*
*
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
About RPI Academics Research Student Life Admissions News Tour
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Office of the President
Profile
Cabinet and Deans
Board of Trustees
Speeches
The Rensselaer Plan
The Rensselaer Plan 2012-2024
Accomplishments Towards The Rensselaer Plan
State of the Institute
*
*
*
* *

International Cooperation: Multiplying Strength, Sharing Benefit

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

Indian Institute of Technology - Kanpur
Kanpur, India

Friday, March 24, 2006


Chaos theorists have a favorite metaphor they call the "butterfly effect" — a way of thinking about a world so interconnected that a butterfly flapping its wings in New Jersey can alter the initial conditions of a chain of events and moderate a monsoon in Mumbai. This butterfly effect applies to all realms of activity in the natural sphere, including human affairs.

Given the nature of our modern society — a world in which our oceans are laid with fiber optic cables, business process outsourcing is managed in the artificial air we call cyberspace, and the pace of change is measured in nanoseconds — the butterfly effect no longer seems so remotely theoretical. Our planet is interdependent. The secret is out.

But interconnection and interdependence are not guaranteed to be positive. [The next butterfly you encounter could be a friendly local insect, or it might be a cleverly nano-structured bit of spyware designed by a corporate rival.] Globalization has facilitated trade and cultural exchange, but it has also brought new vulnerabilities, such as greater access for terrorist groups, and new pathways for spreading disease.

Our two countries, India and the United States, stand on the cusp of a new epoch of technological cooperation. The agreement recently signed by Prime Minister Singh and President Bush is hugely controversial in both countries — particularly on the nuclear issue. There are still hurdles to be overcome, minor adjustments that could wield considerable influence over how this agreement is implemented. But one thing seems certain. US-India cooperation has been growing at a furious rate in recent years, and — regardless of specific outcomes tied to the new agreement — our scale of interaction is poised for explosive growth. This butterfly is not going back into the cocoon.

My topic of focus today, therefore, is timely. How can international cooperation be harnessed to best advantage? What are the pitfalls? What do we stand to gain? What roles are there for universities, and for other players? And how do we ensure that our diverse strengths are multiplied for mutual benefit?

Global and National Contexts: How Did We Get Here?

The first step in understanding is to review the historical context. How did we get here?

The 20th Century brought a number of seminal shifts in the global landscape, the emergence or acceleration of trends that would continue to shape our current concepts of security, development, and, in some cases, even national sovereignty. I would like to discuss three of these trends because of their relevance to international cooperation, particularly in the US-India context.

Technological Superiority: a function of multi-sector cooperation

The first trend was the emphasis on technological superiority as an asset to national security. To some extent, the military advantages of technological innovation had been evident since the days of the catapult and longbow. But early 20th Century breakthroughs in science and engineering took this emphasis to new heights. Cannons were already challenging the protection of city walls, but fighter planes rendered such walls irrelevant. The development of large transport vessels enabled massive troop movements with an agility that previously would not have been possible.

The scale of devastation wrought in Europe, Asia and Africa during the World Wars was unparalleled in history. It raised a grim question for social philosophers: had our capacity for scientific advancement outstripped the pace of our social and ethical maturity? The advent of atomic weapons took the deadly seriousness of that question to its apex.

But the relevance of technological superiority as a security asset was more than military. In November 1944, an advisor to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt named Vannevar Bush — no relation to the current president — was asked by the President to evaluate how lessons learned from the wartime mobilization of scientific expertise might apply to peacetime pursuits. The result was a strikingly prescient report entitled "Science — the Endless Frontier."

The fundamental principles Vannevar Bush espoused were simple. First, the results of scientific research could be adapted readily to shifting national needs, and could accelerate the pace of innovation — relevant not only to national security, but also to economic growth and societal benefit. Second, the three principal research sectors — government, industry, and academia — could accomplish far more in partnership than in isolation. The fact that each sector brought differing needs and priorities to a project would enhance, rather than hinder, the pace of innovation.

This vision of multi-sector collaboration became the machine that drove American dominance in science and technology innovation for decades to come. The payoffs were legion: advances in defense, energy, health, transportation, consumer goods, and many other sectors relevant to societal well-being. The most dramatic example might be the creation of the Internet — a development that began as a project of limited application funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (or "DARPA"), was extended through university research funded by the National Science Foundation, and morphed into an engine for global transformation as the prospects for commercial and industrial applications became evident.

Socio-Political Alliances: a formula for mutual protection

The second trend was less scientific or economic than socio-political — the move by some countries and regions toward the formation of stable international alliances.

Political alliances between tribes or kingdoms — or forced alliances as a form of empire — were not a new phenomenon. What was new, in the aftermath of each World War, was the urge to form enduring peacetime alliances that would be able to use multilateral consensus as a mechanism to solve inter-state conflicts, to address broad threats to international security, and — perhaps most importantly — to achieve legitimacy.

The alliances that emerged in the 20th Century took various forms — including global institutions, international treaties and conventions, and regional coalitions — and had varying degrees of success. For example, the League of Nations, formed in 1919, eventually proved unable to achieve its core mission of averting a second global conflict, although the United Nations would later inherit many of the League's institutions and objectives. The rival alliances of the Cold War — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact — produced a degree of stability and protection for their members, but were accompanied by decades of anxiety rooted in the arms race between superpowers.

For all their imperfections, these forays into international partnership helped to solidify certain ideals of what might be accomplished through such alliances. Greater strength in pursuing shared objectives. The resolution of disputes through negotiation and diplomacy. Global standards and strategies for combating disease, increasing food productivity, coordinating disaster relief, and fighting international crime. In some cases, such as that of the European Union, the alliances went even further, building up mutual economic and social dependencies among their members that virtually assured the avoidance of military conflict with each other — but also, it could be argued, altered the meaning of sovereignty for these countries.

Emergence from Colonialism: the drive toward self-sufficiency

The third trend might almost be seen as the converse to the second: an intense drive by some countries to achieve independence and self-sufficiency. In this context, few if any countries have a greater 20th century record than that of India.

India's emergence from colonial domination bears a curious relevance to that of the United States. When the British East India Company managed to cement its conquest of the Indian subcontinent, in the 1850s, it might be said that it reversed the outcome of what had occurred roughly 70 years earlier on another continent — that is, in North America. In the earlier case, a fragile coalition of diverse colonies had managed to throw off British rule, and despite residual distrust of each other and a fierce pride in State sovereignty, agreed to be known collectively as "the United States of America".

In the case of India, the once-dominant Mughal empire, no longer capable of governing so vast a region, had gradually decentralized into States which, once divided, could be conquered in succession. Depending on oneís willingness to simplify historical cause and effect, it might be said that India, in fact, paid the price for the lessons learned by Britain in its loss of the American colonies. While there was exploitation of Indian natural resources, there was little local industrialization; there were Indian famines and epidemics in years of monsoons; and vast swathes of the Indian population were uneducated.

In 1947, when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru set a course for economic development for the newly independent nation, he charted a path toward self-sufficiency, a strategic vision that would not rely on global markets, foreign investments, political alliances, or international cooperation.

It is relevant to point out that the United States has also maintained a strong adherence to the doctrine of self-sufficiency. While we have given strong backing to international alliances that serve our interests, there is a strong political undercurrent fiercely resistant to any foreign policy that would impede the independence of US decision-making, particularly on matters related to national security and economic growth.

These three trends — the quest for technological superiority as a key to national security, the formation of multilateral alliances and institutions in pursuit of international stability, and the drive to guarantee national self-sufficiency — frame the evolution of 20th Century perspectives on national and international security, and societal progress. And they continue to provide the underpinnings for our national debates regarding the merits of international cooperation.

The New World Order: flat, asymmetrical, and unstable

The next step is to examine the key variables of our current equation — the features of the modern landscape that are driving or limiting progress.

Globalization: a flattening world

The first and most dominant feature is globalization. The movement toward global integration, to "shrink the planet", as some have called it, is rooted in human motivations as old as history — the urge to explore, to discover, to trade, to gain new knowledge and experience new cultures. For centuries, countries and multinational companies have sought the means to do these things better, to accelerate the movement of people, technology, information, and ideas, for increased efficiency and profit. Advances in transportation, from the steam locomotive to cargo aircraft, have played a role. The early era of telecommunications technology, from the first telegraph and telephone to radio and television, greatly facilitated trade and information exchange, and slowly began to interlink the planet.

But nothing in history has prepared us for the globalized state of affairs that exists today. As New York Times journalist, Thomas Friedman, declares, "The world is flat". With the advent of fiber optics, PCs, cell phones, and wireless broadband, countries, companies, and even individuals have gained a level of access to one another that has leveled the playing field as never before. The development of what I call "flat world protocols" — work flow software, digitized content, and seamlessly connected Web applications — has created learning opportunity and has opened up a universe of equality in which anyone with the necessary ingenuity and motivation can compete, regardless of his or her ideology, ethnicity, gender, or geographic location.

Well, almost. What I have just said is an exaggeration — an exaggeration that is tempting to make, and indeed is frequently written and spoken by individuals intoxicated with the promise and potential of this exciting new era. The problem is that flatness is not the only feature of the modern landscape.

Asymmetry: the social divide

The second, contrasting feature is asymmetry. Despite the great strides forward in medicine, agriculture, energy, transportation, and nearly every other technology sector, the global distribution of wealth, consumption, and opportunity remains in a severe state of imbalance. The phenomenal advances in communications and media coverage that are shrinking the planet are also making this asymmetry, if anything, more visible, for those who care enough to look. The wealthiest 20 percent in our global neighborhood consume 80 percent of the resources. Meanwhile, as the economist Jeffrey Sachs notes, more than 20,000 people die every day simply because "they are too poor to stay alive" — meaning that they die from malnutrition, contaminated water, or diseases that would be easily preventable or treatable if their living standards were on a par with the developed world. Two-fifths of the world's population lives on less than $2 per day. One in four has no access to modern energy services. More than 850 million individuals go to bed hungry. For these individuals, the opportunities afforded by globalization and flat-world protocols have little meaning.

Instability: terrorism and conflict

The third feature, perhaps not surprisingly, is instability. In the post-Cold-War era, ethnic and religious tensions and old rivalries that had simmered for decades began rising to the surface, resulting in conflicts such as the wars in Yugoslavia and the civil wars in Africa. These tensions have been made worse by poor governance practices, whatever their root, that, in some cases, lead to the repression of civil liberties, human rights abuses, and the breakdown of social institutions. In many cases, poor governance has exacerbated the asymmetry of living standards to which I just alluded — and in some countries and regions, has provided a fertile recruiting pool for extremist groups.

For those who view globalization as a glorious testament to human progress, terrorism has gouged a vicious footnote. The horrific tragedies of recent years, from Bali to Beslan, London to Istanbul, have made painfully clear that no country can consider itself exempt or out of reach. Terrorist groups have also shown that the diverse toolkit of globalization — from Google searches and interlinked financial networks to cell phones and jumbo jets — can be appropriated and adapted to suit their nefarious purposes.

But the rise of terrorism also has been one of the strongest drivers of international cooperation. It has heightened the need for intelligence-sharing between governments, prompted a host of international initiatives, and in some instances made new partners out of old rivals.

This is but one demonstration that the three features of our new world order — flatness, asymmetry, and instability — are related. Globalization has created more opportunity, but it has also made the unequal distribution of wealth more apparent. If this asymmetry is not redressed, it will come back to haunt us — whether through terrorism, infectious disease, or any of a multitude of other pathways. We are all, ultimately, interconnected.

The Nobel-prize-winning Indian economist, Amartya Sen, has articulated a view of "Development as Freedom" that helps to explain this situation. Development, he says, is not strictly a matter of growth in gross national product, or technological advances, or the modernization of social institutions. At its root, development comes down to expanding human freedoms — political freedoms, economic capabilities, and social standards. Freedoms must be meaningful; the right to vote, for example, means little if citizens are not educated enough to make an informed choice, or if too few polling stations exist, or if the ruling regime chooses the slate of candidates. And increases in opportunity or wealth, however impressive, do not represent progress if they are only made available to a limited few.

To the perspective of Dr. Sen I would add just one supportive note. Progress is dependent on the intelligent use of resources; and the greatest resource, bar none, is human capital. To neglect the development of selected portions of that human capital means failing to utilize fully the most prolific driver of innovation and discovery. It is not only a matter of inequity, it is poor business sense. But more about that shortly.

The Arrival of Giants: India and China assert their stature

Few countries have had more spectacular success in harnessing their human capital in recent years than India and China — although the hurdles both countries still face in this regard are, to say the least, daunting. Together, India and China hold 40 percent of the world population; India alone has more people than the U.S. and Europe combined. It is not too soon to assert that the nearly simultaneous arrival of China and India as major economic players on the world stage will be regarded, in years to come, as a pivotal event in the history of the 21st Century.

I do not presume that I can inform this audience about much that you do not already know about your own successes as a nation. But you may find it interesting for me to highlight a few of the aspects of recent Indian progress that I most admire.

The Timing of Indian Market Reforms

One aspect is the Indian sense of timing. The beginning of the 1990s is remembered globally as a time of great political transition, marked by events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War. But in India, another revolution was set in motion: a sweeping array of market reforms that eased bureaucratic restrictions, lowered tariff barriers, lifted import quotas, and encouraged foreign investment. Dr. Manmohan Singh, the respected economist who was then minister of finance and has served as prime minister since May 2004, was, of course, a guiding force behind many of these reforms.

There are two reasons that I find the timing of this transition impeccable. First, it opened the door to domestic employment for a generation of high-quality engineers and entrepreneurs, graduates of the seven world-class campuses that make up the Indian Institutes of Technology. And second, these market reforms allowed India to make a grand entrance into the Information Technology and IT Enabled Service sector (IT-ITES), at a time when that sector was in its infancy, poised for exponential growth. In terms of globalization and the Age of Information, it might be said that India managed to get its foot in the stirrup just as the horse was escaping the stable. The timing could not have been more perfect.

Moreover, as an initial market sector in which India could make its mark, the IT-ITES service sector offered great advantages. Indian ports, roads, and other infrastructure were far from optimal, but this was no hindrance in the IT realm. The use of satellite link-ups in the mid-1990s, and fiber optic cables a few years later, allowed the Indian IT professional to leapfrog the traffic jam, and drove an export revolution.

Indian Innovation

The second focus of my admiration is that the Indian outsourcing industry remained the master of its own destiny. This was not a case of colonial-style exploitation or sweatshops supporting Western consumers. While U.S. companies began the outsourcing trend — drawn by the relatively low wages, the large pool of talent, the English speaking workforce, and the time difference that enabled 24-hour project coverage — India rapidly began developing its own competitive business models. Indian leaders were determined to prove that their service was not only cheaper, it was better. Innovation in business process outsourcing (BPO) showed that it was possible to take nearly any sector of economic activity, break it into parts, and deliver a more competitive result.

And it shows no signs of slowing down. Despite the new players in the outsourcing game, India continues to outdistance its competitors, with strong fundamentals, sustained cost competitiveness, and an emphasis on security and quality. The Indian IT-ITES sector is expected to exceed $36 billion in fiscal year 2006, accounting for nearly 5 percent of the Indian gross domestic product. The export sector is still growing the fastest — with 32 percent growth projected from 2005 to 2006 — but the Indian domestic market is not far behind, with 22 percent growth expected this year. And Kiran Karnik, the President of NASSCOM, believes a target of $60 billion in exports by 2010 is realistic. Despite the rapid growth rate to date, Karnik estimates that "less than 10 percent of the addressable market for globally sourced IT-ITES has been captured."

India as a Diverse Democracy

The third reason I admire Indian progress is that it has taken place within a richly diverse democracy. Jeffrey Sachs says of India that it is "an unmatched mèlange of cultures, ethnicities, languages, alphabets, and religions. Diversity is its first and foremost characteristic."

In contrasting the recent growth of the Chinese and Indian economies, many analysts point out that the expansion in China has been faster, has covered a broader range of industries, and gives the impression of a smooth running machine for reform — while the growth in India has sometimes seemed chaotic. In my view, that may be a healthy picture for a diverse, participatory democracy. In India, little is hidden. Indians are rightly proud of their freedom of speech and fertility of ideas, and political and intellectual debate are thrust enthusiastically into the open.

The United States has long been referred to as a "melting pot" of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. India, with its rich, proud legacy of diverse cultural contributions, might be referred to aptly as a "spicy, richly textured stew".

A Planet of Limited Resources: the need for responsible growth

There is one aspect of globalization that I have not yet mentioned, but that it would be irresponsible to omit. That is, the increasing awareness of the impact of this unparalleled period of growth on our planet and its limited resources.

In the last half of the 20th Century, the world population rose from 2.5 billion to 6 billion people. The world economy expanded by a factor of seven. Water use tripled — as did grain production. The demand for seafood increased fivefold. The burning of fossil fuels quadrupled carbon dioxide emissions.

However we view this growth, we cannot ignore a simple fact. Throughout this period of intense growth, the natural capacities of the Earth remained the same. The capacity of the water tables or ocean fisheries or atmosphere of the planet to absorb the impact of human activity in a sustainable fashion has not changed. Ecologists are beginning to ask a sobering question: if current trends continue, when will human demands surpass the natural capacity of the environment? Is there a limit to how many people the planet can sustain? At what level of consumption per capita? At what living standard?

As the largest populations of the world achieve the highest economic growth rates, the results can be astounding, particularly when visualized in concrete terms. It is one thing to say that the Chinese economy has averaged a 9.5 percent growth rate over two decades. It is quite another to picture new automobiles being added to the streets of Beijing at a rate of 30,000 per month — one thousand new cars every day!

As I mentioned a few moments ago, Indian growth rates have been somewhat lower than those of China. The Indian annual income of roughly $2500 per person compares with an average of about $4600 per person in China. But according to a 2003 study by Deutsche Bank in Germany, the combination of ongoing economic reforms and a growing work force is likely to lead India to overtake China in the next 15 years, as the fastest growing economy in the world — over roughly the same period that India becomes the most populous nation.

The Indian economy has doubled in the past 15 years. Direct foreign investment is 40 times what it was in 1991. The stock index has tripled in just three years. And at the same time, in just over two decades (from 1980 to 2001), India managed to reduce the percentage of its people living at subsistence level poverty — less than $1 per day — from over 50 percent to 35 percent. That is a clear success; it is a trend that must be continued.

But the enormous scale of these efforts naturally leaves a trail. Efforts to increase grain production have led to falling water tables. Urban migration — now with more than 35 Indian cities with populations over 1 million — adds strain to sewage systems that were already severely overtaxed. The state of rivers in the Noyyal basin of Tamil Nadu — too contaminated to be used even for irrigation — reflect the effects of years of textile factory emissions.

These challenges illustrate a simple truth. Given the size and growth rate of the world population, the overwhelming development needs in many regions, and the resultant resource demands, we need new, innovative approaches. Consider the impact of raising the living standards of 2 billion people — China and India alone — to join the global middle class. If just these two countries copy the models of industrial development used over much of the past century by North America and Europe, the environmental repercussions will be felt worldwide. And India and China are not the only nations growing economically, nor the only nations that need to grow. Let us not forget Africa, South America, ASEAN, etc..

Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, DC, paints a gloomy picture: "Humanity is now on a collision course with the world's ecosystems and resources. In the coming decades, we will either find ways of meeting human needs based on new technologies, policies, and cultural values, or the global economy will collapse."

Environmentally responsible growth is not a task for India alone. This is a responsibility shared by every nation and corporation with the means to make a difference. But Indian leadership and U.S. leadership certainly will be required. The urgency of the tasks at hand makes clear the potential benefits of a cooperative effort.

The Basis for Cooperation: Mutual Benefit, Mutual Respect

As we stand on the brink of a new, expanded phase in U.S.-India cooperation, a host of U.S. and Indian analysts have been offering their insights on how we should or should not go about this partnership. In my view, much of this discussion can be encapsulated under the rubric of "mutual benefit, coupled with mutual respect".

Identifying Strengths and Challenges

First, we must proceed with an understanding of the strengths each country brings to the table, as well as the challenges each country faces. As I have already suggested, India offers a large and growing pool of scientists, engineers, and technologists, a reputation for quality business practices and strong work ethics, and low operational costs. The strengths of the United States rest in its cutting-edge technology, design, and product development sectors, its financial resources, its industrial support for R&D, and its huge consumer market. Depending on the field of technology, the degree and relevance of these strengths vary; but just as in BPO exercises, the point, in each area of cooperation, will be to evaluate how to make our strengths complement each other, so that they are multiplied for mutual benefit.

As India continues its programme of economic reforms, it faces a stiff set of challenges. According to Jeffrey Sachs, the economist who has worked closely over the years with the Indian Government, India faces four ongoing challenges (although progress has been made for a decade on each of these fronts). (1) Market reforms must be extended to all sections of the Indian economy; (2) Solid investments must be made in basic infrastructure — roads, ports, water and sanitation, and energy; (3) Even larger investments must be made in health and education, particularly for the lower castes and outcastes; and (4) The budget must be found to pay for these infrastructure improvements and social investments.

The United States, for all its technological and economic dominance, is not without its own set of challenges. Much of the discussion that has gained the headlines in recent years has related to national security: the war on terrorism, the need to heighten controls at ports and other potential targets, and the effect of new domestic security restrictions on civil liberties.

But for some years, I have been urging a national dialogue to stimulate new policies to address other threats: namely, threats to American intellectual security. I have referred to these threats collectively as the "Quiet Crisis" — the risk to our national capacity to innovate, due to a looming shortage in the U.S. science and engineering workforce, and slowing investment in basic research. The dimensions of the "Quiet Crisis" have a number of elements:

  • The imminent retirements of today's American scientists and engineers — the generation inspired by the "space race" and the call by President John F. Kennedy to put a man on the moon.

  • The flagging mathematics and science test scores of U.S. students on international examinations, and the fact that fewer American young people are pursuing science and engineering degrees than 15 or 20 years ago.

  • The changing demographics of the U.S. student population, which has created a "new majority" of young women and ethnic and minority youths — a population that, traditionally, has been severely underrepresented in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology fields.

  • A decrease in the number of international scientists and students coming to American shores to work and to study — or to remain if they do — as globalization "flattens" the planet and provides new opportunities for these individuals to study and work in their countries of origin, or elsewhere.

  • The decreased investment by the U.S. Government in basic research — which has declined by half, as a percentage of GDP, since 1970.

The U.S. and India also share many challenges, in specific technology sectors. A good example is energy security, a topic I will address more fully in another lecture on Monday in Mumbai. Energy security, as I see it, is rapidly becoming the "space race" of this new century. With the world consuming two barrels of oil for every one discovered, no country can drill its way to energy security. And development, as India well knows, cannot occur without the energy infrastructure to provide the necessary support. If current trends continue, global energy consumption will be nearly 60 percent higher by 2030 than it is now, and will double by mid-century.

At this level of demand, there is unlikely to be a single "fix-all" solution to provide clean, abundant, inexpensive energy. There will be, rather, a mix of solutions, each of which will demand scientific and technological innovation: innovative conservation technologies; innovative discovery, extraction, transportation, and emission control technologies for fossil fuels; and innovative alternative fuel technologies.

Multi-Sector Cooperation

Innovation on this scale requires the cooperation of multiple societal sectors. As I hinted earlier, each sector of a democratic society — government, industry, and academia — will naturally have different perspectives and points of emphasis. Government may be concerned first and foremost with issues of security, protection, and social services. The industrial sector, motivated by profit and productivity, may be focused on applications and bringing products to market.

Universities are about two things: first, the development of human capital; and second, the development of new knowledge, and the innovative diffusion or exploitation of that knowledge, for commercial and societal benefit. These are the currencies in which universities trade: human capital and knowledge.

The potential of India for investing in human capital may be a richer resource than that of any other nation. The number of Indian young people under the age of 25 is nearly double the entire population of the United States. Even with 10 million students enrolled in Indian universities, the proportion remains relatively small.

In the foreseen expansion of U.S.-India technology cooperation, the roles available for universities of both countries are exciting. The same "flat world protocols" that facilitate business process outsourcing are also enabling new avenues for collaborative research, development, and even classroom instruction. I should note, for the record, that more Indian students are enrolled in American universities already than students from any other country.

International cooperation among Indian and American government, corporate, and academic research institutions promises to bring unprecedented richness to the innovation enterprise. Interdisciplinary, inter-sector research is becoming the hallmark of innovation. Properly developed and implemented, for mutual benefit and with mutual respect, these partnerships also offer a vehicle for building cross-cultural understanding and trust.

The only remaining step is to identify the fields best suited for this collaboration.

Fields of Gold: technology areas ripe for cooperation

Despite the enormous amount of discussion devoted to the nuclear aspects of the proposed U.S.-India technology exchange, the joint statement signed by President Bush and President Singh covered a much broader range of advanced technology topics. For example, agreement was reached on a knowledge initiative on agriculture, with a 3-year financial commitment to link universities, technical institutions, and corporations to support education and joint research. The two countries promised to cooperate on topics ranging from intellectual property rights and civil space projects, to maritime security, cyber-security, and disaster relief.

Time does not permit me to speculate on the opportunities for international cooperation in each of the fields covered. But I would like briefly to touch on two: nanotechnology and energy.

Nanotechnology: a toolkit for turning science fiction into reality

Nanotechnology is often referred to as a "platform technology", implying that it could transform not just one, but many technological sectors. At the nanoscale, materials frequently exhibit properties entirely different than at the micro- or macroscale. These quantum property changes — related, for example, to strength, color, chemical reactivity, or electrical conductivity — give nanoscience research an element of novelty, but also suggest enormous power and versatility. Because the core concepts of nanotechnology can be used with any raw material — including biological tissue — the potential applications for nanotechnology are limited only by investment, research hours, and imagination.

The size of investments in nanotechnology R&D reflects the growing expectations of the scientific community. Global investments in nanotechnology research totaled more than $10 billion in 2004, including investments by nearly all Fortune 500 companies. The U.S. Government alone has spent more than $5 billion since 2001 under its National Nanotechnology Initiative, involving 11 Federal agencies, and — under the auspices of the National Science Foundation — selected universities. I should note that Rensselaer, a university long regarded as a leader in the field of materials science, was selected as one of six original sites for a Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center.

With a strong Indian R&D foundation in information technology, biomedicine, materials, and the physical sciences, it is only logical that India would play a role in the "nanotechnology revolution". This conclusion is based not only on the Indian combination of low costs and a highly skilled workforce, but also to the daunting development challenges India faces, and the potential for nanotechnology to address some of these challenges. I am told that more than 30 Indian institutions are now participating in nanotechnology research and training.

The nanotechnology-derived products that have entered commercial production to date — such as dust and water repellant glass, or wound dressings covered with silver nanocrystals to prevent infections — do not begin to scratch the surface of the possible advances likely to be seen in agriculture, health, manufacturing, and other sectors relevant to India's needs and priorities. I am particularly encouraged when I read of applications related to development — such as the work of the Central Scientific Instruments Organization of India to create a tuberculosis (TB) diagnosis kit using nano-sized biosensors — an innovation that would greatly reduce the cost and time needed for TB testing.

U.S.-India cooperation in nanotechnology is likely to build on India's demonstrated proficiency in pharmaceutical manufacturing and food product certification. India already has the highest number of FDA-approved drug manufacturing plants outside the United States. Multinational companies are attracted increasingly to the Indian pharmaceutical industry; as one analyst put it, Indian chemists are 30 percent better educated, work nearly 50 percent longer weeks, and accept 20 times less pay. But the benefits, once again, go both ways: India exports 40 percent of the pharmaceuticals it produces, but also produces 99 percent of its domestically needed drugs.

Last October, the U.S. agreed to help India set up its own version of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to enable clinical trials of new drugs to be conducted in India and subsequently accepted in the U.S. Perhaps this warrants a new acronym: "GPO", for "government process outsourcing". At any rate, this collaboration offers yet another advantage relevant to collaborating with Indian institutions on nanotechnology and biotechnology R&D.

Energy: the nuclear controversy and beyond

In the area of energy, the U.S.-India technology agreement was equally broad based. I have so far avoided delving into the controversy regarding the nuclear technology exchange, but it is instructive to note that there have been vigorous discussions in both countries on the pros and cons of this part of the agreement. It is also worth pointing out the broad variation in reasoning — from one country to the other — as to why this deal is or is not a good thing.

U.S. supporters say that this is a way to bring India, at least in part, into the framework of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). U.S. opponents counter that it will allow India to divert more uranium to produce more bombs. Indian opponents insist it will emasculate the Indian nuclear weapons program, by restricting the movement of materials, equipment, and even expertise between civilian and military facilities. Indian supporters point out that India has retained the right to choose which reactors — including future reactors — will be considered civilian or military, and therefore which will come under international safeguards.

In the larger community, views are also split. Many arms control think tanks have insisted that the U.S.-India deal rewards India for developing nuclear weapons, sets a double standard, and will encourage other countries to pursue their own weapons program. Other analysts disagree, noting that India has never joined the NPT, therefore has never violated a legal commitment, and has never encouraged nuclear weapons proliferation.

What can I add to this flurry of discussion? First, I would say that many of the concerns — from all sides — are best understood in the historical context I laid out in the opening of this lecture. But that context is changing, and the pace of change is fast. Between two democracies of this size and stature, with shared interests and ever-greater technological interface, it could be argued that the question was not whether cooperation in the nuclear area would take place, but only when and on what terms.

Second, any responsible discussion of this issue must take place within the larger context of energy security. India has a staggering appetite for energy to fuel its development needs, and the fastest growing nuclear energy program of any country on earth. With eight reactors totaling 3600 megawatts under construction, plans to increase nuclear capacity tenfold by 2022, and by a factor of 90 by mid-century, it is no small decision to insist that India must "go it alone". As a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the body that provides safety oversight to the U.S. nuclear industry, I find it important to share insights on nuclear safety — as well as nuclear safety technology and hardware — for a program of this size, particularly when it is a program that will serve the interests of roughly one-quarter of the world's population.

In the larger context of energy security, the other areas touched on in the agreement should not be forgotten. India has signed on as a full partner to ITER — the international tokamak experiment that hopes to harness magnetic confinement fusion as a power source — a $12 billion, 30-year project that ranks as one of the largest cooperative international research ventures ever. India will also participate in "FutureGen", a project to build a coal-fired plant that will produce hydrogen and electricity with zero emissions, using carbon capture and storage.

And I am particularly pleased to note that India and the U.S. will cooperate on marine research for deep ocean gas hydrate exploration. Methane, the chief constituent of natural gas, is often 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 — an astonishing 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.

But the technology to mine these deposits has proved elusive. Gas hydrate drilling comes with its share of environmental concerns, including fears that drilling could release greenhouse gases, or trigger ocean landslides. Traditional proposals for recovering gas from hydrates usually involve dissociating or "melting" the substances on site. Marathon Oil Corporation — and in the interest of disclosure, I should say that I am a Member of the Board of Directors of Marathon Oil — is one company exploring ways to produce and to ship stable slurries of natural gas hydrate crystals. If even a small percentage of the methane hydrate resource could be made technologically and economically recoverable, in an environmentally sound manner, the rewards would be great indeed.

Conclusion

And yes, I could go on.

International cooperation, I am convinced, is the wave of the future for technology innovation. The era of redundant research is far from over, but it is fading. Collaboration — among disciplines, among multiple sectors of society, and among countries — holds the promise of innovation at an unprecedented pace. And given the challenges facing us, of development, of energy security, and of a planet with limited resources, it is that pace that is needed. International cooperation will enable us to multiply our strengths, for mutual benefit.


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.

*
*
Page updated: 12/17/10, 6:59 PM
*
Copyright ©2010 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)  110 Eighth Street, Troy, NY USA 12180  (518) 276-6000  All rights reserved.
*
Why not change the world?® is a registered trademark of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Site design and production by the Rensselaer Division of Strategic Communications & External Relations
*
*
*