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Council on Competitiveness America Competes Award for Public Service

“Together, Government, Business, and Academia Create Innovation”

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

New York, New York

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Thank you. I am grateful for this award, and I am especially honored to be its first recipient. I have a high regard for the value of public service. I also recognize the special obligations of scientists to bring their knowledge into the public arena. The key challenges of our times all have scientific and technological components. The only way that informed decisions can be made is if those of us who have the analytical skills, perspectives, and relevant facts participate at every level.

Our future depends on science that is adequately supported by the public, and respected by decision-makers. Such work and such support contributed to half our GDP growth in the decades following WWII.

I must say that I have never lost my passion for science. Its theories, experiments, and analytical rigor provide a deeper understanding and appreciation of nature, but also of the challenges our world faces – they are myriad.

I grew up with hard-working, ethical, forward-looking parents, and great siblings. Today I have an amazing husband and a wonderful son. I am a child of the 50’s and 60’s whose career resulted from the confluence of two events – the 1954 Supreme Court Brown decision which desegregated public schools (I benefitted), and the Soviet launch of the Sputnik I satellite in 1957, which ignited a space race, and gave special focus to nurturing scientific talent, and developing our national capabilities in key technologies.

I have been privileged to work, not just in science, but also at multiple levels in different arenas. These opportunities always have strengthened my resolve to make a difference in the world through “the application of science to the common purposes of life” (Rensselaer’s founding mission).

My own participation in public policy began in a relatively modest way, when, in 1985, Governor Thomas Kean appointed me to the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology. The Commission was created to spur research and investment in areas that were important to the state’s economy.

My visibility through that early appointment by Governor Kean was one aspect that contributed to greater opportunities for public service for me.

Over the years, I have had the opportunity and privilege to work as a physicist (at the former AT&T Bell Labs), as a professor, as the President of a technological research university, as the Chairman of a science- and engineering-rooted Federal regulatory agency, as a Corporate board member, and as an advocate and policy-maker on behalf of science, and its importance to society. These roles have taught me the power of science and technology to be transformative for our economy and our global leadership – not alone, of course – but we cannot make progress without them.

I am delighted, and have been fortunate, to have worked with the Council on Competitiveness across a broad front on multiple initiatives:

  • National Innovation Initiative, whose results were key drivers in the passage of the America Competes Act (together with the National Academies’ “Rising Above the Gathering Storm report, which I also was fortunate to be party to)
  • Energy Security, Innovation and Sustainability Initiative, which I co-led with Jim Owens, former Chairman and CEO of Caterpillar and Michael Langford, National President, Utility Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO;

and more recently as a member of the steering committee for the Council’s manufacturing initiative, while simultaneously (with Eric Schmidt of Google) co-leading a President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) study, and resultant report, on Advanced Manufacturing, which has led to the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership announced by President Obama last year.

When we look across this spectrum of activity, the foci of these initiatives lie at the heart of what many know to be critical to the U.S. economy and global leadership – namely, an innovation-based economy, energy security in its broadest sense (with well-functioning energy markets), and the ability to exploit the newest technologies (biotechnology, IT and nanotechnology) to rejuvenate American manufacturing.

All of this has helped to bring focus to:

  • What constitutes a strong innovation ecosystem?
  • How university-based scientific discovery and technological innovation help to drive economies – locally, nationally, globally – in what are often unrecognized ways?

Universities play a significant, though, perhaps, under-recognized role in generating the ideas and sparking the innovations that drive the global economy and sustain our security. The ability of universities to play this role is undergirded by public support – financial and political. But, in order for the work of those in universities to have true effect, that work must play through commerce and the global marketplace.

This has brought focus to the need to strengthen the partnerships among universities, businesses and government to generate the new ideas, and move them into the marketplace, to grow businesses and jobs.

It is important that, in this Presidential election cycle, there be embedded in the key policy debates the core messages of:

  • The need for a strong innovation ecosystem,
  • The need to focus on our greatest challenges – energy security, advanced manufacturing, infrastructure resiliency, disease mitigation, and,
  • The risk to our nation’s competitiveness if we do not strengthen our STEM workforce.

There is no innovation without innovators. Innovation requires human capital development, and strengthening research to innovate what is next. In other words, we need a rejuvenated three-legged stool of business, academia and government – a partnership that has grown and sustained our economy, our security, and our global leadership for decades.

These ideas drive my passion and are the focus of my work as a university president – above all. I appreciate your honoring me for it. Most importantly, I believe you are honoring the collaboration across sectors that is so important to solve the great challenges of our time, and to strengthen our economy. It will take a GE working with a Rensselaer, with the appropriate role and support of government to solve energy security, to rebuild our infrastructure, to mitigate disease, and – in the process – drive innovation and strengthen advanced manufacturing.

I continue to be committed to public service. We live in uncertain and, in many ways, difficult times, but I see great hope for our collective future, if we prepare the next generation, encourage investment in research, create cooperation across disciplines and sectors, and bring knowledge and thoughtful discourse to the challenges we face. I am grateful for your generosity and encouragement in honoring me this evening. And I wish all of you success as we, together, build the future.

Thank you very much.


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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