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Valuing Science: Exploring our Past, Securing our Future

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

Rice Centennial Lecture
Autry Court in Tudor Fieldhouse
Rice University
Houston, Texas

Thursday, October 11, 2012


Congratulations, Rice! You have one hundred years of accomplishments, with stellar graduates, and traditions that are both influential and inspirational.

While Rice is not a technological university in the strictest sense, it does have a very strong tradition and reputation in engineering, while broadening its aspect significantly over the years. 

I know a little bit about great technologically-focused research universities. I lead Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the oldest of your siblings; and I am a proud graduate, and lifetime member of the Corporation, of MIT. The work of staying at the leading edge, making discoveries and inventions that matter, while keeping an eye on the horizon, presents challenges. There is a constant need to attract talent, foster creativity, encourage philanthropy and funding, and engage with the issues of the day.

Rice University has met these challenges with deftness and style. You count Nobel Laureates, CEOs, Members of Congress, and Super Bowl champions among your graduates. The work done here inspires those of us engaged in similar enterprises in the Northeast. In fact, the world is enriched and energized by the people and achievements of Rice University.

Rensselaer partners with Rice on a number of research endeavors, including nanostructuring the darkest (most light absorbing) material known; and, earlier this year, making graphene that is invisible to water.

We also have a shared history in the U.S. Space Program.  Rice founded the first space science department and one of the first space physics departments.  A number of Rensselaer alumni have lead roles in both the design and science of the MARS Rover Curiosity, including Dr. Michael Meyer ’74, Lead Scientist, NASA’s MARS Exploration Program.  Your alumni and alumnae include 14 astronauts. Rensselaer graduates include four astronauts and George Low, who led the Apollo Program that put man on the moon.

The goal of putting humans on the moon began here 50 years ago — the halfway point in Rice’s history — with President Kennedy’s address. He said,

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills...”

We did go to the moon. We also had great success in organizing “the best of our energies and skills.” In a sense, a national appreciation of, and investment in, science and technology, was already in progress. Americans were shaken up when the Soviets launched Sputnik I.  An enthusiasm for science and engineering swept the country, and it was felt that attracting students to these fields, and supporting them were vital to national security.

Coursework was modified; the culture celebrated science and engineering and those who worked in these areas; and the nation made a significant investment in scientific education and research. This investment has paid off in multiples since that time, leading to breakthroughs in fundamental science, in medical advances, and in technologies that power the planet – technologies that we use every day, that shrink the world, that uplift people, that undergird democracy.

This commitment to science and technology also had a major impact on my life.  Combined with the Supreme Court Brown vs. the Board of Education decision, it opened up opportunities that have allowed me – and many others – to make contributions to science and to public policy that I/we otherwise would not have made.

The barrier to excellence within our nation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has been lowered and raised in my lifetime.  Currently, that barrier is too high, in terms of a lack of sufficient investment in STEM education, and in basic research in these disciplines.  There also is the continued under-participation of women and minorities in science and engineering. I am hopeful that we can reverse these trends.

When you think of the impact of commitment to science and technology, think about what it means to individuals, and how it enriches our society, as well as what it means for our global leadership, our well-being, the economy, jobs, and security.        

Putting humans on the moon is just one of the accomplishments that demonstrate the value of science. Over the past 100 years, we have seen many instances where science and technology have transformed our lives.

Look at what computers and communications have done. You do not have to go back very many years to find a world where, in the United States, long distance calls were a luxury, the music industry survived by selling tunes on vinyl discs… and our children did not spend hours engaged in texting and playing video games.

The positive benefits of computing and communications are sometimes visible and dramatic—with the Arab Spring and more capability to respond to disasters as prime examples.  But there also are outcomes that are significant, but less visible.

Many of us have digital identities in addition to our physical ones, and these create new opportunities for us, both professional and personal.  Our online selves participate remotely in discussions that can broaden our perspectives and deepen our knowledge.

Cell phones and other Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) have become ubiquitous.  For farmers in developing countries, this has made the ability to get better market prices for their produce a truly life-changing consequence.  In the U.S., PDAs have allowed us to keep in touch with family and friends, or to find an open gas station along a remote highway.

Because of new communications technologies, we have much better healthcare information available. Independent studies of nutrition, for instance, are summarized, translated into lay language, and made widely available to guide us toward wise choices in the foods we eat.  And public safety information, including warnings on severe weather, reaches more people, earlier, and with more specific recommendations.

Making data gathered from multiple sources more easily available to communities and individuals will continue to improve.  For instance, one of the projects, that Professor James Hendler at Rensselaer is on the leading edge of, involves, data.gov, which provides new approaches to “mashing up” data gathered by the Federal Government, and putting it into forms that make it more accessible and useful to people across our society.  Jim Hendler is one of the originators of the Semantic Web, where a new web architecture, new languages and ontologies will bring structures to the content of web pages in an environment where intelligent software agents can carry out sophisticated tasks for users, and allow unstructured data from disparate sources to be brought together in new ways to generate real knowledge.

Data comes in more than written format.  We have extraordinary pictures of our universe thanks to the Hubble telescope. These help us to put into perspective our place in the universe, how the universe was formed, and to answer scientific questions about the rate of expansion of the universe. We have satellites that provide ever more precise information on weather and climate, and we have an array of satellites that keep us from getting lost on the trip from the Bush Airport to the Rice campus.

Speaking of travel, in the hundred years since Rice was founded, transportation has been revolutionized.  We have about 50,000 commercial air flights worldwide every day.  At a time when human migration is at its peak, sophisticated, reliable aircraft allow us both to expand our horizons, and to stay connected with families and friends, while experiencing, and living in, diverse cultures.

We see the influence of technology in other ways -- big and small.  Mega malls and survival tents. Cancer cures and waterproof eyeliner.  Displays that light up Times Square and Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, and iPhones that show us YouTube cat videos.

Our worlds, public and private, are saturated with technology.  And our hopes for better lives— in terms of the food we eat, the energy we need, affordable healthcare, education for our children, rewarding jobs, protection of our environment, and so much more–depend on continuing progress in science and technology.

We have extraordinarily promising opportunities in front of us.  You know what I mean.  Here at Rice, you are a hotbed of activity in nanotechnology, materials science, information technology, and more.

Whether it is new approaches to energy generation and storage, the ability to fabricate new organs, advanced approaches to urban design, or that next trip to the moon, or to Mars, we can glimpse – without squinting too much – a future that meets our challenges, cares for our people, and feeds our imaginations.

You can pick up any major newspaper – or read it online - and find examples of technology in our lives on the front page. It has become so common that many of us do not even notice it. I will highlight a few examples:

A few months ago, The New York Times featured a story about a Marine — whose leg nearly was destroyed by an IED in Afghanistan — now with his leg function largely restored.  This result is at the vanguard of regenerative medicine, and it rests squarely on a deeper understanding of the interaction of tissue development processes and the immune system.  By stitching a sheath of biological scaffolding, called the extracellular matrix, across the Marine’s remaining healthy leg muscle, and then moving him quickly into physical therapy, doctors created dramatic results.  Within two weeks, the Marine was mobile enough to go on a hunting trip.

We depend upon science to recognize and solve mysteries, some of them with important social or economic implications.  A few years ago, it was recognized that something was going wrong with honeybees – which are essential to many of our most important crops.  There was a broad pattern of colony collapse, what came to be known as “bee colony collapse disorder.”  The investigation into this is ongoing, but it appears to be the result of a complex set of challenges to the bees, including the use of certain pesticides, parasitic mites and diseases, environmental changes, and malnutrition.

When we detect problems like bee colony collapse early enough – and the current monitoring of bird flu is another good example – we have the chance to mitigate the consequences before they become severe.

What we have learned in research, and what we are learning now, are fundamental to meeting the global challenge of disease mitigation.  In addition to detecting potential epidemics, we look to science to create new antibiotics, vaccines, and other therapeutics.  At Rensselaer, Professor Jon Dordick, our Vice President for Research, and his colleagues have developed an enzyme-based coating that kills antibiotic-resistant bacteria on contact. 

Research is discovering how the checks and balances of the immune system can be restored to treat people with asthma, multiple sclerosis, and other autoimmune diseases. We look to our scientists to provide the clues we need to stave off Alzheimer’s Disease in an aging population.

Nobel Prizes in the sciences sometimes involve deep, but subtle discoveries.  When the late, distinguished Rice professor and Nobel Laureate, Richard Smalley, together with his co-winners of the Nobel Prize - Robert Curl and Harold Kroto - discovered Bucky Balls (Spherical Buckminster fullerenes – C60) in 1985, who would have thought that this would lead to the whole new field of carbon tube-based nanotechnology, with all of the amazing discoveries and innovations that have ensued.

The results of one of the Nobel honors from 2009 are as close as your digital cameras.  Dr. Willard Boyle and Dr. George Smith of Bell Labs, where I spent my early career, invented charge-coupled devices (CCD’s), which are the essential sensors of these cameras.  CCD technology makes use of the photoelectric effect, becoming the camera's electronic eye.  Since it stores the information in digital form, pictures can be the processed and distributed more easily.  Digital imaging is used in astronomy, medical imaging, and, of course, your digital cameras.

Digital photography itself was invented at Kodak by U.S. National Medal of Technology winner, and Rensselaer graduate, Steven Sasson. Within his first disclosure document, he speculated that captured images might be transmissible. The transmission of image packets now is part of daily life.  Such images dramatically contributed to what the world saw in Tunisia and Egypt as the Arab Spring brought political change across North Africa and the Middle East.

Does the general public know about these discoveries and innovations?  Or does reality TV supersede the reality of science and technology in our lives?

The profound impact of science and technology is at an unprecedented level, but it is not a new phenomenon. A century ago, we saw the promise of electronics, with the advent of radio.  We realized, thanks to the Wright brothers, that we could fly. The first antimicrobial drugs, which were sulfa-based, appeared 80 years ago, the precursors of life-saving antibiotics.

In 1909, Leo Baekeland began the age of plastics with Bakelite.  Nylon emerged from The DuPont Laboratories in 1935 -- raising the game from pool balls and combs, to the amazing polymers that surround us today.  The Model T came off the Ford assembly line in 1908, a big step in the transformation of cars from toys of the wealthy to an essential part of our lives.

Where did these inventions and discoveries come from?  Well, we have a hundred years of recent history to provide us with the answer: They came from a culture that truly saw the value of science and technology.

Undergirding all that we take for granted -- what we know about nature and the materials and devices of our everyday lives -- is the support of an enlightened public. People, especially in a democracy, need to appreciate the value of supporting, committing to, and investing in science and technology.  This includes financial commitment, of course, that supports basic research, as well as an endorsement of stronger science education in our schools.

If our students emerge from our schools without a clear understanding of science, and the role of scientific discovery and technological innovation in powering our economy, they, and we as a nation, are at a distinct disadvantage globally, as other countries race to build the framework for exploiting emerging fields such as biotechnology and the life sciences, and nanotechnology.

In the end, science and technology are cultural enterprises that must be adopted and carried forward by each generation. In the U.S., we are falling short in achieving this, which puts support for scientific discovery and technological innovation at risk, and, through a lack of knowledge and understanding, impoverishes our public policy decisions. It is a cause for concern that deserves our attention.

Domestically, the statistics are daunting. For every new Ph.D. in the physical sciences, according to the Aerospace Industries Association, the U.S. graduates 50 new MBAs and 18 lawyers.  More than half of those with bachelor of science degrees still enter careers having nothing to do with science. The ACT testing service says that only 17 percent of high school seniors have expressed interest in STEM majors, and have attained math proficiency.

The international dimension of talent access is complex and becoming more challenging.  For years, the U.S. has built its science, engineering, and overall technological base with very talented scientists and engineers from other countries.  We need them. However, getting “green cards”, even for those who have received advanced degrees here, has become more difficult.  Additionally, the career prospects of these graduates, as well as many mid-career professionals, have become better in their native countries, further diminishing U.S. access to their capabilities.

The resultant gap in the supply of STEM capabilities that our nation faces, as a generation of professionals retires -- something I have termed "the Quiet Crisis" -- has been coming upon us over many years, and it will take a concerted effort to respond effectively.

If we step back and consider the complete picture, we must do three key things:

  • Tap the complete talent pool.
  • Rejuvenate the 3-legged stool.
  • Strengthen our innovation ecosystem.

Where will the talent come from?  We will need to take new approaches to developing human potential.  Given the major shifts in demographics we are experiencing, hope lies in our ability to attract and engage women, minorities, and others in our society who are underrepresented in STEM disciplines.  If we are to fulfill our needs, we must make a concerted effort to tap the complete talent pool of our young people.  Further, we need to remove barriers that inhibit the continued U.S. residency of talented international scientists and engineers with advanced degrees from U.S. universities.

We need to teach in new ways.  To do that, we must accept that the new generations of students are, and will be, digital natives.

Digital natives ubiquitously use social media, and other web-based technologies and mobile platforms.  Often, they do not know, or even care, about the scientific basis of what they use.  What we, as educators, have not embraced, to the extent necessary, is the very use of these web-based, open architectures and collaborative tools, and even augmented reality environments, to reach and teach the digital natives in new ways.  Doing this requires that we understand more about the dynamics of social/cognitive networks, and about cognition and learning in technologically rich environments.

Social networking leaves behind long trails of “digital crumbs” for us to follow and study, and, eventually, to predict human interactions over networks in a verifiable way.  Researchers at a U.S. Army-sponsored Center at Rensselaer are studying fundamental social/cognitive network structures, and how they are altered by technology.  It strives to measure and model more accurately the interactions that people engage in over these networks and, in the process, to uncover and foresee complex social patterns, and to understand how technology enhances or changes them.  In particular, the Center studies five areas:

1. The dynamic processes in networks.

2. The flow of knowledge through networks.

3. The workings of adversary networks.

4. The level of trust in social networks.

5. The impact of human error in social networks.

This is not traditional research.  This is leading edge, and the impact will be far-reaching. 

Today, the marriage of computer science to cognitive science, physics, psychology, sociology, the arts, and linguistics offers the potential to predict the nature of interactions between people.  The science of social and cognitive networks will enable empirical validation of behavioral models.  It will have deep impact on cognition and learning, including the interactions underlying the development of language.

If we succeed, the U.S. can look forward to having the well-educated people it needs to lead in a global economy that is much more complex and technologically demanding.

But this alone is not enough.   Government, academia, and the private sector, together, comprise the three-legged stool on which a healthy innovation ecosystem rests.  These sectors must cooperate and collaborate to advance science and technology and their contribution to the common good. The original three-sector compact emerged from World War II.  Over time, the role of each sector has evolved, so a new compact is needed, but it remains critical.

A bit of historical perspective is useful here.  By the time Rice University was founded, Thomas Edison already had invented the industrial research lab. DuPont, Bell Telephone Laboratories (later AT&T Bell Labs), IBM's Watson Research Labs, and more followed. For decades, these were powerful innovation engines, creating many of the essential inventions that we now take for granted.

There was important basic research being done in academia in those early years, but the center of gravity, very early on, was not there.

The need to bring answers to the military in wartime situations—to create new weapons, and new approaches to logistics and support of the troops–deepened the linkage between the Federal Government and academic scientists and engineers.

The potential impact of science and technology, chiefly on defense and security, became very visible during World War II.  The Manhattan Project, of course, was impossible to ignore, but some visionaries looked more broadly at the possibilities.

The new understanding of the importance of scientific discovery and technological innovation came to full fruition with the end of the war, stimulated in large part through the efforts of Vannevar Bush.  Dr. Bush strongly advocated for Federal Government support of basic research in universities, and for advanced education of students in science and related areas.  What emerged was vigorous support from the Federal Government to educate scientists and engineers, and to fund basic research, through the National Science Foundation (NSF), and, later, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other government agencies.  Indeed, the NSF, and even the NIH, are considered outgrowths of Dr. Bush’s treatise, “Science – The Endless Frontier.”  This took a further leap with the launch of Sputnik I, and another jump with the initiation of the Apollo program.  Scientific discoveries and technological innovations emerged as key contributors to the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the sixty years that followed World War II. 

Over the years, academia, industry, and government, working together, became the three-legged stool on which so much innovation and productivity rests.  Each sector has its role, but at the nexus, important innovations occur.

The Internet, which has reshaped our economy, indeed our lives, comes to mind as an illustrative example. The first connection between two geographically separated sites, thanks to support from the Department of Defense, was made in 1969 – almost as far back as President Kennedy’s address here. UCLA and Stanford Research Institute were the two ends of a connection in what was then called Arpanet. Interestingly, this first instance of what became the Internet included all three legs of the stool working together. Government was represented by the sponsor, the U.S. Department of Defense. UCLA represented academia. And Stanford Research Institute, while created by Stanford University, was an independent entity, and could be classified as part of the private sector.  In fact, one of the key early technological breakthroughs for the transmission of network protocols – the Ethernet- was developed by Robert Metcalfe, then at Xerox.

What we know as the Internet came to life when restrictions on its commercial use were lifted in 1992, thanks to the Information Infrastructure and Technology Act (co-sponsored by Al Gore).

The technology that helps us get from the airport to here — the Global Positioning Satellite System (GPS) that runs Garmins, TomToms — and the like — does more than help us avoid wrong turns.  It has become an essential tool for logistics.  The Federal Government built the system for military uses, and industry found the economic value of that infrastructure by turning it into an engine for unprecedented efficiency.

We have other lessons in cross-sector interaction. On the one hand, there is the story told by Dr. Craig Venter, who gave an engaging Centennial Lecture yesterday, that, while working in the private sector, he competed vigorously with scientists at NIH to sequence the human genome. As a result, we not only have a complete map of the human genome, but also the promise of gene therapy, early prediction of health risks, and individualized medicine.

On the other hand, our current energy supply system would not have been possible without the incentives of government and the cooperation of government, academia, and industry. All three sectors are responsible for critical research that has enabled the discovery, extraction, and delivery of gas, oil, and coal. In addition, we have seen cooperation in extracting and using these sources in more environmentally friendly ways.  Nuclear power is another clear example.

As we look to a future of true energy security -- by exploiting new unconventional fossil sources, augmented by alternative energy sources such as solar, wind, and biofuels, the only way forward is through government science policy that includes basic research support, and thoughtful regulation.  This is necessary if we are to have both the energy security we want, and the environmental stewardship we need. It also requires well-prepared science and engineering graduates, continued research at universities, and the development and application by industry of new technologies for sourcing, delivery, efficiency, and storage of energy.

Sectoral roles continue to evolve. One of the most interesting changes I have seen in my career has been the decline of industrial research labs. Some of the major ones no longer exist, or are shadows of their former selves.

In many respects, universities have become even more important as sources of basic research.  There are stronger partnerships between academia and industry as a consequence of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980.  That law has spurred the transfer of technology from academic labs to the marketplace.  But we face an uncertain future. 

We have diminishing government support of research universities, especially state support of public universities.  We face times of under-investment -- in the very face of immense needs and opportunities. Clearly our nation faces enormous fiscal challenges, such that investments in any endeavors are hard to justify.  But, we risk our global leadership by pausing in our march toward progress even as global competitors press forward with renewed vigor.

In other nations, governments have unshakable commitments to funding research, and to educating new generations of scientists and engineers.  So, while we are at a crossroads, with the roles of each of the three legs of the innovation stool being challenged, there can be little doubt that we still need the linked participation of all three.

The lesson on investment in science and technology, whether it comes from tax dollars or profits or philanthropy, is that there must be funding proportional to the opportunities and needs of the time.

The United States has a unique leadership role to play in addressing the global challenges in healthcare, environment, energy, and water and food production. There are many nations that envy the position of the United States and have a clear understanding – perhaps clearer than some of us – of how the U.S. came into a leadership role. They know that investments will allow them greater participation in the global economy, and, perhaps, the opportunity to surpass the U.S. in science and technology -- with the attendant wealth, jobs, and security that such leadership brings.  Therefore, many countries are busily trying to emulate the U.S. innovation ecosystem.

In austere economic environments, and in good times, cooperation and collaboration are essential ingredients of a healthy innovation ecosystem – one that can provide benefits to our economy and culture for years to come. To illustrate, I will use High-Performance Computation (or HPC) as an example.

High-Performance Computation is fundamental to meeting our challenges in energy, food production, security, healthcare, and protection of our environment.  We depend, more and more, on High-Performance Computation for innovation – and virtually every economist agrees that opportunity, productivity, and wealth depend upon innovation.

The opportunities presented by using the power of modeling and simulation, intense computation, and management of extremely large data sets are clear. Each sector – each leg of the stool -- adds intrinsic value to the equation.

Academia can increase understanding of computer languages and develop new ones, and create new computational models, while applying the tools of HPC to basic research questions.  One advantage academia has is patience.  Academia can explore questions that carry risk and strengthen the theoretical underpinnings of HPC.

These contributions of academia are essential if we are to realize the full value of HPC, whether by putting modeling and simulation to work to optimize products, or by using high-level computational processing to discover patterns in massive amounts of data. In addition, academia can provide computational support to small and mid-sized businesses that do not have the resources to build their own facilities.

Industry, of course, brings the power of HPC directly to many problems and commercial activities.  Businesses focus on the practical, well-defined benefits that their participation in the marketplace demands.

Government may approach a specialized set of problems that are of strategic importance to defense and security, public health, and infrastructure.

The role of government in academia and industry is more than being a source of funds.  Government serves as a proxy for the concerns of the general public. It also can provide unique perspectives on strategic challenges, and it can create a framework for bringing the right parties together in ways that protect their individual interests.

So, working across sectors and disciplines leverages the full potential of High-Performance Computation – and creates competitive advantage. Academic scientists can take a patient approach and collaborate broadly. Working with industry, they can bring new capabilities to business problems. Not incidentally, that work will generate new questions and deepen understandings, in ways that otherwise would not be accessible.

High-Performance Computation is a rapidly evolving field. The horizon of power and performance for the relevant technologies continues to recede, providing astonishing raw computing capability. But, for some time now, we have understood that competitiveness requires more than simply more powerful tools.  It requires partnerships that create synergies of talent, resources, and perspectives.

Leading corporations owe their existence to such collaborations. Can you imagine Google without the Internet or GPS? Cisco without Stanford University? Apple without patent protection, licensing, and technological standards from the Federal Government?

The pharmaceutical industry, which creates jobs, wealth, and health, is acutely dependent on academic and small enterprise research, and even guidelines and regulations from the Food and Drug Administration.

So, government, academia, and the private sector are the essential components and enablers of an overall innovation ecosystem.

An innovation ecosystem requires four things:

The first is strategic focus. Among a world of possibilities, we must choose promising areas to explore and develop, and these must match the talent, resources, and opportunities we have or can attract.

The second element is idea generation. Game-changing ideas tend to arise out of basic research, which pushes the boundaries of human knowledge. Universities are critical players here, because basic research dovetails magnificently with our educational mission. The primary contribution of universities to our ecosystem is the education of bright, motivated people, who ask questions that may take decades to answer. Furthermore, the endpoints of basic research in terms of commercial technologies often cannot be envisaged — even by the researchers themselves. Yet, history shows that out of such open exploration, thriving industries are born.

When we fund basic research, we are funding serendipity. Even a sober, frugal, post-recession United States must invest in serendipity, because without it, there is no vitality in the innovation ecosystem. Indeed, there is no innovation.

The third element requires translational pathways that bring discoveries into commercial, or societal, use.  Some of you heard something about this in the earlier Centennial Lecture by Esther Dyson.

The protection, regulation, and exploitation of intellectual property are the front-end of translation. The Bayh-Dole Act sought to spur this by giving universities ownership of the results of their federally funded research, and the right to patent and license them, and to share royalties with the researchers. Through the deliberate exploitation of their intellectual property, modern research universities are linked to the marketplace more strongly than ever before.

It may need updating, but Bayh-Dole has been successful, spinning off thousands of new enterprises based on university generated intellectual property.

Intellectual property protection and exploitation do not comprise a translational pathway in and of themselves. Many patents emerging from university laboratories are licensed to start-ups, often formed by the researchers themselves, and these fledgling businesses may lack survival skills for the world of commerce. In the wake of Bayh-Dole, business incubators were formed around the country to assist such start-ups.  Unfortunately, the standardized services such incubators offer — accounting, legal advice, computers, a fax machine and a desk — while necessary, may not be adequate to launch breakthrough technologies in fields such as synthetic biology or nanomaterials.

Therefore, a robust innovation ecosystem must provide the financial, infrastructural, and human capital to support the development and exploitation of promising new technologies.

We clearly need a new financial model for start-ups, as venture capitalists increasingly prefer to invest in less risky, later-stage enterprises, and entrepreneurs refer to a widening “valley of death,” when no financing for scale-up is obtainable. Large corporations, too, sometimes are reluctant to fund the development of undergirding technological breakthroughs that offer them no exclusive competitive advantage.

Equally important is the infrastructural capital that allows new technologies to be improved and scaled for the marketplace — facilities for applied research, for the prototyping and testing of new technologies, for the development of advanced manufacturing processes driven by modeling and simulation. Emerging technologies in nanoelectronics or bioengineering tend to demand the kind of computational power, instrumentation, robotics, and clean rooms that no single company can afford. 

What are the alternatives?  Infrastructure that can be shared by nascent industries is a new kind of capital to undergird innovation.  Such infrastructure could be based at universities — with appropriate safeguards — to exploit intellectual property coming out of university research, to support applied research, or to provide critical infrastructure for small and large companies.

Good models exist. The Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations (CCNI) is a joint project of IBM, New York State, and Rensselaer. It not only hosts one of the world’s most powerful university-based supercomputers, it also allows companies of all sizes to perform research, and to tap the expertise of Rensselaer scientists.

The CCNI also provides immense computational power for Rensselaer faculty to use in basic research.

Such physical infrastructural capital need not be exclusively university-based. It can be in proximity to our national laboratories, or be developed by industry consortia. Sematech, the semiconductor consortium formed in 1987, with the support of the U.S. Department of Defense, offers another interesting model. It was created to enable pre-competitive research, and the development of prototypes and crucial manufacturing processes that no single company could do. That consortium laid out a semiconductor research and development roadmap, which has been followed ever since to position the U.S. as a leader in the semiconductor industry in advanced chip design and manufacturing.

The most crucial of capital required for an ecosystem is human capital.  Clearly, we have a nationwide crisis in our manufacturing sector, which has lost millions of jobs since 2000, and only recently has seen an upswing.  The future jobs in manufacturing will be in advanced manufacturing – involving the application of new computational, sensing, and automation technologies to exploit breakthroughs in emerging fields, to support digital manufacturing-on-demand, or to increase the quality of existing products, while improving overall industrial productivity.

The demands of advanced manufacturing require that every player in the ecosystem — universities, government at all levels, and businesses — contribute to a comprehensive education and retraining effort for the labor force in new technology development and use.

We also must work together to improve mathematics and science education from the very beginning of our children’s educational careers, if we are to have those who will sustain our innovation ecosystem through the next generations. We must work harder to retain high caliber talent from abroad, especially those obtaining advanced degrees in science and engineering from American universities. Indeed, there is a global competition for talent.

So, within the innovation ecosystem, all sectors are players.

The United States, over most of the past sixty years, has had an innovation ecosystem that has been finely tuned for progress in science and technology.

As a consequence, we still have the strongest innovation ecosystem on the planet. 

But such leadership is not a given. Those nations that educate the next generation, invest in research, and make commitments to building effective innovation ecosystems are poised to become the leaders of tomorrow. We have plenty of room for debate about the       roles of different sectors.  But there should be no disagreement about the wisdom of tapping the complete talent pool, rejuvenating the three-legged stool, and preserving and enhancing our innovation ecosystem.

In the current climate, this will require courage. And practical optimism. We saw that when President Kennedy spoke here, at Rice, half a century ago. His time was a difficult time, too. We faced an arms race. To most, we seemed to be behind in the space race, and many believed that the Soviets had captured technological leadership. Within the country, America was riven by pockets of stark poverty and cruel segregation.

Yet, President Kennedy, without hesitation, chose the hard but promising path. Because of this, he successfully used an attention-demanding goal “to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills...”

This is something we can and must do.  Securing our future depends on it.

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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