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Championing the Champions

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

The Science Coalition’s Breakfast of Champions
Cannon House Office Building, Room 345
Washington, D.C.

Thursday, July 15, 2004


I am Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the nation’s oldest degree-granting, private, technological research university. I, also, am President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1995, I had the honor and the privilege to serve our country in government, when I was appointed, by the President, as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), a position I held until coming to Rensselaer in 1999. I am a theoretical physicist.

Our theme, this morning, is “Celebrating New Champions, Honoring Old Friends.” We have convened this breakfast to pay tribute to the men and women in Congress who have recognized, throughout their careers, that a federal investment in science is an investment in our security and in our future.

That security and that future are increasingly discussed in our national dialogue — the safety of our borders, our infrastructure, our health; the security of continued economic growth and leadership; the sustained growth of our intellectual capital; the capacity for innovation — security in a changing world.

The speed and pervasiveness of information technologies are bringing the world’s peoples ever closer, raising expectations and hopes for betterment.

As nations observe the preeminence which a sustained federal investment in science and engineering research has brought to the United States, they are increasing their own strategic investment — in basic research, as well as in the development of their domestic intellectual capital.

The effect is two-fold. On the one hand, scientific discovery and technological innovation make available the tools for all peoples to use to eliminate disease, enhance sanitation and clean water, increase food production and distribution, and drive sustained economic development.

On the other side of the ledger is the inherent challenge to our own investment in our continued leadership as a nation-player. As one example — annually, China produces more than four times the number of engineers as does the United States. Already we see the results of investment by others. Since 1983, articles by U.S. scientists in physical science journals dropped from 61 percent to 29 percent last year. Our share of our own industrial patents has fallen to 52 percent, down from 60 percent in 1980.

We know that sustained support for research across scientific disciplines is a critical component of economic growth, jobs creation, American prosperity, and homeland security. In recent years, basic research, performed at leading U.S. universities, has created 4,000 spin-off companies which have hired 1.1 million people, with annual world revenues of $232 billion.

Technologies, such as self-assembling protein gels with the potential to provide, in the battlefield, artificial regenerative skin for injured soldiers, have emerged from research at Johns Hopkins University and Georgia Tech.

Yet, there is reason for concern:

  • A report by the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century (the Hart-Rudman Commission) concluded that inadequacies in our nation’s research and education pose a greater national security threat than any potential conventional war we might imagine.
  • The Federal investment in research, measured as a share of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), has declined by slightly more than one third since the 1980s.
  • The interest and performance of our own young people in science and mathematics, and in science and engineering careers, have declined.

It will be impossible to keep fueling the nation’s economic engine if this trend continues.

For the last six years, The Science Coalition — an alliance of more than 400 organizations, institutions and individuals, including Nobel laureates, businesses, voluntary health organizations, medical groups, scientific societies, and public and private universities — has been dedicated to sustaining the historic commitment of the federal government to U.S. leadership in basic science.

At events such as this one, and at similar events around the country, The Science Coalition has reached out to say ‘thank you’ to the public servants who understand these issues, and who have championed public funding of university-based research.

Two years ago, with the help of General Mills, The Science Coalition produced Wheaties boxes, like the ones you see on your tables, to further memorialize the contributions of our Champions to maintaining our nation’s science and engineering intellectual capital and capacity for innovation.

This morning, we add 13 new members to our Champions roster. Six will receive their awards today. Seven others have been given their awards on university campuses across the country over the last two years. I, now, would like to ask those seven members to rise, in turn, and be recognized:

  • Senator George Allen
  • Senator Ron Wyden
  • Congressman Joe Knollenberg
  • Congressman David Price
  • Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher
  • Congressman Duke Cunningham
  • Congressman Mark Udall

And, of course, we would be remiss if we did not also recognize our other, long-time Champions who have joined us today. We do not have new boxes for you, but as our early awardees and constant supporters, you surely are no less worthy of recognition today. I would ask each of you to stand and be recognized:

  • Congressman Sherwood Boehlert
  • Congressman Vern Ehlers
  • Congressman Ralph Hall
  • Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen
  • Congressman Bart Gordon
  • Congressman Steny Hoyer
  • Congressman Rush Holt

This event would not be what it is without the support of General Mills, the creator of the American breakfast icon — Wheaties, the original Breakfast of Champions. On behalf of The Science Coalition, I would like to recognize and thank Paul Earhart and Mary Catherine Toker of the General Mills office in Washington, D.C., for their assistance in honoring our champions.

The award, itself, features a “pharmacy on a chip” embedded in lucite. The chip was developed at M.I.T. by Professor Robert Langer, Professor Michael Cima, and John Santini, who was then a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Fellow, now President of Microchips, Inc., which is commercializing the technology. The chip is a representation of the importance of advances in many scientific disciplines — in this case, electrical engineering, materials science, computing and chemistry — which can lead to cutting edge lifesaving advances. This chip can be implanted inside the human body to regulate medicine distribution. It is etched with individual wells, which can hold drugs or chemotherapeutic agents. Ultra-thin gold membranes cover the wells. When voltage is applied, the membranes dissolve, and the medication is released.

We are delighted to honor six new Champions of Science, four of whom are with us this morning. House Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who, regretfully, were unable to join us, will be presented with their awards in their offices later today.

Conclusion

Baseball great Lou Gehrig was the first athlete to appear on a Wheaties box. That was in 1934. Shortly thereafter, Gehrig’s brilliant career was brought to a premature end by Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), now often called Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a neurodegenerative disease which usually attacks both upper and lower motor neurons, and causes degeneration throughout the brain and spinal cord.

Gehrig’s enormous talent, kind heart, winning attitude, and his humility, made him an authentic American legend. But seventy years have passed, and we are still seeking a cure for the disease which ended his career, and which affects the lives of many.

Progress is being made. Researchers report that novel technologies, including proteomics, high-throughput genomics, and neuroscience methods, combined with computer tools, databases, nanotechnology and increased communication and collaboration among researchers are giving researchers the tools to test the important questions.

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, researchers are exploring “protein misfolding” — a process causing the protein to acquire a toxic effect, killing motor neurons. This, apparently, happens on a large scale in Lou Gehrig’s disease. If we can understand the mechanisms involved in misfolding, and find out how to inhibit or reverse them, a prevention or a treatment may emerge. This work is inherently multidisciplinary, involving the life sciences, the physical sciences (including nanotechnology), and the information sciences.

To find a cure for ALS or other maladies, such as Alzheimer’s disease, we must remain firmly committed to federal support for university research across a broad disciplinary front, and for this we need Champions.

So, on behalf of all of my colleagues in The Science Coalition, I would like to thank, again, our Champions — our own authentic American legends — for their special dedication to science. Your continued efforts on behalf of scientific research, discovery, and innovation are the key to a future where there will be cures for disease, more security and prosperity, and a brighter, better future for all.

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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