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The "Quiet Crisis": Developing the Next Generation of Leaders for a Complex World

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Observance of Black History Month
National Science Foundation
Arlington, Virginia

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Good morning. Thank you very much for asking me to be part of your observance of Black History Month. For these four weeks, we celebrate heroes, leaders, innovators, trailblazers, creators — courageous men and women who have helped to shape America, and who have influenced and inspired people around the world.

This observance dates back to 1926, when Harvard professor Carter G. Woodson launched a Negro History Week in February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. This was the forerunner of the national Black History Month, which we mark each year. Dr. Woodson wanted to bring this rich history to a wide audience, and to shine a light on the important contributions of African-Americans. He said he wanted to make "the world to see the Negro as a participant rather than as a lay figure in history."

We continue Dr. Woodson's legacy in the 21st century. There are so many important stories to tell of the contributions of African-Americans to this country — and so many stories yet to be told, especially in the sciences.

In my life, I have found African-American forebears, who, while, perhaps, not household names, have had great meaning for me. One of my favorite books as a child was the biography of Benjamin Banneker. He was born in 1731, in Ellicott's Mills (now Ellicott City), Maryland, the son of a former slave. Benjamin Banneker was a self-taught clockmaker, astronomer, and mathematician, and he helped to plan the city of Washington, D.C., which is my hometown. I was drawn to his life story because he accomplished a great deal, despite having to face deep-rooted prejudice. But, he did not let it defeat his drive to develop his intellect, to engage with the world, and to leave his mark upon it.

Another prominent African-African who inspired me was Dr. Ernest Everett Just, one of the most highly respected scientists of his time. He graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth College in 1907, then earned a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Chicago in 1916. He taught at Howard University from 1909 until his death in 1941. His summers of research studying the fertilization of the marine mammal cell at the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, received international acclaim. He wrote one of the most important text books of the 20th century, Biology of the Cell Surface, published in 1939. He also helped to nurture the next generation of African-American scientists by becoming a mentor to Roger Arliner Young — the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate in zoology.

As you may know, the NOVA series on PBS recently told the story of Percy Julian, one of the 20th century's most influential scientists. His scientific breakthroughs included the conversion of soybeans into synthetic steroids on an industrial scale and discovering the key to synthesizing cortisone in a way that would make it widely available to millions. Yet the title of the program, "Forgotten Genius," reminds us that he was one of the unsung American heroes whose story should be told. He was born in 1899 and grew up under Jim Crow in Alabama. His parents believed in the power of education, so he attended DePauw University in Indiana, graduating Phi Beta Kappa and eventually earning his doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1931. Amid struggles in Dr. Julian's academic career, he turned to a risky research project that would make his reputation. He succeeded in synthesizing physostigmine, an alkaloid used as a glaucoma drug — beating a chemist at Oxford University to the finish line of this major research achievement. Even so, because of discrimination, Dr. Julian struggled for positions as a researcher in industry, until he was offered the directorship of the research laboratory for the Glidden paint company in Chicago.

Throughout his career he hired and mentored other young black chemists. One of his proteges said of Dr. Julian: "When I saw that here was a person who looked like me, who was not only in the field but succeeding magnificently, at the top of his profession, that was profound." Dr. Julian went on to found his own successful company in Chicago — and, in fact, became one of the richest black American entrepreneurs of his time.

Why am I telling you about these three men today? Because they are all of our forebears: individuals who pursued — and achieved — excellence in the sciences, who overcame obstacles, who devoted themselves to discovery and the pursuit of knowledge, and who were deeply concerned about nurturing the next generation. They inspire me to do what I can, in my role as the president of a research university, to help create that next generation of scientists, of leaders, and of national — and international — decision-makers: global citizens who will understand and unravel the complexities of 21st century challenges, such as energy security, climate change, economic development, and health and safety.

In short, we must prepare this generation for a new world. This new world, we hardly need be reminded, is global and multidisciplinary. It is evolving new configurations and relationships between and among nations, peoples, cultures, philosophies, values, governments. No longer are we contending, for instance, with a single, geographic "adversary," as was the case throughout the Cold War. Our new "opponents" are what we might call "threats without borders" — AIDS and the "bird flu," for instance; terrorism, and the myriad challenges of a significant segment of global population without sufficient food, education, health care, and energy.

These are the challenges nations and peoples are facing in our young century. And, to contend with them, and to resolve them, virtually all entities — from governments, corporations, and policy agencies, to universities, other institutions, professions, even individuals — are having to devise new strategies, new alternatives, new approaches. Indeed, transformation at some level is the order of the day, and almost universal.

This new world, of course, requires that we attract and nurture more young people to the sciences and to engineering.

For this reason, I have been speaking for some years about the critical need to invest in our human talent in science and engineering. Several trends are converging:

  • the aging and imminent retirement of today's scientists and engineers.
  • an insufficient number of young scholars in our nation's science and engineering "pipeline" to replace those who will retire.
  • a decline in the number of international scientists and students who come to the United States to work and to study. This group long has been an important source of skilled talent for the U.S. science and engineering enterprise.
  • the concurrent change in our national demographics: Young women and ethnic minority youth now account for more than half of our student population. This "new majority" traditionally has been underrepresented in science and engineering, have few role models, and yet it is from this group that the next generations of scientists and engineers also must come.

Finally, federal investment in basic research — in the physical sciences and engineering — has declined by half since 1970, as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Since research and education potentiate each other, this has had a deleterious effect on the creation of a new generation of scientists and engineers.

This is what I term the "Quiet Crisis."

It is "quiet" because it takes decades to educate a physicist or a nuclear engineer, so the true impact unfolds only gradually, over time.

It is a "crisis" because discoveries and innovations create the new industries which keep our economy thriving, and which mitigate the global scourges that breed suffering and global instability. Without innovation we fail — as a nation and as a world.

Reports, by major corporate, academic, government, and private sector entities, all have recognized these trends and warn of the consequences, if we fail to act, and national conversation is engaged. We are at the point of action.

Throughout last year, the President, and Members of Congress from both political parties, recognized the need to do more. Many efforts to increase basic research funding, to educate the next generation of scientists and engineers, and to address energy security were introduced. Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate heeded the call when they voted to pass the FY07 joint continuing resolution. The measure freezes funding for most domestic and foreign aid programs however there are modest but critically needed funding increases for research agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science. The President signed this bill just last week. In addition, the President's recently released fiscal 2008 budget proposal would continue investments in his American Competitiveness Initiative and proposes provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act to improve mathematics education and require science proficiency of all students by 2020.

As we address the "quiet crisis," we also must ask: How are we to educate students for global leadership, and for a marketplace — of commerce and of ideas — that is increasingly international in scope?

As young people assume the reins of leadership, they will be called upon to find the political and diplomatic solutions for global challenges, but they also must find the technological solutions, discoveries, and innovations.

As education has evolved over time — and, indeed, as there is considerably more knowledge to acquire to achieve mastery — we have moved away from a basic integration of knowledge into distinct and isolated specialties; and we too quickly separate the study of science, in all of its richness and multiplicity, from the study of the humanities, arts, and social sciences. We must help the next generation to move from the constrictions of specialization and into the realm of multidisciplinarity — where in lies future scientific breakthroughs which will have the greatest impact on individuals and society.

It should be our goal, further, to enable students to acquire multicultural sophistication, intellectual agility, and enough knowledge of science and technology to enable them to take what they know and to apply it in diverse arenas, and especially in emerging fields such as nanotechnology and biotechnology, which are inherently multidisciplinary and global in scope and effect. Innovation needs cross pollination of disciplines and cultures. A global experience — through semesters of study abroad, and utilization of the Internet for cooperative, collaborative projects — is becoming an essential part of a robust educational experience.

Our pre-eminence in science and technology long has lent the United States its global leadership. Now that a single "enemy" nation no longer exists, a legitimate goal of science and technology in the 21st century is to address the "threats without borders," which endanger the planet and its peoples, and to raise the standard of living for a world population which will double by mid-century. It is a legitimate goal for the United States to optimize our scientific and technological capacity, and to continue to exert responsible global leadership. Some speak of this in terms of American competitiveness in a global economy. While the common element, between today's challenges and yesterday's arms and space race with the former Soviet Union, may be competition, it must be more benign and collegial, with the U.S. seeking not to win in a zero sum game, but to maintain its economic standards, and its share of discovery and innovation, while other nations also rise.

Our ability to compete in the coming decades depends upon our young people, especially their ability to engage in and advance the new "space race" — the pursuit of energy security. In that regard, we have a lot of work to do.

So, what can we do? We must provide young people with access, opportunity, and mentoring. This begins in the earliest school years, of course, where we can do much more to promote science education for all and to encourage interest and talent, especially among underrepresented minorities and those in less economically advantaged schools.

We must provide opportunities through myriad pipeline programs that show young people what it is like to study, research, and discover in the sciences — and the many possible career pathways they can explore. For example, at Rensselaer, we recently hosted our annual Black Family Technology Awareness Day, where more than 600 students and their families attended workshops designed to spur interest in careers in science and engineering, and to offer tips on preparing for the college admissions and scholarship process. We find that many families attend this day year after year. This event — and others like it at Rensselaer and at universities across the country — provide numerous mentoring opportunities as well. In fact, a Rensselaer alumnus who is now studying for his doctorate at Drexel University chaired the event during his senior year, and now returns each year to participate — and he hopes to launch a similar event at Drexel.

I know that the National Science Foundation is at the forefront of mentoring the next generation through your programs, grants, and awards for K-12 teachers, undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows, through your support for faculty researchers in the early stages of their careers, and through national science policy. In addition, each one of us can do what we can, where we are. For example, we can take an interest in science education in our children's schools and encourage the development of pipeline programs where they do not exist — and support the ones already in place. We can encourage young people to pursue higher education in the sciences, and we can help to make that possible by supporting scholarship programs, especially those geared toward underrepresented minorities. We can challenge ourselves, as well, by pursuing our own advanced degrees, engaging in professional development experiences, and by keeping current with discovery and innovation in the sciences.

Day to day, we each can encourage — and challenge — our colleagues to do the same. We each have the power, and the responsibility, no matter what our roles, to create a culture that promotes science, respects knowledge and intellectual engagement, and provides opportunities for all to advance — in our workplaces, in our communities, and in our country. We should not underestimate our power to have an impact on another's life.

Consider the example of NASA astronaut Joan Higginbotham. She never dreamed of becoming an astronaut, although she worked as an engineer for the Shuttle program at the Kennedy Space Center in a variety of positions since the late 1980s. But one of her supervisors encouraged her to apply for the astronaut program. She did not make it on her first attempt, but she did return to school to earn a master's degree in space systems while working the "night shift" at NASA (she already had a master's in engineering management). It took her several years, but she made the cut on her second try in 1996, and worked on a succession of Shuttle missions until she flew with the Shuttle Discovery crew in December. Not forgetting those who encouraged her, Astronaut Higginbotham invited to the launch her favorite science teacher from the Whitney M. Young Magnet High School in Chicago. She became interested in engineering when she tested into a "minority engineering program" in high school. She now speaks to students about her career to inspire them to work hard to and pursue their dreams.

The Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston said: "The present was an egg laid by the past that had the future inside its shell." As we mark Black History Month, let us remember the trailblazers who came before us — and reflect on what we can learn from their lives — and from their achievements. They create for us — no matter what our background, our level of education, or our career paths — an imperative to work toward a better future — and to bring science front and center as the means to meet our challenges.

The work you do is vital to this goal. As you go forward, I challenge you to blaze new trails, to achieve at higher levels than you think possible, and to create the next generation of global citizens and leaders in the sciences. Let us continue that work.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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