  schools and build from there a broader base.

"As  we reflect on our knowledge-driven society, we all know that knowledge alone is  not enough to make a better world. The Founding Fathers framed a set of primary  values for our nation based on the independence of, and the respect for,  individuals. Armed with these values, science becomes an important vehicle for  human progress."

"With  these values to guide us, we have made appropriate choices for ourselves as a  nation. But we are not alone in the world.

"Let  me share with you in closing comments that Congressman George Brown made in a  1993 at the National Research Council. We in the science community sorely miss  his foresight and vision.

"I  bring his words to you because you are an international community of scholars  and public policy experts. As always he left us with important ideas. In a  speech titled A New Paradigm for Development: Building Dignity Instead of  Dependence, he said,

"'This  work must begin first by viewing developing nations as partners instead of as  step-children. Of all the many ways in which we can cooperate for the global  good, the case for science and technology cooperation with science-poorer  nations is perhaps the most compelling. To do so, we must abandon the instinct  to judge others by their past accomplishments or to judge our own  accomplishments as the proper path for others.

"'We  know that science and technology are an important force to help balance the world's  inequities. The job of the science community, and our nation's leaders is to  find a host of mechanisms to make use of the knowledge and benefits working as  partners.'"

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