On May 16, Rensselaer held the sixth annual President’s Commencement Colloquy, focused on the leadership challenges to maintain a sustainable global society in the midst of extraordinary growth and change. The colloquy, which was moderated by Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson, included the Institute’s three Commencement honorary degree recipients David Gergen, political analyst, editor, best-selling author, and Harvard professor; Shirley Tilghman, distinguished molecular biologist and president of Princeton University; and space shuttle pilot Major General Charles Bolden Jr., USMC (Ret.).
“We are in an important time of transition in the United States and around the world, facing extraordinary social, economic, and geopolitical challenges and opportunities. How we address a range of issues including energy security, climate change, and food and water supplies will determine the long-term sustainability of the planet,” President Jackson said. “How we individuals, government, business, academia, and others respond will shape the future for generations to come. The participants in this 2008 Commencement Colloquy are actively involved in fostering the globally focused leadership essential to meet these challenges.”
“How we address a range of issues including energy security, climate change, and food and water supplies will determine the long-term sustainability of the planet,” President Jackson said.
Titled “Leadership for a Sustainable Global Society Discovery, Innovation, and Citizenship,” the colloquy was a lively discussion that covered a broad range of topics and issues. Following are some highlights:On U.S. support for scientists:
Tilghman: Why am I still in the United States now after 38 years? The answer is really simple there is no country in the world that supports science and technology with the same degree of generosity and enthusiasm as the United States. That was absolutely true when I first came here to do graduate studies. I worry today that the commitment to continue to support science and technology, which in my view has been responsible for the enormous economic prosperity of this country over the last 50 years, may be diminishing. But for a young scientist, I came to this country and was given tremendous independence, was given all of the resources I could possibly have needed in order to do my experiments, and it was and continues to be a glorious place to be a scientist.
On jobs in alternative energy:
Bolden: You can’t solve the problems of the environment without people working together. You can’t solve the problems of the environment without helping people understand what military people do understand, that war is the last thing you want to do. It is your last alternative and you want to engage and negotiate with people to your last breath and you cannot get the environment straight unless we understand those messages.
On energy security:
Jackson: I think that most people who really think about this in a comprehensive way know that conservation and energy efficiency are the low-hanging fruit. But if one is looking globally and looking at other economies rising, remember, China and India together have about 40 percent of the world’s population. But that really means that there are a lot of economies yet to rise and as they do, there will be great energy demand. Therefore, we’re not going to be able, strictly speaking, to conserve our way to energy security. We are going to have to innovate our way to energy security. With innovation comes new technologies and one would like to have the belief, and I think there is early evidence to support it, that there will be new enterprises because there will be the need to deploy new approaches and new technologies.
On the national debate about science policy:
Bolden: When a young man or a young woman joins the military, I think they do it for a very personal reason. Many of them want to give something back. Whether you recognize it or not, they do recognize that they have been blessed to live in a country like this. A lot of people say 9/11 caused a lot of the young people to want to serve. I think that may be true but young people wanted to serve long before then and I think we are privileged to nurture young people who just have a sense of service to others.
On challenges for the next president:
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