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Education as an Economic Driver

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

WMHT-TV Capitaland Quarterly
Albany, NY

Thursday, September 6, 2007


I begin by thanking public broadcaster WMHT-TV, the Albany Times Union, and NBC-affiliate WNYT-News Channel 13 for arranging this opportunity for dialogue on important regional matters.

My topic is the role of education, especially higher education, as an economic driver. As I explore this topic, I will suggest ways in which our regional sectors — governments, business and industry, institutions of higher education — may think about our shared roles and new opportunities for intersection. The Capital Region has tremendous resources, and, indeed, most of the “pieces” are in place. It would be wise to consider how to optimize our resources to innovate locally to compete globally.

This is particularly important in light of new opportunities and potential new resources for continued regional growth and economic development. In particular, we will want to follow the progress of the American COMPETES Act — signed into law in August. It strengthens science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and research infrastructure, to provide the Talent and the Tools essential for an innovation economy.

First, let us set the context. The arena in which our region must operate is the “flat world.” Described by Thomas Friedman in The World is Flat, this new world is interconnected and interlinked — with new protocols and software governing work flow, supply-chaining, in-sourcing, out-sourcing, in-forming, seamlessly connected Web applications, and high-end super-computational capacities. These have opened a universe of equality in which government, business, university, corporation, and every individual — even — must compete.

As we talk about regional growth and development, we must ensure that our region is poised for the high-end competition of the “flat world.”

I often speak of the four P’s: people, programs, platforms, and partnerships. These four basic elements are essential for an innovation ecosystem.

The first is People. We need a well-educated workforce — especially a strong cadre of scientists and engineers.

It is People who generate Programs, formulate ideas, do research, and make the discoveries which drive innovation, generate intellectual property, and form the basis of new enterprises.

To do this work, they must have the Platforms — key infrastructural elements, including educational institutions, research laboratories, computational facilities, incubators, and broad-band connectivity to enable their work.

The fourth “P” is Partnership. It is instructive to examine an earlier model — upon which rests the unprecedented economic success of the United States over the past six decades. This was a compact laid out by Vannevar Bush, a key science advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

During World War I, Dr. Bush had observed a lack of cooperation between civilian scientists and the military. With the onset of World War II, Dr. Bush convinced President Roosevelt that the United States needed an all-out mobilization for defense, based on collaborative scientific research. Dr. Bush directed the White House Office of Scientific Research and Development, which controlled the Manhattan Project. With President Roosevelt’s death, and as the war ended, President Harry S. Truman asked Dr. Bush to evaluate how wartime mobilization of scientific expertise might apply to peacetime pursuits. The result was Vannevar Bush’s prescient 1945, Science ñ the Endless Frontier.

Its principles were simple:

  • First, the results of scientific research could be adapted readily to shifting national needs, and could accelerate the pace of innovation, assisting not only in national security, but, also, in economic growth and societal benefit.

  • Second, the three principal sectors — government, industry, and academia — could accomplish far more in partnership than they could in isolation.

  • A third principle focused on the crucial government support for basic research, and the concomitant linkage of research to the advanced education of aspiring scientists and engineers.

The model became the engine which has driven American economics, and dominance in scientific discovery and technological innovation, for decades.

The vibrancy of the American economy since those war years and our nation’s long-standing world leadership in science and technology are testament to the effectiveness of Dr. Bush’s simple yet profoundly effective model. It brought about satellite communications, new drugs to treat disease and pandemics, dialysis, nuclear power for energy and propulsion, radar, microwave for communications and cooking, the Internet, and a thousand other industries and products we would not have otherwise.

Dr. Bush’s treatise outlined basic elements of a comprehensive innovation ecosystem, composed of:

  • an educated workforce — especially scientists, engineers, mathematicians, technologists;

  • support for a broad continuum of research programs; and

  • the full spectrum of infrastructural elements to support research and development, high-end innovation, and enterprise creation.

— a tall order, but success rests upon a nation’s and a region’s ability to partner, to collaborate, and to ensure the fundamentals of an innovation ecosystem.

A focal point for igniting and educating a science and engineering workforce and innovation capacity is global energy security. Energy security is one of the greatest challenges of our time. One may well say it is the space race of this millennium. It poses many economic risks with geopolitical implications. It also offers enormous economic opportunities.

Dr. Bush knew that the scientists, engineers, technologists, and mathematicians advanced in their disciplines, and committed to pushing the frontiers of knowledge, would provide discoveries upon which innovation rests, and would become the foundation for entirely new industries.

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, we have been working to attract and retain talent, through faculty hiring and student recruitment, to create programs and supporting platforms within the so-called “Golden Triangle” of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information technology. These research focal points, and their intersections, form the basis for a number of our new initiatives.

In nanotechnology research the manipulation of materials at the atomic and molecular levels leads to materials with entirely novel properties. Researchers at Rensselaer have created the world’s first material that reflects virtually no light, an optical coating that enables vastly improved control over the basic properties of light. The research could open the door to brighter LEDs, more efficient solar cells, and a new class of “smart” light sources that adjust to specific environments, among many potential applications.

Also, in the physical arena, a team of Rensselaer researchers developed a nanoengineered battery, an energy storage device that looks like a simple sheet of black paper. The material is lightweight, ultra thin, completely flexible, and functions at very high and very low temperatures. It is completely integrated, can be printed like paper, and stacked. The device can function as both a high-energy battery and a high-power supercapacitor — generally, these components are separate. It may revolutionize implantable medical devices, imaging and sensor technology, transportation vehicles, and the world of electronic consumer products. To create the battery, researchers infused a cellulosic material with aligned carbon nanotubes, which act as electrodes and allow the storage devices to conduct electricity.

Rensselaer researchers also work in future energy systems, fuel cells, polymer research and so on — all undergirded by nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information technology.

In a realm known as nanobiotechnology, scientists and engineers are able to grow new human tissue from stem cells — bones, as an example, or pancreatic or heart tissue. They, also, are able to create new biomimetic materials, which are compatible with living tissue, and can form new artificial organs or “living” prosthetics.

Today, the life sciences allow us to explore the genetic and even the molecular basis of disease. Rensselaer researchers are exploring not just the expression of genes in disease, but how genes interact with each other, and with proteins, and how proteins are constructed, interact, fold, mutate, transform as diseases progress. The results will aid understanding in disease prediction and the creation of better therapeutic modalities.

Much of the advance of new research rests with the ability to handle and manipulate massive amounts of data in multiple modes — text, numeric, video, and audio. A key undergirding component is high-performance computing — enter the Rensselaer Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations (CCNI). The facility is one of the world’s most powerful university-based supercomputing centers — ranked 7th in the top 500 worldwide, and currently ranked 1st for university-based supercomputing centers. CCNI is the result of a $100 million partnership among Rensselaer, IBM, and New York State.

Located here at the Rensselaer Technology Park, with a fiber optic network connection to the Troy campus, the computational power of the CCNI is provided by a heterogeneous environment with a mix of high-end processors. At the heart is an IBM Blue Gene supercomputer that operates at more than 80 teraflops (80 trillion floating point operations per second). When fully operational, all of the components associated with the center will generate more than 100 teraflops of computing power.

The CCNI will support advanced simulation and modeling of nanoelectronic devices and circuitry. But, it will support computationally-driven discovery and innovation across a broad front, including computational biology and chemistry, theoretical physics, engineering design, climate change modeling, and even the sophisticated modeling required to optimize the use of our Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center as both an arts and media center, and a research platform.

In-situ computation is important, but equally — perhaps more — important is the ability to store and move data. Therefore, basic connectivity is an essential infrastructural element needed to support high-end research and innovation. This means broadband, with the capacity to transport massive amounts of data. In fact, the federal government has a major effort underway on Advanced Networking and High End Computation.

None of what I have described is possible without sufficient electrical power. The Internet is a major factor in the demand for, and the management of, the national electrical transmission system. The looming issues of stability and congestion facing the Internet and the electrical power network bear an uncanny parallelism.

The energy requirement for cyber- and computationally-driven discovery means that the electrical grid is faced with increasing demand for power while not receiving needed investment. These factors have contributed to transmission bottlenecks and increased reliability problems.i

These and other infrastructural elements are essential, but real innovation takes us back to people.

It became clear, a few years ago, that the United States was in danger of losing its preeminence in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (often called STEM). The generation of scientists and engineers who came of age in the post-Sputnik era, and who have given us decades of prosperity, is beginning to retire, and we are not graduating enough STEM students to replace them.

As well, U.S. demographics have shifted, and our “new majority” — from which we, also, must draw talent — comprises women and ethnic minorities — groups that traditionally have been underrepresented in these fields. And, fewer international students and scientists are studying and working in the United States as new opportunities open in their own countries, or elsewhere.

All of this is occurring against the backdrop of a drop in federal research funding, particularly in the physical sciences.

I have been calling these factors — collectively — the “Quiet Crisis.” It is “quiet” because the true impact unfolds gradually over time — it takes decades to educate a biomolecular researcher or a nuclear engineer. It is a “crisis” because our national capacity for innovation — and our regional capacity for innovation — rest solely upon their talents.

I have been working with the National Academies, the Council on Competitiveness, the Business Roundtable, and others, to advocate for legislation to address the “Quiet Crisis” and energy security. With media help, concern has grown into consensus.

Now, rhetoric is becoming reality. The America COMPETES Act authorizes $33.6 billion for research and education programs across the federal government over the next four years. The legislation supports a comprehensive strategy to keep America innovative and competitive, placing new emphasis on science and mathematics education — from K-12 through higher education and advanced degrees — and on renewing a commitment to basic research — with a particular focus on energy.

The America COMPETES Act authorizes programs and sets spending levels. The U.S. Congress and the Executive Branch must decide how much to spend on individual programs, and must shepherd the actual funding through the budget and appropriations processes.

For research, the Act authorizes nearly $17 billion to U.S. Department of Energy programs over the next four fiscal years. It is to establish an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy. Known as “ARPA-E,” the new agency is designed to be flexible and fast-acting, responding quickly to energy research challenges. It will focus on collaborative research and development initiatives that are not likely to be undertaken alone. ARPA-E is authorized at $300,000,000 in fiscal years 2008, 2009, and 2010.

The Act authorizes $22 billion to the National Science Foundation (NSF) over fiscal years 2008 to 2010. One section deals specifically with high-performance computing and networking to fund research in such areas as:

  • affordable broadband access, including wireless technologies;

  • networking protocols and architectures, including resilience to outages or attacks;

  • nanoelectronics for communications applications;

  • low-power communications electronics;

  • equitable access to national advanced fiber optic research and educational networks in noncontiguous States;

For strengthening science and mathematics education, the U.S. Department of Energy is authorized to promote programs that capitalize on the unique resources of the U.S. Department of Energy national laboratories — through internships for students, and through summer institutes and specialty high schools.

The NSF is authorized for strong increases for fiscal year 2008 for programs to prepare new STEM teachers, and to provide current teachers with content and pedagogical expertise. The Act authorizes increases for National Science Foundation programs which help to support STEM college students. Graduate fellowships will expand, as will early career grants, research traineeships, and seed grants for outstanding new investigators, with an emphasis on high-risk, high-reward research.

These few elements of the Act barely scratch the surface, but they show that we would be wise to position ourselves for the time when these programs are funded.

What can all of this mean to our region?

Over the last year, I worked with the National Governors Association on its Innovation America Initiative. It offers information to guide states in strengthening their competitive position in the global economy. It contains six general guidelines with relevance for our region:

  1. “Put all the pieces together” — cluster innovation and embed research and development in a 21st century innovation strategy;
  2. “Make the right bets” — find and fund specific needs; this includes research investment, infrastructure development, and new venture creation.
  3. “Invest in collaboration” — innovation is a “team sport” with players from universities, industry, and government. This means partnerships.
  4. “Enlist experts” — get the best advice;
  5. “Be consistent while embracing change” — innovation requires sustained effort, but must evolve with the times;
  6. And finally: “Measure results.”

Each deserves the fullest exploration, but taken together these guidelines mark a path to the next level.

Opportunities to strengthen our regional innovation economy abound. New resources are pending, and we must align ourselves and our institutions to benefit from them. It is urgent that we follow the appropriations processes, and urge Congress and the Administration to provide the funds for these critical programs.

The Capital Region has unique resources, and many initiatives afoot:

  1. The Albany-Colonie Chamber of Commerce IQ Education Initiatives;
  2. The Tech Valley Teacher Externship Program have established opportunities for teachers spend summers working in technology innovation companies;
  3. The Impact Action Agenda of the Council for Economic Growth and a technology roadmap, technical consultation, and networking for resource and idea sharing;
  4. GE Energy — with products and services for the energy industry including oil, gas, thermal, turbine, and wind energy sectors. Facing growing demand for their generators and other products, GE recently announced plans to hire 100 blue-collar machinist and other worker — creating new positions;
  5. Plug Power — working on on-site hydrogen generation, pressurized hydrogen fuel, and fuel cells.

We should map what we are doing against the opportunities created by major new federal initiatives — to discover gaps and to close them. We should ask. . .are we really cooperating enough, and building on one another’s strengths? Do we advocate together for the region?

I came here because of the great legacy of Rensselaer in doing impactful things through science and technology. I, also, understand the history of our region, and its prominence during the Industrial Revolution. Now, we must optimize our innovation ecosystem for the “knowledge” economy. Our universities and colleges are critical — they attract and nurture talent, generate new knowledge, and create new enterprises.

A university is an economic engine which, in partnership with other regional sectors and actors, can drive the innovation economy, and cause our region to thrive, as it builds its own strengths and the strength and capacity of our nation — and, ultimately, our world.

Thank you.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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