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Funding the Foundation: Basic Science at the Crossroads

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

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
One Woodrow Wilson Plaza, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

I begin with the following premise: the United States, in conjunction with the multi-national community as a whole, can better maintain its own security and a global security by exploiting scientific discovery and invention for two vital purposes: to develop thriving markets within and among nations, and to utilize innovation to resolve problems and to address the rising expectations of the world’s people.

I offer this premise even while, 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 scientific and technological capacity. And, while we are fully engaged in the one, we have been ignoring the other, which is directly related to the former, and, ultimately, may prove to be of greater import.

This is not a new issue. In February of 2001, the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century (the Hart-Rudman Commission) released its “Road Map for National Security” making five recommendations. Two are important here. The first was ensuring the security of the American homeland. The second was “recapitalizing America’s strengths in science and education.” The commission said although 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.” This poses: “a greater threat to U.S. national security over the next quarter century than any potential conventional war that we might imagine.”

The Hart-Rudman Commission focused, by design, on the security of our national borders and our national interests. But, the benefits of scientific discovery and technological innovation unfold beyond national borders with collateral benefit. Discoveries and innovations extend to peoples and governments in both developed and developing nations, enabling them to address embedded problems and to participate in a technology-driven global economy.

Some embedded problems are cultural, religious, political, social, and must be addressed in that way. Others, if not completely solvable, are, at least, addressed through exploitation of scientific discovery and technological innovation, and through education.

For decades, the investment in scientific research by the United States has produced innovations, developments, products, and processes which have improved our national security, health, and prosperity, and have raised the quality of life. These same investments, in scientific research and discovery, and in the development of human intellectual capacity, are rising, now, in other nations, as well. The sum will be of global benefit.

These investments, while welcome overall, raise the question of whether the United States will continue to make sufficient investment—and, a sufficiently balanced investment—to maintain its own capacity for scientific discovery and technological innovation, and to remain a leading player in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

Therefore, I will focus, here, on innovation and what it can achieve, and on education.

I will make two key points: one is the criticality of investment in basic research, and the second is the urgent need to invest in human capital development to assure that we have the scientists and engineers to make the scientific discoveries and technological innovations of tomorrow.

The idea of innovation has been around a long time. Fifty years ago innovation was closer to invention — i.e. discovery and creation in and of themselves. Today, more value is given to the exploitation of what comes from discovery and creation — commercially, socially, and militarily. In a sense, this reflects the success of the early Vannevar Bush model of innovation based on the investment—through a partnership of government and academia — in basic research and the development of scientific talent. Embedded in the original investment in basic research and human resource development was a promissory note — that such investment would redound to the benefit of society. Initially, “society” was nationally focused, and “benefit” related primarily to national security. But, as new discoveries were made and technologies evolved, the long-term benefits were far broader—and, included huge commercial and economic payoffs — extending to global commerce and advances in energy, health, transportation, and many other sectors. The present affluence of the U.S. owes much to this investment and to the ease of global ‘migration’ (both literal, with modern transportation, and virtual, with the Internet and global communications networks).

Economists estimate that as much as half of U.S. economic growth over the past five decades has been due to the advances made in technology. Consider air transportation, atomic energy, jet and rocket propulsion, other space technologies, communications, television, computers, semiconductors, microchips, laser optics, fiber optics — developments which revolutionized life and spawned new industries.

History demonstrates that we do not typically know the significance of scientific breakthroughs. 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, evolved even further with 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, among others. These advances resulted from the nation’s investment in basic research.

Consider, today, the rise of nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is a quintessentially multi-disciplinary field, with a wide variety of promising applications resulting from the fundamental research.

If someone asked you to design more effective 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.

In another example, scientists at Johns Hopkins University have developed a self-assembling protein gel which stimulates 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.

Pharmaceutical research has given us the “animal-on-a-chip.” Combining nanotechnology, microfluidics, and biological materials, the “animal-on-a-chip” can reproduce the effects of chemical compounds in the human body. The application of information technology for mathematical modeling and simulation of chemical reactions in the body, combinatorial chemistry for potential drug identification, coupled with accelerated and efficient screening by high throughput processes will allow faster, analysis, shortened time to market, and substantially lower development costs for new pharmaceuticals.

Contemporary research leaps traditional boundaries, as once distinct disciplines necessarily inform each other, achieving new breakthroughs. What today are being attributed as life science breakthroughs are just as much physical, information, and computational science breakthroughs. The very idea of nanotechnology and its promise rest on the physical, information, and computational sciences. The ability to image at the molecular level and to manipulate at the molecular level, in physical and living systems, is a breakthrough of physics, chemistry, and engineering. The ability to design new targeted drugs and other disease treatment modalities, based on genomic achievements, depends upon computational and nano-science capabilities.

The interdependency of one field upon another requires support across a broad front which includes the traditional life sciences, and the physical and engineering sciences.

But, we are at a critical juncture. The war on terror, the uneven economic expansion of the last three years, and the federal budget deficit have weakened government resolve to invest in basic research. This is happening just when we should be investing more—not less. As the lesson of the transistor shows, the scientific breakthroughs of today become the transformative technologies of tomorrow, and because we do not know where the next discovery may be, where innovations will come from, or where they, ultimately, may lead, investment in basic research is critical.

It is incumbent upon the United States to continue investment in basic research—not only for the benefits it may reap for our country, but also to help in eliminating the growing disparities among and between peoples of the world. These disparities, coupled with the concomitant hope to share in the benefits and prosperities they observe, speak to the rising expectations of peoples around the globe. One might view this as a matter of enlightened self-interest—or, the generous responsibility of a preeminent global leader.

The primary challenge of the developed world is to deal with terrorism by dealing with the causes of terrorism — primarily in the Third World. Fundamental research and the innovations which derive from it give us a way to do this directly, with benefits accruing to all, particularly as they relate to food, health, infrastructure, and environment.

Food, where genetically engineered, insect-resistant crops may come into play. Health, where new medicines and new disease treatment modalities come into play. Infrastructure and environment, where new engineering solutions for clean water and sustainability are important. No nation can grow and prosper economically without these needs addressed.

Continued, balanced investment in basic research is one critical factor. But, who will do the science in the 21st century?

World War II was won on the talents of scientists and engineers whose work gave the nation weapons systems, radar, infrared detection, bombers, long range rockets, torpedoes.

As a cold-war continuation of the national defense effort, the Rand Corporation engaged in basic, super-secret research. During summers of the early 1950s, a young, and somewhat peculiar, mathematician from Princeton joined their ranks. The work of John Forbes Nash on “game theory” would become the most influential theory of rational human behavior, ultimately revolutionizing the field of economics. The work won Dr. Nash a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994.3

Game theory opened new ways of thinking and analysis. It gave the government a new way to sell access to public resources through auctions—oil leases, T-bills, timber, pollution rights—to corporations and conglomerates in order to develop them.

Early in his career, Dr. Nash succumbed to schizophrenia—recovering, miraculously, three decades later. His story is told in the book, A Beautiful Mind, by Sylvia Nasar, later made into a movie. His story is filled with individuals and institutions which accepted his unique diversity, and made every effort to enable him to continue to work.

Princeton University also presents another interesting lesson. In the 1930s and 1940s, when other universities [e.g. Harvard] declined to offer positions to Jewish refugee scientists and mathematicians fleeing Nazi Germany, Princeton opened its doors. The result was a constellation of brilliance at Princeton anchored by Albert Einstein.

The lesson of Princeton in this period is that talent resides in many places—sometimes unappreciated or under-appreciated. The very group (or individual) a society may ignore or neglect may be the very group (or individual) which makes the greatest discoveries or achieves the greatest innovations. We have made such mistakes in the past.

If we make such mistakes today, in the face of several converging factors, a worst-case scenario could arrest our national scientific and technological progress and global leadership. The forces at work are demographic, political, economic, cultural, even social.

I liken the situation to “The Perfect Storm.”

The phrase is associated with meteorological events of October 1991, when a powerful weather system gathered force, ravaging the Atlantic Coast. The event became a book, and, later, a movie.

Meteorologists, observing the event, emphasized the unlikely confluence of conditions where multiple factors converged with devastating magnitude.

The forces at work today, which could have a similar devastating effect on our future scientific and engineering workforce, are four-fold.

First, our scientific and engineering workforce is aging. Half of our scientists and engineers are at least 40 years old, and the average age 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.

Second, world events, including the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and resulting adjustments in federal immigration policy, have made the United States less attractive to international students and scientists, long a source of talent which has augmented our own. Since 2001, visa applications from international students and scientists have dropped. Faced with new hurdles, students from other nations are choosing to study elsewhere.

Third, the countries which have been primary sources of science and engineering talent for the United States — China, India, Taiwan, South Korea — are making a concerted effort to educate more of their own at home, and to fund more research within their borders. Between 1986 and 1999, the number of science and engineering doctorates granted increased 400 percent in South Korea, 500 percent in Taiwan, and 5,400 percent (that is correct — 5,400 percent) in China. Not surprisingly, the number of South Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese students receiving doctorates in the United States declined in the late 1990s. During the decade from 1991 to 2001, while U.S. spending on research and development was rising about 60 percent, spending rose more than 300 percent in South Korea and about 500 percent in China, albeit from an initially much smaller base. In addition, improving global economies are offering young scientists from these and other countries more job options at home, or in other nations.

Fourth, fewer young Americans are studying science and engineering. Moreover, the proportional emphasis on science and engineering is greater in other nations. Science and engineering degrees now represent 60 percent of all bachelor's degrees earned in China, 33 percent in South Korea, and 41 percent in Taiwan. By contrast, the percentage of those taking a bachelor's degree in science and engineering in the U.S. remains at roughly 31 percent. Graduate enrollment in science and engineering reached a peak in 1993, and, despite some recent progress, remains below the level of a decade ago.

Individually, each of these four factors would be problematic. In combination, they could be devastating. For the first time in more than a century, the United States could well find itself losing ground to other nations. Indeed, recent measures of relative scientific productivity and achievement suggest that the U.S. may be losing its dominance in the sciences: Nobel Prizes, scientific publications, patents issued.

The “Perfect Storm” need not unfold, however, if we draw on the talent extant in youth who, traditionally, have 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 constitute “the new majority” — the “under-represented” majority.

In the last decade, the population of the United States grew from 248.7 million to just over 281.4 million. The non-Hispanic white population grew by roughly 3 percent, while the Hispanic population expanded by 57.9 percent, the Asian-American population by 52 percent, and the African-American population by 15.6 percent. The total minority population of the United States is now more than 30 percent. When women are added to the mix, “the new majority” emerges.

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.

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. This is because our inherent diversity has been a strength, and a key component of our sustained global leadership.

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

There is a lesson here for us.

To arrest the “Perfect Storm,” we need a full-fledged national commitment to invest in research in science and engineering, to re-ignite the interest in science and mathematics of all of our young people, and to identify, nurture, mentor, and support the talent which resides in our “new majority” population. But, how do we encourage talented students to commit themselves to the sciences as early as middle school? To stay the often difficult course through high school? To find the means to attend the 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 fellowships like those once offered as a result of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) for graduate study in science and engineering.

The U.S. government, trade associations, and a variety of other organizations are funding many public-private partnerships to address the issues. Two years ago, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) launched the Mathematics and Science Partnership Program, which helps to support needy school districts implementing cutting-edge programs—to improve teaching and learning. Each is a collaborative effort involving institutions of higher education, school districts and, frequently, regional and local corporations. The business component is critical—providing internship and mentoring opportunities, which are as important for teachers as for students. Many teachers in advanced subjects find it difficult to keep up with the latest developments without business involvement.

What more do we need to do?

I would look, first, to BEST—Building Engineering and Science Talent, a public-private partnership. BEST recently coordinated three high-level, blue-ribbon panels to identify the best practices for increasing the participation of women, under-represented minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering at three critical points—pre-K-12, higher education, and the workplace. I led the higher education panel. Representatives of several Business Roundtable corporations also participated.

BEST found four guiding principles critical to making a difference:

  • First, a sustained commitment to change.
  • Second, integration of diversity into organizational strategy.
  • Third, management accountability.
  • Fourth, continuous improvement.

BEST suggests that the federal government create a national-level award program, modeled after the Malcolm Baldrige Award, to encourage innovative practices in building the science and engineering workforce. The Baldrige Award has demonstrated that recognition programs can be powerful incentives for organizational change.

BEST recommends that the science and engineering version should evaluate organizational performance with regard to diversity—based on critical success factors including: institutional leadership and commitment; strategy development and implementation; work systems which enable scientists and engineering employees to achieve high performance; the quality of organizational metrics and systems of accountability; and the levels of job satisfaction for science and engineering workers.

Developing new talent in science and engineering, for global leadership, requires new pedagogy linked to learning styles and to the creation of a new outlook.

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 analytical abilities and 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 which can help us in this task.

We must educate our students to work between disciplines, reflecting the new and growing multidisciplinarity of research and innovation.

Too often scientific discovery and technological innovation within, and, oftentimes, outside the science and engineering communities are thought of as ends in themselves, or as being divorced from or not directly linked to global issues, except as technical fixes.

But, discoveries and innovations have extensive impacts on the social values of nations, and on geopolitics among nations.

Human embryonic stem cell-based research presents, on the one hand, the promise of medical breakthroughs to arrest disease and alleviate suffering. But on the other, the issue asks a society to evaluate what it means—exactly—to be human.

During World War I, the British Navy switched from coal to oil. That single change completely altered the British relationship to Middle East nations.

Other social and geopolitical issues reside in human genetics, in environmental science, and more. These are complexities scientists and engineers must be educated to recognize and address, or at least understand.

We now need the leaders of business, industry, academia, and in the policy arena to raise these issues at forums like this one, and with our political leaders. We must refresh the social compact which Vannevar Bush proposed nearly 60 years ago, in his transformational treatise.

The core idea of the Vannevar Bush model — still relevant today — had three essential elements:

1. Basic research leads to innovations which are exploitable for our national security and economy, and have positive outcomes for the global economy as a whole.
2. We do not know from whence the next discovery will arise, but it will arise. Moreover, science and engineering discoveries are inherently multidisciplinary. Therefore, we must support basic research access across a broad disciplinary front.
3. There must be a concomitant investment in human capital development in science and technology, which must be coupled to the support of research itself.

To date, the United States has reaped more benefit than we may realize from our domination in science and engineering research, and from our ability to draw upon global human intellectual capital. This has occurred because we have some unique advantages which have driven our success, including:

  • the most sophisticated educational system in the world.
  • a well-developed science infrastructure.
  • a financial system providing ready access to venture capital and a long tradition of investment in entrepreneurial projects.
  • government structures designed to support and invest in the scientific enterprise, and government policies which encourage investment and entrepreneurship.
  • a history and tradition of collaboration between the public and the private sector.
  • a thriving, diverse culture of risk takers—a culture tailored to innovation, in which a variety of ideas are welcomed and viewpoints sought.
  • a long history of taking great risks for great rewards.

But, we cannot rest on these advantages, nor take them for granted. We cannot expect that we will necessarily forever remain THE predominant player in the world. But we must remain A (if not THE) predominant player.

Our robust infrastructure now is being emulated both by developed and developing nations. Those nations, learning from our experience and building upon our successful model, have set their sights on a similar vision — a future overflowing with the fruits of research — for social, economic, and human benefit.

For the first time in more than a century, the United States faces greater — and steadily rising — competition within the global community. To maintain our capacity for scientific discovery, innovation, economic development, and national and global security — to maintain our ability to be a player on the global stage — the United States will have to redouble its commitment and its investments in what has made us the dominant economic, political, and military power in modern times.

We need strong leadership to make this happen — to develop our national will, and to create a national strategy to address the competitiveness of our national science and engineering enterprise. The Council on Competitiveness is undertaking just such an initiative. We need collaborative leadership to make sustainable change across the spectrum of systems including K-12 education, higher education, and the corporate workplace. We need committed leadership to engage governments at each level—federal, regional, state, and local. We need engaged leadership which seeks the talent pool within the new demographics, and finds new ways to ignite the wonder and excitement of discovery in all our youth — to foster their interest in, and commitment to, the challenge of becoming a scientist or an engineer, and to provide the means for them to achieve their dreams.

We need outspoken leadership 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, leaving the public confused, and unenlightened. The resultant sense of disquiet about science, and where it can lead, suggests that we must redouble our efforts to lead and to inform.

The policy, scientific, and corporate communities must join together in formulating science and technology policy. We must not only advocate for the support of fundamental scientific research and investment in human capital, we also must articulate and help to resolve knife edge policy and ethical issues, bringing balance to the debate, and advocating the role science can play in addressing the issues.

We need to look not only at the technical dimensions of public policy, but at the policy dimensions of technological change which springs from basic science.

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. 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.

We must commit to making the full and best use of our own model. We must commit to investing significantly, competitively, and deeply in a broad range of research areas. We must commit to developing the intellectual capital we must have to continue to implement our unique model and to spread its benefits globally. Our national security and the security of our world rest upon this commitment.

Ours is a history which gives us much to draw upon and which tells us that we did this before, and we can do it again.

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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