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Congressional Briefing
Research Corporation Celebration

“Fulfilling America's Promise Through Innovation”

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

Kennedy Caucus Room
Russell Senate Office Building 325

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Good afternoon.

I thank the American Chemical Society and the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) for inviting me to join this discussion. And I add my congratulations to the RCSA on its centennial celebration.

My name is Shirley Ann Jackson. I am president of the nation’s oldest private technological university, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Our graduates have been an integral part of fulfilling America's promise through innovation since the university’s founding in 1824. We have contributed to everything from the building of the Brooklyn Bridge to the invention of the cathode ray tube for television, from the development of the first microprocessor to the development of the Internet protocol for email, from understanding and modeling the Hurricane Katrina-induced levee failures in New Orleans to the creation of next-generation nanocomposites.

I am concerned about our nation's ability to retain its global leadership, to address its challenges, such as energy security, and to keep its promises, especially our inter-generational commitment to making our children's lives safer and more full of opportunities than our own. Since I am both a university president and a parent, my expectations for a better future are not abstract. I share the hopes, dreams, and ambitions of the next generation on a daily basis.

For a number of years, I have been speaking about what I call “The Quiet Crisis.” This is the gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—so-called “STEM”—capabilities that our nation faces, as a generation of science and engineering professionals retires–a generation inspired and supported by the national commitment that followed the launch by the Soviets of the Sputnik I satellite. This quiet crisis has been coming on us for many years, and it will take a concerted effort by business, academia, and government to deal with it effectively.

Some members of this audience may be tired of scientists of my generation talking about the impact of Sputnik, but it is important to remember that the glories of the Space Age grew out of a fear that America was falling behind as a scientific and technological power, and that, if left behind, its global leadership would be threatened. In today’s economic climate, many have those same fears today, about China.

We need to inspire students not just to play with technology, like the IPhone, but to be curious about how it works, not just to take aerospace improvements for granted, but to develop them.

Why? First, both our future as a nation and our global leadership have rested, and continue to rest, on innovation, especially innovation rooted in science and technology. On the order of half our GDP growth in the decades following World War II has been attributed to scientific discovery and technological innovation. I fear, however, that we have fallen away from our understanding of this linkage. Further, there can be no innovation without innovators.

Perhaps an instructive historical perspective can be derived from a forthcoming book by Jon Gertner entitled, “The Idea Factory.” Gertner studied Bell Labs to get an industrial perspective on sustained innovation.

As this PowerPoint shows, and, as Gertner points out, for a long stretch of the 20th Century, “Bell Labs was the most innovative scientific organization in the world.”

One of the most notable achievements of Bell Labs scientists was the invention of the transistor in 1947. In addition to amplifying an electrical signal, a transistor can be switched on and off, electrically, to create the “bits of information” that are the basis of all things digital.

The silicon solar cell, the first patented laser, and the first communications satellites came out of Bell Labs. So did the theory and development of digital communications, the first cellular telephones, and the charge-coupled device (CCD), which is the basis for digital photography. As did the first fiber optic cable system, and the Unix and C computer languages.

I had the privilege of working at Bell Labs during the latter stages of its great history, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with some of the greatest scientific minds of our times, and I am proud of the work I was able to do there.

Bell Labs, in its heyday, existed at a unique time in a unique configuration, which many feel cannot, and perhaps should not, be replicated today – as part of an integrated communications monopoly.

Nonetheless, the work that came out of Bell Labs, and importantly, the talent it attracted and nurtured; how the Labs organized its scientists and engineers to do work; and how it gave them the time, space, and support they needed offer useful insights today. Bell Labs structure and success derived from the drive of one if its most important leaders, Mervyn Kelly, who worked at the lab from 1925 to 1959, and rose to be its Chairman. He drove things aspirationally, architecturally, and organizationally, according to Gertner.

Bell Labs scientists and engineers were expected to work at the leading edge of their disciplines, but to create useful things at the same time. The physical layout of Bell Labs encouraged serendipitous interactions among people, and the organizational structure put Bell Labs facilities in manufacturing plants. According to Gertner, and it was still true of Bell Labs leadership when I was there, Kelly gave people freedom in research, and put young scientists with established ones – to challenge all to create undergirding technologies for American wealth and well-being.

Perhaps Gertner’s most profound insight is that, as Bell Labs illustrated, “we should not mistake small technological steps for huge technological leaps.” The same idea was at the root of the Apollo Program and the Manhattan Project.

Mr. Kelly, of Bell Labs, understood that there is no innovation without innovators, and thus the need to attract, nurture, and retain talent, and to create the patient capital and space for them to create, for society’s benefit.

So, today, to develop the necessary human capital, we must support fundamental research, and we must start early to develop our young people’s knowledge, skills, and abilities in STEM, and we must do so in creative and sustained ways.

To accomplish this, academia, government, industry, and the public must work together to improve mathematics and science education from the very beginning of our children’s lives -- to ground them in fundamentals, to help them understand the excitement of discovery and innovation, and to lead to advanced study those who will sustain our innovation ecosystem.

The part of STEM education that we are here to focus on today is undergraduate STEM education.

I serve on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), made up of 20 science and technology leaders from academia and industry across a broad range of fields, from around the country. PCAST has a keen interest in STEM education, and we recently released a report to the President: Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

One million is not an arbitrary number. Our economic forecasts point to a need for producing that many graduates in STEM fields over the next decade, if we are to support our economy. Unfortunately, there is a large gap we must address. Currently, the United States graduates only about 300,000 bachelors and associates degrees in STEM fields annually. We see almost 60% of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field failing to complete a STEM degree.

We must do more to fix this leaky pipeline. Certainly, adequate K-12 preparation is the root of retaining STEM students, but higher education also must make improvements. The key recommendations of the PCAST report are focused on improving STEM education in the first two years of college. Our main recommendations include:

• Catalyzing widespread adoption of empirically validated teaching practices – that is, promoting classroom practices that actively engage students to promote better learning outcomes than traditional lectures.

• Advocating and supporting replacing standard laboratory courses with discovery-based research courses. Students who engage in research early in college are more likely to persist in STEM majors.

• Launching a national experiment in post-secondary mathematics education to address the math-preparation gap. Students cannot succeed without mastering fundamental math skills.

• Encouraging partnerships among stakeholders to diversify pathways to STEM careers. Our nation’s continued scientific and technological success depends on attracting and engaging more women, minorities, and others who are underrepresented in STEM disciplines.

• Creating a Presidential council on STEM education with broad leadership from business and academia. We must have strong leadership and strategic vision to tackle the Quiet Crisis.

We already are seeing models for action. At Rensselaer, we offer preparation, competitions, and opportunities that build skills and experience in entrepreneurship. One of our lecturers founded the Inventor’s Studio at Rensselaer, and created a multi-disciplinary Capstone Engineering course that emphasizes finding unrecognized problems, generating innovative solutions, patenting, and commercializing designs that make the world better. In another pedagogical advance, we are developing augmented reality environments—involving a sentient, synthetic being and game engine-driven interactivity to teach our students languages, and to study cognition and learning in digitally-mediated environments.

We have added opportunities for international experience for all of our students; we are collaborating with the architecture firm—Skidmore-Owings-Merrill—to involve our students in using advanced materials to create green buildings and also to bring them real-world experience, and we are bringing disciplines together to explore opportunities at the intersection of cognition, communications, and culture – which also advances our knowledge of serious gaming, going beyond fun to use new technologies for simulation of critical situations, and for education.

The rising generation has the imagination, commitment, and intelligence to lead in science and technology, if we provide them with the preparation they need. The scientists and engineers that are essential for a future that spares us from making unbearable choices will be there for us if we give them the support they require now. Our investments in better teaching, new forms of engagement, and opportunities to do research at earlier educational stages will grow a creative class of STEM professionals who will build an economy that will sustain us all, fulfill America's promises, and enable our continued global leadership.

If we fail to do these things, we can no longer expect that the United States will continue to discover and generate the new innovations, or to originate the new businesses and industries that have been, and must continue to be, the foundation for so much of our success. We also will not have a population that is prepared for the best jobs that will become available in the emerging, technologically dependent economy. We will not have a public able to make discerning judgments about so many issues that have science and technology at their roots.

The imperative is before us. Together, we can and must improve mathematics and science education in our nation. The rising generations are digital natives. They are comfortable living in a future few of us imagined, and we have the opportunity to enable them to create a future that even they cannot imagine today.

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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