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Fortuitous Convergences

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

Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG)
PSEG Women's Network
Newark, New Jersey

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


It is an interesting endeavor, as a Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG) Director, to be asked to speak with 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 a compelling convergence of corporate vision valuing diversity of every type, in which participants are supportive . . . "to each other, in ways that their unique characteristics become enablers . . . rather than barriers . . ." and commitment to ". . . a respectful and inclusive environment and culture . . . ."

Affinity groups — of which the Women's Network is one — extends this commitment into practice, providing a sense of value and belonging. It bespeaks a deep commitment to individuals, a recognition of their uniquenesses, and an acknowledgement that those very differences add richness and corporate value.

Your Women's Network represents a positive convergence of vision, commitment, and practice.

I speak often of convergences — the coming together of disparate forces, from which emerges something yet more powerful. Convergences frequently offer either opportunity or — sometimes — challenge.

In the technological 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 in our careers. My own life was dramatically impacted by the convergence of two events:

  • The 1954 Supreme Court Brown versus Board of Education decision.

and

  • The Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in October of 1957.

Allow me to explain.

PERSONAL HISTORY

I was raised in Washington, D.C., by loving parents who encouraged and inspired me, and instilled in me a lifelong love of learning. I attended D.C. public schools, which, at the beginning, by the law of the land, were segregated. The historic Supreme Court case: Brown vs. the Board of Education changed that, and following the Court's decision in that case, public schools in the District of Columbia were desegregated. This enabled me to attend the public school near my home, where I was tested and placed in advanced classes, and competed against a broader/larger group of students.

Desegregation occurred at a time when the United States was facing an arms race with what was then the Soviet Union. The competition ignited into a space race with the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. In reality, it was a defense-based science race. The convergence of desegregation and the science race opened for me — and for others like me — a window-in-time — an opportunity.

The D.C. public school system, at that time, gave special focus to science and mathematics for all students. I was fortunate. I loved science and mathematics.

I graduated valedictorian of my class and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), where I studied physics and eventually received my Ph.D. in theoretical elementary particle physics. My current research specialty is in theoretical condensed matter physics, especially layered systems, and the physics of opto-electronic materials.

Early in my career, while conducting research at what was then-Bell Telephone Laboratories, later AT&T Bell Laboratories, [now Lucent Technologies] in Murray Hill, New Jersey, I participated in several professional physics organizations, becoming involved in governance positions and in broader discussions of physics and research, as well as physics and society. My interest in science and technology, and my overall curiosity, led me to observe what was going on around me in areas of public policy that impacted science and technology. I already had been appointed as a life member of the MIT Corporation (the MIT Governing Board). These experiences led to my being asked to join the board of directors of a utility company in the state of New Jersey, later — another. I am speaking of New Jersey Resources (1982) and of course, Public Service (1987). At Public Service, I chaired the board's Nuclear Oversight Committee (for several years) and through it, became a member of the Advisory Committee of INPO — the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations.

In 1985, New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean appointed me, as a founding member, to the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology. The Commission is dedicated to enhancing the state's academic research capacity and technology transfer, encouraging technology business development, and supporting a technology literate workforce. For the next ten years, I served the Commission in various capacities, including on the Executive and Budget committees, and as vice chair of the Scientific Fields Committee, which selected the areas in which the Commission would invest. These were among my early experiences in quasi-governmental bodies, with public policy.

LEADERSHIP

Through these experiences, I began to learn some of the elements of leadership, and how leadership, policy, and planning come together to drive change.

I also believe that teaching correlates with leadership. As I began a professorship at Rutgers University, I began to "teach," which, in one sense, is to "interpret" between two worlds — the world of advanced physics and those who are interested in learning it.

Public policy is another arena for "interpretation" in much the same sense, where one "teaches," or, perhaps one could say, "translates" between two disparate worlds — enabling each to inform the other, so that policy better serves science and technology, and the sciences and technology better serve the public realm.

As I acquired experience in public policy, I came to understand that because of an ability to bridge several worlds, and to be conversant in the language of each, I had become a leader in each. I, also, had acquired a useful perspective — the ability to step back and take in the bigger picture. This formed, for me, a philosophical basis for leadership.

Then, in 1995, President William Clinton appointed me to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and, shortly thereafter, as its Chairman. At the NRC, I initiated a strategic assessment and rebaselining of the agency, leading to a new planning, budgeting, and performance management system which put NRC activities on a more businesslike footing. I introduced risk-informed, performance-based regulation (which meant utilizing probabilistic risk assessment on a consistent basis), a process which now is infused throughout its regulatory programs. I led the development of a new reactor oversight program, and, with the Commission, created a license renewal process resulting in the first renewal (in March 2000) of the license of an operating reactor in the United States. All of this required an ability to understand the technology, and to understand and appreciate the broad policy context, nationally and globally, of nuclear power and other nuclear activities, and to know how to put enabling processes together to enhance nuclear safety, while undergirding the nation's electricity supply.

During my NRC tenure I, also, spearheaded the formation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association (INRA). The association comprises the most senior nuclear regulatory officials from Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. I was elected the first INRA chairman, and, for two years, guided its development as a high-level forum to examine issues, and to offer assistance to other nations, on matters of nuclear safety. Through INRA, elements of risk-informed, performance-based regulation have been incorporated into the regulatory programs of other nations. Bringing that group together and leading its early development required "interpretation" among cultures, and the ability to see the big picture in terms of global nuclear safety.

My pre-NRC public policy experience served me well as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as they helped me to "translate" between and among the various worlds of the Congress, the public, the nuclear industry, and NRC employees.

It also served me well in another aspect of my role in government, where I would make three observations.

First, I had the opportunity to make a global difference, using unique aspects of my educational background, and an inherent multi-cultural sensitivity. I was able to use the NRC Chairmanship to help the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union and post-apartheid South Africa.

Here were countries newly responsible for sophisticated nuclear operations and activities — with Soviet era nuclear power plants (and in the case of South Africa, Apartheid era nuclear facilities), remnants of a nuclear weapons program — with no infrastructure to manage them (i.e. no indigenous human resources and no regulatory or legal framework). We, at the NRC, had the opportunity to help create their infrastructure by training regulators, performing safety assessments, and drafting basic nuclear laws and nuclear regulations. We also worked to create a framework for shutting down plutonium production reactors inside of Russia and outside, and, with the U.S. Department of Energy, create a nuclear materials protection, control and accounting system for non-proliferation.

Second, I discovered that we had little or no scientific expertise at the highest policy levels in our government — domestically or abroad. This is serious when dealing with nuclear issues, but also, the environment, space, disease, defense, clean water, civil infrastructure, etc.

Third, there were very few women in the nuclear arena, especially internationally.

These observations reinforced my resolve to change the face of science and engineering — to ensure the participation of women and under-represented minorities, i.e. the "underrepresented majority". This is part of what has powered my concern about what I call the "Quiet Crisis."

Let me talk about what the "Quiet Crisis" is.

QUIET CRISIS

As I said, before, convergences are potent, and can create opportunities or — sometimes — challenges.

A contemporary convergence is causing 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 students — most taking so-called "hard" subjects — meaning science, mathematics, and engineering, and China graduates some 300,000 students with science and technology-based degrees annually. Recently, China released an ambitious plan to invigorate its scientific research, hoping to become one of the world's leading science powers. The plan would invest 900 billion Yuan by 2020 (equal to about $111.1 billion U.S. dollars) in annual research and development, or 2.5 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP). Such huge investment would bring China even with the world's leading nations in science research — the United States and Japan.

Overall, 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 U.S. Federal investment in basic research has declined by half as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) since 1970.

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

  • 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 also come.

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

The impact of the "Quiet Crisis" can be observed most vividly in the growing need for national energy security — a topic which, of course, is familiar to the PSEG 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, as I said, was really a defense-based "science race."

I believe we know that 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.

What might those innovations look like? I do not have the time to review all energy innovations currently under study, but it might be interesting to look at one or two.

METHANE HYDRATES

One example is methane hydrate. Methane, the chief constituent of natural gas, is locked in ice, and generally is found in hostile, remote settings, such as the Arctic permafrost or deep ocean. Once considered a nuisance, because it clogs natural gas pipelines, methane hydrate's reputation has improved as scientists have discovered that it could be an astonishingly abundant new energy source. Worldwide estimates of the natural gas potential of methane hydrate approach 400 million trillion cubic feet — a staggering figure when you consider the world's currently proven gas reserves at 5,500 trillion cubic feet. In fact, the worldwide amounts of hydrocarbons bound in gas hydrates are estimated conservatively to be twice the amount found in all known fossil fuels on Earth.

As you may imagine, countries such as the United States and Japan, which are heavily dependent on foreign sources of energy, are keenly interested in harnessing this resource. The momentum is growing: just this month, President Bush met with India's prime minister and welcomed the country's interest in the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, an international marine research endeavor contributing to long-term energy solutions, such as gas hydrates.

It is estimated that the methane trapped in known frozen reservoirs around the globe could power the world for centuries. But the technology to mine the deposits has proved elusive. Numerous studies are underway to characterize and describe the hydrates, and to determine how much is available at sites here and abroad. Yet, little is known about how gas hydrates can best be extracted and transported.

In the United States, the National Methane Hydrates Research and Development program — a collaboration of scientific research groups, universities, and divisions of the Energy, Commerce, Defense and Interior departments — currently supports 14 ongoing field studies and 10 laboratory projects, ranging from researching the properties of methane hydrates to testing remote detection and drilling technologies.

Gas hydrate drilling comes with its share of environmental concerns, however, including fears that drilling could release greenhouse gases, or trigger ocean landslides. Just last month, scientists reported discovering what they believe to be a substantial undersea deposit of frozen methane just off the Southern California coast. But marine geologists at the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park warned hydrate extraction could be difficult because of its proximity to shipping lanes and the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

If only 1 percent of the methane hydrate resource could be made technologically and economically recoverable, in an environmentally sound manner, the United States could more than double its domestic natural gas resource base. Congress has authorized funds for methane hydrate research and development, but has appropriated only limited amounts. Gas hydrate researchers may also find the president's proposals for the 2007 budget worrisome: the administration has zeroed out funding for the Department of Energy's oil and natural gas research programs, arguing that the industry, which posted record profits last year, can afford to fund this research itself.

Methane hydrates, and myriad other innovations, will make a difference in utilizing and extending the planet's fossil fuel resources. But, no matter for what period of time one chooses to believe the Earth's fossil resources will sustain us, we will need to innovate to discover and to use them — with the least possible environmental impact.

NUCLEAR

I would be remiss if I did not mention nuclear power in the category of energy alternatives. Nuclear power, which provides 20 percent of electricity generated in this country, and about 16 percent worldwide, is having a resurgence. This is being achieved through safer and more economical performance of nuclear power plants, and by technological innovations in new designs — which address safety and profitability concerns, and which are targeted to deal with issues of nuclear waste.

Much of the growth in nuclear power generation is in Asia, with 17 out of 25 reactors under construction being there.

Several new designs are moving toward implementation.

South Korea is making progress with its System-integrated Modular Advanced ReacTor, or "SMART" pressurized water reactor. The Korean government plans to construct a one-fifth-scale (65 megawatt) demonstration plant by 2008, but has not announced a commercialization date for the full scale (330 megawatt) plant.

Among gas-cooled reactors, the South African Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), which features billiard-ball-sized, self-contained fuel units, is well underway. Preparation of the reactor site at Koeberg has begun, and fuel loading is anticipated for mid-2010.

Innovative designs still in development employ modular cores which need refueling only every 30 years. New fuel configurations could reduce proliferation concerns, enhance control of sensitive nuclear material, and lessen infrastructure needs.

These are just a few examples where innovation is critical.

At Rensselaer, a considerable portion of research is devoted, as well, to hydrogen fuel cells, light emitting diodes (LEDs), and solid state lighting, smart highways, photovoltaic architecture, modeling and simulation, visualization, and other energy-related technologies. Rensselaer is forming an Institute for Energy and Environmental Sciences, Innovation, and Policy, to be a platform for extended enterprise in this arena. This will build upon expertise we have developed over the last decade in each of the areas cited, and more.

PEOPLE

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."

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.

NATIONAL DIALOGUE

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. 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 have developed several policy initiatives to augment these investments in research and education, and have been asked to send them to the White House.

CONCLUSION

I was asked to address the unfolding of my own career, and how I learned to apply the principles of leadership. I have spoken of leadership in research and leadership in science policy.

In keeping with the corporate values which PSEG espouses, and with which I began this presentation, I am hesitant to speak of leadership strictly in terms of gender. But, until we see more women in leadership positions, it must remain on the agenda.

What also remains is applying the principle of translation between realms — as career advice.

The same translation principle applies in many arenas: One translates between students and physics, if one teaches physics. One translates between the known and the unknown, if one is involved in research. One translates between science and public policy if one is involved in public service.

And so, I would encourage you to seek out your own "unique characteristics" and begin to translate between realms, putting these unique characteristics to service — becoming enablers who overcome the barriers.

And, as you do so, remember that there are girls and young women, and members of groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences and engineering, who follow you. Their futures will write our own. With your help, their expertise will translate into the innovations which we must have — and soon — to guarantee our nation, and all nations, with energy security.

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

And so, I encourage you to add your voices — and your translations — to the national dialogue which is now engaged — the national dialogue which turns on three converging 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.

This will help you as you build your careers. It will help your country. It will help the world.


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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