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The Quiet Crisis and the Future of American Competitiveness

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

Presidential Symposium
"The Business Case for Diversity in the Chemical Enterprise"
American Chemical Society (ACS) Fall National Meeting
Washington, D.C.

Monday, August 29, 2005


Good morning. Thank you for inviting me. It is a privilege to be here.

I am especially pleased to help commemorate the 10th anniversary of the undergraduate scholarship program, which encourages underrepresented groups to pursue degrees and careers in the chemical sciences. The program's data set shows an impressive listing of contributors, and steady progress.

I often speak to the extensive commitment and investment of time and resources that a career in the sciences requires, making the point that "building" (if you will) a highly skilled scientist takes several decades before returns are realized. I do this to emphasize the need to begin right away. (I will get to more of this later). The scholarship demographics — tracking recipients through undergraduate studies, graduate school, Ph.D. study, to the work place — demonstrates this very point. There could be no more worthy endeavor, and I commend the American Chemical Society for this fine program.

I know that you understand the urgent need to create the next generations of scientists. So, this morning I will provide a current context for these deliberations, reviewing where we are and how far we have come — tools which you can use to help us engage the nation in this urgent situation. The task before us is to build a national will for action — a collective consciousness with an action plan — to address diversity in the chemical sciences and the need to build the next generation. Everyone is a party to the task.

The true context for this morning's topic, "The Business Case for Diversity in the Chemical Enterprise," might be contained in an old Chinese proverb:

If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain.
If you want ten years of prosperity, grow trees.
If you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people.

This sums up what we need to do, and why we need to do it . . . and, today's global, competitive, market economy gives this ancient saying an urgent new resonance.

Scientists and engineers comprise a mere 5 percent of our 132 million-person workforce. Yet, this small group, for decades, has driven the powerful engine of American innovation. This innovation has fueled our global leadership, our economy, our health, and our security. It has been the wellspring of our prosperity.

But, conditions are shifting. I know you are familiar with the gathering forces:

  • Impending retirements of a large portion of our skilled science and technology professionals;

  • Global economic forces, and new U.S. visa policies, have combined to make universities and jobs elsewhere attractive to the foreign-born students and scientists, who traditionally have come here to study and, then, have joined our science and engineering enterprise;

  • American students are not sufficiently engaged in science and engineering study to replace those who will retire. The decline in graduates increasingly is felt in industry and government.

  • Government investment in basic research has declined by half since 1970 as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP).

  • U.S. demographics have altered, creating a "new majority," which now is comprised of women and other groups traditionally underrepresented in science and engineering. It is to this talent pool we must turn to help build the next generations of scientists and engineers, while spurring the interest of all of our young people — and herein lies our challenge.

I have termed this overall situation "The Quiet Crisis" — a "perfect storm" of converging trends threatening the American innovation enterprise. Thanks to Tom Friedman, columnist with The New York Times, this nomenclature, and what it means, has gained a bit of notice.

In fact, there may be some good news to report: The "Quiet Crisis" force, indeed, are making themselves felt — and, being noticed. In the four or five years during which I have been working on and speaking to this issue, there has developed a growing understanding and concern — in every sector — that the issue is real and must be addressed — and quickly. More and more entities are joining the call for attention to the matter, and for changed practices to address it.

Perhaps the most unusual appeared in The New York Times earlier this month — and I mention it only as a curious indicator of concern. It appeared under the headline, "Pentagon's New Goal: Put Science Into Scripts." Financed by a Pentagon research grant, with additional funds from the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army Office of Research, the American Film Institute is teaching 15 scientists and engineers how to write and sell screenplays for movies. A grant spokesman acknowledged that the reason is an attempt to make science and engineering careers more popular, since fewer American students are pursuing degrees in these fields, and because employment in defense laboratories and industries requires American citizenship. The spokesman warned that a crisis is looming, unless science and engineering careers attract more young people.

One biophysicist, who wrote a comedy about a scientist who applies the scientific method to her hunt for a husband, said that scientists make good screenwriters because "they are inherently creative, and willing to take more risks than other people; they are searching for the unknowns, they are compensated very minimally, they're going on blind faith that what they're searching for is going to pay off, and film making is exactly the same way."

A more conventional indicator — and, certainly, a more powerful one — was the release, in July, of a report entitled Tapping America's Potential: The Education for Innovation Initiative. Fifteen of the nation's most prominent business organizations — spearheaded by the Business Roundtable, which comprises the nation's leading chief executive officers — endorsed the report to express "our deep concern about the United States' ability to sustain scientific and technological superiority through this decade and beyond. To maintain our country's competitiveness in the 21st century, we must cultivate the skilled scientists and engineers needed to create tomorrow's innovations."

The endorsing organizations included the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Defense Industrial Association, the Semiconductor Industry Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and others.

The report's goal — printed on the front cover — is to "Double the number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics graduates in the next ten years."

To meet this goal, the Initiative lays out a plan for building a national commitment to make science, technology, engineering, and mathematics improvement a national priority. It makes the case for national and state investments in research and innovation that will strengthen U.S. competitiveness in the worldwide economy.

The report contains tasks and responsibilities for each sector, including business, higher education, federal, state and district governments, and the existing science and technology workforce.

Interestingly, the report barely references the issue of diversity — perhaps because it is inherent in the solution and possibly to make its appeal stronger, proclaiming, in effect, "this is a national problem demanding national leadership and action."

And yet, diversity is, of course, implicit to the challenge. As I said in my summary at the outset, national demographics are shifting. A U.S. Census Bureau report released this month shows that our two most populous states — California and Texas — now have racial and ethnic minorities accounting for more than half their populations. The trend is projected to continue. This is the talent pool to which we must turn for the next generations of scientists and engineers. And, the make up of that pool has implications for how we educate and entice all of our young people to these critical fields.

Although the Business Roundtable report skirts the role of diversity in meeting the challenge, it extends corporate concern, which was reflected in the 2003 amicus brief supporting University of Michigan admissions policies in two U.S. Supreme Court decisions — Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger. In that brief, 65 leading American corporations argued the importance of a diverse workforce — coming out of a diverse educational environment — for their "continued success in the global marketplace."

Signing the brief were global corporations with collective annual revenues of well over one trillion dollars — including Alcoa, American Express, Boeing, Coca Cola, DaimlerChrysler, Deloitte & Touche, Eastman Kodak, General Electric, General Mills, Hewlett-Packard, Lockheed Martin, Nike, Proctor & Gamble, Sara Lee, Shell Oil, 3M, and Xerox, to name a few.

Today's global marketplace, the corporations argued, "and the increasing diversity of the American population, demand the cross-cultural experience and understanding" which is gained from a diverse educational environment. They continue "because of the increasingly global reach of American businesses, the skills and training needed to succeed in business today demand exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints."

The corporate sector, clearly, is making its own "business case for diversity." It is proving itself informed, concerned, and willing to act, publicly.

Along with the Defense Department, the disquiet is shared by federal agencies with a stake in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce, especially the U.S. Departments of Education, Homeland Security, Commerce, Labor, and Energy.

Consider, again, the U.S. Department of Defense, which, along with the vast defense industry, must fill most vacant STEM positions with top secret "cleared" or "clearable" STEM professionals, and readily acknowledges that it is increasingly difficult to do so. The emphasis on "cleared," of course, is the stipulation that most defense industry work be done by skilled U.S. citizens.

Three weeks ago, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Michael W. Wynne, speaking to the DARPA Systems and Technology Conference — DARPA Tech — said that "there is no doubt in my mind that America has the brain power, the talent and the drive to generate the next great idea(s) . . . What we don't have is a growing pool of scientists and engineers to draw from. And, without a growing pool of talent from which competition and inspiration can be drawn, other nations are beginning to overtake us."

Under Secretary Wynn cited a National Defense Industrial Association (NIDA) and Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) study which indicated that nine percent of defense industry openings — openings already funded by the federal government — are going unfilled because of a lack of qualified — and cleared or clearable — STEM professionals.

He said this was a particular concern, "because we hire almost half of all federal scientists and engineers outright, as well as being responsible for many of the private sector jobs in science and technology."

Under Secretary Wynn described meeting "very senior talent" at national laboratories, and in the defense industry, expressing his surprise at the number who had been drawn into science and engineering by the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958. He urged the reprise of the NDEA.

That is happening in the form of the Kennedy-Collins Amendment to the proposed Defense Authorization Bill [S. 1042]. If approved, the amendment would increase, by $10 million, funding for the Defense Department "SMART" Scholars Program which supports undergraduates and graduates who study defense-critical science and engineering disciplines — doubling the program's funding. The amendment, also, would increase funding for basic research by $40 million — for Army, Navy, and Air Force university research initiatives, and DARPA research in computer science and cybersecurity.

Along with the growing consensus that the nation must take action, there has been a noticeable up-tick in media coverage. Most major media are beginning to address the topic in new features and editorials, and columnists and opinion leaders are weighing in on the op. ed pages.

As I alluded to earlier, New York Times Foreign Affairs Columnist Thomas L. Friedman, whose travels give him perspective on the United States' global competitiveness, began writing regularly, this year, on the need to educate the next generations for the future's science and engineering positions. His book, The World is Flat, published this year, contains an entire chapter devoted to the Quiet Crisis.

Newt Gingrich's book, Winning the Future, published in January 2005, declares "investing in science (including math and science education) is the most important strategic investment we can make in continued American leadership economically and militarily."

Nor are they alone. CEOs, university presidents, members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries, governors, Nobel Laureates, labor leaders, scientists, mathematicians, engineers, researchers, and educators on prestigious commissions and panels, and individually — all agree that something must be done and soon.

Ironically, attention to under-representation in science received a boost, last winter, when a prominent higher education leader questioned the ability of women to "do science." The remark prompted fresh discussion, and brought new attention to the need for full representation from the entire talent pool. It, also, elicited a ringing "Yes, we can" from women scientists and young women around the nation, and a great deal of media coverage.

So, the issue of diversity, intertwined with the nation's urgent, competitive need for new generations of scientists and engineers — a subject which was barely on the fringes of national concern four or five years ago — is now acknowledged to be vital to the nation's security. It may not yet be acknowledged strongly or openly enough, but it is being recognized in many quarters.

There is yet another compelling reason for urgent action — a reason brought home by oil price increases this summer, and by Hurricane Katrina — coming ashore in Louisiana from the Gulf of Mexico.

This morning, concern over weather damage to off shore oil rigs and to refineries caused the price of oil to rise to more than $70 a barrel.

The industrialized world is built on plentiful and inexpensive energy. As other nations develop, and as their energy consumption requirements increase exponentially, the global supply of abundant, inexpensive energy becomes increasingly scarce, and, therefore, directly related to security — to global security and stability and, therefore, to national security and prosperity.

The reality is that we can no longer drill our way to energy security. We must innovate our way to energy security — we must innovate the technologies which uncover new fossil energy sources, which improve extraction, which conserve energy, which protect the environment, and which provide sustainable, multiple energy sources.

Nearly fifty years ago, the shock and surprise of Sputnik made it immediately apparent — to national leaders, to the American public, to the private sector, to government policy makers — that immediate action was required. It was a matter of national pride and national security not to lose the Space Race — which, in reality, was a science race. And, immediate action, in the form of programs to nurture and support an entire generation of scientists and engineers, was forthcoming — and it worked.

We are reaching a similar, though less theatrical, point today, and we can do now what we did then. But, although equally as serious, and with equal implications for our national and global future, energy security has yet to capture the national imagination — it has not yet translated into the need for action — new legislation notwithstanding. This is because the essential link of energy security to innovation, and of innovation to the creation and sustenance of a talented science and engineering workforce, has not been clearly made or fully articulated. People make discoveries and drive innovation.

I suggest that energy security is the space race of this millennium.

When a cross section of U.S. leaders concurs, we may be reaching critical mass. The Business Roundtable is united around the agenda to develop the next generation of scientists and engineers, and commits to providing the leadership needed to help the public understand the dimensions of the problem. But, there is much to do and the approach must be at once broad and deep:

  • We must build public support for making this endeavor a national priority. Parents, students, community leaders, and the general populace need to understand why math and science are so important to our nation.

  • We must find ways to motivate U.S. students to study and make careers in science, technology, engineering, mathematics — with special attention to women and those in groups currently underrepresented in these fields. If we do not believe that a new majority of our population has a role in all of this, we will fail.

  • We must upgrade K-12 math and science teaching to foster higher student achievement — involving policy makers at the federal, state, and local levels, and developing alternative teacher incentive and compensation programs.

  • We must reverse declines in federal funding for basic research, especially in the physical sciences and engineering, boosting and sustaining funding levels to keep pace with growth and inflation.

  • We must help to build support for the Kennedy-Collins Defense Authorization Bill Amendment [S. 1042], which would double the funding for the study of science and engineering, and increase funds for basic research.

  • Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) announced in July they will introduce comprehensive legislation following the recommendations in the National Innovation Initiative (NII) report Innovate America, the Council on Competitiveness's bold and far-reaching blueprint for innovation-led growth in the 21st century. The legislation is to be ready to introduce this fall.

  • And, of course, there are personal, individual opportunities for action from mentoring young people to encouraging your organization to engage even more fully in the effort.

In examining "the business case for diversity in the chemical sciences," the American Chemical Society is grappling with a key issue in our nation's capacity for innovation.

Our security rests solidly upon our potent capacity for innovation, which is a kind of national energy. A nation's innovative capacity rests upon the strength of its research and development community, an established venture capital and entrepreneurial environment, advanced technological assets, a risk-taking culture, a consistent investment in the education of talent wherever it occurs and at all levels, and a rich diversity, encompassing thought, experience, geography, language, race, culture, and ethnicity.

It is a tall order, and a precious one.

I said at the outset that while this audience does not need to be convinced of the urgency of the task, your leadership is much needed to help build a national will, As scientists, you have special standing, understanding, and authority for that leadership. I urge you to use it.


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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