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Leadership to Sustain Our National Capacity for Innovation

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

John F. Kennedy School of Government
Center for Public Leadership
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Monday, May 3, 2004

Good afternoon.

Thank you for your opening remarks, David Gergen, and for your introduction, Ashton B. Carter.

I also would like to thank the Center for Public Leadership, for inviting me to speak, today. It is my honor and my pleasure to discuss a topic that is vital to our nation, our economy, our security, our global leadership: how can we ensure and sustain our national capacity for innovation?

As a nation, we are in the midst of two struggles. One is an international struggle against terrorism, which most see as an acute threat. The other is a struggle for sustaining our national science and technology capacity. And, while we are fully engaged in the one, we have been ignoring the other, which is directly related, and, ultimately, may prove to be the greater.

This is not a new issue. In February of 2001, the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century (often called the Hart-Rudman Commission) released the third of its reports, “Road Map for National Security: Imperative for Change.” It made five recommendations. The first was ensuring the security of the American homeland. The second was “recapitalizing America’s strengths in science and education.” Expanding on this recommendation, the commission said that while we have enjoyed the economic and security benefits of previous investments in science and education, we now have crossed a line and are “consuming capital”. That means, among other things, that the nation has seriously under-invested in basic research. The commission states that as science and education fall behind other nations’ investments, this poses

“a greater threat to U.S. national security over the next quarter century than any potential conventional war that we might imagine.”

In discussing the national challenges we face, I will make three key points. One is the criticality of investment in basic research. A second is the urgent need to invest in human resources — the talent pool — to assure that we have sufficient future scientists to do the research. A third is a charge to the scientific community, itself, to engage its leadership and input on knife-edge issues, which sit at the nexus of science, technology, and public policy.

Scientific discovery and technological innovation have driven economies for centuries. In recent decades, it has fueled our national economic prosperity, and is the primary source of our global leadership. Consider air transportation, atomic energy, jet and rocket propulsion, space technologies, communications, television, electronic computers, semiconductors, microchips, laser optics, fiber optics, holograms — developments which have revolutionized life today, have spawned new industries, and have provided the underpinning of our economy and global preeminence.

These developments did not self-generate — they did not spring into being of themselves. They are the direct result of funded research in science and engineering.

But scientific and technological progress is not inevitable — it is not self-perpetuating. Its momentum must be sustained by a steady infusion of talent and of resources. This requires attention, cognizance, and investment.

History demonstrates that we do not know where the most significant future breakthroughs will occur — even when technological applications for innovations appear obvious. When the transistor was invented in 1947, The New York Times reported only that the device might lead to better hearing-aids. Instead, transistors are essential to almost every system or device manufactured today — computers, cameras, cars, spacecraft, missiles, and more. These achievements, themselves, were driven by the rise of computer science and greater computational capability brought about by the marriage of quantum science and micro-fabrication techniques to develop microprocessors, nanoscale devices, integrated circuits and more. These advances resulted from the nation’s investment in basic research and the compact between the federal government and research universities, dating back to the post WW II period, and to Vanevar Bush’s case for this coupling, which he laid out in “Science: the Endless Frontier.”

By almost any measure, generous funding for scientific research is a profitable long-term investment. A report issued last fall by the National Research Council identifies 10 separate areas, within information technology alone, where federal research funding since the 1960s has played an invaluable role in the creation of products that now command multi-billion-dollar markets — including the Internet, client/server networks, computer graphics, and many more.

But, we have reached a critical juncture with regard to our support of basic research in the sciences. The war on terror, the uneven economic expansion of the last three years, and the budget deficit have weakened government resolve to invest in basic research. This is happening just when we should be investing more, not less in basic research in science and engineering. As the lesson of the transistor shows, the scientific breakthroughs of today become the transformative technologies of tomorrow. The resulting economic growth will repay the investment many times over.

Moreover, broad funding is important because science and engineering have become multidisciplinary. Contemporary research leaps traditional boundaries, as once distinct disciplines necessarily inform each other in order to achieve new breakthroughs. Moreover, as interdisciplinary teams collaborate on an issue, it is less likely that a line of research will end in a scientific cul-de-sac, and more probable that it will open up new avenues to explore.

Consider. If someone asked you to design more effective and sturdier armor for soldiers, would you begin by studying the manipulation of matter at the molecular level? Probably not. And yet, researchers in nanotechnology — the practice of manipulating matter at the atomic or molecular level — have made great strides toward developing strong protective clothing for soldiers, in the form of “dynamic armor” which can be activated quickly on the battlefield.

The possible military and security applications of nanotechnology also include new medical treatments which could make battlefield medicine swifter and more effective, and create nano-scale sensors for detecting chemical or biological attacks.

Already, scientists at Johns Hopkins University have developed a self-assembling protein gel which can stimulate biological signals to quicken the growth of cells. Using a combination of cells, engineered materials, and biochemical factors the gel can replace, repair, or regenerate damaged tissues.

Indeed, nanotechnology has quickly become a quintessentially multi-disciplinary field, with a wide variety of promising applications resulting from the fundamental research in this area:

  • Materials scientists have already found ways to integrate nanomaterials into everyday products which can be found in everything from automobiles to eyeglasses, paint, and sunscreen.
  • Engineers have developed nano-thin magnetic materials which enhance computer hard-drive memory.
  • Carbon nanotubes, a remarkable all-purpose structure, can strengthen materials, or can function as metals or semiconductors.
  • Medical researchers are working on nano-scale methods of drug delivery, as well as therapeutic technologies.

Doubtless, we see only the tip of the nanotechnology iceberg. But, we may be confident that important new advances will continue to come from this exciting area of inquiry.

Disciplinary walls also have tumbled in medicine, where physicists continue to develop new sophisticated MRI technologies, informing doctors about the body’s internal organs. Recently, researchers at Duke, and here, at Harvard, have developed methods of making MRI "movies," which can be used to produce sequential images of blood moving through vessels, and air moving through the lungs.

To develop these techniques, physicists, with years of study in the properties of gasses and fluids, have collaborated extensively with medical researchers and doctors at both research universities, to produce tools that required both conceptual leaps and extensive refinement. Thanks to breakthroughs like these, doctors can make better diagnoses, using safer, noninvasive tools.

There are roughly 10 to 12 million nuclear medicine imaging and therapeutic procedures used in the United States annually. Nuclear byproduct material is used in radiopharmaceuticals, imaging devices, surgery devices, and teletherapy units. Radioisotopes identify drug-resistant diseases, while radiation sterilizes tissues to aid in healing serious injuries. These tools are offshoots of basic research in the physical sciences, conducted primarily without specific medical applications in mind.

Transformative technologies do not come with instruction books for use. We rely on the energy and creativity of scientists in both the public and private sectors to develop the tools and applications which change our world. Sustaining our national capacity for innovation means preparing the ground for the next transformative technology, by investing — in research and in the talent to make it happen.

As unexpected as some new technologies may be, however, there are moments when certain fields seem ripe for innovation. In the 1960s, for instance, computer scientists did not necessarily envision the laptop — but they understood clearly the enormous room for advances in their field.

The same may be said now of new alternative energy sources. Fuel-cell technology holds great promise. Hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars would reduce our dependence on oil and the gas emissions which contribute to global warming.

There are, however, significant technology and infrastructure barriers to be hurdled. Production of pure hydrogen, itself, must become both cheaper, and more environmentally sound, to make hydrogen-powered fuel cells economically feasible. This, too, is multidisciplinary — involving fields from chemical engineering to the life sciences, and involve several new production techniques:

  • Reacting steam and methane at high temperatures in natural-gas power plants.
  • Reforming hydrogen from sugars, using biomass feedstocks as fuel.
  • Splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen using solar or wind power.
  • Harvesting hydrogen from algae which release it naturally.

Any or all of these methods may prove useful. We, also, must develop practical technologies which store, transport, and distribute hydrogen safely. There has been a recommitment to move forward with hydrogen fuel-cell development, but this is but a single example of future technologies.

In the long run, the innovations derived from nanotechnology, medical diagnostics, and alternative fuels may be incidental to the original inquiry — but, they will not be accidental. We cannot predict the technological transformations of the future. But we can expect them.

But, who will do the science in the 21st century?

A variety of converging demographic and social factors are creating circumstances which may preclude or compromise an answer to this question. I liken the emerging situation to “The Perfect Storm.” Allow me to develop the metaphor.

Here, in Massachusetts, the phrase, “The Perfect Storm” is associated with meteorological events of October 1991. In that year, a powerful weather system gathered force and, ravaging the Atlantic Ocean over the course of several days, caused the deaths of several Massachusetts-based fishermen, and billions of dollars of damage. The event became a book, and, later, a movie.

Meteorologists observing the event emphasized its freak nature, especially the unlikely confluence of conditions which engendered “The Perfect Storm.” A cold front moving east, containing a “short-wave trough,” or the initial conditions necessary for bad weather, collided with a low-pressure system over the ocean, as it also mixed with a high-pressure system from Canada. These factors alone would have created a tempest. But at the same time, leftover portions of Hurricane Grace moved into the area, feeding the system and creating an explosive weather event unlike anything witnessed for decades.

The salient point is: the storm constituted a worst-case scenario, in which multiple factors converged to bring about an event of devastating magnitude.

Having served in leadership positions in government, higher education, and the corporate sector, one of my deepest concerns is that a similarly unfortunate confluence of circumstances could arrest the progress of our national scientific and technological capacity. The forces at work are multiple and complex. They are demographic, political, economic, cultural, even social.

The scientific and engineering workforce of the United States is aging. Half of our scientists and engineers are at least 40 years old, and the average age of workers with science and engineering degrees is rising. As a recent National Science Foundation survey states, “the total number of retirements among science and engineering-degreed workers will dramatically increase over the next 20 years. This may be particularly true for Ph.D.-holders because of the steepness of their age profile.”

An older work force is one factor. World events, including the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and resulting adjustments in federal immigration policy, create another. Since 2001, visa applications to the United States have declined, and the number of international students and scientists coming to the U.S. to study and to work has rapidly diminished.

A recent survey by the Council of Graduate Schools has shown that 90 percent of American colleges and universities have seen a drop in overseas applications for Fall 2004. The overall number is 32 percent lower than the year before. Indeed, 31 of the 32 graduate schools with the largest international enrollments saw their overseas applications fall. The reduction is greatest in engineering and physical-science programs.

Faced with new hurdles to obtaining U.S. visas, students from other nations are choosing to study elsewhere. In addition, improving global economics are offering young scientists more job options at home, and fewer of them are coming here or staying for employment here after they graduate from U.S. universities.

Now for yet another factor: fewer young Americans are studying science and engineering. In universities, graduate enrollment in science and engineering programs, having grown for decades, reached a peak in 1993, and despite some recent progress remains below the level of a decade ago.

By contrast, developing nations are harvesting the fruits of long-term, concerted efforts to increase their domestic participation in science and engineering programs at the university level. According to a National Science Foundation study, 2.6 million first university degrees in science and engineering were granted worldwide in the most recent academic year for which data is available. Of those, 1.1 million were earned by Asian students in Asian universities, while 800,000 were granted in Europe, and 600,000 in the U.S. In engineering, specifically, universities in Asian countries now produce six times as many bachelor's degrees as their counterparts in the United States.

Moreover, the proportional emphasis on science and engineering is greater in other nations than in the U.S. Science and engineering degrees now represent 73 percent of all bachelor's degrees earned in China, 45 percent in South Korea, and 40 percent in Taiwan. By contrast, the percentage of those taking a bachelor's degree in science and engineering in the U.S. has remained steady at roughly 33 percent for the last three decades.

Individually, each of these four factors — an aging work force, fewer international students, more opportunities around the globe, and the lack of interest in science among U.S. students — would be problematic. In combination, they could be devastating, and the United States could find itself falling well behind other nations for the first time in more than a century. Here, I am not talking jobs, per se, but national capacity — capacity for scientific discovery, innovation, and economic development. However, the “Perfect Storm” need not unfold, if we draw on the talent extant in youth who have traditionally been underrepresented in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. This means reaching out to minority youth and young women, who now comprise but a small portion of our scientists and engineers, yet in sheer numbers together comprise what I have been calling “the new majority” — the “under-represented” majority.

Consider the new demographics. In the last decade, the population of the United States grew from 249 million to just over 281 million. The non-Hispanic white population grew by roughly 3 percent, while the Hispanic population expanded by 58 percent, the Asian-American population by 52 percent, and the African-American population by 16 percent. The total minority population of the United States is now over 30 percent, overall. When all young women are added to the mix, “the new majority” emerges.

Now, consider the demographics of higher education. By 2015, the nation’s undergraduate population will have grown by 2.6 million, with more than 2 million of those students being people of color. By 2010, more women than men will earn degrees at each stage of higher education, from associate degrees to Ph.Ds.

By contrast, the traditional science, mathematics, engineering and technology workforce is still nearly 82 percent white and 75 percent male. Clearly, there is a large demographic disparity between the scientific and technological workforce of the present, and the general college-educated population of the future.

To be sure, we have made some progress, but there still is a long way to go. Women still account for only 20 percent of college graduates who major in engineering. At the Ph.D. level, women are only 17 percent of those receiving an engineering degree, and only 24 percent of those receiving a degree in mathematics and computer science. This is well short of the level of participation we need in order to replace those who are retiring from our scientific workforce.

We can arrest the “Perfect Storm.” We need a full-fledged national commitment to identify, nurture, mentor, and to support, the talent that resides in our “new majority” population. Last year’s Supreme Court decision involving the University of Michigan reaffirmed our nation’s commitment to admissions policies that encourage diversity. But how do we encourage talented students to commit themselves to the sciences as early as junior high school, to stay the often difficult course through high school? To find the means to attend university, and continue through post graduate work? To transition into the workplace, the laboratory, the design studio?

Some incentives necessarily must be financial. President Bush recently has voiced his approval for Pell Grants that especially aid low-income students entering the sciences. I would welcome an even more complete extension of this approach. This would require more economic support for such students, but also support for a broader socio-economic range of students (of all ethnic backgrounds) and at all educational levels through graduate school (an example could be patterned on portable NDEA-like fellowships for graduate study in science and engineering).

Other initiatives must be social and cultural. We must make the university a place where minority youth and women are welcomed, made to feel comfortable, and are encouraged through their studies to degree completion in science and engineering. Some universities, or groups of universities, have accomplished this through impressive summer preparatory and residence programs, and scholarships, loans, and fellowships aimed specifically at minorities and women.

I recently led one of three blue-ribbon panels organized by an initiative of the Council of Competitiveness, and supported by the National Science Foundation, known as BEST — Building Engineering and Science Talent. While evaluating programs intended to bring minorities and women into the sciences, we observed that successful ones have common elements: institutional leadership, targeted recruitment, engaged faculty, personal attention, peer support, comprehensive financial assistance, enriched research opportunities, programs that bridge to the next level, and continuous program evaluation.

Encouraging new talent in science and engineering also will require finding new ways to teach. We must educate our students to work between disciplines, to reach new innovative aspects of science, engineering, and technology.

We must examine pedagogical approaches and learning styles. We must understand the cognition patterns of students who grew up on VCRs, MTV, video games, and instant messaging, and devise ways of organizing pedagogy to enable them to use their skills and perspectives in yet more creative ways. Information technology can take us beyond classroom walls, offering students the kind of interactive, experiential learning to which they have become habituated, in ways which enhance their cognition, their analytical abilities, and their specific knowledge.

Simulation of physical phenomena, gaming technology, tele-presence and tele-immersion — the ability of geographically dispersed sites to collaborate in real time — all are pedagogical tools that we can help us in this task.

The diversity of "the new majority," is more important than one might realize, not only because this is where the talent of the future resides, but this diversity is an unrealized treasure — a valuable asset in and of itself.

It is no accident that for, perhaps, 150 to 200 years the United States has been a global leader, or that this nation has been the source of so much that is visionary, transformative, new.

Immigrants — new Americans — coming for decades to our shores, from all parts of the globe, brought (and, still bring) with them a unique determination to improve their lives and an eagerness to participate, and to contribute. Here, they have pooled their vastly differing talents, wide experiences, unique ideas, differing perspectives, and distinct cultures. This diverse mix, this great “smelting pot,” (if you will) has been the crucible from which has poured a great array of world-changing discoveries, innovative technologies, life-sustaining initiatives, transformative ideas.

A profitable alloying does not occur in isolation, however valuing diversity is a requirement. Corporate America already has embraced diversity as an essential asset, not only as good business in a competitive global marketplace, but also to produce the vanguard of creative ideas and innovative discoveries they must have to stay competitive.

To attract all the talent, we must engage the “new majority” talent. We must engage their interest in science and technology studies, foster them through secondary school preparative classes, support their advanced studies at the post secondary level, and mentor them through transition into careers.

All of this requires bold leadership — leadership to invest in basic research and human development, but, as well, leadership on the “knife edge” where science, technology, and public policy come together. Let me give you one brief example — one of many I could cite.

Fuzeon, a groundbreaking AIDS/HIV drug, received FDA approval two years ago. It was the first AIDS/HIV drug approved in almost nine years. Fuzeon inhibits the ability of the HIV virus to fuse to cells of the immune system, thereby helping to restore the patient’s natural defenses against the disease. It shows promise in helping patients to overcome resistance to many of today's more commonly used anti-retroviral drugs.

But, AIDS patients, and their advocates point out that Fuzeon will cost just under $20,000 per year, putting it out of reach of many. Conventional treatments cost $7,000 to $12,000 annually.

The prohibitive costs of funding and exploiting pharmaceutical research and development is a key aspect of this issue. Development of a new drug in the year 2000 cost in the neighborhood of $800 million. Does patent protection yield the best way to fund research and development? Or, to get the best drugs? Should government policy regulate the cost of pharmaceuticals, and if so, how? And, to what extent? Is there too much regulation, already?

The scientific community must take a stronger hand in formulating policy in such areas. We cannot just advocate for the support of science itself, we also must articulate and help to resolve the knife edge issues. We must bring balance to the debate, and we must advocate the role of science, and of the scientific community, in addressing the issues — inside the community of science, and outside.

The aspect of leadership which is becoming increasingly critical is communication to inform — both the public and public policy. We live in the information-glut era, where vast amounts of information — some credible, much not — are available at a “click” to everyone. But Internet search engines do not come with “credibility” filters, which can leave the public confused, and unenlightened. The resultant sense of disquiet about science, and where it can lead, suggests that scientists must redouble their efforts to lead and to inform public policy and the public. This will, of necessity, be both personal and collective leadership.

Public policy is not always — perhaps, not often — an ideal forum for fair debate. It is a roiling marketplace where every voice has its own agenda, and where an issue can become veiled and confused. But, it is a public marketplace for ideas, it is democratic, and it is open. The public policy arena needs the reasoned voice of science itself — scientists who have no economic interest in the outcome of a decision, scientific organizations that can use their credibility to inform public policy debates, weighing in on knife-edge issues with the voice of reason. Of course, the public and our political leaders must be willing to listen. There needs to be greater awareness and greater respect for scientists and the role of science in resolving critical national and international issues.

Forty-three years ago this month, President John F. Kennedy made one of his most famous speeches — his “Special Message to Congress on Urgent National Needs.” He proposed, among other things, a renewed focus on scientific achievement, and set a goal to land men on the moon by the end of the 1960s.

In the wake of that speech, our country made a national commitment, to advance science in general, and the fledgling space program, in particular. This effort inspired, assisted, and launched many of my generation into science, engineering, and mathematics. The scientific, technological, and economic benefits which that commitment engendered reached well beyond the legacy of the space program. A wealth of advances arose from that and like efforts. To pick a single example — the Internet, the transformative technology upon which we rely almost entirely, today, is the product of a late-1960s Defense Department research initative. This development occurred against the backdrop of the cold war.

We live in different time — the cold war “us versus them” climate has evolved, and globalization has created a more complex, interdependent environment where major threats and opportunities are not just rooted in nations, but in loose groupings of like-minded individuals.

And, yet, President Kennedy’s reference to American leadership remains relevant. The United States long has been a world leader. But, the continuation of that leadership is at stake, now. We are in danger of finding ourselves without sufficient science and engineering talent to maintain it. Today’s challenge is no longer just an opponent without, but a challenge within.

President Kennedy’s speech challenged the United States to invest in the areas that would make a difference. He made clear that, while it would not be easy to meet the substantial scientific challenges; that to achieve our goals would require commitment and investment. He said:

“I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But, the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership.”

This speech, and his leadership in this arena, marked the beginning of a period when the nation made a substantial investment in those resources, enabling the nation to enhance its mantel of leadership in science and technology.

To secure the needed national commitment today will require strong leadership. It will require a coalition leadership, combining science communities, education communities, corporate and industrial sectors, and the full spectrum of government.

To secure this national commitment will require that the scientific and technological community focus its energies on solutions to the difficult challenges to find common ground solutions.

To secure this national commitment will require a strengthened communication to inform public policy, and to inform the public.

Forty three years ago, President Kennedy’s confidence, optimism, and vision pushed the nation forward into a new age — an age of comfort, health, prosperity, leadership, sustained standard of living, and, ultimately, global preeminence second to none.

With no less urgency than President Kennedy displayed in 1961, and with just as much optimism, we must press this issue forward.

In urging Congress to make a national commitment to succeed in space, President Kennedy warned that “while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.”

How prescient his words sound, as we, today, consider a national commitment to sustain our national capacity for innovation. Are we listening?

Thank you very much.

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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