Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
BEST (Building Engineering and Science Talent) Leadership
March 11, 2002
I am very pleased to be here tonight. Spring came early
this year. The generosity and commitment on the part
of eight Federal agencies to contribute funds for
an initiative called BEST (Building Engineering and
Science Talent) are as beautiful as jonquils and tulips!
BEST is the reason we are here.
This audience is filled with the longtime supporters
of expanding the science and engineering workforce
so that it looks like America. What I am emphatic
in saying is that this is the right thing to do! And
your hard work has now brought a lot more "true believers"
to the fold.
I'll confess ... I am tenacious ... no surprise there
. but tenacious about solving these workforce problems.
The long-recognized and stubborn problem of too few
women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in
our science and engineering talent pool threatens
the future of our nation.
I know I am preaching to the choir on this issue tonight.
All of you are equally concerned, outspoken, and proactive
in addressing the workforce imbalance. But now we
have committed resources to transform that zeal to
Special mention and credit should go to Congresswoman
Connie Morella for the work of her Congressional Commission
on this issue. The Commission's final recommendations
provided a roadmap for tackling the issue.
Their report, Land of Plenty: Diversity as America's
Competitive Edge in Science, Engineering, and Technology,
is a primer on the problem. It issued a clarion call,
a warning. It reminded us that although we're making
some strides toward including everyone in the general
workforce, we still have far to go.
However, the nation's demographics make it abundantly
clear that we're more diverse as a nation and will
move steadily in the direction of that kind of diversity
in our science and engineering workforce.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects, for the decade
1998 -- 2008, that the general labor force
growth rates of minorities will more than triple the
overall growth rate.
But, we're not making any progress in changing the
composition of the science and engineering workforce.
It looks the same as it has for generations.
A year ago this month, there was another warning. In
the oft-quoted Hart-Rudman report, Road Map for
National Security, we learned about how inadequacies
in our research and education system imperil our national
defense. I don't have to emphasize that this was written
6 months before 9/11.
I suspect that language would be even stronger if written
today. We need the talent of every worker in order
to keep us safe, competitive, and prosperous.
At no time in our history have we been more aware that
every citizen must "count" for opportunities and must
be "counted" for contributions to our society's well
being. Today, and for the far future, the well being
of individuals and of the nation will depend on knowledge
and skills in science, engineering, and technology.
How well we prepare our human resource in these areas
will determine how well we are prepared as a nation
in this new century.
This is evident to all of us here today. Nevertheless,
it helps to hear it from the Chairman of the Federal
Reserve Board. In a speech last year at this time,
Alan Greenspan issued this warning at the annual meeting
of the National Governor's Conference. "If we are
to remain preeminent in transforming knowledge into
economic value, the U.S. system of higher education
must remain the world's leader in generating scientific
and technological breakthroughs and in preparing workers
to meet the evolving demands for skilled workers."
Greenspan is undoubtedly a cheerleader for BEST!
Our collective goal in the BEST project is both specific
and overarching. We want to improve opportunities
for those who have been locked out of careers in science
and engineering - women, minorities, and persons with
disabilities. This objective is specific to individuals
and their personal goals.
The overarching objective is one vital to our nation's
safety and prosperity. It is our collective necessity
to encourage, educate, and enlist as many citizens
as possible into the jobs and professions that drive
the new knowledge economy. These jobs will need to
be filled by people trained in every aspect of science,
engineering, and technology.
Not everyone aspires to a graduate degree in science
and engineering. There are many millions of technical
jobs that require only certification. We recognize
that no industry or institution can function today
without such specialists. We would come to a screeching
halt without the technical specialists who keep things
Contemporary society is increasingly rooted in science
and technology. We need many more scientists and engineers
to continue that momentum. And our daily existence
is ever more dependent on science and technology.
These trends mandate that our general workforce
must be educated, trained, and capable to run this
complex societal engine.
And, our science and engineering workforce must continue
to grow too. That growth will only come from expanding
the pool of science and engineering talent. That expansion
must come from The Land of Plenty, our mostly untapped
potential of underrepresented minorities and women
-- America's "ace in the hole" or "competitive edge"
for the 21st century. By the year 2050,
the Census Bureau projects, that the terms minority
and majority will be almost meaningless.
This poses a formidable challenge, but one we can meet.
The general workforce already reflects more
gender equality, and racial and cultural diversity
than ever before. We still have a long way to go but
we are reaching out and cashing in on the talents
and skills of many more of our citizens.
But the science and engineering workforce does not
show that same trend toward a more balanced representation.
Science and engineering may be the frontier of human
progress, but its current explorers only skim the
surface of the nation's deep pool of diverse strength.
We also know that the ratio of science and engineering
degrees to the college-age population in European
and Asian countries is higher than in the United States.
We know that industry spends billions of dollars each
year on training, and industry is ready to collaborate
in the BEST initiative.
Lastly, we know that although science is humanity's
frontier, there are also new and burgeoning "frontiers
within science." They are nothing short of exhilarating.
At NSF we speak of them as nano, info, and bio, for
nano-science and technology, information technology,
and the biological sciences including genomics. These
three areas alone will revolutionize society over
the next twenty years. A nation that neglects training
and education in these fields does so at its peril.
In nanotechnology alone, Japan and its Asian Pacific
partners are investing $900 million in nano R&D, compared
to $600 million by the U.S.
To compete with other nations we will need a broad
expansion of our science and engineering talent. Anything
less means being left behind. The purpose of the BEST
initiative is to make sure that will not happen.
Congratulations to everyone involved in this project.