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Imagination and the Quiet Crisis

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

Lemelson-MIT Awards
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Illinois

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

I have the strong feeling that those of us who are gathered in this room belong together. There is a convergence of interests: shared concern to vitalize the unique skills of invention, the social benefits which accrue, and the commitment to excellence among those who take the risks to innovate, to discover, to create new knowledge, to improve life for humankind on this small planet. We are fortunate to have the Lemelson Foundation to encourage, recognize, and reward those who share this unique creative spark to dare...

These shared interests link directly to a concern I speak of repeatedly. But first, I must set the context.

The 20th and 21st centuries have seen seminal shifts in the global landscape and the emergence of several trends which will continue to shape our concepts of security, development, and even national sovereignty.

A first is the emphasis on technological superiority as an asset to national security, economic well-being and overall societal benefit. This is a function of multi-sector cooperation based on the fundamental principles which Vannevar Bush espoused in the post-World War II period. Government, industry, and academia could accomplish more in partnership than in isolation. With this cooperation, scientific research could undergird and advance national needs, and could accelerate the pace of innovation. The fact that each sector brings differing needs and priorities enhances the pace of innovation.

A second is that the emergence of nations from colonialism has driven them toward self-sufficiency. Globalization and globalizing technologies have led to a flattening world, but the resulting New World Order, while flat, is asymmetrical, reflecting, and sometimes causing, a social divide, sometimes leading to instability. This presents daunting challenges — some amenable to technological and scientific solutions.

Finally, we have the arrival of giants: India and China. Few countries have had more spectacular success in harnessing their human capital than India and China — although they still face daunting hurdles. Together, India and China represent 40 percent of the world population. That China and India arrived, nearly simultaneously, as major economic players on the world stage likely will be regarded as a pivotal event of the 21st century.

These trends have led to a mounting disquiet over the ability of the United States to sustain its competitive edge and global pre-eminence. Retired Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Lockheed Martin Corporation Norman Augustine in an op. ed. essay published in The Washington Post, in December said:

"In the five decades since I began working in the aerospace industry, I have never seen American business and academic leaders as concerned about this nation's future prosperity as they are today."

This unease turns on three converging elements:

  • Our national economic and security need for continued global competitiveness;
  • The urgency of national, and global, energy security;
  • The need to develop the full pool of talent for the next generations of inventors and innovators in all fields.

These elements are inextricably linked to our ability to be a globally pre-eminent nation which leads and helps to stabilize the world through our scientific and technological prowess, and our values.

But how did we get to where we are?

Other nations have observed the elements which created our success, and as their economies have flowered in the global ecosystem, they have ramped up investment in science and engineering research and development, and investment in their own intellectual capital.

Meanwhile, our own federal investment in basic research has declined by half since 1970, as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

From the human capital standpoint, converging trends are at work:

  • We have failed to excite and inspire our young people to achieve to the highest levels, as their middling scores on international science and mathematics examinations consistently demonstrate.
  • There are an insufficient number of young scholars in our nation's science and engineering "pipeline" to replace the highly skilled science and engineering professionals who will retire in the next five to ten years.
  • U.S. immigration policies and new opportunities abroad have slowed the flow of international students, scientists, and engineers — who long have been an important source of skilled talent for the U.S. science and engineering research enterprise.
  • Finally, our national demographics have shifted. Young women and ethnic and minority youth now account for more than half of the population. These youth traditionally have been underrepresented in science, mathematics, engineering and technology. It is from this nontraditional group — this "new majority" — that the next generations of scientists and engineers must also come.

I call these converging trends the "Quiet Crisis." It is "quiet" because these are creeping trends — the true impact unfolds only gradually, over time. This nonetheless is serious because it takes decades to educate and fully prepare a professional scientist or engineer.

It is a "crisis" because discoveries, inventions, and innovations create whole new industries, and mitigate the global scourges which make for human suffering and instability. Without them we fail — as a nation, as a world.

The impact of the "Quiet Crisis" is vividly observable in the growing need for energy security. What are the alternatives to the ubiquitous use of fossil fuels.

Energy security reaches beyond our own nation, as this planet's 6.5 billion people are pressuring the world's energy supplies. By the year 2050, there will be 8 to 10 billion people, and their energy needs grow with their developing economies. Energy security may, indeed, be one of the biggest global challenges of the 21st century. The stability which true global energy security would offer the world would be priceless.

It will require major innovative advances and innovation, and the development and exploitation of new technologies require people — bright, talented, inspired, engaged, highly educated people — who, of necessity, must be drawn from the complete talent pool — including from our "new majority." We cannot predict from where, and from whom, the next great ideas will emerge — which is why innovation demands a virtual cauldron of diverse, smart, focused, disciplined, committed individuals who continually challenge each other.

I have been talking about the "Quiet Crisis" for some years now, calling for both a national conversation on the issue, and the national will to action.

The conversation is now engaged, and action has begun.

A flurry of reports, by corporate, academic, and government entities, within the last one-to-two years, has warned of the consequences to U.S. scientific and engineering innovation and leadership if we fail to act. They include reports from the Council on Competitiveness, the Business Roundtable, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the National Academies. Abundant media attention and copious concurring commentary have followed.

Over the last months, members of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate have introduced more than a dozen bills designed to improve America's ability to compete in the global economy.

President Bush proposed his own spending and legislative proposal, the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) in his January State of the Union address, and has been speaking to the initiative around the nation.

The common legislative themes include increasing federal research funding, improving K-12 science education, and encouraging undergraduate and graduate students to study science, mathematics, engineering, or technology.

In addition, many of the bills address the research and development (R&D) tax credit, immigration and visa issues, energy security, and other issues affecting American corporations.

Several components of the ACI were included in the FY 07 Presidential budget request. These include increased research funding for the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy's Office of Science. Money is allocated in the Department of Education budget to improve K-12 mathematics teaching, train teachers to teach Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes, and evaluate mathematics and science education programs conducted by federal agencies.

I, personally, would emphasize support for basic research across a broad disciplinary front, investment in enhanced K-12 science and mathematics education — education which provides hands-on, team-based, open-ended inquiry of the kind supported by the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams program. I believe in direct funding for students pursuing degrees in science and engineering at the undergraduate and graduate level.

I would emphasize permanent research and development tax credits, together with an expanded definition to include training, research, and internship opportunities for young people pursuing degrees in science and engineering.

I would emphasize a comprehensive review of intellectual property rights in light of global competition.

The new national focus we are seeing is encouraging, but we must see that it is followed by more support for effective programs such as yours to recreate the excitement and the financial commitment that the nation exhibited after the launch of Sputnik.

The Administration and the Congress must link policy proposals to the budget, ensuring real investment in all the components of an innovation agenda. In other words, we must link rhetoric to reality.

States, and even cities, are not waiting for federal action, but moving ahead with their own plans. New York City, as an example, will offer housing subsidies of as much as $14,600 to mathematics and science teachers, who agree to teach in the city's most challenging schools.

We must remain watchful, too, so that every new program embraces the young women and ethnic minority youth who comprise the "new majority" of our new demographics.

The university I lead takes the issue very seriously, as I know my alma mater M.I.T. does, as well. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was founded in 1824 "for the purpose of instructing persons... in the application of science to the common purposes of life." The mission continues. The Rensselaer curriculum is inherently interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary. Students do basic research. Entrepreneurship is infused across the curriculum. Rensselaer was one of the first universities to create an incubator to nurture emerging businesses exploiting the discoveries and innovations. We stress the intrinsic value of diversity in problem solving, and in shedding new light on solutions.

I could go on — but I stress these converging interests to indicate that your mission is crucial. There is something intrinsically human about the impulse to invent, using "problems" as inspiration for something better, to innovate, to discover the new, to create new knowledge, to explore the unknown.

It is always risky to predict the future, but there are two things I believe we can say with certainty:

  • The nation which secures the means for capturing and exploiting the best ideas, will lead in the 21st century.
  • Those ideas WILL be found.

Only the unimaginative believe that there are no more important new ideas to be discovered — that everything already has been invented. The Lemelson Foundation is a testament to human imagination.

I applaud the work of the Lemelson Foundation and congratulate tonight's award winners.

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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