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A Convergence of Interests

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

Celebrating History and Culture Focusing on the Future
Black History Month Celebrations
Marathon Tower
Houston, Texas

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


It is an interesting endeavor, as a Marathon Oil Corporation Director, to be asked to speak to you today. To do so, I found it useful to imagine that I was approaching the corporation entirely from the outside — without assumptions.

What I found was an interesting convergence of three intentional components:

  • I found that the corporation espouses a diverse environment which accepts, respects, and celebrates individual differences in thought and experience. One sentence on the Web page, in particular, stood out: "Diversity is not a project we will complete, but the way we will compete;" evidence that, at Marathon, diversity is a practice, a procedure, a behavior.
  • Those diversity values are supported, in turn, by dedication to upholding the highest ethical standards and principles both in letter and in spirit — which reinforce the values of trust, respect, dignity, and honesty.
  • The twin standards of diversity and ethics, then, are joined and extend outward through a focus on social responsibility in practice — which, basically, means doing the right thing.

This is a positive convergence of the very best. It is an excellent example of what a convergence is. And, it is an appropriate context for the Celebration of Black History Month.

I speak frequently of convergences — the coming together of seemingly disparate forces from which emerges something yet more powerful.

In a broader context, we see convergence in technologies which combine micro-processors, telecommunications, integrated sensors, organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs), and other elements, to create new "smart" products. Examples range from automobile navigation systems to your PDAs.

We see convergence in science. Some of the most promising discoveries are made where disciplines intersect. An example is nanotechnology, which involves the ability to study and manipulate inorganic and biological materials on the molecular level. Nanotechnology creates new materials with novel properties such as carbon nanotubes with extraordinary strength, flexibility, and low weight; or membranes for gas separation, or damage- and failure-resistant materials, or protein gels for wound treatment. Nanotechnology ranges across biology, chemistry, physics, materials science, polymer science, biomedical engineering, chemical engineering and other fields.

We see convergence where the tools of disparate disciplines are employed to create new approaches to old questions. For example, Econophysics employs the tools of physics — especially the study of large complex systems comprising their own statistical logic — to study wealth distribution and economic markets.

And, we see convergences borne out in our lives and careers. My own life was dramatically impacted by two convergences: I was born and raised in Washington, D.C. and began kindergarten when public schools were segregated. The 1954 Supreme Court Brown versus Board of Education decision changed that, and I attended schools with advanced academic programs and received an excellent education.

The second was the impact on our nation of the Soviet launch of Sputnik, which spurred the nation to encourage an entire generation of young people to study science, mathematics, and engineering. I was among them, and my academic life and career unfolded accordingly.

An extraordinary convergence launched the civil rights movement — a significant chapter of Black History Month.

We remember, of course, the late Rosa Parks, whose arrest on December 1, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus sparked the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. Her simple action was so powerful and world-changing, that when she died last October, she became the first woman to lie in honor in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

Remarkably, her life converged with that of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A year before Mrs. Park's historic act, Dr. King had accepted his first pastorate at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, in Montgomery, having completed his doctoral degree in systematic theology, at Boston University. Though new to Montgomery, Dr. King was chosen to be president of the Montgomery Improvement Association — the organization which led the bus boycott.

The boycott lasted more than a year and media images of incidents of violence against protestors, and the bombing of Dr. King's home, galvanized the nation around civil rights, and propelled Dr. King to national prominence.

The bus boycott ended when the United States Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling to desegregate the Montgomery buses. The success of the boycott was a watershed event in the history of the American Civil Rights Movement, and it began a new, more vigorous phase in the struggle for desegregation. Dr. King went on, in 1957, to help create, and to become president of, the influential Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which brought together black churches and ministers to challenge segregation.

. . . And, of course, we remember Dr. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, who passed January 30, and her devotion to maintaining his legacy, keeping the torch he lit for us burning pure and bright, sustaining history and its lessons for posterity.

The theme of this event — "Celebrating History and Culture - Focusing on the Future" — expresses a convergence — the lessons derived from history and culture, and their impact upon the future.

Convergences are potent, creating opportunities or — sometimes — challenges.

A contemporary convergence is a growing disquiet over the ability of the United States to sustain its competitive edge in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

Other nations have observed the elements which have created our success. As their economies have grown in the global ecosystem, they have ramped up their investments in science and engineering research and development. They are investing in their own intellectual capital.

China, as an example, builds about 200 new research centers a year. Enrollment in Chinese colleges has quadrupled to 20 million — most taking so-called "hard" subjects — meaning science, mathematics, and engineering. Last week, China released an ambitious plan to invigorate its scientific research, hoping to become one of the world's leading science powers. It set a spending target equal to $111.1 billion U.S. dollars in annual R&D expenditures by 2020. Such huge investment would bring China even with the world's leading nations in science research — the United States and Japan.

In Germany, 36 percent of undergraduates receive degrees in science and engineering; in China, 59 percent; in Japan, 66 percent; and in America, 32 percent. On international examinations, U.S. 12th graders performed below the international average for 21 countries in mathematics and science.

The Federal investment in basic research has declined by half as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) since 1970. In one year, U.S. industry spends more on lawsuits than on research and development.

This is occurring at the same time that converging trends in the United States will have major impact on our global leadership.

Besides the long-term slide in science and engineering research investment, there are other converging trends:

  • U.S. immigration policies and new opportunities abroad have slowed the flow, to this country, of international students, scientists, and engineers — who have long been an important source of skilled talent for the U.S. science and engineering research enterprise.
  • There are not a sufficient 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 decade.
  • 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 demonstrate.
  • Our national demographics have shifted. Young women and ethnic and minority youth now account for more than half of the population. These youth traditionally have been underrepresented in science, mathematics, engineering and technology and today they hold only about a quarter of existing science, engineering, and technology positions. It is from this nontraditional group, this "new majority," that the next generations of scientists and engineers must come.

I have referred to these converging trends as the "Quiet Crisis."

Its impact can be observed most vividly in the growing need for national energy security — a topic which, of course, is familiar to the Marathon Oil Corporation community.

Energy is, perhaps, the most critical issue facing humanity, where 6.5 billion people are pressuring the world's capacity to generate power. By the year 2050, there will be 8 to 10 billion people, and their energy needs grow with their developing economies. Energy security may, indeed, be one of the biggest global challenges of the 21st century. The stability which true global energy security would offer the world would be priceless.

This challenge is the 21st century's reprise of the "space race" of the 1960s and 1970s — which was really a defense-based "science race."

I believe we know that we will have to innovate our way to energy security. It will require major innovative advances in discovery, extractive, and transportation technologies for the remaining fossil fuel supply. It will require innovation in conservation technologies. It will require innovation and development of reliable and reasonably priced renewable energy systems. It will require innovation to develop other alternative energy technologies, including nuclear power.

These tasks, to be sure, require our highest creative and innovative capacities.

Innovation, and the development and exploitation of new technologies require people — bright, talented, inspired, engaged, highly educated people — who, of necessity, must be drawn from the complete talent pool — including from our "new majority."

It is important because our science and engineering professionals comprise a mere 5 percent of our 140 million-person workforce. Yet, this small group has driven the powerful engine of American innovation for decades. American innovation fuels our economy, our health and security, our global leadership. It has been our wellspring of prosperity. Since it is a relative handful of individuals who make the breakthrough discoveries and inventions, and even fewer who make leapfrog innovations, we know that we cannot predict from where, and from whom, the next great ideas will emerge. Which is why innovation demands a virtual cauldron of diverse, smart, focused, disciplined, committed individuals who continually challenge each other.

And this means that we MUST draw these unique individuals from the entire talent pool, making sure that the entire new majority is educated, prepared for advanced scholarship, encouraged, and mentored.

I have been talking about the "Quiet Crisis" and the "New Majority" for some years now, calling for both a national conversation on the issue, and the national will to take action.

The conversation has begun, and action is imminent.

Last month, in his State of the Union address, the President laid out an "American Competitiveness Initiative" to sustain our national capacity for innovation. There is a compelling need for the United States to strengthen its capacity for innovation in order to retain leadership and pre-eminence in an increasingly global — and flat — world. Technology has leveled the field for all players, enabling nations and economies to vie intensely for leadership and for market share.

The President's call to action — along with recent bipartisan Congressional initiatives — is providing critical momentum for a new national emphasis on innovation.

There are few who disagree that this is a vital need. Every sector — corporate, academic, and government at all levels — has joined the growing chorus for a renewed national focus on America's capacity to innovate.

National leadership is exactly what is needed at this point. We must do all that we can to help make these proposals become reality, and to encourage others across the full spectrum of innovation.

But, the question remains — who will create these innovations? Innovation demands excellent human talent, and a lot of it. And, human talent is the element of which we are least assured for the reasons I have outlined in describing the "Quiet Crisis."

After years of warning, now there is leadership at the highest levels. And, the growing chorus of sector voices has launched a national dialogue. We need, now, to ask, do we have the national will to do what is necessary to link policy proposals to budgets, ensuring real investment in all the components of innovation?

The President has proposed investing in basic research and steps to encourage children to study mathematics and science.

I have said that to be effective, we must also directly support those who pursue higher education and advanced graduate study in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

I see four additional policy opportunities to strengthen our innovation capacity:

  • The first is in making the corporate research and development (R&D) tax credits permanent; we must also strengthen their impact by including special internship opportunities in the R&D definition to encourage the business sector to hire college science and engineering majors — while they are still students.
  • The second is that there are policy incentives we should employ to strengthen the "intangibles" of innovation. We need to think how intellectual property and research results can be given more value as a part of a corporate asset base.
  • A third opportunity is to create portable, competitive innovation fellowships for graduate students and innovation scholarships for undergraduates pursuing careers in science and engineering. This would make a strong statement about valuing the work of scientists and engineers. It would both encourage young people to commit to these critical disciplines and make their study more accessible to a broader range of students.
  • A fourth is to create a cadre of National Teacher Scholars in mathematics and science. One program arm would accelerate certification for mathematics and science teachers who hold degrees in mathematics, science and engineering, not in education.

Another aspect of a National Teacher Scholar program would hire these teachers on a twelve month basis through public/academic/business partnerships. During summer months, this cadre would assume positions in industry, government and other professional positions, or pursue graduate degrees. Both endeavors would continually enhance the knowledge base of science and mathematics in public schools, and how it is utilized in real-world situations. In turn, such teachers would bring leading edge ideas and technology, and excitement directly back to the classroom. These teachers would be compensated better and have a professional status commensurate with their educational backgrounds (like their peers in industry), and commensurate with the importance of what they do.

As we do these things, pedagogy must change. First, it must change by reaching back to fundamentals — to ensure a competency of every student in the language arts and mathematics. One cannot do calculus if one cannot do trigonometry, algebra and geometry. One cannot do these subjects if one cannot add, subtract, multiply and divide. One also must be able to read, understand and articulate.

Secondly, pedagogy must meet children where they are. It must adapt to the 24/7, fast-paced, technology- and media-rich world our children are growing up in. In other words, teaching must embrace technology to reinforce learning, and to help young people overcome learning difficulties. It must be infused with modern knowledge about cognition and learning. It must be interactive.

In the process, children should be taught and come to appreciate the importance of continual and life-long learning.

CONCLUSION

I spoke recently to the Securities and Exchange Commission, in Washington, D.C., and I will bring you a similar message.

This new national focus is encouraging, but we must see that it effects programs to recreate the excitement and the commitment that the nation exhibited after the launch of Sputnik in the last century.

We must remain watchful, too, that every new program embraces the young women and ethnic minority youth who comprise the "new majority." We must remember that the "new majority" has few role models to emulate in mathematics and science, technology and engineering — and in the petroleum business, too, for that matter.

Which is why the convergence of your presence, here today, your celebration of history and culture in Black History Month, your interest in the "Quiet Crisis," are so important. Your own educations, your occupations, your professional positions within this corporation — indeed, all that you have achieved in your lifetimes — are imbued with added value when you become role models for those who follow. Indeed, I would hold that these are a kind of "history and culture" upon which we write "the chapters of the future" By building on our strengths, by conjointly bringing along the next generations, by investing our "social capital" in our "human capital," we create the future. History plays forward.

And so, I encourage you to add your voices to the national dialogue which is now engaged — the national dialogue which turns on three intersecting elements:

  • our national economic need for continued global competitiveness
  • the urgency of national, and global, energy security
  • And, on tapping the entire talent pool for the next generations of innovators in all fields.

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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