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

Presentation of American Society Of Mechanical Engineers President's Award
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, New York

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Thank you, President (Susan H.) Skemp, both for this prestigious award, and for your eloquent presentation. You have honored me for making a contribution to the engineering profession, and for promoting diversity and inclusion in engineering education. I must say, your own contribution during your distinguished professional career at Pratt & Whitney, as well as your leadership role during your time as ASME president and your service as mentor to young engineers, have been both inspirational and extremely productive in advancing the very causes for which you are honoring me.

Given my position, and my life experience, I would be in serious dereliction of my duty were I not to do everything in my power to foster a strong, diverse, and inclusive engineering, and scientific, workforce in this country. Diversity in science and engineering is more than an issue, or a policy option, or a cause. It is a national imperative, on the success of which rests our continued global leadership in innovation, and our preeminence, and our economic well-being.

Our science and engineering professionals comprise a mere 5 percent of our 140 million-person workforce. Yet, this small group has driven the powerful engine of American innovation for decades. Over the past 30 years, technology which has been incubated in university, government, and industrial laboratories has pumped trillions of dollars into the U.S. economy. The information technology revolution — largely a product of American genius, harnessed by American engineers, has had a much more important impact than the millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in revenue. Information technology has truly been transformative of the ways in which we work and live.

The generation inspired by President Kennedy and the "space race" to enter scientific and technological fields is now retiring.

Who will replace them? Who will do the science and the engineering which will make the discoveries and innovations for this century? I speak frequently about the "The Quiet Crisis" which is at work in our society. The human dimensions of the Quiet Crisis are embodied in:

  • Flagging mathematics and science test scores of our students on international examinations, and the fact that fewer of our young people are pursuing science and engineering degrees than 15 or 20 years ago.
  • Changed demographics of today's student population creating a "new majority" of young women and ethnic and minority groups — a population which traditionally has been severely underrepresented in science, engineering, mathematics and technology fields.
  • A decrease in the number of international scientists and students coming to our shores to work and to study, and more of those who do study here returning home rather than adding their skills to our national capabilities.

A related component is, of course, the decline in research funding as a percentage of GDP.

I was gratified to hear President Bush address the Quiet Crisis in his recent State of the Union message. I had conveyed my concern about the issue to him in a letter and suggested that "energy security" is the galvanizing issue, just as President Kennedy galvanized the nation in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik.

The American Competitiveness Initiative announced by President Bush would:

  • Double the Federal commitment to the most critical basic research programs in the physical sciences over the next 10 years;
  • Encourage private-sector investment in innovation;
  • Improve the quality of education to provide American children with a strong foundation in science and mathematics;
  • Support universities that provide world-class education and research opportunities;
  • Provide job training for workers in the skills needed to compete in the 21st century; and
  • Attract and retain top foreign students through comprehensive immigration reform.

Hand-in-glove with the American Competitiveness Initiative goes the President's call to increase our energy security through research and development into current and possible breakthrough technologies, which could serve as the 21st century equivalent of the space race in enticing young people toward science and engineering careers.

We now have national leadership on the "Quiet Crisis." Now we must make sure that new policies, programs, and funding follow.

Moreover, we should stress as often and as forcefully as we can that the improvement in the quality of scientific and mathematical education must be directed toward every one of America's children, the majority of whom are now of groups — women and ethnic minorities — which traditionally have been underrepresented in the science and engineering fields. We must make use of every last iota of talent we possess so that the American engine of innovation hits on all cylinders.

I see before me in this room an impressive array of talent, and of the potential which America holds for future leadership in science and engineering. I also challenge you. You are already on the path toward making your contribution to the technological advances of the next 40 years. Think about who helped you onto that path — your parents, a teacher, an advisor, a mentor? Think about the other young people of drive and ability who might not yet have found that path. How can you help them? You are already role models; now I urge you to become mentors, as well — helping to develop your future colleagues, and those who will follow you. And, I urge you all to do as President Skemp has done in her career — to lead by example in the performance of your professional duties and to lead by conviction in your efforts to advance your profession.

I, also, thank you for the part you have played in bringing this honor to me, and, by extension, to Rensselaer. I commend you for the cooperative spirit in which four organizations have joined together to plan this event.

Regarding the "Quiet Crisis" and the competitiveness of our national innovation capacity, I believe that a national dialogue has begun and we must now, collectively, focus on assuring that effective action follow to implement programs which will mitigate this crisis. If you, and I, and all others like us, do our utmost to add our voices to this dialogue, we will put an end to the "quiet" — and then put an end to the "crisis".

Thank you.

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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