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Convergence: in Research and Technology, in Education, in Culture

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

GE Corporate Executive Council
John F. Welsh Leadership Development Center
Crottonville, Ossining, New York

Tuesday, December 2, 2003

Technological institutions, whether they be a university or a multinational corporation, increasingly are beginning to focus on the convergence of technologies.

But this convergence has a broader reach than convergence of technologies. Convergence is occurring in education. Convergence is marking the global marketplace. And convergence is occurring among peoples and among cultures. This said, convergence becomes a force that is beginning to affect and to undergird most of human endeavor.

Convergence speaks to the way various elements play off of each other, inform each other, change each other, and ultimately form a synergy creating what is new.

I hope that my observations about convergence may find relevance with you as you lead a global business in a global marketplace in a global world.

This new world, we hardly need be reminded, is global and multidisciplinary. It is evolving new configurations and relationships between and among nations, peoples, cultures, philosophies, values, governments. No longer are we contending, for instance, with a single, geographic "adversary," as was the case throughout the Cold War.

Our new "opponents" are what we might call "threats without borders" — SARS and AIDS, for instance, or forest fires, power blackouts (Northeast USA, Italy, and Switzerland), global warming and species extinction, of course, "terrorism," and the myriad challenges of a significant segment of global population without sufficient food, education, and health care.

Convergence, in all of its meanings, both drives and derives from all of these trends.

Tonight, I would like to speak of convergence within the context of research, of education, of cultures.

Convergence in Research — the Golden Triangle
Let me begin with research. Much thought of those involved in research occurs within the context called the Golden Triangle of research encompassing Information technology — Biotechnology — Nanotechnology.

Take three events which have occurred within the last three months:

  • On November 12, IBM held an industry leadership forum in San Francisco where the focus was on "on-demand" computing, the ability to receive computing cycles, and their attendant capabilities, at the time and to the extent that they are needed.
  • In September, Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), laid out a series of far-reaching initiatives known as the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research. It is intended to transform the nation's medical research capabilities and to speed the movement of research discoveries to improve health.
  • And, on November 25, Congress sent to the President the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003, establishing the National Nanotechnology Initiative and authorizing nearly $4 billion over the next four years for research and development in this evolving field.

And so, each of these events represents one leg of the three elements of the Golden Triangle of Research: Information technology — Biotechnology — Nanotechnology.

Each of these three research "legs" represents a convergence, itself, of inter- and multi-disciplinary forces in and of themselves, creating new discoveries and often, new science.

It is not likely that I need to define the three "legs" of the golden triangle of research for this audience, but as a scientist, I am aware that it is important that we start on common ground.

  • Information technology: Information Technology (IT) encompasses all technologies used to create, exchange, store, mine, analyze, and evaluate data in its multiple forms — including some not yet conceived of. It is the technology that is driving "the information revolution," and is the driving force in every industry today — transforming most, and enabling new areas of research.
  • Biotechnology: Aspects of biotechnology play a part in research endeavors from brewing beer to developing insect-resistant crops to cloning. Using the basic components of life (such as a yeast cell or a length of DNA), biotechnology techniques can create new products and new manufacturing methods.
  • Nanotechology: Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating and characterizing matter at the atomic and molecular levels. It is one of the most exciting scientific fronts today, and considered by many to be the next industrial revolution. It is an area of scientific discovery with the potential to enable a wealth of innovative technologies in medicine, information technologies, energy production, national defense and security, food, agriculture, aerospace, manufacturing, and sustainable environments.

Convergence in Information Technology
The concept of convergence, of course, has been used in recent times to characterize what is happening in information technology. Convergence, in this context, entails the merging of data, voice, and video infrastructure. This will allow for new functionality and new opportunities.

  • There continues to be an explosion of data. One estimate is that we have increased the total amount of world wide production of original information by 69 percent in just the last three years. This creates unique challenges in storage, in synthesis, in analysis, in mining and utility.
  • There will be huge demand for distributed sensors in large systems, local control, and global monitoring. For example, there are many who believe that this year's Northeast Blackout could have been prevented with better distributed sensors, monitoring, and control systems.
  • "On demand" computing is the trend towards "utility computing." Similar to an electrical appliance that receives electricity on demand when plugged into the grid, utility computing will allow computing cycles and information transfer when plugged into network.
  • Emerging from an undercurrent in the gaming industry will be a trend toward more and more systems and algorithms being massively parallel, allowing much cheaper components (e.g., gaming systems, simple processors, etc.) to be deployed in very large arrays.
  • Smart networks — networks, themselves, will have much more intelligence than in previous generations and thus will enable grid computing (and on-demand computing).
  • Certainly, distributed development and leveraging resources is a central theme — open source software whose underlying instruction set is open for public inspection and modification.
  • Biometrics integrated bio/IT devices for convenience, IDs, etc. There are other examples which illustrate the ubiquitousness of IT. Technology alone is not enough.

At the IBM Leadership conference in San Francisco, GE CEO Jeffrey R. Immelt emphasized the need for improvements in both information AND process. (6 sigma and beyond)

Research Initiatives
The promise of improved technologies and life-enhancing discoveries has prompted the federal government to invest in Golden Triangle research.

In September, Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), laid out the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research.

Dr. Zerhouni, who became NIH director in May of 2002, early on convened a series of meetings to identify both the major opportunities and the gaps facing 21st century biomedical research. It was an exercise in convergence since there were many areas that no single Institute at NIH could tackle alone. The resulting road map is a strategic approach to biomedical research that will have great impact on the health of all Americans.

The roadmap features 28 initiatives under three main themes:

  • The need to understand complex biological systems;
  • The need for scientists to move beyond the confines of their own discipline and to explore new organizational models for team science;
  • The need for the scientific community to recast, entirely, the system of clinical research to develop new partnerships among organized patient communities, community-based physicians and academic researchers.

Over the years, clinical research has become more difficult to conduct. However, the exciting basic science discoveries currently being made demand that clinical research continue and even expand, while at the same time improve efficiency and better inform basic science efforts.

Biotechnology research enables, e.g. functional tissue engineering which studies the properties and functions of living tissue with the goal of creating replacement tissues and organs that augment or substitute for damaged tissue. Such replacements may include combinations of inert and biological/physiological materials. A longer term goal is to develop the ability to monitor bone, blood flow, cartilage, ligaments, and arteries and to give sufficient warning for preventative or regenerative medicine. Another biotechnology research area involves Integrative Systems Biology — a quantitative modeling of complex biosystems at the molecular, cellular, tissue, and systems scales. Mathematical formulations of molecular, genetic, and metabolic processes underlying cellular behavior link to new types of experimental methods and approaches. Other elements are Biocomputation and Bioinformatics and Biocatalysis and Metabolic Engineering

The biotechnology industry has more than tripled in size since 1992, with revenues increasing from $8 billion in 1992 to $27.6 billion in 2001. The U.S. biotechnology industry currently employs 179,000 people — more than all the people employed by the toy and sporting goods industries. Biotechnology is one of the most research-intensive industries in the world. The U.S. biotechnology industry spent $15.6 billion on research and development in 2001.

The 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 was signed by President Bush on December 3. The act establishes a national nanotechnology initiative, and authorizes nearly $4 billion over the next four years for research and development.

The act creates research centers, education and training efforts, research into the societal and ethical consequences of nanotechnology, and efforts to transfer technology into the marketplace.

These roadmaps and research initiatives represent a convergence of forces at the governmental and research levels which reflects the convergence of disciplines inside, if you will, the individual research sectors of the golden triangle of research.

Nanotechnology has the potential to create entirely new industries and radically to transform others, especially as the basis of competition. As such, it is one of the areas of innovation most worthy of investment.

The National Science Foundation estimates that nanotechnology applications may be worth more than $1 trillion in the global economy in little more than a decade.

New nanoscale applications are already in production including superior textiles, improved sunscreens, better dental bonding materials, high resolution printer inks, digital camera displays, and high capacity computer hard disks. And, by all accounts, this is just the ground floor.

Nanotechnology heralds breakthroughs that will make steel stronger, and will carry microscopic devices through the human bloodstream to monitor disease and deliver exquisitely targeted treatments to specific organs or even specific cells.

As these emerging scientific areas grow and expand, they increasingly overlap each other. As they do so, they begin to inform each other, yielding even greater discoveries. Their function requires multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches and the use of sophisticated computing tools.

Biosensors fall into this category. They are monitoring probes that include a biological component (a whole bacterium, enzyme or antibody) with an electronic component to yield a measurable signal upon detection of hazardous bacteria or chemicals. They can be created to detect, record, and transmit information regarding a physiological change or the presence of various chemical or biological materials in an environment. They have been touted as the cutting edge in medical diagnostics, genomics, proteomics, and high throughput screening.

The field of pharmacogenomics is another example of exploration on multiple fronts converging in discovery. This particular convergent enterprise leverages advances in molecular diagnostics and information technology, to provide for a future of more refined personalized medicine and which will transform the practice of medicine.

Terahertz science and technology is another area of discovery at the cutting edge of convergence. Terahertz is the frequency range which lies between microwave and infrared frequencies. Terahertz has a range of potential applications including medical imaging, forensic science, and food safety. Using a technique pioneered by researchers at Rensselaer, terahertz radiation already has been used to uncover small defects in a sample of Space Shuttle foam. This nondestructive method of inquiry and evaluation could help National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials examine the insulating foam that is applied to each shuttle's fuel tank prior to launch.

Convergence of Education
We need to educate our own citizens to work in a global environment. To do so requires a rethinking and convergence of elements which define the educated individual.

It would behoove us to educate our engineers and scientists more broadly, giving them a broader world view, including elements of a liberal arts education, with special emphasis on cultures and communication.

We need to educate our young people for leadership, and especially global leadership — involving team-based problem-solving and inter-and multi-disciplinarity; appreciation of differences and diversities; utilization of vision, culture, and values; enabling them to think beyond our borders and beyond the borders of single problems.

Into this mix, we must stir a component of ethics education. ABET Engineering Criteria 2000 has built ethics into its engineering criteria for engineering education accreditation. We, who are educators, should enhance the practice of including students in undergraduate research, since this helps to foster their interest in ethics content and concepts. Interest in ethical issues is one of the "spillovers" of team-based problem solving and multidisciplinarity.

Finally, as an educator and President of a research university, I believe strongly that we must educate for entrepreneurship — educate for team-based market recognition, assessment of market opportunities, and education for execution.

Convergence of Cultures
This brings me to the last segment of the contemporary phenomenon of convergence — the convergence of cultures.

Science has always been global — imagine, if you will, a national multiplication table.

Now it is the turn of business — corporations now conduct business, communicate, negotiate, and manufacture around the globe, in multiple time zones, in many countries, among people of diverse languages and traditions.

In order to have been successful, corporations have had to learn and to lead the way in multicultural communications and endeavors. And, they have been exceptionally successful.

We can bring these lessons home — and we must — because the U.S. workforce is changing and many of the same factors which corporations have managed successfully overseas, are now operative upon our own shores.

In the last decade, the population in the US grew from 249 million to 81.4 million (1990 to 2000).

The minority population increased 35 percent overall.

The current SMET workforce, 81.8 percent is white and 76.4 percent is male.

The current S&E workforce is aging. The number with S&E degrees reaching retirement age is likely to triple in the next decade.

In the last 20 years, the college-age population has declined by more than 21 percent (from 21.6 million in 1980 to 17.0 million in 2000. In 2001, it increased to 19.3.)

Engineering enrollments are essentially flat. The number of engineering degrees more than doubled between 1974 and the mid-1980s, but has since dropped 18.6 percent. In 2000, 63,635 baccalaureate degrees in engineering were awarded, well below the mid-80s high of more than 78,000).

Degrees at the master's level in engineering have declined, in part due to the decline in enrollment by foreign students.

The degrees awarded in Computer Science and Engineering have steadily decreased from 1985 to 1995. In the 1990s the only fields in S&E showing an increase of graduates have been psychology and biological sciences, fields in which women are highly represented. The increase in the biological sciences may be related to the increase in women pursuing MDs.

At the doctoral level, foreign students earned 49 percent of the degrees in engineering and 36 percent in the natural sciences (2000). In 1997, graduate degrees earned by foreign students had declined by 15 percent.

There are added challenges in today's post-9/11 world as it is more difficult for foreign students to enter the US to study; many are choosing other nations schools for higher education; their own countries are increasing their higher education offerings; and many who might have stayed in this country are choosing to return home to increased job opportunities.

We need to attract a new generation of young people into the sciences and engineering — an underrepresented majority.

Begin in middle school or earlier.

We need to experiment with a National Science and Mathematics Teacher Training program which would entail five-year contracts employing teachers for nine months in schools and three months in industry. The program would be enhanced with an advanced degree component to encourage teachers to become scholars in their disciplines.

We need to build programs that foster mentoring and shepherd classes of talented students from middle school through high school and higher education — with special attention to the transitions where so many become derailed. As we do this, as our demographics change, we must mine the talent from all groups — including the underrepresented majority comprising women and minorities.

A report from a subsidiary of the Council on Competitiveness — known as BEST, or Building Engineering and Science Talent — has focused on this issue. It has worked to identify BEST practices in nurturing women and minorities in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. The report is slated to be released this winter and holds out the hope that we can learn and apply what works.

I would argue that the very convergence of the sciences and technologies is helping to drive the convergence of cultures.

At the IBM Forum, I made this point: "Think about how the whole open-source movement occurs. You basically have a global network of people from disparate cultures and very different perspectives . . . it is a fundamental [business] enabler because it is driven by having people come together from around the globe."

I started out by commenting that convergence was a contemporary phenomenon. Perhaps it is not. Perhaps convergence is a more ancient force — or impulse, or driver — than we now realize. Perhaps, we are only now catching on to the power of convergence.

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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