The Business of Government Hour


About the show

The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. The executives discuss their careers and the management challenges facing their organizations. Past government executives include Administrators, Chief Financial Officers, Chief Information Officers, Chief Operating Officers, Commissioners, Controllers, Directors, and Undersecretaries.

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Join the IBM Center for a weekly conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business.

Dr. Rita Colwell interview

Friday, July 11th, 2003 - 20:00
Dr. Rita Colwell
Radio show date: 
Sat, 07/12/2003
Intro text: 
Dr. Rita Colwell
Complete transcript: 

Arlington, Virginia

July 1, 2003

Mr. Lawrence: Good morning and welcome to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, the partner in charge of The IBM Center for The Business of Government. We created the Center in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. Find out more by visiting us on the web at

The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. Our special guest today and our conversation this morning is with Dr. Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation.

Good morning.

Dr. Colwell: Good morning. It's a pleasure to be here.

Mr. Lawrence: And joining us in our conversation is Tom Burlin.

Good morning, Tom.

Mr. Burlin: Good morning, Paul. Good morning, Rita.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, Rita, let's start by finding out more about NSF. Could you tell us about its mission and its activities?

Dr. Colwell: The mission of NSF is to continue to ensure America's place at the forefront of scientific and engineering capability, and to develop a technically competent workforce for what is a rapidly changing world.

Mr. Lawrence: Could you give us a sense of the budget and the number of people who work there, and even the types of people? When I think about science, I think of a wide range of people.

Dr. Colwell: The budget right now for fiscal 2003 is $5.3 billion. We have a staff of about 1,250 full-time employees and about 350 contract employees. We have a lot of rotating scientists and educators, meaning people who come in, probably about 5- or 600 of the total, who come in for two or three years, scientists from university, from industry, who will spend time with us and continually bring in the wonderful new ideas, new thoughts, new directions. It's a very dynamic situation.

Mr. Lawrence: And they're coming from academia?

Dr. Colwell: They come from academia predominantly, universities around the country, but also we do bring in folks from industry on occasion.

Mr. Lawrence: Now NSF has a unique governance structure. Could you tell us about the National Science Board?

Dr. Colwell: The National Science Foundation was established in 1950. It was an act of Congress signed by Harry Truman on May 10, 1950, from the back of a train in Pocatello, Idaho. So if you pass through Pocatello, have a toast to the National Science Foundation. But it comprises the director and the National Science Board, which is very interesting because the director, I report directly to the President of the United States. The Science Board reports to the director, advises the director, and advises the President on major policy issues. Its role is to set policy for the foundation and to advise the director on the processes of the foundation, mainly with respect to policy. It approves budgets and it acts as a sounding board. It's very helpful and it's quite unique.

Mr. Burlin: Thank you, that's very informative. Rita, how about yourself? Can you share with us some of your roles and responsibilities as the director?

Dr. Colwell: As the director of the National Science Foundation, I have a staff of about, let's say, 9 or 10 people who report directly to me. Altogether, including the fiscal officers and the legal counsel and so forth, it's probably a team of about a dozen that are the major senior council for the National Science Foundation. Interestingly, the National Science Foundation sets the direction really for fundamental research and engineering in the United States. We fund everything from anthropology and archeology all the way to zoology, if you will, engineering, biosciences, computer sciences, social/behavioral/economic sciences, as well as the traditional math, physics, chemistry, material science. So we fund research for the country.

And the proposals come in. They are prepared by scientists and engineers around the country. We receive about 35,000 proposals every year and we have about 50,000 people on the Rolodex, if you will, who act as reviewers. So we do about 250,000 reviews and then we select 9,000 proposals. We usually have about 10,000 ongoing, so it's somewhere between 19,000 and 20,000 proposals that we're managing every year.

So it's a complicated job in that I coordinate what goes on within the NSF, but I'm also the spokesperson externally, which means a lot of talks, visits, site visits, speeches, throughout the country. I must say it's a challenge, but it's wonderful. I often tell people I have the best job in Washington.

Mr. Burlin: That's wonderful. One of the things that's always interesting to me is the background and experiences that prepare people for these types of positions. Can you share with us some of your prior career experiences prior to becoming the director of NSF?

Dr. Colwell: I do have a rather unusual background in that I have a background that includes a bachelor's degree in bacteriology. Now in the time since I got my degree, generally most universities now would have that included within a Department of Biology. I did a master's degree in genetics, classical genetics and molecular genetics, which was really a very good foundation. And from there, studies at the University of Washington in Seattle on marine microbiology, which means that I have a degree, a Ph.D., in oceanography. Now that's quite unusual because it's a span of training that I think has enabled me to be an effective director.

I did a post-doc in Canada at the National Research Council, and spent time, therefore, in another country. Well, you may not consider Canada another country, but I think Canada certainly does. From there, I taught at Georgetown University, and then at the University of Maryland as a full professor with a very active research group; founded the Sea Grant College Program at the University of Maryland, College Park, and then founded the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute. This occurred while I was the academic vice president and provost for the University of Maryland system. From there, of course, I was tapped to become the director of the National Science Foundation.

My research, personal research, has involved work in Bangladesh and India on cholera, tracking the origins of cholera. We made some very exciting discoveries over the last 25 years showing that the bacterium really is an environmental bacterium. Here's a clue that I got being a marine microbiologist: I discovered that the bacterium, in fact, requires salt for growth because it's marine and it's associated with plankton. And we were able to use remote sensing to show the relationship of the epidemics of cholera with sea surface temperature and sea surface height, which means tides and the ocean influenced cholera epidemics.

This was quite unheard of and, of course, was against the dogma, but we were able to put all of the basic research to good practical use. We discovered that the bacterium are attached to plankton, microscopic animals living in the sea. We were able to show that if you took cloth, the cloth that women use for their dresses, sari cloth, folded 4 to 8 times, you got a very good filter of about 20 micrometers, and these plankton are about 200 micrometers. So we did a very large study showing that if you filtered water before you drank it in these villages where they don't have water purification, we were able to reduce it by 48 percent. So that was a major study that showed a very practical human benefit from all of this research, which included oceanography, clinical microbiology, medicine, remote sensing, mathematics, mathematical modeling, et cetera.

So it was a very interesting background that led to some very important human discoveries, which is one of the reasons why I love being at the National Science Foundation, because it covers all of science. And it's like being in a candy store for scientist to be at the head of the National Science Foundation.

Mr. Burlin: As I said, I'm never disappointed with that question because I find that it takes very diverse and convergent backgrounds to be able to take on responsibilities as broad as that as the director of NSF. Is there any particular experience that you would relate back to that really helps you in your current position?

Dr. Colwell: I do think that running a very large laboratory was the primary training. At the University of Maryland, I had a laboratory at one point with 30 or 40 people and a budget well over a million dollars, and this was, you know, 20, 25 years ago when a million dollars was a whole lot more than it is now, unfortunately for us now. And it was an important responsibility to keep track of the funding, to keep track of students, graduate students, and their career progress, to have postdoctoral fellows, and to have visiting scientists from countries all over the world. At one point, they referred to my lab as the United Nations because we had scientists from Africa and Europe and the U.K. and Japan and China. But it was very good for the students, and certainly a marvelous training for interdisciplinary international science, much of what NSF does.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, that's a good point.

We've heard a lot already about NSF grants. Who's eligible, how much money's involved, and what's the process? We'll ask Dr. Rita Colwell of NSF to tell us more about the grants when The Business of Government Hour returns.


Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, and this morning's conversation is with Dr. Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation.

And joining us in our conversation is Tom Burlin.

Well, Rita, can you tell us about the NSF's strategic goals of people, ideas, and tools?

Dr. Colwell: Well, the most important thing we do starts with people. It extends well beyond the scope of our 1,300 or 1,400 employees, because our programs impact almost a quarter-million people, from senior researchers down to K-12 students. Now people are fundamental. These are the graduate students, the faculty, the high school students. Altogether, we touch each year, as I say, nearly a quarter or a million people. Their ideas are critical because, after all, that is what comprises the grants that they submit.

And then what is very important and has become increasingly so are the tools, the high-end computers, the telescopes for astronomers, the laser interferometer gravitational wave observatories for physicists and astrophysicists. These are critical to carrying out science in the 21st century. And we find that even the social/behavioral scientists are now increasingly requiring very large-scale and, unfortunately, expensive tools because they are mining databases. In fact, the term "computational sociologist" is one that is increasingly common because sociologists analyze very large lots of data, and these large databases require computing, either personal computers or computers connected to very large high-end computers. And that means that we're focused on providing a cyber infrastructure; that is, connectivity, for all scientists and engineers around the country to computing capacity.

So we believe that people, their ideas, and the tools they need to carry out their ideas and their explorations comprise the holistic approach and the fundamental aspect of the National Science Foundation. We say this because it makes it very clear and very straightforward what NSF is all about.

Mr. Burlin: Doctor, you know, a new goal this year is for organizational excellence. Can you tell us what steps you've taken to address this goal?

Dr. Colwell: We've done quite a lot. When I first came to NSF, we set our ambitions to doubling the budget and, therefore, to have a management capability that would handle a large budget, and to be the most efficient and the most effective agency in the entire federal government. We established that as one of our goals, along with enhancing people, ideas, and tools; that is, good management. We brought in video teleconferencing capability so that we could reach any part of the country and interact with individuals. That proved extremely important post-9/11 because we were able to continue with our panels.

We also established NSF as an electronic agency. And now 99.99 percent of our proposals come in electronically; they're reviewed electronically, they're processed with panels using computer E-business rooms, and the reports are prepared by the time the panel finishes. The awards are made electronically, and the monitoring of the awards reports and financial reports are electronic.

Now as a result of our emphasis on good business practices, we've established, for example, an external review committee for our business practices. No other agency, I believe, has done that. And we've brought in experts from industry, from other government agencies, previous employees from the OMB, good advisers from outside, and these folks meet several times a year and advise us on our business practices. The consequence is a very good one. We are the only agency to receive a green light in the federal government, both in financial management and in E-business.

Mr. Lawrence: Let me ask you about setting priorities for NSF. You have a finite amount of money, and it sounds like many more requests than you can support. How do you determine priorities and balance that with new areas?

Dr. Colwell: We establish priorities because of several reasons. One is that there is a limited amount of money, as you said. $5.3 billion sounds like a lot, but when you've got thousands of scientists out there from 2,000 universities and other research institutions, they can, as they do, submit many times more dollar requests than we can afford to provide.

We also ensure in the reviewing of the grants that we seek out the very best of the science and engineering and the cutting edge. How do we achieve what is cutting edge or determine what is cutting edge? Probably this is by proposal pressure, because if you begin to see a lot of proposals coming in, in, let's say, information technology, you have a notion that things are happening.

Secondly, we have advisory committees for each one of our directorates. We have seven directorates and two offices. Each of these has an advisory committee. They also have a Committee of Visitors who come in after the awards have been made to see how well we have actually fulfilled our strategic plan and directions.

And we have workshops. We bring in the best and brightest: young people, seasoned veterans to advise on the direction science is going. And with all of this input we were able to establish quite early that information technology was fundamental to all of science and very, very important for us to fund.

Nanotechnology was an area that was beginning to really explode, and we needed to invest in nanotech. Mathematics is fundamental to all of the sciences and engineering, and we needed to establish primacy, leadership, in mathematics, so that became an area of importance.

Biocomplexity, understanding the complexity of the environment, understanding how it works as a system, we've been spending a lot of time drilling down to the atomic structure, and we had a lot of information at the atomic, molecular, organismic, community, and system level, and we needed to bring all that information together in the direction of biocomplexity.

And then a workforce for the 21st century. If we don't focus on K-12 education, science and math education, we aren't going to have the scientists and engineers we need for the 21st century. And more recently, we had been focusing on the human and social dimension. How does society respond to change? How can we interact with computers? What is the future for social, behavior, and economic dimensions of science? So these became our priorities through this very complicated process of evaluation and ensuring that we're right there at the cutting edge.

Mr. Burlin: Well, Rita, I think I've shared with you many, many years ago that as a lowly undergraduate biology student, I was a recipient of a National Science Foundation grant. However, a HP scientific calculator was high-tech back then, and I'm sure things have changed. Could you give us an overview of the different directorates within the Science Foundation, and also the process for applying for grants? Who's eligible, what's a typical grant?

Dr. Colwell: The directorates include the biological sciences; the geo sciences; mathematical and physical sciences, which means math, chemistry, material science, physics; social and behavioral and economic sciences; engineering, which is very important; and education and human resources; that is all the programs for K-12, graduate fellowships, IGERT fellowships, and so forth.

And we also have an Office of Polar Programs. We run the research programs in the Antarctic and also in the Arctic. This is quite exciting because it means as director, I get to go to the South Pole and to the North Pole. And I must tell you, that's very, very exciting.

We also have an Office of Integrative Activities where we have major programs, like the science and technology centers, infrastructure support programs. That means instrumentation and that sort of thing are coordinated through the Office of Integrative Activities.

For grants, we have a grant proposal guide. It's online, so you can go online for it. It's very straightforward. It describes how you submit proposals. And we have periodic solicitations where we send out notices and ask for proposals for most of the programs. Now people can apply for grants individually, scientists and engineers at universities or research institutes. But if it's not under a specific program solicitation where we're asking for proposals, it's better if the individual, if you as an individual scientist call the program manager, find out just where your ideas for a proposal would fit, and that advice would be I think a very efficient way for you to go about submitting a proposal.

Mr. Lawrence: How does one get to green on the President's Management Scorecard? We'll ask Dr. Rita Colwell of NSF to tell us about this achievement when The Business of Government Hour continues.


Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, and this morning's conversation is with Dr. Rita Colwell. She's the director of the National Science Foundation.

And joining us in our conversation is Tom Burlin.

Mr. Burlin: Thanks, Paul.

Doctor, you mentioned earlier about the President's Management Agenda and receiving green lights. In fact, the National Science Foundation is the only agency that has gotten those green lights in the President's Management Agenda. Can you describe to us some of your activities to date, specifically in E-government?

Dr. Colwell: The President has embraced NSF's vision and its value to the nation. I think this was clearly stated when OMB Director Mitch Daniels called NSF one of the true centers of excellence in the government, and we are very proud of that. Two green lights from OMB for financial management and E-government underscore, I think, the confidence in the way NSF does its business.

That success is due to stewardship and accountability of our resources. We also have applied very high-quality business services to internal and external customers. That is, we have done surveys to find out what our customers, namely our PIs, find important, what we do well and what we don't do well. We've learned that one of the things that was critical for them was to find out the decision on their proposals within six months. So we set ourselves a goal of at least 70 percent of our proposals would be reviewed, evaluated, and determined and announced to the principal investigators as to the decision within six months. Well, we worked really hard on it, and we managed to beat that by 74 percent of the proposals.

But it's that kind of interaction with the community, knowing what's needed and being highly responsive to the community and using electronic systems for our operations and transactions, and also establishing constructive partnerships to pilot the new practices and specialized services. This has given us I think a leg up in achieving our goal of continuing to be the best-managed agency in the government.

And we have a quality-based versus a quantity-based performance measuring system. We want to make sure what we do is the very best. And we have, I think, a good management that leads to very high performance of our staff, and we care very much about our staff and their careers. We've established within NSF an academy that provides career path and personal development. Our staff can get degrees externally at the university or they can take courses through the academy to achieve the kind of performance capabilities, whether it's using computers or doing accounting, et cetera. So I think it's managing the constancy of change, growth, and constant improvement. I think these are the keys to our performance.

Mr. Burlin: Can you tell us, are there any specific examples of how technology has changed the way you do business?

Dr. Colwell: Very clearly, being totally electronic has made a huge difference. We review all of our proposals. We receive them, review them, and manage them entirely through computing capability. Technology has changed significantly through e-mail, through business practices, through constant upgrading of the computer system. One of the very first things we did five years ago was upgrade the telephone system, and even the telephone system now becomes almost part of the business apparatus through voice mail and messaging. So I would say that technology has made a huge difference in how we run the foundation.

Mr. Lawrence: NSF was one of the first agencies to go green in financial management. Could you tell us about this accomplishment?

Dr. Colwell: I think the most important aspect of it was good financial practices; that is, accountability; good accounting practices; good planning on the part of NSF; competitive sourcing; undertaking an extensive human capital plan this year, which we have underway, from which we can pull the proper strategy to fit our human capital needs. That's very important. And our unique mix of full-time and rotator personnel, keeping a good balance between those who come in for two or three years bringing good ideas, and those who are the important continuing personnel throughout the agency.

We consider NSF as sort of like a laboratory: constantly testing, modeling, self-examining. We look for peer review for our research, and we also have peer review for our institutional knowledge and our business practices. As I mentioned earlier, we use an external advisory committee of peers to examine our business practices and to address the issues as they come up, challenges that we have periodically.

And I think the General Accounting Office has identified NSF's readily visible culture of self-evaluation. The GAO defines it as self-examination, data quality, analytic expertise, and collaborative partnerships. I think that's pretty strong praise for an agency to come from GAO.

Mr. Burlin: Throughout your conversations, you continually refer back to the people. Can you tell us what the National Science Foundation is doing in regards to its people, its human capital?

Dr. Colwell: Well, the human capital, we consider our most precious resource. We've established the NSF Academy for Career Path Development. We've also made a strong effort to determine in our planning for human resources the kind of job growth within the NSF. We have found that our human capital, our people, are highly prized and constantly recruited. In order to retain our people, we want to make sure we have a career path for them.

I find that, quite honestly, people like the NSF and stay a long time. It's very common and frequent to have retirement parties for people who've been at NSF 29 or 30 years, 35 years. That's an indication of job satisfaction.

We also make an effort to learn what will improve the job environment for our staff. And this is done in a variety of ways, through surveys and boxes for suggestions and so forth. But I think we have in the NSF a loyal, hard-working, committed, dedicated staff and I'm very proud of them.

Mr. Burlin: Change the subject a little bit. You mentioned competitive sourcing. That's a hot topic around the Washington area now. Can you tell us, in an area as challenging as the National Science Foundation, what you're doing in the way of competitive sourcing and how that may be more difficult for an agency like the NSF?

Dr. Colwell: Well, I think, frankly, the fact that we have about 5- or 600 rotators means that we are outsourcing, because these are not permanent employees. They're IPAs who come in, they're rotators. So we have a constant influx of ideas and new staff. We have also worked very hard to determine those jobs that can be contracted. And I mentioned earlier that we have 350 contractors amongst our employees. We do our very best to determine those tasks that can be done by nongovernment employees, but we also make sure that the fundamental operations of the NSF, which really require the NSF government employees to undertake, are defined and protected, so to speak.

Mr. Lawrence: One of the things you've talked about throughout this part of our conversation is about accountability. How do you ensure accountability in the implementation of the Management Agenda?

Dr. Colwell: Accountability is critical because we are accountable to Congress. We're accountable to the Office of Management and Budget, the President, and we're accountable to our principal investigators to ensure that we carry out the research the way it should be done. We have installed what we call our good business practices. We've in the process of establishing mechanisms for looking at those high-risk proposals that we will put more time and effort into. Because as we move into the 21st century, finding that the most rich resource people are in community colleges, are in tribal colleges, are in historically black institutions, colleges, and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, institutions that may not have had experience and a kind of ongoing interaction with the NSF, in order to ensure their success and our success we have traveling workshops, which go out and do regional presentations. These will be people from our financial management, our grants management, our scientific directorates, and from our business offices to ensure that we can convey to our principal investigators what we expect of them and to help them make sure that their financial management as well as their scientific and educational management are really at the excellent level.

So we are doing all we can to ensure that our grants and contracts are carried out expeditiously, efficiently, and effectively. I think a part of this, too, is ensuring that we transmit information, communicate well, and that we have help desks, as we do for our information technology, but also help desks for our principal investigators.

Mr. Lawrence: That's a good point.

What role does NSF have in homeland security? We'll ask Dr. Rita Colwell for her perspective when The Business of Government Hour returns.


Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, and this morning's conversation is with Dr. Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation.

And joining us in our conversation is Tom Burlin.

Well, Rita, could you tell us more? You've talked a lot about partnerships this morning. Could you tell us how NSF is using partnerships to fulfill its mission?

Dr. Colwell: Partnerships are critical to the mission of NSF. School systems partnering with universities under the math and science partnerships; a wonderful program called GK-12, graduate students who spend time in the classroom, elementary, middle, and high school, for the 20 hours a week for their stipend instead of working in the undergraduate laboratory, which is more traditional; universities and industry through the science and technology centers, the engineering research centers, Partnerships for Innovation Program. These have been enormously successful.

States and universities with NSF under EPSCoR, the experimental program for experimental research; this program is to bring those 100 universities that are in the lower half of success rate into a competitive scheme amongst themselves so that they don't find themselves always competing against Stanford and Harvard and Berkeley and Illinois, but they can compete amongst themselves. This has been extremely successful, building infrastructure capacity. NSF and other agencies of the federal government, with EPA, with NIH -- a program, for example, with NIH in mathematical biology, programs with Department of Energy in high-energy physics.

We have a new program in human social dynamics that has brought a lot of interest from the intelligence community, which is a new partnership. Our Scholarship for Service Program contributes a whole cadr´┐Ż of information assurance professionals as part of a broader National Security Agency program on protecting cyber infrastructure, which we now know is more and more important. And again with NIH, we're partnering on the biomedical information science and technology initiative, and we certainly have been partnering with them on genome sciences.

So partnerships, that's our middle name.

Mr. Burlin: Doctor, we're all acutely aware of the responsibilities of Secretary Ridge and the Department of Homeland Security. Can you share with us the role that the National Science Foundation plays in homeland security, particularly in relationship between scientific freedom and national security?

Dr. Colwell: Well, first let me say that you will be surprised to learn that one of the first agencies to be at Ground Zero post-9/11 was the National Science Foundation. We had engineers there examining the rubble, the steel, the twisted steel, and so forth, developing a computer model of exactly what did happen and providing a sense of what could be used for materials in the future. We have engineers doing 3-D mapping of the interiors and exteriors of buildings that were damaged near the World Trade Center. That's another example.

We also had scientists from our social, behavioral, and economic sciences directorate. They're doing economic impact studies, doing affect on humans, just the folks who live in the area and survived. And then those small shoebox-sized robots that were used to search for, we hoped survivors, but victims found. This was an NSF principal investigator, Robin Murphy, and the funding from DARPA, and NSF was involved in the development of those robots, which are now part of the armamentarium of the FEMA, Federal Emergency Management Agency. So the small grants for exploratory research, these are small-scale, short-term, we can get these grants out quickly, in 24 hours if we had to, and we did in the case of post-9/11, as opposed to months with initial review internal, because we have scientists, very good scientists in-house, and extensions to grants that are already in place.

So we are able to fund now an investment of over $300 million in FY 2003 in science and engineering that will have an extraordinary impact on defense, intelligence, and security. We have several studies underway of above-ground and underground infrastructure systems, services, their coordination with first-responders. These are connected to the World Trade Center disaster. We also funded The Institute for Genomic Research, TIGR, to study the genome of the Florida anthrax strain that appeared after 9/11. So I would say that in homeland security, we're doing a great deal.

I would also add that we're doing a lot on cyber infrastructure, cyber security. Ironically, September 1, 2001, we had announced an award, request for proposals for awards, to be made in cyber security. So we were sort of ahead of the game, and we've certainly increased our emphasis on cyber security since then. So I would say that you might be surprised to know that an agency that has a mission of fundamental research in science and engineering was there immediately after 9/11.

Mr. Burlin: Well, certainly, I think that would be comforting to the citizens to know that some of our brightest minds under the stewardship of the National Science Foundation are working on those very important problems. Can you tell us a little bit about the Committee on Science of the National Science and Technology and your role as the co-chair?

Dr. Colwell: The Committee on Science is a coordinating committee for all of science throughout the federal government. And it looks at different topics, such as indirect costs, infrastructure needs for the whole nation across all agencies, a focus on the oceans will be one of the new things we'll do to bring the ocean sciences into a cross-agency focus. It's co-chaired by Kathie Olsen in the Office of Science and Technology Policy; Elias Zerhouni, the director of NIH; and myself as the director of the National Science Foundation. And we find this to be a very, very good way to interconnect with other agencies on things like high-end computing needs for the nation, infrastructure needs, and so forth. So I would say that it's a very effective mechanism for coordinating science and engineering activities across the federal government.

Mr. Lawrence: Could you tell us about some of the honorary awards that NSF administers? I was thinking about the President's National Medal of Science, for example.

Dr. Colwell: Well, the Medal of Science is always an exciting event each year. These are awards made to U.S. scientists and engineers for their very special contributions to scientific knowledge. And it's probably as close as anything we have to the Nobel Prize. Of course, I must mention that with respect to the Nobel Prize, since its inception at the turn of the century -- and remember, NSF was started only in 1950 -- about 150 Nobel laureates were NSF grantees before or during the time they got the Nobel Prize. So we pick them well.

Mr. Burlin: Doctor, I'm going to ask you to look into your crystal ball a bit now. Can you tell us where you see the National Science Foundation in the next 5 to 10 years?

Dr. Colwell: I think that the National Science Foundation is very, very important for the future of our country. The fundamental research that we do is important for economic strength, for national security. I mentioned some of the things we're doing already, and I could point out that we've developed a high-tech inspection system from an SBIR grant for sea cargo containers that could protect vulnerable port areas from terrorist incursions. And I see that not only for national security, but for social stability in providing education to the next generation, scientists and engineers, young children who can go on to become scientists and engineers, which are high-income jobs that contribute to the national welfare. I think that these are ways that we contribute significantly to the future of the United States.

I see the National Science Foundation as the agency where creativity blossoms, new discoveries are made from which new jobs, new companies, new industry are developed for national security, through cyber security for our computers, for our banking industry. I think the National Science Foundation has a firm place in the future of our country.

Mr. Lawrence: At the beginning of our show, you described your career, which is very interesting and cut across several different segments: the public sector, the academic sector. So I'm curious, what advice would you give someone interested in a career in public service?

Dr. Colwell: I would say that if you have any inclination to science or engineering, go for it. It's a wonderful way to develop a career, science and engineering. It's international; your friendships are international. I would urge anyone interested in administration to learn how to run a project, learn how to chase an idea to its discovery and ultimate completion of that idea. That is one way, I think, to learn how to manage in the future, because if you have a great idea for whether it's for a new mousetrap or whether it's an idea about how to do science even better, by fulfilling that idea to its completion that will teach you how to manage larger and larger projects, and ultimately, you may too become the director of the National Science Foundation.

Mr. Lawrence: Rita, I'm afraid that'll have to be the last question. Tom and I want to thank you for being with us this morning.

Dr. Colwell: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure to be here. If you want to learn more about the National Science Foundation, go on the web to

Mr. Lawrence: This has been The Business of Government Hour, featuring a conversation with Dr. Rita Colwell, the director of the National Science Foundation.

Be sure and visit us on the web at There, you can learn more about our programs and get a transcript of today's interesting conversation. Again, that's

This is Paul Lawrence. Thank you for listening.

Dr. Rita Colwell interview
Dr. Rita Colwell

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Vice Admiral Raquel Bono
Director, Defense Health Agency
United States Navy