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Empires of the Mind

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

Fall Faculty Convocation
Georgetown University
Gaston Hall
Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006


One walks certain paths in life for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is because they open before you; sometimes it is because they coincide with personal values and priorities. To be honored for this mixture of choice and chance makes one both proud and humble — at once. One can take credit for full preparation and for adhering to the values and priorities one sets. But, fortune, or providence, is autonomous. This confluence of decision and destiny may qualify as one of life's great mysteries.

I have been asked to examine, generally, "the aims of education," and, in particular, how a scholarly community might plan for its future, and for the nature of the education it offers.

I begin with my own view of "the aims of education."

The aims of education are to enable and to serve. Education enables the individual to focus and to work with the mind, to have a broader view, to expand life possibilities. Education habituates a community to the rule of law and, hence, facilitates good governance and a stable political system. It enables commercial enterprise and wealth creation. It makes possible good health and security.

Education enables individuals to serve others, to work for the common good, to educate the next generation, to cure diseases and relieve suffering, to elevate living standards and to create opportunity.

Throughout its history, Georgetown University has had a rich tradition of scholarship in service to the nation and to the world, deriving from your medical, law, and foreign service schools, your Jesuit roots, your illustrious faculty, and your location and access. This focus has been steady and constant.

But change is the only real constant. Our continually shifting world challenges us to refresh, to remove and replace, to modify, to alter and adjust — in effect, to dust our intellectual house for the new world order — which is flat and integrated, yet asymmetrical, and unstable.

The movement toward global integration is rooted in human motivations as old as history — the urge to explore, to discover, to trade, to gain new knowledge and to experience new cultures. For centuries, countries have sought the means to do these things better, accelerating the movement of people, technology, information, and ideas. Advances in transportation, and in communications technology have greatly facilitated trade and information exchange, and have begun to truly interlink the planet.

With the advent of fiber optics, PCs, cell phones, and wireless broadband, countries, commercial enterprises, and even individuals have gained a level of access to one another that has leveled the playing field as never before. The development of "flat world protocols" — work flow software, supply-chaining, in-sourcing and out-sourcing, seamlessly connected Web applications — has opened up a universe of equality in which anyone with the necessary ingenuity and motivation can compete, regardless of his or her ideology, ethnicity, gender, or geographic location...

We have made great strides, globally, since the 1960s. Average life expectancy has increased from 37 to 67 years; child mortality rates have been halved; small pox has largely been eradicated and the incidence of polio greatly reduced; fertility rates have been reduced so that today there are 3.5 births per woman in developing countries, rather than the six in the 1960s.

In that same time, science has improved crop yields so that grain production has tripled. Scientific discovery and technological innovation have enhanced energy production, transportation, and information technology, which itself undergirds nearly every other sector — from financial markets to national security.

As a consequence, the world economy has expanded by a factor of seven.

...Except that the world is more asymmetric than ever before.

There are serious imbalances. From 1950 to 2000, the world population rose from 2.5 billion to 6 billion people, and may top 9 billion by mid-century. Water use has tripled. The demand for seafood has increased fivefold. The number of automobiles grew from 53 million in 1950 to 539 million in 2003. We are just beginning to comprehend the environmental impact on the planet of this phenomenal growth.

Global distribution of wealth, consumption, and opportunity remain severely disproportionate. The wealthiest 20 percent consume 80 percent of the resources. Meanwhile, more than 20,000 people die every day from malnutrition, contaminated water, or diseases which would be easily preventable or treatable if their living standards were on a par with the developed world. Two-fifths of the world's population lives on less than $2 per day. One in four has no access to modern energy services. Nearly one billion people are illiterate. More than 850 million go to bed hungry. For these individuals, the opportunities afforded by globalization and flat-world protocols have little meaning.

All the while, advances in communications and media coverage make the asymmetry highly visible.

The convergence of technological advances, on the one hand, and asymmetric development, on the other, has produced unprecedented instability. Old rivalries, and ethnic and religious tensions, which had simmered for decades, began to rise in the Post Cold War era, resulting in conflicts such as the wars in Yugoslavia and civil wars in Africa. These tensions have been made worse by poor governance practices, whatever their root, which have led to the repression of civil liberties, human rights abuses, and the breakdown of social institutions. In many cases, poor governance has exacerbated the asymmetry of living standards.

I believe that we well understand that asymmetry, if not redressed, always will come back to haunt us.

How, then, are we to educate students for service and leadership within this environment? How do we shape our own scholarship and educate young people with an approach which will give them the motivation and capability to address the asymmetries, and begin to rebalance the imbalances? How do we sort these complexities and weigh the moral and ethical issues which arise from them?

To provide context, let us review a few examples in the realm of biotechnology and medical science —

In this country, we have a public health system based on linked enterprises of private corporate research and development for drug and therapy development (also linked through university-based medical research centers and other laboratories), a federal approval process for new disease treatment modalities, a patent system which protects the intellectual property embedded in such treatments, a clinical trial process overseen by the federal government, a health-care reimbursement system laid out by the federal government, a disease sentinel system led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal and state entities, all undergirded by relative wealth, which allows this to be paid for.

Now, we know that this system is under strain, as our debates about Medicare (and Medicaid) underscore, but, in a global sense, we are very well off.

About 90 percent of the world's diseases affect the populations of developing nations. But, only about 3 percent of all research and development is directed toward these diseases. The bulk of drug development investment is made in treatments for diseases which affect people in developed countries.

Leishmaniasis

Consider a disease such as Leishmaniasis — a parasitic infection transmitted through the bite of an infected sand fly. A deadly version — visceral Leishmaniasis (VL) (also known as kala-azar) — affects 1.5 million people around the world, killing 200,000 annually, primarily in India, Bangladesh, Sudan, Brazil, and Nepal.

Dr. Victoria Hale, a scientist in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, who had been an official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, has devised a unique, nonprofit approach to developing pharmaceuticals for diseases of the developing world. Dr. Hale knew from her FDA experience that many promising drug-development projects — especially for diseases of the poor — are not developed to completion, nor prepared for clinical trials, because of a lack of funding.

Dr. Hale organized the Institute for OneWorld Health, the first not-for-profit pharmaceutical company in the United States. The company identifies "orphan drugs," negotiates for intellectual property rights, raises development funding, and talks researchers into contributing their expertise to the development process.

Two years ago, OneWorld Health completed the largest-ever Phase III clinical trial of paromomycin, an off-patent, broad-spectrum aminoglycoside antibiotic with anti-parasitic activity known to be effective in treating Leishmaniasis, but which had not gone through clinical trials for approval. Another antibiotic, Amphotericin B, effectively treats Leishmaniasis, but a course of the drug costs $120. Clinical trials by OneWorld Health showed that a course of paromomycin was as effective as Amphotericin B, but costs only about $10.

On August 31, the Government of India approved Paromomycin IM Injection, to cure Visceral Leishmaniasis (VL). The approval of the once-a-day, 21-day cure which provides lifetime immunity, challenges the assumption that pharmaceutical research and development is too expensive for new medicines which the developing world so desperately needs. It suggests that a nonprofit pharmaceutical company can develop, and be granted approval of, an important new medicine. OneWorld Health is currently working on drugs to treat malaria, Chagas disease, and diarrheal diseases.

This shows what an ethical perspective combined with scientific expertise can accomplish. This, also, shows what one determined, talented scientist can do.

In September, Dr. Hale was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.

Cyanobacteria

Here is another, slightly different, example. In areas of the world high in biodiversity, organisms which cannot flee their predators — such as plants or coral — are evolutionarily predisposed to develop high toxicity. Biologists are exploring such substances for the possibility that they may be developed into drugs useful in treating human disease. Testing the harvested material — called "cyanobacteria" — however, requires equipment which relies on radioactivity, which is difficult to import to developing countries.

Eduardo Ortega, a parasitologist at Panama's Institute for Advanced Scientific Investigations, developed a new testing method by tagging a parasite's DNA with fluorescent stain. The parasite, then, is incubated with cyanobacteria. If the cyanobacteria under study have no effect, the fluorescence will increase as the parasite reproduces. If the fluorescence fails to increase, researchers know that they have found bacteria with potential for pharmaceutical development.

This method is being used to "prospect" for organisms which have activity against malaria, dengue fever, and Leishmaniasis.

The issue raises interesting questions about who should profit from patents based on biodiversity found in developing countries. If the extracted material were a mineral, there would be little question that the country of origin would receive compensation. U.S. patent law protects the individuals who do the intellectual work needed to turn raw biological discoveries into marketable products. International law does not yet address such issues.

We ask a lot of our young people...although, sometimes, I think we do not ask enough... because, as they assume the reins of leadership, they will be called upon to find the political and diplomatic solutions for global challenges, but they also must find the technological solutions, the discoveries, the innovations upon which turn the rebalancing of the imbalances, and the righting of the asymmetries of today's world.

Innovation, particularly on this scale, requires people — educated, prepared, professional scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. These individuals are not made overnight. Developing a sufficient cohort to make a difference requires consistent investment in research and development (R&D), and consistent investment in human talent — i.e. in the "intellectual security" of a robust science and engineering workforce. There is serious concern, today, that the United States is failing to invest sufficiently in ensuring our own "intellectual security."

The October 7th issue of The Economist published a 15-page special section on "The Search for Talent: Why It's Getting Harder to Find." The most recent issue of The Wilson Quarterly did the same, in a feature titled, "The Global Race for Knowledge: Is America Losing?"

The competition for talent is not a zero sum game. The Wilson Quarterly introductory commentary properly asks us to consider . . . how, exactly, are we impoverished if our neighbor gains in knowledge? In other words, it is only positive for an interactive global economy that nations develop their economies and invest in their own human talent.

And, so should we. There is strong evidence that we are not.

There are a variety of converging trends 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 is 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 minority youth now account for more than half of our population. These youth traditionally have been under-represented in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. It is from this nontraditional group — this "new majority" — that the next generations of scientists and engineers, and leaders in all fields, must also come.

These converging forces comprise what I term the "Quiet Crisis."

It is "quiet" because these are creeping trends — the true impact unfolds only gradually, over time, and is easy to ignore or overlook. 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 which keep our economy thriving, and which mitigate the global scourges that make for human suffering and global instability. Without innovation we fail — as a nation and as a world.

The impact of the "Quiet Crisis" is vividly observable in the growing need for energy security — another critical asymmetry.

Our planet's 6 billion people are pressuring the world's energy supplies. As the population nears 8 to 10 billion people, their energy demands will grow proportionally.

Many speak of the U.S. needing "energy independence." But, it is critical that we speak in terms of "energy security." There is no energy independence, because the challenges we face are interrelated, interdependent, and global.

A narrow focus on U.S. energy interests alone — without regard for the energy interests of other countries — is neither practical nor productive, because global energy markets, the global supply chains, terrorism, and rising economies have great impact. The more realistic focus has to be on redundancy of supply and diversity of source. True economic opportunity and true national security are contingent upon energy solutions which can be applied globally, and require global collaboration and multilateral frameworks, whose synergies can benefit the "innovation enterprise."

While not as singularly focused as the race to put a man on the moon, energy security is a race against time, just as it was then. We are in the midst of global competition and global geopolitics, just as we were then.

Energy security may be the 21st century's greatest global challenge. The stability which true global energy security would offer the world would be priceless. It has deep roots — which show an essential linkage between technology and policy as recognized by Winston Churchill when he was First Lord of the Admiralty (of the Royal British Navy). He had made a policy decision to switch the British Navy from coal to oil, which placed Great Britian squarely into the Middle East in a continual quest for oil

I could speak at length on the issue of energy security, but that is for another time. However, I make two points:

  1. Major innovative advances and innovation, and the development and exploitation of new technologies require human talent, of necessity, drawn from the complete talent pool — including from our "new majority."
  2. Energy security is a global issue. As such, it is a cross-cultural and geopolitical issue. We need diverse faculty to educate scholars for a diverse world.

This requires a national conversation on an innovation agenda to address global health, the Quiet Crisis, and energy security.

Reports, by major corporate, academic, government, and private sector entities all warn of the consequences, if we fail to act. That conversation is engaged.

The President unveiled his "American Competitiveness Initiative," during his State of the Union address in January. The 10-year, $136 billion plan combines increased federal science and education spending with tax breaks for research and easier visa access for highly skilled international workers. The President's Plan would extend and expand tax credits for research and development costs. The initiative was received positively. However, some of its elements have become entangled in more controversial issues such as the estate tax and conflicting immigration proposals, not to mention electoral politics.

The House has passed two Fiscal Year 2007 spending bills which include an additional $439 million for the National Science Foundation, and an additional $505 million for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. Two days before the October recess, members of the Senate introduced the National Competitiveness Investment Act, which is a combination of several previous legislative efforts aimed at innovation.

At the state level, the National Governors Association has selected "Innovation America" as its focal point for next year, under the leadership of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, besides its important work in global health, is working to raise education standards and increase the number of students who graduate from United States high schools with the skills needed to succeed in college and in work.

What more is to be done? How might institutions of higher education reevaluate their aims and purposes to address both national and global challenges? How does an intellectual community respond? How do we combine and tailor our strengths, wherever we are, to meet these challenges?

How might an academic community, such as Georgetown University, shift and refocus its many strengths, so that it continues to lead in mitigating the great confluence of global challenges?

Revisiting the definition of the liberal arts, while re-examining strengths and challenges, may provide guidance.

The original term, "liberal arts," derives from the Latin word "liber" which means "free." From the Middle Ages onward, this meant, essentially, freedom from manual labor — or, the freedom conferred by scholarship and the acquisition of knowledge that signified one's competence to enter any learned area, and to be freed to work with one's mind. This is why liberal arts study achieved the reputation of bestowing the status of gentility.

This freedom was accorded by study of the seven traditional liberal — or liberating — arts which were organized into two sets. The first set — the foundation — was the "Trivium," comprised of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. This equates with achieving mastery of the thought processes, specifically the skills of communication, organization, and persuasion. Mastery of this material constituted the Bachelor of Arts degree.

More advanced study, encompassing additional content, comprised the "Quadrivium," consisting of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. These were the basic sciences of the day, with an emphasis on mathematics. Acquisition of these skills conferred the Master of Arts degree.

As education has evolved over time, and, indeed, as there is considerably more knowledge to acquire to achieve mastery, we have moved away from a basic integration of knowledge into distinct and isolated specialties. And, is this not, perhaps, to the detriment of vision and understanding? Today, some 600 or 700 years into higher education and academic study, we too quickly separate the study of science, in all of its richness and multiplicity, from the study of the humanities, arts, and social sciences.

I know that you have begun planning for the future of science at Georgetown. As you do that, I suggest that you, philosophically, might root that planning in the notion that science is essential to a liberal education — as laid out in the original Trivium and Quadrivium. Further, the ability to address the global challenges of a flat, but asymmetrical, world increasingly will require a leverage of strengths, an ability to bring the intersection and interaction of fields to bear.

Leishmaniasis is not a public health problem in the classical sense in which we understand such issues. It is a global health problem — played out national and multi-laterally. It is a science problem, a medical problem, an international law problem, a diplomacy problem, an ethical challenge. Energy security, likewise, is a science and technology problem, a geopolitical, legal, and diplomacy problem; an ethical challenge.

Georgetown University's strengths are both established and legion. Each — and all — offer critical fundamentals for addressing 21st century challenges. The broad intellectual horizons of the liberal arts, law, diplomacy, public policy, business, medicine, and health studies — when combined with languages and linguistic studies, create a powerful preparation for leadership in the 21st century.

But, basic science is a linchpin. It is important in its own right. It is important for both leading and animating solutions to challenges.

Your strengths, taken together, undergirded and enriched by basic science, create a powerful intellectual nexus, making worthwhile the investigation of newly interdisciplinary and collaborative courses of study.

Underlying all collaborative ventures, and creating an imperative foundation, is the need to understand and evaluate the complex moral and ethical questions which arise, across all endeavors — a focus which the world so desperately needs today, which you are uniquely positioned to provide.

We have begun this process at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. When I was inaugurated seven years ago, I challenged the Rensselaer community to think in a broader way. We know that genomics, combinatorics, when married with information technology, will impact the human condition as strongly as quantum science did in the 20th century. And, so I urged that Rensselaer integrate research in the biological sciences, with engineering technology, and computer simulation to create a uniquely focused biotechnology agenda, with a particular focus at the nanostructure level where these arenas overlap. I urged Rensselaer to create a Biotechnology Institute which would interface fundamental research, industrial partnerships, technological innovation, and undergraduate and graduate education and research opportunities.

Our investment has expanded exponentially, garnering federal, and state commitment, and collaborative corporate partnerships.

We have echoed this thrust by bolstering science requirements for all undergraduates — strengthening students' understanding of the physical and biological worlds, and with an interdisciplinary approach to biology targeted to both biology majors and non-majors. We are also infusing entrepreneurship throughout the curriculum.

In seven years we have revitalized a university, so that research and education potentiate each other, and in which discovery and innovation create new knowledge, which is applied practically, and shared broadly.

The response from the campus community, from alumni and alumnae, from corporate partners, from peer and aspirant institutions has been extremely heartening.

We also know that, without a strong ethical foundation, our students can lose their way, especially in a world of rapid technological change, which many of them will be driving. We are working to create platforms and forums to infuse this into the education of our young people.

What we are doing at Rensselaer is but one example of how it is possible to unite one's greatest strengths into something new and compelling — a revitalized curriculum to reflect contemporary challenges, and to prepare students to lead the future.

I believe there are untold opportunities in the complexities of our global future. And, I take great stock in the words of Winston S. Churchill who, speaking in 1943 at Harvard University, where he received an honorary degree, observed that "the empires of the future will be empires of the mind."

We, now, are living the future of which he spoke. We, who educate, have the opportunity create the environments which foster the "empires of the mind," and ensure that the future leaders of our world are equipped to apply those empires of the mind globally and for the benefit of our world.

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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