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Saluting the Leaders of the Future

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

Mid-Year Degree Convocation
Colorado School of Mines
Golden, Colorado

Friday, December 15, 2006


We have twin opportunities today — to welcome, officially, a new President to the Colorado School of Mines — Dr. Myles W. "Bill" Scoggins, and to salute the graduates of the Colorado School of Mines. What could be more joyous?

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the Colorado School of Mines might be considered twins of sorts. Rensselaer was established "for the purpose of instructing persons in the application of science to the common purposes of life." The northeast, in the early 19th century, and Troy, New York, in particular, was the heartland of industrial development. It was the hub for civil engineering and infrastructure — the railroads, canals, bridges, industries — which assured economic prosperity for our young nation. The Rensselaer founders shared a deep conviction that scientific knowledge inevitably would bolster the state's agriculture and put manufacturing on a sound footing.

The Colorado School of Mines was established with a remarkably similar mission. Only the regions' needs and natural resources differed. Both institutions developed their education and research programs to serve the needs of society, and the work close at hand. In each case, the schools originated because a growing nation required young people with a technological education. In each case, education and research greatly benefited the home region and its industries.

Our two universities are in remarkably similar positions today. "Mines" and Rensselaer serve the nation and the world with the highest standards, top-tier education, and research in science and engineering. Both are building on core strengths. Both are focused on the application of knowledge from research and discovery, to create processes and products which enhance the quality of life for all.

And so I say to the graduates, as I would to Rensselaer students upon their graduation: congratulations, and thank you. You graduate with skills and interests which the world desperately needs. Your academic studies — whatever discipline or scholarly arena you have chosen — contain the core of the future — a future of discovery, of innovation, of progress, of hope.

Congratulations are the order of the day, but why do I thank you? There are many reasons. One is that I have been speaking for some years about the critical need to invest in our national "intellectual security" — to invest in our human talent in science and engineering.

Several trends are converging:

  • The aging of today's scientists and engineers, many of whom were inspired, fifty years ago, when the then-Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first Earth-orbiting satellite. That began what was called the "space race," which was another term for the "defense race," which was, in actuality, a "science race."

  • Today, though, there is an insufficient number of young scholars in our nation's science and engineering "pipeline" to replace the generation of scientists and engineers who will retire in the next five to ten years. You, of course, are the happy exception. You are unique in your generation. But, we must have more of you.

  • There has been a decline in the number of international scientists and students who come to the United States to work and to study. This is partly because of post 9/11 visa policies, but it is, primarily, because there are fast growing opportunities abroad for work and for study either keeping them at home, or drawing them elsewhere. This group long has been an important source of skilled talent for the U.S. science and engineering enterprise.

  • Concurrently, our national demographics are changing. Young women and ethnic minority youth, now, account for more than half of our population. These groups traditionally have been underrepresented in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology. It is from this nontraditional group — this "new majority" — that the next generations of scientists and engineers, also, must come.

  • Finally, federal investment in basic research in the physical sciences and engineering has declined by half since 1970, as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Since research and education potentiate each other, this has had a deleterious effect on the creation of a new generation of scientists and engineers.

These converging forces comprise what I term the "Quiet Crisis." It is "quiet" because these are creeping trends — the true impact unfolds only gradually, over time, and is easy to ignore or overlook. It takes decades to educate and to fully prepare a physicist or a nuclear or petroleum engineer.

It is a "crisis" because discoveries, inventions, and innovations create whole new industries which keep our economy thriving, and which mitigate the global scourges that make for human suffering and global instability. Without innovation we fail — as a nation and as a world.

The impact of the "Quiet Crisis," is vividly observable in the growing need for energy. Secure, sustainable energy from diverse sources, is inextricably interlinked with our economic wellbeing, and with our national security.

Both are linked to global energy security — which is a central challenge of our time. Last September (2006), the Group of Eight leaders — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, nations which represent about 65 percent of the world economy — agreed, at a summit in St. Petersburg (Russia), that sustainable development of our civilization rests upon reliable access to energy — for all nations.

While we often speak of "energy independence," I suggest, instead, the term "energy security." There is no energy independence.

Multiple, interrelated factors with international dimensions link our energy security to global energy security. These include global trade — including energy trade and markets, international travel, terrorism, political turmoil and instability in export countries, wars, piracy, natural disasters, and overall supply chain vulnerabilities. Energy today is interrelated, interdependent, and global.

So, what is energy security?

It may be easier to understand energy insecurity.

We are energy insecure because of rapidly changing world conditions. Consider the growth in energy demand. The economies of India and China have been growing at 7-10 percent per year for more than a decade. With a combined 2.5 billion people, this represents a staggering appetite for energy. India and China are not the only countries rising. Competition for energy supplies is growing. Daniel Yergin, of Cambridge Energy Associates, has pointed out that "rising demand and constrained supplies mean that North America can no longer be self-reliant, and the U.S. is joining the new global market in natural gas, which links countries, continents, and prices together."

We are energy insecure because humans today consume energy at a rate 13 times higher per capita than in pre-industrial society. That is the average rate per capita. Now consider that there are still 1.6 billion people — 1 in 4 around the globe — who have no access to electricity. It is in our economic and national security interest for their standard of living to rise. If their economic development follows a path similar to ours, however, where U.S. carbon emissions per capita is hundreds of times higher than in the least developed countries, there will be major environmental consequences.

We are energy insecure because of the fluctuating price at the pump, rising utility bills, lack of market predictability, and geopolitics. The price of oil can threaten the economy, because of the inverse correlation we see between gasoline prices and consumer confidence, between the price per barrel of oil and the financial markets. So, when Hurricane Katrina damaged 140 oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico last year, we felt energy insecure. When Venezuela or Iran or Russia threatens to use oil blockages or market manipulation as a political tool, we feel energy insecure. This reverberates throughout our national economy, and stirs underlying global geopolitical and security questions.

We are energy insecure because of our nation's aging, inadequate, and vulnerable energy infrastructure. The United States has more than 160,000 miles of crude oil pipelines, 4,000 offshore oil platforms, 10,400 power plants, and 160,000 miles of high voltage transmission lines. When the Alaskan Prudhoe Bay oilfield closed down, recently, due to pipeline corrosion, Americans felt insecure. In August 2003, when electrical grid failure shut down power plants causing blackouts across the Northeast, our entire Rensselaer campus in Troy, New York, lost power, too, and everyone — affected and unaffected — felt insecure.

Consider, again, the relationship between energy and development. For any country, affordable energy, especially access to electricity, enables better health care, improved education, and greater food production. Infant mortality decreases, life expectancy increases, living standards rise. Citizens live longer, and earn higher wages. In short, more global development requires more global energy. Why should other countries not wish to develop as we have? But, without new approaches, more countries will be competing for finite resources.

If we fail to address the energy needs of the poorest countries, millions will remain in poverty — with scarce water and food, lack of basic education, inadequate health care — unable to function in the "global innovation enterprise." They will continue to feel, keenly, the imbalance in the distribution of wealth and privilege. This can lead to a sense of humiliation, to unrest and instability — conditions easily exploited by extremist groups, increasing the global threat of terrorism — or to human rights abuses, corruption, despotism, and other forms of poor governance.

Failure to address energy security, on a worldwide basis has global repercussions.

A narrow focus on U.S. energy interests alone — without regard for the energy interests of other countries — is neither practical nor productive. While addressing the issues nationally and internationally, the more realistic focus has to be on redundancy of supply and diversity of source. Yes, we do need strategies to reduce U.S. "dependence" on a particular supplier — or energy source — to eliminate economic and/or political vulnerabilities. However, true economic opportunity and true national security are contingent upon global energy solutions which can be applied nationally and locally.

True energy security, then, requires innovation. We know that we can no longer just drill our way to energy security. We must innovate our way to energy security — we must innovate the technologies that uncover and exploit new fossil energy sources, such as oil shale or methane hydrates, and improve their extraction; we must innovate the technologies that conserve energy, and protect the environment; and we must innovate the technologies that lead to alternative energy sources, which are reliable, cost-effective, safe, as environmentally benign as possible, and sustainable.

You have the opportunity to do these things — and more. Your education has prepared you to be an essential part of the innovation enterprise, to make the discoveries and to devise the technological solutions, in which our nation and the world place the greatest hope for a more secure future. These innovations will not solve every problem in and of itself — because most global issues also have geopolitical and economic roots. But, they will help to rebalance the imbalances, and right the asymmetries of today's world.

Some of you will be called upon to find political and diplomatic solutions for global challenges. Yours will be strong leadership positions because you have mastered the science and engineering which underlie political and diplomatic solutions, and national policies.

So, as you leave here, to join the innovation enterprise, to continue your studies, to pursue the paths before you, I ask that you do two things.

The first is to think and to work within an ethical framework. When science comes together with humankind, when new knowledge is applied in new ways, when risk must be balanced with benefit and safety, there may be unanticipated implications. These implications often are complex, multi-dimensional, and interlinked.

An example from the life sciences may illustrate.

In areas high in biodiversity, organisms which cannot flee their predators — such as plants or coral — are evolutionarily predisposed to develop high toxicity. Biologists have been exploring such substances for the possibility that they may be developed into drugs useful in treating human disease. The harvested material is called "cyanobacteria," and is being used to "prospect" for organisms which can act against ailments such as malaria, dengue fever, and parasitic disease.

Areas of high biodiversity often are found in developing countries — but not always. A similar situation exists in the United States. Our national parks have become increasingly valuable, as other ecosystems around the nation have become altered. Scientists increasingly have been bio-prospecting for "extremophiles," organisms which may have unique properties and uses, in the thermal waters of Yellowstone National Park or the damp caves of Carlsbad Caverns. At first, the National Park Service received no compensation. That is changing. Now, the National Park Service has begun requiring agreements, including potential compensation, with scientists who are bio-prospecting.

This example raises interesting questions about who should profit from patents based on biodiversity found in developing countries — or in our national parks. What should be the standard for bio-prospecting? Should it benefit the company whose scientists took initiative? Or, should it benefit the venue, or country of origin? Or both? And, to what degree? If the extracted material were a mineral, there would be little question that the nation or place of origin would receive compensation. U.S. patent law protects the individuals who do the intellectual work needed to turn raw biological discoveries into marketable products. International law does not yet address such issues.

Complex challenges require of us new thinking and new approaches.

The second thing I ask of you refers back to the "Quiet Crisis," which I described earlier. I, and others, have spoken publicly of the nation's urgent and growing need for skilled professionals in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). These unique individuals — who comprise a mere 5 percent of the workforce — fuel our national capacity for discovery and innovation — innovation which creates industries, improves the quality of life, and assures our national competitiveness, our global leadership, and our security.

I ask that you assume a leadership position in reaching back and encouraging the next generations to follow your lead, mentoring and guiding those who are younger, and encouraging their curiosity, excitement, and exploration of more mathematics and science. It means speaking out for the STEM professions and helping people to understand that so many of everyday things — from the iPod in your pocket, to your running shoes, to your grandparents' lifesaving medications — rest firmly on discovery and innovation — on science, engineering, mathematics, technology.

Leaders in the corporate world, higher education, finance, the non-profit sector, and government agree that, as more nations invest in their own workforces and develop their economies, American competitiveness may be at risk. They concur that we must invest more deeply in our intellectual talent, and draw more young people into science, engineering, and mathematics.

The broader American public may be a harder sell. A new poll conducted for the American Council on Education (ACE) reveals the public to be evenly divided between those who believe that colleges and universities should require students to take more mathematics and science courses, and those who said they should not. Many do not yet understand the critical importance of science, mathematics, technology and engineering. There are many audiences, then, for your leadership, and I ask your help in this.

But enough of the heavy stuff. You have your whole lives before you. You have been educated for life, for leadership, and for impact. That makes you special.

And so, as we celebrate your graduation today, I thank you, I congratulate you, and I salute you, the 2006 Colorado School of Mines graduates!

And, I salute, again, the new President of the Colorado School of Mines.

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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